Interview with Marilyn Campbell

In my fifth installment of “Interviews with YA Authors,” I’m proud to present Marilyn Campbell, author of the young adult historical novel, Trains to Concordia.

Tell us a little about Trains to Concordia. 

I based my novel on factual material about the 1854 to 1929 practice of matching up overwhelming numbers of orphans and abandoned children from large cities in the east with families primarily in the Mid-west. This system preceded the formal establishment of the child welfare foster care system. Children were transported on trains to their destinations: thus the term “orphan trains” came into existence. I first wrote a short story about the subject that later cried out to be expanded into a novel. I decided to tell the tale from the perspective of a teenage boy who was desperate to keep his family together while at the same time going through all the confusing hormone-filled years of struggling to establish his own identity and place in the world.

Charley O’Brien and his sister Jennie are placed in an orphanage in 1892 Homestead, Pennsylvania, after their parents are killed in a train accident. Two years later, when Charley is fifteen and Jennie, ten, they and Christina Batachi—a spirited sixteen-year-old fresh out of a Pittsburgh street gang—are thrown together on an orphan train and sent to Kansas. The relationship between the three and the hardships they share in their new and totally different environments form the crux of this coming of age story.

Clearly your background in journalism gave you writing experience. How do you think your background in social work influenced your writing?

My experience in journalism helped, of course, as did my background in social work. In the beginning of my career I worked with families and children, but my last twenty years were spent working as an Adult Protective Services case worker serving dependent adults and the elderly. I met many clients who told stories of growing up under difficult circumstances that left them scarred emotionally, especially if the were separated from family at a young age or abused by family members. Financial deprivation also made lasting impressions, especially for those who lived through the Great Depression.

Coincidentally, my mother-in-law was an orphan and, after spending some time in an institution, was fortunate to have an aunt who assumed custody of her and her five siblings and moved them to a Montana dirt farm. Although she had mixed personal feelings about her stern aunt, she was grateful that the family wasn’t separated and farmed out to others. I certainly was influenced by her and admired her very much.

What research tips do you have for others writing historical fiction?

If I had to pass on some advice, I think I would suggest going the extra yard by trying to talk to a survivor of the historical period, or if that’s not possible, search out non-fiction accounts about the topic for authenticity and to get the right voice. Certainly, visiting the locales where the action takes place is desirable, but again, if that isn’t possible, find descriptions in first person non-fiction narratives. Historical societies and museums are great sources for gathering this kind of information.

I did quite a bit of research on the Homestead Steel Strike that was depicted in the first part of Trains to Concordia. But the most unusual search occurred when I needed to brush up on my limited knowledge of farm life. I drew on details my parents told me about growing up on farms in the Dakotas, but it wasn’t enough. I had to go online and download a video showing the proper way to milk a cow!

What do you love about your characters? Will they get a sequel?

I have to admit that I grew very fond of my characters. I loved Charley’s steadfastness and his humanity. Jennie was conflicted by her need for survival vs. family loyalty and therefore not as sympathetic a character. Christina was fun to write about because she was more of a free spirit. I didn’t feel there was a true villain in the story. There were flawed characters, but even they had some redeeming qualities.

Will there be a sequel? Maybe. Several people have suggested I write one and I can certainly imagine a future for my characters as they enter adulthood. It’s very intriguing. I can think of quite a few different directions in which to take the story.

What else are you writing?

My other writing took a back seat once I began work on Trains to Concordia. And when the novel was completed, there were all the production tasks of publishing with which to deal. I did manage several short stories and a few poems, which seemed cleansing after being involved with a lengthy work. However, I enjoy spinning long narratives best because of the need to be totally immersed in the alternate universe I have created. I’ve written two previous novels that await attention; I might be able to breathe new life into them upon revision. If not, I’d love to put together a collection of my short stories.

Where can we find your novel?

Trains to Concordia is available on in both paperback and Kindle formats. It is also at Copperfield’s in Napa and at BookMine Book Store in Napa.

Click here to find Trains to Concordia on Amazon


The Racism and Sexism No One is Talking About in the Alpha Phi Video.

The obvious lack of non-white women in the trending Alpha Phi sorority video has been pointed out. Strangely, most of the comments on Facebook say that people are being “too PC” if they think there’s something wrong with only pretty white girls in the video. That’s a HUGE issue, but not the one I want to talk about.

What if a fraternity of half naked white college men made a video with one attractive woman in it? And what if that woman were black? Black women (and anyone who cared about them) would be horrified! “Dear Black People, we will not let you in our club, but we welcome you as objects of our affection.”?

