Friends of Betty MacDonald
For fans of this beloved American writer
Inkubator: The Editor's Log
Anne & Joan Interview - 1998
(Interviewed separated via telephone)

Question #1: Your mother was first published 53 years ago. She wrote about a very specific time and place and family, and yet her books became bestsellers upon publication and have continued to be sought-after even half a century later. What do you think is their appeal?

Joan: The appeal of Betty's books, including the children's books, is Betty's candor, sense of humor, vivid imagination and beautiful descriptions. She makes a reader feel as if they are going through the exact experiences she is describing. Betty always told the truth about her life in a humorous way. Her books were interesting and funny. I find that people from all countries read Betty's books over and over again, and keep them as treasures, handing them down from one generation to another.

Her life at the chicken ranch on the Olympic Peninsula in the State of Washington was not the happiest time of her life. She was raised to be a gentle lady, not a chicken rancher's wife. She knew nothing about farming, chickens, Indians, or being a farmer's wife. She was only 19 when she married Bob Heskett and moved with him to the isolated farm. She did not understand her husband Bob, who expected her to know all about everything right away and do what he told her to do.

Betty decided to write The Egg & I after reading a book titled We Took to the Woods, which was an account of living in the woods, loving to carry water from a well and other experiences, tending to make the reader think this was such a wonderful thing to do. Betty found that living so isolated a life on the Olympic Peninsula on a chicken ranch was not that much fun. She had an entirely different experience than what she read about in that book.

Betty's book, The Egg & I was truthful, funny and entertaining. The characters she described were vivid and the descriptions were beautiful. Betty had the ability to make fun of herself. To make what wasn't a pleasant experience for her a humorous account for others to read.

Anne: Books that are beautifully written, uniquely honest, and genuinely, truly funny will be sought after by anyone who loves to read - no matter that these books were written 53 years ago - they continue in their warm universal appeal. I'm not at all amazed at my mother's literary longevity. I'm just very, very proud to have shared in her too short but very full life.

Question #2: What are some of the more surprising translations, editions, or spin-offs that you recall over the past half-century? Have you had any strange or unusual requests, either during her lifetime or after, that may be of note?

Anne: Of all the foreign translations of my mother's books, her ongoing success in Czechoslovakia delights me the most. Her great strength in overcoming all the obstacles she faced in her life, making the impossible double funny, hopeful, inspiring to her loyal readers in such a troubled country where laughter and hope are so sorely needed.

Strange requests are part of the price you pay for fame. My mother answered and kindly dealt with even the most bizarre letters, often long, dull, boring letters pleading for advice or giving advice on everything. Sometimes requesting financial aid, getting their funnier and better books published, wanting to visit, where to buy a ranch, how to cook chicken, how to ride horses, care for cows, raise children, and then just lovely letters from children and adults thanking her for the enormous pleasure her books gave them. She carefully answered each letter. My sister and I still do.

Joan: The most famous spin off from The Egg & I, was the "Ma & Pa Kettle" movie series. These characters came from the book and brought much laughter to audiences throughout the country. Ma & Pa Kettle At The Fair, Ma & Pa Kettle In New York, and many more. Betty loved this, as each time one more of these movies was made, Universal International would send Betty a huge check, which was then enjoyed by all of Betty's family.

Strange and unusual requests? I recall that many times, would-be authors would write to Betty and say, "If you will write my book for me I will give you half of the money." Betty's answer was "My literary agents in New York do not allow me to collaborate with anyone."

Question #3: Which of her books is your favorite and why?

Joan: My favorite books of Betty's are Nancy & Plum and Onions In The Stew. Nancy & Plum because it was a story Betty told Anne and me each night when she put us to bed. She made it up as she went along and each night would ask, "Now girls, where did I leave off?" and we would say, "Well, it was where Plum put the fish bowl on Marybell Whistle's head," or "where Mrs. Monday made Nancy & Plum do all the dishes." Betty then made this story into a book that is loved by all. From generation to generation. I am Plum in the book and Anne is Nancy.

Onions In The Stew is also one of my favorites because it told about our family experiences moving and living on Vashon Island. There really was a "New motor Marvin" and others that came to our house on Vashon. We did bring the washing machine in by boat. And then, Betty dedicated the book to "Joan and Jerry and Anne and Bob - our best friends". I can read it now and it still brings back wonderful memories.

