Hollywood, 1938: As soon as she learns that M-G-M is adapting her late husband’s masterpiece for the screen, seventy-seven-year-old Maud Gage Baum sets about trying to finagle her way onto the set. Nineteen years after Frank’s passing, Maud is the only person who can help the producers stay true to the spirit of the book—because she’s the only one left who knows its secrets. But the moment she hears Judy Garland rehearsing the first notes of “Over the Rainbow,” Maud recognizes the yearning that defined her own life story, from her youth as a suffragette’s daughter to her coming of age as one of the first women in the Ivy League, from her blossoming romance with Frank to the hardscrabble prairie years that inspired The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Judy reminds Maud of a young girl she cared for and tried to help in South Dakota, a dreamer who never got her happy ending. Now, with the young actress under pressure from the studio as well as her ambitious stage mother, Maud resolves to protect her—the way she tried so hard to protect the real Dorothy. The author of two New York Times bestselling nonfiction books, The Eighty-Dollar Champion and The Perfect Horse, Elizabeth Letts is a master at discovering and researching a rich historical story and transforming it into a page-turner. Finding Dorothy is the result of Letts’s journey into the amazing lives of Frank and Maud Baum. Written as fiction but based closely on the truth, Elizabeth Letts’s new book tells a story of love, loss, inspiration, and perseverance, set in America’s heartland. On audio the book is narrated by the author and Ann Marie Lee.
Jonathan Lowe) The book CIRCE by Madeline Miller won an award this year as Best Fantasy, and on audio was chosen as a Best Audiobook of the Year, read by Perdita Weeks. What gave you the idea to mingle fiction and non-fiction to create a novel about The Wizard of Oz?
Elizabeth Letts) I was first drawn to the story behind The Wonderful Wizard of Oz when I was reading the book aloud to my son and I wondered about the author, L. Frank Baum and why his characters were so much better known than the man himself. With a quick bit of research, I discovered that Frank’s mother-in-law was a prominent advocate for the rights of women—which made me see Baum’s strong female characters in a whole new light. But I didn’t realize I had a story to tell until I discovered that his widow, Maud, was still alive during the filming of the Hollywood movie. I found a picture of Maud on the set with Judy Garland and I wanted to know what happened when they met—as a non-fiction writer, I believe in grounding my work in historical fact, but to get to the emotional heart of a story, fiction has the edge. In writing this book, I took my inspiration from Frank Baum himself. He believed that only a thin veil separated us from other worlds. In Finding Dorothy, I tried to push aside that veil and live in the world that Frank and Maud inhabited—to unveil them as they actually were, before The Wonderful Wizard of Oz whirled them into the spotlight. Circe is a fabulous book by the way! I think it much deserved its honors.
JL) Why tell it in the author’s wife’s point of view—because she had a hard life and overcame adversity?
EL) Frank and Maud did not have any daughters, so the first mystery for me was how did a man with no daughters create one of the most beloved little girls in all of literature—Dorothy? As one of America’s most beloved tales, the inspirations for Baum’s story have been well-researched, but no one knew if there was a real little girl who inspired the character of Dorothy. Some have speculated that she was named for a niece who died in infancy, but I did not think that rang true since Baum first wrote about a character named Dorothy before that niece was born. As I read more about Baum’s wife and their life together, the more convinced I became that their marriage and life together inspired Baum’s book—as for who inspired Dorothy—well, you’ll need to read the book!
JL) Any great anecdote to share from the non-fiction side to the story, or the movie itself?
EL) If you read the book, you’ll read a scene set in the witch’s castle where Dorothy sings a reprise of “Over the Rainbow.” That scene was cut from the final movie, and no film has ever been found, but there is an audio recording and it is simply heartbreaking to listen to.
JL) What writers have influenced your own fiction?
EL) I have always been a voracious reader since I was a little kid. In addition to reading the Oz series as a child, many children’s books made a big impression on me—and I had a special fondness for books where ordinary children had extraordinary adventures—the Oz books of course, but also Edward Eager and Roald Dahl. I adored historical fiction and used to read the big sprawling books—Irving Stone, James Michener. Some go to authors for historical fiction—Paula McClain, Melanie Benjamin, and Tasha Alexander. My favorite book of the past year was Pachinko by Min Jee Lee. And I never miss a book by Anne Tyler.
JL) Are we not in Kansas anymore, culturally speaking?
EL) I still have an old black and white photograph of a farmhouse in Parsons, Kansas that my grandmother’s family moved to after my great-great-great grandfather fought in the Civil War. I was born in Houston and moved to Los Angeles when I was five, but my family still has deep Midwestern roots. I absolutely love the Great Plains. In my opinion, we’ll always be in Kansas, metaphorically speaking, because of the many ways that the center of our country has fueled our imaginations and affected how we think of our identity as a nation. The Smithsonian called The Wonderful Wizard of Oz “America’s first homegrown fairy tale” and Baum knew what he was doing. Kansas and Oz are the two sides of our national psyche, and they have always coexisted side by side.
JL) You also love horses. Do you still own one, and which horses do you love most from history?
EL) I do love horses, and I don’t currently own one but I still ride all the time, and I confess I’m looking for a new horse right now. My favorite horse from history? No question—it’s Snowman, The Eighty-Dollar Champion!