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SunLit Interviews

Laurie Marr Wasmund watched a single volume of her historical novel blossom into a trilogy

The author of "To Walk Humbly" mixed Colorado's real-life heroes and villains of the 1920s with fictional characters in this final installment of the White Winter Trilogy

Laurie Marr Wasmund


Laurie Marr Wasmund grew up on a cattle ranch in Colorado. She holds an M.A. in literature from the University of Denver.

She has worked as an editor, community college instructor, and national writing workshop presenter. Her short stories have appeared in literary magazines such as Cimarron Review and Weber Studies. She is the author of “My Heart Lies Here,” a novel of the Ludlow Massacre; “Clean Cut, A Romance of the Western Heart”; and the White Winter Trilogy, which is set in Colorado during the Great War and the 1920s. 

The third book of the trilogy, “To Walk Humbly,” was a 2020 finalist for the Mainstream/Literary book award from the Colorado Authors League. It also received a 2020 EVVY third place award in Historical Fiction from the Colorado Independent Publishers Association.

The following is an interview with Laurie Marr Wasmund.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.


What inspired you to write this book?

“To Walk Humbly,” which is set in 1920s Colorado when the Ku Klux Klan governed the state, is the third book of my White Winter Trilogy. The first two books, “To Do Justice” and “To Love Kindness,” chronicle the experiences of three Catholic, Irish-Americans from 1917, with America’s involvement in the Great War, to Armistice Day 1918. 

The inspiration for the trilogy came after I wrote “My Heart Lies Here,” which told the story of the Ludlow Massacre in Trinidad, Colorado, in 1914. While researching it, I began to see names of certain men and women who acted honorably and decently, despite the horrific injustices and violence around them. 

One of those names was Philip Van Cise, who later served as Denver district attorney. As I delved into his life and history, I found that he was a hero many times over — during the 1914 strike that led to the Ludlow Massacre; during the Great War, when he served as a balloon observer; during his tenure as D.A., when he took down the infamous “Bunco Gang”; and in the 1920s, when he became a virulent foe of the Ku Klux Klan in Denver. 

I wanted to explore his history, both by including him as a real-life character in the novel, and by creating fictional characters who exemplified the same traits that he possessed.

“To Walk Humbly” by Laurie Marr Wasmund

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole and why did you select it?

The Ku Klux Klan in Denver and Colorado was extremely successful in recruiting members to its cause. Part of this had to do with its charismatic leader, Grand Dragon John Galen Locke, but much of it was what the Klan offered the average man. 

When World War I ended, there was a nationalistic backlash that expressed itself in the phrase “America First.” Those who had served in France felt that their jobs had been stolen by immigrants and minorities. The influx of Catholics from poor, eastern European countries and Jewish immigrants from Russia appeared to threaten the prevalence of Christianity; and the loosening of morals throughout America imperiled “family values.” 

The Klan countered all that: it preached “klannishness,” which was the practice of doing business with and patronizing the businesses of Klan members; it excluded minorities, Catholics, and Jews from its membership rolls, which provided convenient scapegoats for what was wrong with America; and it promised that it would bring back the Bible in the schools.

In this excerpt, I’ve tried to illustrate the Klan’s appeal to typical young men of the 1920s. Please note that, although historical figures appear in the novels, the characters in this scene are entirely fictional.

Tell us about creating this book: any research and travel you might have done, any other influences on which you drew?

It’s difficult to speak about “To Walk Humbly” without discussing the entire White Winter Trilogy, which required years of research before publication. I started it with the idea that it would be one book — half of which would deal with the World War while the other half dealt with the characters’ return home and the Klan. 

That game plan collapsed when I received a copy of my great-uncle Henry’s diary, “A Soldier’s Diary of World War One: France 1917-1919” by Corporal Henry Halgate Storm. At the age of 92, his daughter, Margaret Bok, had edited her father’s diary and poetry, and had published just enough copies to give to her local library and her family. 