Anne: I treasure all of my mother's books and letters. All I have to do is open one of her books or get out her many wonderful letters and she is right here with me.

A direct quote from a speech note of my mother's: "I think The Egg & I is my best book because even though the writing is much better in Onions in the Stew, I was so fresh and enthusiastic when I wrote The Egg & I and I think it shows."

Question #4: What books/authors do you recall your mother reading and what books did you read while growing up?

Anne: Mother's favorite authors were Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck (his early works), Angela Thirkell, Dickens, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, E. B. White, Katherine Anne Porter. There were many more. Her favorite of all, E. B. White. Her advice to aspiring writers was to read, read, read. We all did, our house overflowed with books." My taste in books is very similar.

Joan: Betty and my grandmother, Margar, read all the time as did all the members of our large family. Betty saw that Anne and I also read and we had to make reports on what we read. Betty liked Willa Cather, E.B. White, Elizabeth Enright, Truman Capote, and many others. I loved these authors also and I came to appreciate what good writing was. I became an avid reader of good literature. When Betty disciplined me she made me sit on our big front deck and read books that she thought would be good to read. When I was younger I always played the card game of "Authors" with my friends.

Question #5: In an interview just after the publication of The Egg & I your mother spoke of snatching moments to write between housework, guests, and fending off domestic disaster. Was this the case for all her books? Do you recall any noteworthy incidents surrounding the writing of any of the books?

Anne: She called herself a procrastinator, that the hardest thing she had to do as a writer was force herself to sit at her typewriter and get to work. Fending off domestic disaster, housework, gardening, guests, children, relatives, grandchildren--all gave her the life she loved to write about. My mother loved being a writer, but she never had a special place to work and often bemoaned the fact. She should have at least, having become a famous author, had a tiny corner to call her own, but this never was. She wrote in the basement, at the kitchen table, at the dining room table, on a tiny unsturdy typewriter table in her bedroom, the last place, the teeming bunk house on the ranch, the hub of all ranching activity.

Her sound advice to writers, first and most important "be a man." A writer told her of his day, "I get right out of bed and write for four hours." My mother's retort, "I get right out of bed and make coffee, squeeze oranges, fix breakfast, wash dishes, make beds, sort laundry, make a grocery list, decide what to have for dinner, answer the phone, feed cats, talk to feed salesmen, make more coffee for road crew, talk to cowboys, get lunch, do dishes, answer four letters from people who want me to speak, then write is now 4:30 and almost time to start dinner."

Joan: In writing all her books, Betty was always under pressure, either a deadline from her publishers, domestic disasters, electricity turned off because of storms, cooking for guests, our dog Tudor throwing up, marriages, birth of grandchildren, or a lawsuit. The lawsuit was one of the biggest challenges Betty had to face because Betty wanted to make a statement that authors could write stories with composite characters in their books without being sued by those saying they are the characters in the books. The lawsuit for one million dollars, the first one in the state of Washington, took place in Seattle, WA. Betty testified in her defense as did people from the Olympic Peninsula who were claiming they were the actual characters Betty wrote about in The Egg & I, and that she had defamed them. Jerry and I were present at the trial and some of the people that testified really did look and act like Ma & Pa Kettle. This was a very important trial and when it was over, the Seattle Post Intelligencer newspaper wrote huge headlines, "BETTY WINS."

Question #6: What were your feelings and the general family feeling at the time about being the subjects of such widely-known and popular books? Has it changed since then? Do you have any stories about things that have happened to you as a result, either at the time or later?

Joan: It was exciting and fun. A wonderful time of my life. When they made the movie The Egg & I in Hollywood, Betty, Don, Anne and I were able to enjoy all the glamour of "HOLLYWOOD." We stayed at the Beverly Hills Hotel in our private suite, had our own driver, could order anything we wanted, were treated royally by Universal International, and met many, many movie stars. I was a teenager at the time so you can imagine how thrilled I was to actually meet Mickey Rooney, Elizabeth Taylor, Clark Gable, Fred MacMurray, Claudette Colbert, and many more.