But isn’t that what essentially happens in the Alpha Phi video? Twenty sexy white women deign to allow one black person in their video because he’s a strapping, attractive man? He probably didn’t think about it as the camera was rolling, but I wonder what he thinks now that he’s seen the final cut. Is he wondering now why the women are running around in their swimsuits eating popsicles in the other scenes? Is he just now wondering if any of his non-white women friends tried to get into Alpha Phi?

I’m so disgusted by this that I’ll probably hit “publish” without editing. So attack me. But if this video isn’t bothering you, look beyond what’s lacking in my blog and ask yourself why it’s okay for young women to keep selling themselves short, and why it’s okay for a group to have all white members, and don’t tell me that there are groups with all black members. It is different when the race that oppressed other races for centuries doesn’t let those races into its club. And we ALL. KNOW. IT.


Me and Tree63

About a decade ago, we buckled our toddler into the car and drove three hours to Spirit West Coast, a weekend-long Christian festival featuring dozens of bands. The band I was most excited to see was Tree63. They were not the biggest name in the lineup, but their lyrics had captured my heart.

The other thing I was looking forward to was the atmosphere of worship. Thousands of people with one purpose — to worship God. It would be like a glimpse of heaven.

We arrived after dark on Friday night to a field full of tents. Not only was it difficult to set up a tent quietly in the dark, but there were no actual sites, so we just had to find the most open area possible. And the place was crammed with tents. We did the best we could and went to sleep.

In the morning, while we were still warm in our sleeping bags, the campers around us emerged and began cooking their breakfast. “What kind of people set their tent up in the middle of someone else’s group?” they grumbled. And grumbled. And grumbled.

My heart sank. I was so embarrassed to leave our tent. When I did, the group got quiet. One of them offered us food. We politely declined. By that time I had gone from being embarrassed for us to embarrassed for them. What if we hadn’t been Christians? What if they had been our introduction to Christ?

We made our way to the stage where Tree63 would play and listened to some other band and then a sermon that the crowd chatted through. Finally, singer John Ellis and the rest of the guys came on stage, and they rocked it. One thing made the concert uncomfortable, though. Ellis made a statement about the commercialism of the festival. I guess he thought we had better things to do with our money than to buy tee shirts with pictures of rich white guys with expensive haircuts and perfect teeth. (I might be adding my own gripes a bit here. John’s gripe was probably less about diversity and more about the focus not being on God.) Between the unfriendly campers, the sermon chatters, and the celebrity worship, I was sorry I had gone to the festival at all. A three hour trip with a toddler for this? So much for a glimpse of heaven.

Months or maybe years later, Tree63 came to our tiny Sonoma Marin fair in Petaluma. Our church youth group went, and so did I, slightly older toddler in tow. I lay in the grass, an exhausted parent letting the music wash over me. The band said that it had been an inconvenient gig to fly to, schedule-wise, but that they had felt strongly led by God to book it anyway. Who knows why God led them? But I thanked God, as this exhausted parent needed a blessing.

Not long after that, John Ellis left Christian music. I believe he was fed up with the culture of the industry. I don’t want to speak for him, because I only read one article, and it was a long time ago. But whatever his reason, I couldn’t blame him. He wanted to find a way to make a difference in the world — help bring about social justice.

I didn’t blame him, but I felt a great loss. No one’s lyrics resonated with me like Tree63’s. It was their album “The Answer to the Question” that I popped into the CD player in my car after visiting my dad in the hospital for what I was told would be the last time. “There’s always, only, been You. Bright shining as the suuuuuun,” I belted out, tears flowing. One of my earthly heroes was leaving me.

I know that John Ellis would not want me to call him my hero, so I’ll just say that I was sad at the thought of his never coming around on tour again. He might not be my hero, but he was someone I wanted to hear more from — someone I thought would understand my not wanting to call myself a writer of “Christian fiction.” Someone I thought would understand my sadness about Spirit West Coast not being a glimpse of heaven, and understand my deep discomfort at the realization that I might be someone else’s reason for not getting a glimpse of heaven.

God is surprising. Sometimes you watch a friend you prayed for not be healed, and sometimes you find out when you get home from the hospital that the cancer expert was wrong, and that your dad only has a terrible infection. Sometimes you can’t sleep at night and start thinking about Tree63 and you Google them and find out that they are back after eight years and putting out a new album.

Welcome back, guys. I hope God calls you to my little town again someday. I wouldn’t be surprised.