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 amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle formats. It is also at Copperfield’s in Napa and at BookMine Book Store in Napa.