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Words with a Wordsmith: Pat Wahler

By Rebecca D’Harlingue
December 22, 2023

Pat Wahler writes readable, relatable women.

What is the first book that made you cry?

As a kid, I spent a lot of time reading. I gravitated toward books that appealed to many young girls, from horse stories to Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden mysteries. But the book that had me ugly-sobbing is a two-way tie since I can’t remember which one I read first. Little Women and Black Beauty both hit the bullseye. Louisa May Alcott had a gift for making me care what happened to Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. I celebrated their triumphs and cried over their tragedies. Their stories truly moved me. Anna Sewell had a similar talent. What could be more touching than a narrative told from an equine point of view? Sewell portrayed the horrors animals experienced at the hands of people in a way that broke my heart and helped inspire me to become involved in animal rescue during my adult years. To this day I have trouble reading a story where an animal is hurt or killed. Oddly enough, both these books were set in the nineteenth century, and I can’t help wondering if the connection I felt with them laid the groundwork for my love of historical fiction.


What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?

There are several, but I decided to pick A Woman of Independent Means by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey. I read it a few years after the book released in 1978, although at the time I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about an epistolary novel. All correspondence is written by the protagonist, Bess Steed, and the author skillfully allows the letters to speak for themselves while still giving the reader a clear understanding of what went on in Bess’s life from the late 1900’s through the 1960’s. Bess isn’t perfect—she definitely has her flaws—but I grew to have a soft spot for her, and have read the novel more than once over the years. As I recall, a mini-series that aired in the mid 1990’s was based on the book, but today the story is seldom mentioned. If you haven’t read A Woman of Independent Means, give it a try!

What’s the best compliment a reader has ever given you?

I often write real women from history, so it’s important to me that I portray them in a sensitive yet honest way. I was particularly anxious about my debut novel, I am Mrs. Jesse James. There are scores of people that to this day are quite opinionated and vocal about the James family. How would such a group view my rendition of Jesse’s wife, Zee James? Would they accept my interpretation or blast me for how I envisioned her? When I received an email from a reader in Liberty, Missouri (site of one of Jesse’s infamous bank robberies) who wanted to speak to me, I had no idea what to expect. Half- anticipating a lecture on what I got wrong, I agreed to a phone call. Imagine my relief to discover she wanted me to attend a Zoom book club meeting to discuss the story. At the end of our conversation, she went on to say how pleased she was with the way I had written Zee. “You treated her with respect,” she told me. That compliment is something I’ll always remember.

What brings you great joy as a writer?

If I can only choose one, I’d pick the thrill of stumbling over a piece of information during research that no one else has discovered. While researching The Rose of Washington Square, I poked around in ancestry.com. One thing led to another and I eventually ran across an application for a marriage license that my protagonist Rose O’Neill had signed at the age of eighteen before she ever left the Midwest for New York City. It wasn’t mentioned in her autobiography and not even the experts I’d spoken to about Rose were aware of the document. She and her fiancé had signed the application, but details of the marriage which should have appeared below the application on the license remained blank, indicating the wedding never took place. This tiny little gem not only delighted me, but provided a tidbit to enhance my story. I adore the research process, and a moment like that one gives me goose bumps.

What was the inspiration for your most recent book?

I enjoy writing women who have ties to my home state of Missouri. There were several women who were possible candidates, but the more I learned about Rose O’Neill, the more fascinated I became by her. She was once one of the most famous and influential women of her era, but is primarily remembered for creating the Kewpie doll. Yet Rose accomplished much more. Generous to a fault, she not only encouraged and financed many struggling artists but blazed trails for women in the world of illustration, championed the idea of women not being caged in corsets, and became a strong and active supporter of the suffragist movement. She cared deeply about how the world treated women. How could I not choose her? This sent me off on the deep research process, and about two years later The Rose of Washington Square released in January 2023.

Pat Wahler is winner of Western Fictioneers’ Best First Novel of 2018, a Walter Williams Award winner, and the winner of Author Circle Awards 2019 Novel of Excellence in Historical Fiction for I am Mrs. Jesse James. She has also authored a three-book contemporary romance series-the Becker Family Novels, and two holiday-themed books; all named Five-Star Readers’ Favorites. A frequent contributor to the Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies, Pat is an avid reader with a special passion for historical fiction, women’s fiction, and stories with heart. She makes her home in Missouri with her husband and two rescue critters—one feisty Peek-a-poo pup and a tabby cat with an oversupply of attitude.

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Rebecca D’Harlingue

Written by Rebecca D’Harlingue

Award-winning author Rebecca D’Harlingue writes about seventeenth-century women forging a different path. Her debut novel, The Lines Between Us, won an Independent Press Award and a CIBA Chaucer Award. Her second novel, The Map Colorist, won a Literary Titan Award and a Firebird Book Award.

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4 Comments

  1. Pat Wahler

    I loved doing this interview! Thank you so much for allowing me to share my thoughts with your readers.

    Reply
  2. Bobby Barbara Smith

    The Rose of Washington Square was of particular interest to me. I’ve traveled past the turn-off to the farm where Rosey O”Neill grew up and knew some of the kewpie doll’s history but was pleasantly surprised to learn what a worldly woman Rose was. I read this book in one sitting, devouring lively details about a woman I thought I knew. Great work!

    Reply

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