Students Want to Know: Carole Estby Dagg

Welcome back to Students Want to Know!  My students had a wonderful time interviewing debut author, Carole Estby Dagg.  A couple were lucky enough to read the ARC of The Year We Were Famous.  Thank you, Carole, for doing this with my students and for sharing your photos! 🙂

Summary of The Year We Were Famous (From Goodreads): With their family home facing foreclosure, seventeen-year-old Clara Estby and her mother, Helga, need to raise a lot of money fast—no easy feat for two women in 1896. Helga wants to tackle the problem with her usual loud and flashy style, while Clara favors a less showy approach. Together they come up with a plan to walk the 4,600 miles from Mica Creek, Washington, to New York City—and if they can do it in only seven months, a publisher has agreed to give them $10,000. Based on the true story of the author’s great-aunt and great-grandmother, this is a fast-paced historical adventure that sets the drama of Around the World in Eighty Days against an American backdrop during the time of the suffragist movement, the 1896 presidential campaign, and the changing perception of “a woman’s place” in society.

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Rachel G.:

  • Do you find yourself similar to your Great-aunt Clara in some ways that you showed in the story?
    Yes, I do!  My older relatives who remember more about Clara than I do described her as a quiet observer.  Since I’m shy, it was easy to make Clara shy also.
  • What inspired the cover of the novel to have vines and flowers?
    The cover was a complete surprise.  I had sent the publisher photographs of Clara and her mother because I thought they might want to use a photo of them, but the designers took the dust jacket in a completely different direction.  I like the old-fashioned type face and scrolled flowers on the dust jacket though, and especially like the leathery spine of the binding which makes the book look like an old journal.
  • Was it difficult to write the dialogue in the old time way of speaking?
    I grew up reading Victorian children’s novels, so some of the writing and speaking styles came naturally. To reinforce Clara’s voice, though, I gave up reading all contemporary fiction for a year and read only books Clara might have read—from classics for school to dime novels.
  • Do you think you would be able to endure such an adventure as walking across America like your aunt did?
    I’m a wimp.  But if I had been a farm girl, maybe.

Clara & Helga


  • How did you do all your research?
    Since I was a librarian, I started at my local library and then wrote to librarians across the country, asking for their help in finding newspaper articles about the walk.  I drove part of the route with my daughter, trying to imagine what it would have been like to walk those hundreds of miles across states like Wyoming where even now you can go a hundred miles without seeing another person.  I poked in at little museums, reading about the people in places Clara and Helga passed through, went on eBay to bid on postcards of people they met, like Mrs. McKinley, and places they walked through, like the passes on the way to Cripple Creek.  I leapfrogged through articles on the Internet, finding little bits of information like the name of the Indian Agent of the Umatilla reservation or the elevation of the pass through the Blue Mountains.  
  • How much of the story is true and how much is fiction?
    All the major adventures are based on brief references in newspaper articles.  They did walk right up to president-elect McKinley’s front door and paid a visit on their way through Ohio.  They did demonstrate their curling iron to Native Americans, cross the Blue Mountains in a blizzard, were lost for days without food and water in the Snake River Lava Fields, and nearly drowned in a flash flood in the Rockies.  Erick Iverson and Charles Doré, Miss Waterson, and most of the other people they stayed with overnight are made up.  Of course all the conversation is made up, and I made my best guesses as to what might have been going through their minds at various points of the story.
  • What types of books influenced you to want to write a historical fiction novel?
    What influenced me to write this particular story wasn’t a book at all, it was Great-aunt Clara and Great-grandmother Helga themselves.  Because of the way the trip ended, all their own records of the trip were destroyed and they vowed never to write or talk about the trip again.  Times change, though.  I decided to attempt to recreate the book they never wrote themselves.Growing up, I had always liked reading historical fiction.  Writing historical fiction gives me an excuse to go wherever curiosity leads me in the name of ‘work.’ Among the historical fiction writers of the last fifty years, I would include M. T. Anderson, Laurie Halse Anderson, Avi, Libba Bray, Karen Cushman, Jennifer Donnelly, Kirby Larson, Katherine Paterson, Gary Paulsen, Richard Peck, Philip Pullman, and Ann Rinaldi.


  • You said that no one in your family talked about it.  How did you get the information about the walk and the places they stopped at?
    Research!  I started with two newspaper articles from the Minneapolis newspapers which were written on their way back home.  Besides what I mentioned in Melina’s question about research, I also spent a long time with an old atlas that had all the old rail lines and whistle stops.  I spent weeks measuring and calculating to develop a plausible mile by mile, day by day itinerary for the whole 232-day trip.
  • Were they really almost attacked by the highwayman that they shot?
    Yes; the incident was reported in more than one newspaper.  Other would-be attackers were deterred with just the sight of their gun or a good dose of pepper spray.  I wrote in some of the other incidents but the editor thought one such incident was enough so I cut those chapters.
  • What does your family think of the book?
    They seem pleased that, 115 years after the walk, the story of Clara and Helga is finally being told.

An article about Clara & Helga in the New York World


  • What was the hardest part about writing the book?
    The hardest part was making up words and thoughts for Clara and Helga.  They were real people, not made-up ones, so I was self-conscious about having them say and do things when they weren’t alive to defend themselves if I misrepresented them.
  • Are you working on anything else right now?
    I’m hooked on historical fiction.  I have a couple hundred pages of a draft of a sequel, about 100 pages of a book about Alaska, and boxes of notes on several other people and periods of history that would make good stories.   
  • Which character can you relate to the most?
    I most identify with Clara, which is why I told it from her point of view.  She was also—like me—the oldest child in the family, which meant sometimes caring for younger siblings.  Like Clara, I always wanted to write a book someday—it just took me a long time to do it.


  1. Carole, how interesting you limited your reading for a year to develop Clara’s voice!

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