diaries, and mental health journals documenting both her daughters’ mental illnesses.)
The week before Barbara died in 2010, she changed her will and left me as her Probate Administrator. I believe that Barbara secretly wanted her story told and realized I was the most likely family member to do that.
Wendell Affield – 10 January 2022
The Back Flap
BARBARA is a riches-to-rags tale about an extraordinarily talented, troubled young woman. After Barbara’s death in 2010, the author Wendell Affield discovered thousands of documents locked in a rodent-infested chickenhouse. Having spent his childhood living with his mother’s mental illness, Affield studies the contents in an effort to understand his mother’s life and search for clues to his biological father.
BARBARA, PARTS I and II, explore Barbara’s two-decade downward spiral as she struggles with borderline personality disorder (BPD). Taught by the famous pianist, Emile Bosquet at Institut Droissard, Brussels, Belgium, Barbara’s natural talent blossoms. Mouse-gnawed 1939 documents reveal Barbara’s impulsive engagement (and possible marriage) in Poland, and her narrow escape from the Nazi invasion. Upon her return to New York, after dropping out of Juilliard School, Barbara begins a decade of running from her problems, leaving a wake of failed marriages and rendezvous resulting in four children. Feeling abandoned by her family and searching for a new start, she posts an advertisement in Cupid’s Columns that is answered by a bachelor farmer in northern Minnesota.
BARBARA, Part III, chronicles the author’s search for his biological father and the labyrinth leading to a breakthrough. Acceptance by his new-found family is an incredible testament to the power of love.
About the book
What is the book about?
BARBARA, Uncharted Course Through Borderline Personality Disorder, Part I and Part II is a close-up look at one woman’s struggle through the 1930s-1940s with a debilitating mental illness that destroyed family ties. Fear of abandonment drove Barbara into impulsive relationships with three different men resulted in four children. Barbara’s borderline personality disorder (BPD) symptoms triggered two suicide attempts, several documented assaults on her mother, an eating disorder, and at times, dissociation. Part III documents the author’s DNA search and the connection with a genealogy wizard who discovers the author’s paternal roots, resulting in an amazing connection and acceptance by six half-siblings.
When did you start writing the book?
I first started interviewing Barbara in the old farmhouse in northern Minnesota in the 1990s. As a child, I had grown up often being the focus of my mother’s assaults. While researching BARBARA I discovered the possible genesis of her misguided anger; I was conceived during a time Barbara and her husband were separated. I knew one day I wanted to tell her story but had no idea of the thousands of documents decaying in the padlocked chickenhouse less than 100 feet from where we sat visiting. (Barbara had inherited a treasure trove of letters from my grandmother dating back to 1820; documents, scrapbooks, photo albums, several diaries, and mental health journals documenting both her daughters’ mental illnesses.)
The week before Barbara died in 2010, she changed her will and left me as her Probate Administrator. I believe that Barbara secretly wanted her story told and realized I was the most likely family member to do that. After Barbara’s death, when my sister Laurel and I unlocked the chickenhouse door, we discovered the treasure trove of our maternal family history. It was obvious that Barbara had never touched the contents. I still wonder if she was afraid to revisit her past.
How long did it take you to write it?
Ten years: I spent the first few years just reading and organizing the chickenhouse discoveries. Today, in my Kofax Paperport software program I have 199 folders with almost 8,000 files—and still growing as I continue to explore my maternal history. As I studied the old documents I searched for a door into the story and eventually realized it must begin with my stepfather, Herman, because in the attic of the old farmhouse I had discovered five “Lonely Hearts” publications Herman had ordered in his search for a wife after he came home from World War II. I discovered my mother’s advertisement in Cupid’s Columns newspaper. These catalogs are incredible research tools, which I have listed on my website: www.wendellaffield.com/product/lonely-hearts-catalogs/
HERMAN was published in 2017. It is a study of my stepfather’s early life and his search for a wife. The book also includes insights into women’s plight during the 1940s and the full text, with names, of the first Lonely Hearts catalogue, The Exchange Club, that Herman ordered in 1945. I had an intellectual rights attorney review the catalogue and he determined that it was Public Domain material that I could publish.
Early on, I realized there was more than one book in this mountain of family history. HERMAN, 1940s Lonely Hearts Search became the first book in the Chickenhouse Chronicles.
PAWNS, The Farm, Nebish, Minnesota, 1950s Chickenhouse Chronicles book II, was published in 2018. I realized I had to make sense of my childhood and the dysfunction I grew up in. (In 1960 Barbara was committed to Fergus Falls State Hospital and we nine children were placed in foster homes—over the next four years I went through five homes. In 1964, I was sixteen and ran away and rode the rails and lived in hobo camps until I enlisted in the Navy and went to Vietnam.)
Where did you get the idea from?
