The following is an interview with author Jim Baumgardner. Jim lives near the old Chisholm Trail that ran from the Red River to Wichita, KS. The city is one of the original cow towns of the old west. Jim helps keep that history alive by volunteering at the Old Cowtown Museum in Wichita. Enjoy the interview and getting to know Jim.
Jim, what can you tell us about your debut novel Sarah’s Wish?
Twelve year old Sarah Smith is the star. She’s a likeable protagonist, a girl with grit, a young lady with steel in her backbone. She loves people, hates injustice, and fights for the underdogs—who are the runaway slaves in the Sarah books.
In chapter one her mother dies and suddenly the responsibility of moving the runaways along the Underground Railroad rests upon her shoulders; at least she thinks so. Sarah’s Wish tells of her quest for a family while ever mindful of her duties as a conductor and agent on the railway.
I noticed you dedicated Sarah's Wish to your grandchildren.
I wrote it for them. I want them to know about history and where we as a people have been. I hope they learn that although the United States allowed the curse of slavery to imprison a race of people in body and mind, yet that same nation finally rose up to defeat those who were intent on keeping the status quo. Sarah’s Wish introduces them to the institution of slavery and sheds some light on those who opposed it. The defeat will come later in the Sarah books.
Why write fiction? If you have something to teach why not write non fiction?
When I was a kid I didn’t like to be lectured, but I loved stories. If the stories taught me history and more; like how to live a better life, so much the better. The heroes gave me confidence and I sorely needed it. I was the poster child for the inferiority complex. Through fiction I could be the hero. I could put myself in the place of the Hardy Boys or even a girl like Nancy Drew. I grew up in what I like to term the “golden age of cowboy movies”. The good guy wore the white hat and rode the white horse. The bad guy wore the black hat and rode the dark horse. There were distinct differences between good and evil. The good guy sometimes came out on the short end of the stick, was beaten up, tied up, and left for dead; but in the end he won—good won. Kids liked it, and they still like it. The hero will have pain along the way, they know it. But, in the end it is always satisfying to know Sarah will be left standing and her enemies will be beaten. So, I said all that to say this: stories bring the facts of any history book to life. Non fiction has its place, and I love to read American history, but telling the facts within the framework of historical fiction brings in to life.
What are your all-time favorite books?
I am all over the place when it comes to books. Non-fiction: A History of US by Joy Hakim. I believe it’s written for middle school kids. The books have basic facts about United States history which makes them easy to read. The Search For The Ancient Order by Earl West deals with the church restoration movement of the 19th Century. The Power of Positive Thinking and The Power of Positive Living by Norman Vincent Peale; How To Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie; and The Magic of Thinking Big by David Schwartz; all self-improvement books that have helped me work on my inferiority complex.
Fiction: A religious novel, The Fool of God by Louis Cochran, and all of the Louis Lamour and Zane Grey westerns. I haven’t read them all yet, which gives me something to look forward to.
What quote or personal saying do you live by? Who said it?
Norman Vincent Peale said, “Believe in yourself.” Jesus said, “All things are possible to him who believes.”
What is your all-time favorite movie?
It has to be High Noon, staring Gary Cooper. It’s the good guy against overwhelming odds, and time is running out. Tex Ritter sings “Do not forsake me oh my darling...” as the heartbreaking loss of a woman seems inevitable. Friends won’t lend a hand, a boy too young wants to help, and tension mounts while Gary writes out his Last Will and Testament, then confirms he has ice water in his veins by stepping out alone to meet four killers. Unexpectedly in the final scenes he receives help from...oops, can’t give that away. High Noon is one of those Westerns from the Golden Age.
Dr. Baum is based on your great, great grandfather. Do any other characters come from real life?
Granny Evans is a composite of my granny, her sister Emma, and a couple of others I keep to myself. She is fun to write.
Did you or do you have a mentor? How have they influenced your work?
My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Wallis, liked to tell stories. She also required the students to check out books from our little school library. This is when I learned to love a series. My favorites were the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and The Bobbsey Twins. Mrs. Wallis was old, at least I thought so. Her father was 99 when he died during our school year. He was born before the Civil War and she had told us stories of his life. We were all sad when told that she would not be at school for a few days because of his death.
My dad and grandpa told stories, also. I learned the value of exaggeration and humor from them.
As far as writing, I have never had a mentor. If you want to write, my advice is to read good writing. Notice how the author constructs sentences, describes characters, grabs your attention, keeps you turning pages, and various other writing techniques. Read what authors have to say about writing. Then write and rewrite. It’s like a lot of things, the more you practice the easier it gets.
Describe the feeling of holding your first book and realizing you had finally been published. What was it like?
I do remember pulling the book from the box and looking at it, but after many months of editing, reading, and re-reading the book, it wasn’t really that exciting. The best of feelings was seeing people standing in line to get my autograph on their book. They were actually paying money to buy and read my story. It was an exhilarating and humbling experience, all at the same time. Imagine, writing on paper the stories rolling around in my head, and then—shaa-zam! People actually pay money to read it. What a deal!
More personal info about Jim:
Although Jim’s roots sink deep into Kansas, his family’s early beginnings were in Western Ohio where his great, great grandparents, John and Elizabeth were married in 1856. In 1879 their son, John Jr., left Ohio for the life of a Kansas ranch hand and cowboy. John Jr.’s son, James, after whom the author is named, followed the same course by working the land and raising cattle. Commenting on the Baumgardners Jim stated: “I’m proud of my German heritage and the work ethic passed on to me by my father and grandfathers. I come from a long line of storytellers, and it has always been fun trying to figure where the truth left off and the fiction began.”
Around age ten Jim began writing poems and songs. After reading some of Jim’s work, his father encouraged him to continue his writing. At nineteen he had his first article printed in a magazine. Forty years later at age fifty-nine his first novel, Sarah’s Wish, was published.
Mr. Baumgardner continues to reside in Wichita where he loves to stroll the dusty streets of Old Cowtown. It is there he can walk back into the Nineteenth Century and for a short time catch a glimpse of life as experienced by his grandfathers. It becomes a time to remember his roots, glean new story ideas, and never forget the hard working pioneers who contributed so much to the making of America.