When we went to New York with Betty and Don we stayed at the Algonquin Hotel and went to the Cub Room at the Stork Club where Betty had a three or four hour interview with the great news man Walter Winchell. The interview lasted until Anne and I fell asleep at three thirty in the morning, still in the Cub Room. We went out every night for dinner at a fancy restaurant, met many, many more celebrities and saw all the Broadway shows.

In New York, Eddie Albert took us to "21," a very famous night club. The owner of the club took Anne and me into the deep dark recesses, several cement and steel floors down, and into a part of the cellar where all the oldest and rarest wines were entombed. He took a bent coat hanger off a hook on the wall. He told Anne and me to close our eyes and turn around three times. With our eyes open he handed us the bent coat hanger and told us to find the small hole where he had put the coat hanger only moments before, and the huge wall moved open without a sound. There were thousands of dusty bottles of very rare and expensive wines. It was very exciting, but Anne and I could never find the secret hole in the thick, well-hidden steel and cement wall.

Of course the fame has changed somewhat. I do not get personal fan mail from cadets at West Point or the Naval Academy, or marriage proposals, but people are still happy to meet me at book signings and hear me talk about Betty. At book signings I have had for the republication of Nancy & Plum, many, many people bring their copies of Betty's adult and children's books for me to sign. Children look up at me and want to know all about Mrs. Piggle Wiggle. They want to know where Betty got the idea for Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, the upside down house, and the magic cures Mrs. Piggle Wiggle has for children.

I was married to Jerry Keil when I was 19 and attending the University of Washington. Jerry was in the FBI and he and four other agents rented our house in town for eight months. That is how I met Jerry, as Betty invited Jerry and the other agents he lived with over to Vashon for the weekend.

When Jerry and I lived in Los Angeles, CA, in 1950 after just being married, Betty and Don would come down to visit us and introduced us to some of their good friends in Los Angeles. I remember one night, Betty, Don, Jerry and I went to the home of Ray Stark, who was Betty's agent in Hollywood. He was married to Fanny Brice's daughter and since Betty loved Fanny Brice, the comedian, so much, she wanted us to also meet her. We had dinner, met more movie stars and then watched a movie shown on a large pull down screen. Typical Hollywood.

Jerry and I have been married 48 years, have two daughters, two sons and seven grandchildren. We live in the greater Seattle, WA area during the summers and in Palm Springs, CA during the winters. We have children and grandchildren in both places so we are always around family.

Anne: My mother majored in art in school and intended to become a wall paper designer. I have 11 grandchildren, 12 chickens, 14 acres of garden and vineyard, lots of guests, I love to cook and entertain, and I am also a big procrastinator, inherited, no doubt!

Question #7: It is often said of your mother that she was always willing, even eager, to share her success with family, friends, and strangers alike. It's not surprising then that with the Dutch publication of The Egg & I she set up a trust with the American Women's Club of Amsterdam for, among other things, the maintenance of American war graves in Holland. The trust remained active for more than 40 years; from 1950 into the 1990s. Can you give a little background on this? Are there any other organizations, projects, causes in which she -- or you -- became involved of which you'd like to make note?

Anne: As a family we were overjoyed with "Betty's" success. She shared her wealth, her humor and her precious time unselfishly and endlessly. I think one of the most poignant, generous gifts was the trust she set up with the American Women's Club of Amsterdam.

Joan: Betty was mainly involved in writing to keep ahead of her writing schedule and to meet the deadlines that were set for her by her publishers. They would always give Betty a large advance for a new book and then set a deadline for its completion. In spite of this, Betty always shared her success with family and friends and always loved to have children around. She took much of her family on paid trips to New York, Hollywood, and Chicago. She always had interesting and famous people as guests at our home on Vashon. Great discussions, beach fires, dancing, good food, some wanted to stay a little longer and even move in with us. Betty and Margar were always fun to be around.

I have information in Seattle that Betty, in 1947, was listed by the editors of the Associated Press Newspapers, as being among the nations top ten women in the business and professional field. I have a tape recording of Betty accepting a gold leather bound copy of the one millionth copy of The Egg & I, given to her by her publishers, Lippincott. It was presented to her by Governor Mon Wallgreen, State of Washington, at the Olympic Hotel in Seattle, WA.

Question #8: Onions in the Stew was adapted into a stage play in 1956. Do you recall any stories about the staging or about its reception which may be of interest to our readers?

