Behind the Book: Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts

For our first Book Club pick of 2020, Half Price Books has selected Finding Dorothy, the fictional retelling of the true life of Maud Baum, wife to L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz. This a perfect read for lovers of all things Oz and historical fiction. We had the wonderful opportunity ask author Elizabeth Letts some in-depth questions regarding her inspirations, discoveries and insights into this wonderful book!

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Can you tell us more about Maud Baum, the voice and inspiration behind Finding Dorothy? What made you decide to write a story inspired by her and from her point of view?
Frank Baum died in 1919, twenty years before his book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was turned into the classic MGM film. The only living link between the book and the movie was his widow, Maud, who was seventy-seven years old. Maud’s mother was one of the most radical advocates for the rights of women—she grew up with Susan B. Anthony hanging around her house. Her mother was constantly in the newspapers for organizing protests, and she got laws changed so that Maud could be one of the first young women to attend an Ivy League school. So what did she do with all that opportunity? Did she become a lawyer for the cause, as her mother had hoped? No. She dropped out of school to marry a very handsome but not too impressive young theater man named L. Frank Baum. To me, this was fascinating. Maud was clearly a powerhouse, strong enough to defy her overbearing mother. But I think it’s easy to overlook the incredible influence of women like Maud, who make their mark behind-the-scenes. We may not remember her, but every time we quote The Wizard of Oz, we are paying homage to her legacy.

What kind of research did you do for this book? Did anything in your research surprise you?
Fortunately, the lives of L. Frank Baum, Judy Garland, and Maud’s mother Matilda Joslyn Gage have already been well-documented, so I started there. But I took my research further—I uncovered letters about Maud school days at Cornell in their University Library, and a diary of Maud’s sister Julia, who plays an important role in the book in the North Dakota Historical Society. I visited the library in Aberdeen, South Dakota where I was able to leaf through family memorabilia that had belonged to Maud’s family, see a replica of Matilda’s parlor in the Dacotah Prairie Museum, see the house where Frank and Maud lived in South Dakota, and stand on the (now empty) and very desolate spot of prairie where Maud’s sister Julia tried to homestead. The thing that surprised me the most was the photograph that inspired me to write the book in the first place—a photo of Maud at age 77 with Judy Garland on the set at MGM. As soon as I saw the photo, I knew I had found my story.

Were you able to visit Frank and Maud’s childhood homes, now museums?
Believe it or not, those are still on my bucket list.

What does your writing process look like?
In truth, it’s a bit haphazard. I do a lot of research, and then I start writing, and it seems like I have to stop every five seconds to do a little bit more research. I don’t outline, and I don’t have a super-organized way of taking notes. But I’m a real stickler for details, so you’ll find me looking up train routes and searching for old photographs, reading 19th century medical books, and newspapers, and manuals. What’s funny is that for all the research I do, only small bits and pieces actually make it into the book. But I think you can feel the writer’s authority if you can really trust that she’s done her homework.

Tell us about a challenge you faced in writing this novel.
I think for me, the most difficult thing was staying true to my own vision of the book. I knew that Maud was the key to understanding the story, because she’s the living link between the book and film. But Maud, you know, she’s the wife, she’s the woman behind the curtain, caught between a famous mother and a famous husband, and of course, you’ve got the mega-star Judy Garland, who is going to steal the scene every time she walks on. So there were some very loud voices telling me not to tell the story from Maud’s perspective. I had tune out my critics. I knew that Maud was the only one who was there for all of it. It was her story to tell.

Who is your favorite character in this book?
That is a hard one, because I never would have written this book if I didn’t have an undying devotion to Judy Garland. But I think the character I relate to the most is Frank. Like Frank, I tried a number of different careers and was unable to support myself from creative work until later in life. Frank is like most creative people—fun, lively, dreamy, maddening, but, hopefully, ultimately loveable.

What do you hope people take away from reading Finding Dorothy?
That the reason we still love The Wizard of Oz is because of its underlying message of female empowerment. L. Frank Baum was greatly influenced by his wife and his mother-in-law. He believed in equality for women long before that was a mainstream view. It’s an intrinsic part of the story—not a modern reinterpretation. I hope that people will look at the beloved film The Wizard of Oz, and the original book, and understand that 80 years after the classic film’s release, the movie has stayed relevant for a reason—who has the power in Oz? It’s the women, the Good Witch, the Bad Witch, and Dorothy.

What made you want to write about this particular piece of Americana?
I saw the Wizard of Oz for the first time when I was four years old at a neighborhood television store in Houston that had opened its doors so that people could watch the broadcast on their color TVs. And after that, I always had an imaginary friend named Dorothy. I’m one of the millions of people who watched the movie every single year, and the movie is such a part of our culture that I never thought to take a step back and wonder where the story had come from, what inspired it? The Wizard of Oz has been called “America’s first homegrown fairy tale,” and the real lives that inspired that story were also quintessentially American—the Baums lived in big cities and small towns, worked hard, had times of triumph and times of trouble, but never gave up hope, and most importantly, they always believed that there was a better world out there somewhere if they didn’t give up hope, and to me that is the most American story of all.

What has been the most difficult part of writing this book?
Writing about Judy Garland. She is such an iconic and important figure to so many people, and her life story was ultimately tragic, so knowing that, I felt a lot of heartbreak for her. Yet, even though we know the ending of her story, I wanted to catch the magic of who she was at the beginning of her journey. And, when you write about someone as iconic as Judy Garland, you have to get it right. I considered it a sacred responsibility.

What has been the most rewarding part of writing this book?
The most rewarding part is that I’ve discovered that Oz is a giant family. I’ve met the President of the International Wizard of Oz Society, who knows more about Oz than I’ll ever know, and I’ve met the young man who owns the world’s largest collection of Oz memorabilia, who came to one of my book signings wearing ruby slippers. I’ve become friends with several historians who are experts on Matilda Joslyn Gage, and best of all, I’ve met several of Maud and Frank’s descendants. And everywhere I go, I meet people who share their own stories of Oz with me, send me pictures of their costumes, and share their memories. One hundred and twenty years after he wrote his children’s story with a stubby pencil, there are millions of people all over the world who form the giant family of Oz-lovers.

What can we expect from you next?
I’m just finishing up my next book, it’s an inspirational true story from the 1950s—I don’t want to say too much about it yet, but it features a horse, a dog, a long journey, and one of the most courageous women you’ve never heard of. I cannot wait to introduce Annie and her four-legged companions to the world.

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Elizabeth Letts is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of both historical fiction and non-fiction. The Eighty-Dollar Champion was an Indie Next Pick, a Goodreads Reader’s Choice Finalist and winner of the Daniel P. Lenehan Award for Media Excellence from the United States Equestrian Foundation and is currently in development as a feature film at MGM Studios. Her second work of non-fiction, The Perfect Horse, was a New York Times bestseller and the winner of the Pen USA Literary Award for Research Nonfiction and is available in a young reader edition. Her most recent book, Finding Dorothy, is a Publisher’s Weekly bestseller, a Library Reads selection and Midwest Connections selection. Elizabeth majored in history at Yale and in both her fiction and non-fiction she is known for her deep and detailed research. She lives in Southern California and Northern Michigan. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Pick up a copy of Finding Dorothy at your local Half Price Books or HPB.com, and join the HPB Book Club as we read this unforgettable story in 2020.

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