The Watonwan County/St. James Library will be visited by a pair of authors over the next week: three-time Christy Award Winner Julie Klassen today at 1 p.m. and Renee Wendinger on Thursday.
Author of such works as “The Dancing Master,” “The Tutor’s Daughter,” “The Apothecary’s Daughter,” and “The Girl in the Gatehouse,” Klassen has been a Minnesota Book Awards finalist and a RITA Awards finalist. Today, she’ll be available to sign books, discuss traveling to England to research her novels, and give a preview of her newest book--”The Secret of Pembrooke Park”--which is due out in December. (The RITA Award is presented by the Romance Writers of America (RWA), and it’s the most prominent award given in the romance fiction genre. The Christy Awards are named in honor of Catherine Marshall and her novel “Christy,” and they recognize novels of excellence written from a Christian perspective.)
On her website, Klassen writes that her work will appeal to those with a predilection for romance, British accents, Charlotte Bronte’s famed “Jane Eyre,” or the works in Jane Austen’s cannon. She said Tuesday that, despite the comps with Austen’s work due to their similar settings, she didn’t read Austen until later in life. But, she did grow up fascinated by England and that general time period, with books like “The Secret Garden” and “Jane Eyre” turning her into an unabashed Anglophile.
Klassen said, “It was quite a challenge to set a book where I’d never been,” but the reach of Google and old maps proved helpful. Still, “there’s nothing like going there and actually being there in person.”
She’s now been to England three times, and, “Every time I go, I get more ideas.” On her maiden voyage, she visited the tiny village where she’d set her first book, and, “it hadn’t changed much--it was very much as I had imagined it.”
Klassen grew up in Chicago and attended the University of Illinois. Though she had a passion for writing and literature, a guidance counselor suggested it might behoove her to get a more practical degree. She majored in advertizing, and found work with a firm in Champaign after college. When her workplace was purchased by a Minnesota company, she and many other employees made the move to St. Paul, and she’s remained in the area --now with her husband and two sons--ever since. Her husband, Brian Klassen, is from Mountain Lake, graduated from the high school in 1981, and still has siblings living in Mountain Lake.
She got into publishing through Bethany House Publishers, working in advertizing before moving into an editorial position. Her first manuscript was written under pseudonym, at the suggestion of her boss. That way, as the manuscript was being sent around and judged, nobody would praise it just because she was an editor at the company. Consequently, when the decision was reached to publish the novel, it was earned validation and on merit.
Klassen has since written six more books, with her eighth scheduled for this December. She settled into her genre by following her motto, “Write what you personally love to read.”
When first starting as a writer, “publishers will want to brand you, so you need to pick a genre and stick with it, at least for awhile,” she said. After becoming established, a writer can hop genres, but, especially early, readers and publishers desire consistency.
Though her stories are often set in a similar millieu, they center on different professions and often occur in different regions of England, which meant she needed to learn different trades and different counties each time, she said. That being said, her seventh book, “The Dancing Master,” which will be her centerpiece topic today, was her hardest challenge.
First, she employed a heroine more unlikeable than usual, she said. The heroine is vain, selfish, and prickly, and it’s tougher for readers to root for that sort of unappealing character. Secondly, the main male character is not the strong, rugged, alpha-male usually found in romance novels, she said. Instead, he’s a sensitive dancer.
Despite that, there is still the Christian ethic undercurrent present in all her work, although it’s hardly a sermon or devotional, she said. Her main focus is always “a good story that sweeps readers to another time in place...and I glorify God along the way.”
The fact that she sets her novels in a time when religion was much more front-and-center in the daily lives of people makes it easier to include Christian elements, she said. Christian fiction used to be sweet, simple, likeable love stories, but now “Christian fiction is a huge spectrum.”
Some are dark and gritty, she said. Any rules that may have existed 20 years ago have now changed completely.
In her novels, “God exists, good and evil exist, but my characters are not perfect, and they make mistakes,” she said. “They often find a second chance and a new lease on life, though, which is very important to me, personally, because I didn’t come to Christ until my 20s.”
Last Train Home
Wendinger will discuss “Last Train Home,” her historical fiction work, at 7 p.m. Thursday. This will be her second visit to the St. James Library. She was also here for her first book, “Extra! Extra! The Orphan Trains and Newsboys of New York,” which looks at the life stories of orphaned, half-orphaned, and runaway children of immigrant parents in 19th century New York. In fact, St. James even received orphan trains.
Inspired by her mother, Sophia (Kaminsky) Hillesheim, a child of the 1917 orphan trains, Wendinger often speaks to groups about the orphan trains and the immigration experience, according to her Amazon biography. She is president of Orphan Train Riders of New York organization, recipient of the New York Foundling award for history preservation and the 2011 Founders Award from the National Orphan Train Complex of Concordia, Kan., and--for two consecutive years--”Extra! Extra! The Orphan Trains and Newsboys of New York” won the 2010 and 2011 Indie Excellence Award in history by panels of judges and publishers.
“Last Train Home” focuses on the story of two children who take the train from the crowded East Coast for new lives in the Midwest, she said. One, “Sophia,” is her mother’s story, and she’s juxtaposed with “Johnny,” who settled in Iowa and went on to “a wonderful life.”
Wendinger grew up in southern Minnesota, and she still lives between Sleepy Eye and New Ulm. She was a paraprofessional in Title 1 before retiring and diving full-time into writing.
Her mother never spoke of her early experience on the orphan train until Wendinger--by far the youngest of the family’s five children--was about 10 years old. “My mom didn’t know herself until she was about 14 that she came from New York City or was on a train, because she was only two years old when she rode west.”
Wendinger said the reason for this second book is to note the distinctions between the two largest placing organizations that sent children west, and to be more personal. Her first book was in-depth and packed with information, more of a college text or coffee-table book, while this is more accessible.
None of the children sent west rode alone, she said. Agents, nurses, and even sometimes doctors accompanied the minors.
Wendinger’s mother was given up at six months old by a German mother; no birth certificate has ever been found, so the father remains unknown, Wendinger said. She came west with “indenture papers,” and her name was shortened to “Kamin” to provide her “a new start in life.”
The vast majority of children on the orphan trains were the offspring of immigrants, Wendinger said. She became interested in the stories of these orphan train children after attending a reunion with her mother.
“I became hooked on the social history, a part of history we were never taught in school, and I have always liked writing,” she said. For her first book, she traveled to New York City to interview archivists and look into childrens’ aid agencies and museums.
Ryan Anderson can be reached at randerson@stjamesnews and followed on Twitter @randerson_ryan