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The "Keeper" of Family History: An Interview with Joy Neal Kidney (Part 2)

In last week's post, we began an interview with Joy Neal Kidney, award-winning author of Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II and Leora’s Dexter Stories: The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression as well as a dozen stories broadcast on the nationwide radio program Our American Stories.

Today, we continue that interview.

DLP: Joy, everything seems to have fallen into place effortlessly and perfectly for your writing journey, but I know that rarely happens. What have been your greatest struggles or problems in writing? How did or do you deal with them?

Kidney: Early in my writing, I wouldn't put anything in quotes unless it was a "real" quote. Gradually, however, I got used to narrative nonfiction. Reading Praying for Sheetrock by Melissa Fay Greene was an eye-opener for me--nonfiction told in such a way that it was fascinating. I eventually got over writing scenes with "made up" conversations. While Mom was living, I'd ask if I got it right, and that helped. Usually those scenes arise from a story I knew about.

The other is an on-going struggle--fibromyalgia. Two decades of it, but I'm so thankful that I can write between daily episodes of pain and exhaustion. How do I deal with it? Naps when my body insists. Tenacity trumps talent. I think the tenacity is from Grandma Leora.

DLP: Much of your writing deals with family history. Why do you think it's important for people to record their family's stories and history?

Kidney: Genealogy taught me how to go about doing research. But fleshing out the stories, from shortly after Iowa became a state, has been grounding for me. I've heard that if you don't know where you come from, you don't know who you are. We are who we are because of the choices of our parents and grandparents. If we can ascertain who they were, we'll have a better grounding of self. I don't remember Grandpa Clabe. Yet, through his letters and stories about him, even a revealing newspaper clipping about him, I'm getting to know his personality and probably why he made certain choices.

DLP: What has been your greatest surprise or discovery while doing research for your writing?

Kidney: The most fascinating research has been through military documents, especially casualty files. Lieutenant Daniel Wilson's remains weren't located until months after the war was over. The documentation process to locate where he was initially buried, and how they carefully ensured who he was, documenting each time he was buried (first temporarily, then when the family was asked where they wanted permanent burial, and finally when the permanent burial occurred years later). Then when I happened upon a book that told about the training of the Graves Registration teams who went in behind the army, then combed Europe after the war, the care they took, what a blessing that has been, in addition to the painstaking records I was sent copies of.

DLP: Could you describe your writing process? How do you go about producing a book or story, from idea to finished product?

Kidney: I'm mostly working with Grandma Leora's long (97 years) life, so I've had to make decisions about where each book begins and how to end it. The World War II story is so heart-rending that I couldn't leave readers in tears, so I thought about how Leora's hopes and dreams were not what she'd imagined, but that her life was still worth living.

With the Depression-era book, I began to think about the story arc and how to make the whole worth someone's time to read. When I realized that the Wilson family story would be a wonderful introduction to the Great Depression for school kids, I carved out more and shorter chapters.

The next book deals with Leora's early years. I'm working on how to present a little of her ancestry so that it's fascinating for other readers. Where to begin her story, and how to end it? But the hard part is deciding what to leave out. The things I leave out usually end up becoming a blog post.

Anything starting out is written by hand, which I do in front of the gas fireplace, which is bordered by books and my husband's vintage toys. But as soon as I'm ready to have something to edit, I move into the computer room, which also is decorated with shelves of books and family photos. Sometimes I'll do my blog posts entirely on the computer.

DLP: Do you have a daily routine or ritual? A certain number of words or pages as a daily target?

Kidney: I journal at 4 a.m., spend time with my Bible and prayer. Bulletproof coffee, with a pat of butter ala Dave Asprey whisked in, is at 5 a.m. Then maybe some more reading or editing. I used to prefer writing early, but my mornings have been riddled with bouts of pain and exhaustion, so I work on shorter things like blog posts and social media. Concentration has been better this fall later in the afternoon and early evening. I thank God for brain energy any time it shows up!

DLP: Joy Neal Kidney, it has been a pleasure interviewing you. You've certainly been an encouragement to me, seeing your determination to preserve and share your family's history and learning about perseverance in spite of physical hardships. You're an inspiration for the rest of us to get busy writing our own families' stories. Thank you!

You can find out more about Joy Neal Kidney at and about her books at And don't forget to visit to hear her stories on Our American Stories.

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