Barbara was an enigma to me. I think I have always had an interest in writing. When I came home from riding the rails, I wrote an essay on school notebook paper and submitted it to Readers Digest—I received my first rejection letter. Many years later, as I watched fellow Vietnam Veterans die, I came to realize that if I didn’t tell my story that it would die with me. After publishing Muddy Jungle Rivers, writing the Chickenhouse Chronicles was a natural progression for me. The third in the series, BARBARA, was a rough draft created as I worked on HERMAN and PAWNS because so many documents and events were interwoven, I created a draft for each book and placed relevant information in each for future use.
Were there any parts of the book where you struggled?
My greatest challenge with BARBARA was filling in gaps to illuminate information I found in the chickenhouse. I began reaching out. My sister Laurel and I did DNA tests in 2014. The following year we drove down to Illinois and got DNA samples from Barbara’s first two children. We learned that they were full siblings, my sister’s paternal lineage was unique to her, and mine unique to me. Fear of abandonment, impulsiveness, promiscuity, and making unwise choices are all symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder. Beyond the DNA, I had many questions, and I began reaching out for answers. I ordered the death certificate for the two older siblings’ father and learned that he committed suicide. On a long shot, I contacted the court administration in the county where their father had received his divorce from Barbara. The court sent me forty-two pages of amazing information—including two depositions from 1947. Those documents answered many questions, detailing Barbara’s erratic behavior. A 1947 psychiatric exam found that “…she has a personality disorder which is primarily manifested by a hostile attitude….” Diagnostic and Statistical Manual III first recognized Borderline Personality Disorder in 1980 as a diagnosable condition.
What came easily?
Linking research discoveries to the primary source documents, including my grandmother’s diary entries and letters from my great grandparents that I had from the chickenhouse—weaving transitions and at times juxtaposing my memories of living with Barbara into the narrative came easily.
Are your characters entirely fictitious or have you borrowed from real world people you know?
My “characters” are my ancestors—BARBARA is based on primary source documents, court records, and other documents. For example, from the New York Historical Society I received a 1948 newspaper clipping that confirmed the violent behavior of Barbara’s second husband—he stabbed his daughter with a pitchfork. From the Minnesota Historical Society, I obtained Barbara’s 1960 commitment order and the psychiatric evaluation. Military records I obtained for my stepfather, biological father, and grandfather’s service provided unexpected insights. Veterans’ records can be ordered through the National Archives.
We all know how important it is for writers to read. Are there any particular authors that have influenced how you write and, if so, how have they influenced you?
Hemingway—many years ago a well-known author told me that my writing style reminded him of Hemingway. He told me, “Study Hemingway.” And I have done that—over the decades I have collected and studied everything I could find that Hemingway wrote.
In recent years I’ve focused on 1940s era literature that helped illuminate society during the decades I was writing about. A few books that gave me psychological and societal insights into BARBARA: Where Do People Take Their Troubles? (1945) Lee R. Steiner; The Lonely Hearts Killers (1952) Wenzell Brown; Our Mother’s War (2004) Emily Yellen; Soldier From The War Returning (2009) Thomas Childers.
Do you have a target reader?
I believe that today society recognizes mental illness as a biological problem, not a character deficit, and people are interested in gaining knowledge of those who have struggled over the decades. BARBARA is a compelling story for any reader. As I said, I write true stories. BARBARA is an intimate study of one woman’s struggle with mental illness at the dawn of psychotropic drugs and psychological knowledge for therapeutic treatment.
Do you have a writing process? If so can you please describe it?
My writing process has evolved over the years. In 2001, when I started writing memory stories about my Vietnam experience, I was up at 4:00 am, writing over that first cup of coffee of the day. I would often read the WWI poets, Sassoon, Owen, Graves, because I felt the angst of war they wrote about and I wanted that tone in my memoir. Today, I start out just as Hemingway did: I read yesterday’s work then continue where I left off. But working with old documents and research, I find I often go down dead-end bunny trails, so that makes the success sweeter.
Do you outline? If so, do you do so extensively or just chapter headings and a couple of sentences?
Most of my writing is chronological. Working with historical narratives, I find it most effective to create a timeline that is flexible, such as a Word doc that I can expand as I fill in gaps.
Do you edit as you go or wait until you’ve finished?
I start each day by reading the prior day’s work, so yes, I edit and expand. I strongly believe that our unconscious mind continues to work even as we sleep or go about our day. It’s rare not to expand on the previous day’s work.
Did you hire a professional editor?
I first would ask, what is professional? For my first two books I hired a professional editor—she did a great job, but was quite expensive. With my third and now fourth book, I did some research and discovered a grad student who I paid to do a developmental edit. She did such a great job that my professional editor told me she would only charge me half price because the manuscript was “so clean.” After I do revisions from the developmental edit, I have other very knowledgeable people go through the manuscript. (One is a retired teacher whom I refer to as the grammar policeJ) She is also my final close-read editor. Before the final close-read edit, I have several beta readers go through the manuscript. I believe it is very important, especially for self-published authors, to present a book that is superior to traditionally published works.