Joan: Onions In The Stew was made into a play that is still being put on by high schools throughout the country. It is a great play as it is about our family on Vashon when Anne and I were teenagers. The whole play is perfect for high school actors.

Jerry and I were invited to see the play when it was put on by the Vashon High School. We met the cast before the play and the girls that played Anne and me. The play was so beautifully done it almost made us cry. The stage looked just like our living room with the same bellows in front of the massive fireplace. The girls that played us couldn't have been better as they captured the exact personalities of Anne and me. After the play we were invited to the cast party and they asked many, many questions. "Did your sister really dye your hair green?" and "Did you really walk the long trail to catch the school bus?"

The Egg & I was also made into a high school play and is performed throughout the country. Anybody Can Do Anything was made into a Broadway play but never produced. In the contract for that play, we were given first row center seats for each performance.

Mrs. Piggle Wiggle and Nancy & Plum were made into very successful plays by the Seattle Children's Theater. Now other children theaters throughout the country are doing these plays. Mrs. Piggle Wiggle was also done on HBO by Shelly Duvall and a video tape of these shows are currently available in video stores. The Egg & I and the "Ma & Pa Kettle" movies are also currently available in video.

Question #9: A recent Sherry Grindeland column in the Seattle Times refers to the many letters asking for and the long road leading to Joan's re-publication of Nancy and Plum Would you want to fill in the details on this?

Anne: Nancy and Plum has been my sister's project and I feel she is doing a great job. Even though success has been a hard won step-by-step process in keeping this wonderful book alive and well and in print.

Joan: I was receiving so many fan letters to Betty, long after she died, wanting the book Nancy & Plum, which was out of print, that I decided to republish it myself in 1982. These were letters from children, mothers, grandmothers, teachers and librarians. They were such beautiful letters I felt I had a responsibility to keep Betty's spirit alive. I republished six thousand copies and sold all of them. Then the book went out of print again.

I continued to receive more and more letters so in 1997, Jerry and I decided to republish Nancy & Plum again. This time we did ten thousand copies and since publication date of October l997, we have sold over 950 copies. We are the publishers, promotional people, marketing people and distributors. It is fun working with book stores and people that love the book. Interest in the book has been handed down from generation to generation as reflected in the letters I receive. What a legacy Betty left. Letters I receive say, "Thank you again and again for republishing Nancy & Plum. This is the satisfaction I receive and why I republished the book.

I also give talks at libraries and schools about Betty and her books. I answer all the questions people and students ask and I show lots and lots of memorabilia I have about Betty, her writing, her fame and our house on Vashon.

Question #10: Finally, can you think of anything further which hasn't been addressed here but which you think would be of interest to our readers?

Anne: I do remember a story of my mother's regarding her dread of speech making. Betty was asked to speak before the Dutch Treat Club on one of her early visits to New York. Because of her rapid rise to fame with The Egg & I, Betty was one of the first women guests to invade this male sanctorum of stuffiness. On this day the other speaker was Winston Churchill. He gallantly recognized her shaking terror and awe and he offered and shared a brandy with her, consoling her with words of comfort. They agreed on many subjects, especially their enormous dislike of sports.
frankalexander - Dec 18, 2009, 9:42 AM
Anyone else notice that Joan always says "Betty" while Anne says "my mother" or "Mother" in the interview?
Suz - Dec 18, 2009, 4:06 PM
When you read Onions you'll notice that both girls occasionally refer to their mother as "Betty," or at least, that's how Betty chose to quote them. I think there are the same references in The Plague and I, as well, but I'm not positive. At some point in the past I read an interview with Anne and Joan where they were asked about using Betty's given name instead of "Mother", and one of them replied that Betty preferred it that way. I wish I could remember what interview that was. When I read these books as a young girl I immediately noticed the use of "Betty" rather than "Mom" and thought that the casual use of Betty's given name by her daughters was unusual and interesting, particularly for the more traditional time in which they were living when the books were written. That was not a mode of address which my own mother would have encouraged, (only in part because her name wasn't Betty!), so it was just one of those family preferences, I guess.
Linde Lund - Dec 19, 2009, 12:53 AM
Suz, I can remember this interview where one of Betty's daughters replied that Betty preferred it that way.

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