As I read it, I realized that I had to write a story of World War I, which is only briefly mentioned in history class in the schools. I was amazed how many primary sources about the Great War are available online. Many towns or counties proudly published the service records of local soldiers, including their memories or experiences. 

The fledgling U.S. Army Air Service published a four-volume work of stories from pilots and observers who flew in the war. Private individuals have put up websites of their relatives’ letters or diaries from France, and the oft-vilified Gutenberg Projects, Google Books, Internet Archive, etc., have replicated numerous war diaries and collections, including those of women who served overseas with relief organizations, as one of my characters does. 

The coup of my research for World War I was the discovery of Ben Salmon, a Catholic man in Denver who became a conscientious objector because of his belief in the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” When I learned of his existence — and in Denver, too! — I knew I had to include a character based on him in my novel. Hence, my two-volume project of a single book on the war and a single book on the Klan suddenly became a trilogy.

Primary sources are not as available for the Klan in 1920s Denver, although minutes of Klan meetings throughout the U.S. can be located online. However, the established sources are brilliant. Robert Goldberg’s “Hooded Empire: The Ku Klux Klan in Colorado” offers a comprehensive account of the time. The “Kloran,” the Klan’s “Bible,” and the works of Denver’s Bishop Alma White of Pillar of Fire church are found online. 

The highlight of my research was a morning coffee klatch with Cindy Van Cise, granddaughter of D.A. Philip Van Cise, who broadened my knowledge of his dealings with and resistance to the Ku Klux Klan.

My website includes a complete list of sources, online, printed, and anecdotal, for all three books. Visit it at lauriemarrwasmund.com

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?

As I said above, the story was supposed to be much shorter. On the other hand, a trilogy didn’t quite cut it — the story could have filled four books. However, I’d already published the first two under the “White Winter Trilogy,” so there was no going back. 

On a more immediate level, I spent some time trying to figure out how I could insinuate my fictional characters into the lives of historical figures such as Philip Van Cise, John Galen Locke, and Ben Stapleton. I also struggled with how to make the tenets of the Ku Klux Klan sound realistic in the mouths of my Klan supporters without resorting to clichés. 

I had to overcome my own disgust and put myself into the mindset of someone who truly believed. For the historical characters, I could use direct quotes or paraphrase (e.g., the sermons of Bishop Alma White). For the fictional characters, it wasn’t as simple.

A personal challenge I faced was the death of my mother, Wilma Marr, at the age of 92. She was my biggest fan, my most severe critic, and my sharpest editor. She would read my books in one day, then call me to ask when the next was coming out. Her death before she could read the completed trilogy broke my heart.

Walk us through your writing process: Where and when do you write? What time of day? Do you listen to music, need quiet?

I treat writing as work. No waiting for the muse to appear or inspiration to strike; no procrastinating until I know everything about my characters or their situations; no playing on Facebook instead of writing — although I am still prone to go down any research rabbit hole that comes my way. I try to emulate Nora Roberts’ philosophy: “Butt in the chair.” I keep consistent hours, usually 5-6 hours per day when I am engrossed in a project, and I work in my silent study, with notes and research spread over every surface near me and my dog at my feet.

What’s your next project?

My current project is a “nonfiction novel” that relates the journeys and lives of the women in my family who homesteaded in and settled territorial Colorado. My fascinating women relatives include: a woman who came to America from Scotland in 1866 with a newborn baby to join her Scottish husband, who was in New York; a woman who was one of the first female surgeons to graduate from the Edinburgh Royal College of Medicine; a woman educated in music and languages in Frankfurt, Germany who left her wealthy Edinburgh family to come to Sedalia in 1885 as a governess; a woman who worked her way from Rocky Ford to Castle Rock as a signal operator for the Santa Fe railroad; a woman whose husband was shot to death in a Castle Rock café by a fugitive; and others. 

These are stories that haven’t been publicly told and should not be forgotten. With the death of my mother, my primary source, I feel it’s both my obligation and great privilege to write them.

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