Do you listen to music while you write? If yes, what gets the fingers tapping?
Sometimes I tune in the Old Masters—Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky—Swan Lake was Barbara’s favorite. I am listening to Swan Lake as I write this.
Did you submit your work to Agents?
I submitted Muddy Jungle Rivers to a few agents—one rejection, the rest silence. After visiting with a few regional authors who were traditionally published, I decided to self-publish. Those same regional authors, over the years, have been impressed with my success.
What made you decide to go Indie, whether self-publishing or with an indie publisher?
Again, visiting with regional authors, several of them were not happy with their publisher—the author needs to pay his/her travel expenses for events, royalties are low.
Was it a particular event or a gradual process?
To self-publish was a firm decision early on. I discovered that I could have a local printer (Bang Printing, Brainard, Minnesota) print off-set press for me (a minimum of 1,000) at a very economical cost. No freight involved—I drove over, paid for the books, and brought them home. Since Covid and all the supply shortages, Bang Printing prices have shot up, “Because of the paper shortage,” I was told. At this time, November 2021, author copies purchased from Amazon, for 100 or more, including freight, are less than Bang Printing. I hope Bang Printing prices come back down: I prefer to buy local, off-set printing offers better quality than print-on-demand (POD), and off-set also offers more options in printing; here is an excellent link to explain the difference.
Did you get your book cover professionally done or did you do it yourself?
HERMAN and BARBARA were created by Damonza. I like how they bring subliminal imagery into the cover—for example with HERMAN, faintly in the background is the U.S. flag, representing his WWII combat experience. With BARBARA a faint image of a diploma in the background and faded cursive hinting at diary entries and letters. MUDDY JUNGLE RIVERS and PAWNS were created by local graphic designers who also did excellent work.
Do you have a marketing plan for the book or are you just winging it?
I hired a young lady to do marketing work for me—in fact she set up this interview with your organization. I am booked for readings, workshops, and speaking engagements. Before Covid, I was getting very busy with teaching writing workshops—I focus on tools for resurrecting memory, research, exploring old photos through interviews with our elders. Several years ago, I was invited to speak at a Hospice Volunteer dinner; I asked what I should talk about. The organizer suggested end-of-life regrets that military veterans have. In researching my topic, I was surprised to learn that one of the greatest regrets for veterans is that they did not share their military experience with their family—that part of their life would die with them. Since then, I am a strong advocate of all senior citizens telling their life story before it is too late.
Any advice that you would like to give to other newbies considering becoming Indie authors?
Self-publishing the book is not that difficult—especially since Bowker has expanded their services. For the newbie, Bowker is your go-to place for your ISBN (you need one for each version—paperback, hardcover, eBook, audio) which I highly recommend purchasing, because then you have the option to go to any platform with your work. Today Bowker offers so many extra services at a reasonable price– If for example, you use Amazon’s “free” ISBN, you are giving Amazon control of your book. Ingram Spark is an important platform for wholesale and library distribution. But you can learn these things, or as I mentioned earlier, find a young person in your writing community who can help you for a reasonable fee.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in New York City and grew up in northern Minnesota. My mother Barbara met my stepfather, Herman, through a Lonely Hearts singles newspaper, Cupid’s Columns, in 1949. I was two years old when we arrived at the farm.
Where do you live now?
Northern Minnesota—about twenty-five miles from where I grew up.
What would you like readers to know about you?
I do volunteer work at our Bemidji Community Food Shelf and work with the underserved in our community. In 2017, from the Minnesota Humanities Center, I received the Veterans Voices Award “For Outstanding Contributions To Communities & Society.” I believe that we each have a story to tell—I encourage young writers to go out into the world—work in a field you are passionate about or work with those underserved by our society, gain some life experience, then begin to write.
What are you working on now?
BARBARA just launched in November 2021. I will be busy with readings and workshops during the next year.
2022 is the tenth anniversary of my first book, MUDDY JUNGLE RIVERS. The book opened many doors for me—today I teach written exposure therapy workshops to veterans who struggle with PTSD—I facilitate a Veterans Writing Group in Bemidji. My Vietnam memoir opened so many doors, I may share that journey in an updated book.
Another option might be to write a Chickenhouse Chronicles Book IV. I have thousands of pages of primary source documents about my grandparents and their other daughter who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. I have the details of how, between both their daughters’ psychological struggles, my grandparents were driven to the edge of bankruptcy. My grandfather swindled, in today’s dollars, more than $250,000 from his cousin.
Or I may just go fishing.
End of Interview: