Q&A with Kelly O'Connor McNees

1. Please tell our readers about In Need of a Good Wife.
This novel tells the story of a group of mail-order brides traveling west from New York City to Nebraska just after the Civil War, to marry men they’ve never met. Clara Bixby, the matchmaker, has selected the brides based on the requests of bachelors in a small town, devoid of women, on the newly completed Union Pacific rail line. Rowena, who lost her husband and all her money to the war, must marry for financial security. Elsa, a Bavarian spinster who has worked for decades in a lower Manhattan laundry, agrees to travel not as a potential wife but merely to become the housekeeper for a widowed farmer. The women leave the East full of anticipation for what the future holds. Of course, nothing turns out quite the way they expect.

2. What made you want to write about the post-Civil War era?
Arranged marriages of various kinds were not uncommon throughout the nineteenth century, but the war and the changes it brought to American life made it an option some women considered. The Homestead Act of 1862 offered cheap land to men willing to travel west to settle it, and soon the frontier territories were full of single men who realized they might like to find wives. Meanwhile, the eastern cities were full of widows and women who had never had the chance to marry before their sweethearts went off and got killed in the war. The railroad made travel relatively fast and easy. The war was over, the Union had been preserved, and Americans—the victorious northerners, at least—were looking toward the future.

3. How much of this story is based on actual events?
These characters and this particular expedition are fictional, but in my research I found examples of bride entrepreneurs like Clara, though I didn’t find any who were women, and plenty of stories of real arranged marriages. I also drew from the journals of women homesteaders.

4. Do you have a favorite character in this book? why?
I spend a long time with these characters. Even though they are creations, they feel very real to me, and I care deeply about each of them. If I had to choose I would say that Elsa is special to me. I do not share her religious views, but I admire her refusal to feel self-pity. She had a terrifically hard life, as did so many women who came to New York from Europe and worked their fingers to the bone just to survive. But she is at peace with her place in the world, and believes in kindness. And listening. I wish I could be more like her.

5. Did you come across any major challenges when writing this book?
Oh, yes! Each novel provides one challenge after another. There is, of course, the challenge of making a little bit of progress each day, the challenge of self-doubt, the feeling that you won’t be able to translate the story in your head onto the page. Moving among the three central characters’ stories was a structural challenge. I wanted each thread to have its due but didn’t want one to outshine the other two.

6. Who is your favorite musical artist?
My daughter, who sings what sound like whale songs from her crib.

7. What is the last book you've read?
I just finished The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey, a retelling of Jane Eyre set in Scotland and Iceland in the 1950s. It is beautifully told.

8. Do you have any guilty pleasures when it comes to food?
I have one magic trick. Leave me alone for ten minutes with a jar of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies and I can make them disappear!

9. What do you do when you're not writing?
Read, go for walks along Lake Michigan, watch movies with my husband. And now that fall is here, make soup!

10. What's next for you?
I am working on my next novel, about a woman who escapes from a violent marriage in Buffalo and travels to an island in northern Michigan.

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