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October 7, 2022

After relishing stories of her grandmother’s life, Price decided to use them to build a fictional biography of her. BookLife Reviews called Price’s efforts “an act of love,” and we spoke with her about the challenges of writing a historical novel populated by passed down stories.   

What drew you to write about your grandmother in Kitty’s People?

My fascination with “Kitty Mom” began early on. She had endured so much loss yet was legendary to all who knew her as a fun-loving and bighearted matriarch. Her enjoyment of a good party was matched only by her intolerance of fools. Yet her family saga contained tales of a wicked stepmother, deadly back-alley abortions, insane asylums, and a cold-blooded murder. I thought she deserved an epic origin story. The isolation of Covid-19 gave me the opportunity to walk in her shoes, from her youth as the daughter of Irish immigrants through her years as a tragedy-plagued young mother and businesswoman, and ultimately to her rise as the woman in charge—confident, organized, fierce, and supremely generous. Along the way, I discovered a role model for our times.  

Was the writing process different for this book than for your others?

I needed to be enough of a historian to paint a realistic picture of 1880s Irish immigrant life in Chicago; then, village life in utopian Leclaire, Ill.; then, city life in early-20th-century St. Louis. I needed to walk with Kitty’s family through the building of the 1904 World’s Fair, wartime on the home front, the Spanish flu pandemic, Prohibition, the Great Depression, and the tragic consequences of life before antibiotics. So, my writing process relied on elaborate timelines, historical photographs, newspaper clippings, and maps. For every milestone event in my characters’ lives, I had to synthesize a mountain of facts and inferences. I’d think I had all the information needed to write the next chapter, but just a little more research would provide a sudden insight or colorful detail. I wrote every morning. Then on Friday afternoons, I’d read the week’s work over the phone to my best friend for a critique—a glass of wine poured. It took two years to get a solid final draft.

What kind of research did you do to stay true to your grandmother’s life?

Bare-bones genealogy, of course. Every address of every residence, workplace, and institution plotted on a map. Every name and business looked up in directories and newspapers. Digging for answers: What went on in planing mills? How were grocery stores run? What was the treatment for diabetes before insulin? What were the signs of untreated syphilis? When did mothers have access to baby formula? How did the Spanish flu progress day by day in St. Louis? How did women’s corsets work? What songs were people singing? What was the weather? How painful was death from tetanus?

How did you feel reimagining or changing characters based on real people?

What a challenge! Could I write that first chapter where Moses Flanagan and Maggie Keville meet and fall in love? Probably because I’ve written a couple of novels, the dialogue and action came easily. Due to our rich family lore, I knew all the characters. I’d been in love with them all my life. My research set them up to speak to me and, more importantly, to speak with one another.

Can readers expect more books from you in the future?

Since 2008, I’ve published a book every three or four years. Kitty’s People is my fifth. Each book has its roots in short essays on themes I’m enthralled with, from smuggled antiquities to adventure travel to the big life decisions of going versus staying. I’m organizing my mountain of notes, looking for what might come next!

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