Author Spotlight: Kathleen Wilford
December 1, 2022
We are excited to feature author Kathleen Wilford and her debut middle-grade novel, CABBY POTTS, DUCHESS OF DIRT (The Little Press 2022). Enter to win a copy!
|cover art by Katie Kear
Tell us about yourself and how you came to write for children.
No surprise, I was a READER as a kid. In fact, my memories of childhood are often pegged to books I was reading at the time. There was never any question what I’d study in college and grad school: English literature. I taught middle school and high school English, and I now teach writing at Rutgers University.
After a friend encouraged me to join a writers’ group, I finally started pursuing what had always been a background dream: writing my own books for kids. I’m grateful to SCBWI for opportunities to learn from industry insiders and to members of my dedicated, professional critique group who help me conquer self-doubt. It’s been quite a journey, and we’ve been on it together.
Congrats on your debut middle-grade book, Cabby Potts, Duchess of Dirt! Tell us about the story and what inspired you.
Thanks! Cabby Potts, Duchess of Dirt is set in Kansas in 1875. Twelve-year-old homesteader Cabby Potts is an outdoor kind of girl with an “intemperate tongue,” as her Ma puts it. When she’s forced to work as a housemaid at a grand English manor down the railroad line from her sod house, she’s desperate to escape but equally desperate to save her family’s struggling homestead. So, she plays matchmaker between her older sister and the rich young lord of the manor. When her reckless scheme backfires, Cabby must solve a mystery and use her voice to stand up for her family, a Native American friend, and an entire community threatened by land-grabbers.
I enjoy all things British, and I also love frontier novels like those of Willa Cather. I was inspired to write Cabby Potts when I learned about a settlement of British aristocrats on the plains of Kansas in the 1870’s. What if, I wondered, a young “sod buster” went to work at one of their grand homes?—and the character of Cabby Potts was born.
I think kids will relate to Cabby’s impetuous nature. She gets in trouble a lot, but her heart’s in the right place.
Was your initial road to publication long and winding, short and sweet, or something in between?
Definitely long and winding. My first novel manuscript, written more than a decade ago, suffered from rookie mistakes like not considering marketability! I gained from experience, and Cabby Potts, Duchess of Dirt is a stronger book. Still, after a few close calls with editors and agents, I stopped submitting Cabby for over a year. I was still in that stage where a rejection seemed like a verdict. You know, “lousy book.”
I’m grateful to Michele McAvoy of The Little Press for seeing the potential of the book based on a #PitMad tweet in the summer of 2021. After acquiring Cabby, Michele and her team guided me through an editing process that has made the story stronger and more polished.
What projects are you working on now?
I have a few irons in the fire, but they’re pretty unformed at this point. I’m learning to balance the competing demands of writing, book promotion, and a day job.
What advice would you give to your younger self? Is this the same advice you'd give to aspiring authors?
My biggest advice to my younger self would be to start writing earlier, ha ha!
For aspiring authors, my first piece of advice would be to join a critique group. For a thousand reasons.
Also, read, read, read. Study the market and read in your genre. When you come across a book you love, study its structure, themes, characters, etc.
And be willing to learn. Don’t fall in love with your first draft. When agents or editors are “critical” of your work, try to understand why. Writing for publication is a skill not learned overnight.
What is one thing most people don't know about you?
I was born in a place that no longer exists: The Panama Canal Zone, Panama. (The Canal Zone was once a U.S. territory but was formally returned to Panama in 1999.) I also lived in Costa Rica and Colombia. I speak some Spanish, but I’m rusty.
Where can people find you online?
My website: https://www.kathleenwilford.com/
Kathleen Wilford was born in Panama and has lived in four different countries and three different states—but never in Kansas, where her book is set. She studied literature at Cornell University and at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where she now teaches writing. When she’s not teaching or writing, Kathleen can be found outdoors, chasing her disobedient dog.