What’s it like to have a movie made from your book?

The following is an interview with author Karen Cushman about the 1999 movie-making experience of The Ballad of Lucy Whipple, starring Glenn Close, Robert Pastorelli, and Meat Loaf, as well as Jena Malone, who played California “Lucy” Whipple.

Be sure to view the photos at the end of this interview.

The Ballad of Lucy Whipple

We recently watched The Ballad of Lucy Whipple on The Hallmark Channel. Having read the book, this felt like a fairly faithful retelling of the movie. We feel very lucky that you’ve agreed to let us ask you about your part in the making of this made-for-television movie.

Q: Glenn Close and Craig Anderson are the executive producers of this movie. You are listed as co- producer. How did you get that title?

A: It was in the contract. I assume my agent handled that. A few years ago, I saw a movie whose title I forget staring Tim Robbins , I think, about making a movie. The one scene I remember, for obvious reasons, was something about defining an assistant or co-producer as a title the producer gives to his girlfriend to keep her happy and out of the way. So that was my job—be happy and out of the way.

Q: What is the job description of a co-producer?

A: I read that associate producer or co-producer credits often go to someone who performs a key function in getting the movie made, but who doesn’t have the power or clout of a producer or executive producer. In my case, it was writing the book. After that, nothing.

Q: Who approached you about making a movie from your book?

A: Glenn Close’s people contacted my people—i.e., the film and TV agent at Curtis Brown.

Q: Did you hesitate before agreeing to have a movie made about Lucy and her family?

A:  Not a bit. I admired Glenn Close and trusted her to do a good job. And I was excited to see the story played out on the screen.

Q: Did you play a part in writing the script for the movie? You are given a writing credit for the novel. Christopher Lofton is listed as the writer of the teleplay. (You may remember Christopher Lofton as the original Dr. Jeff Martin on All My Children. He is also listed as a producer of The Ballad of Lucy Whipple. Mr. Lofton passed away in 2002.)

A: No. I was asked if I wanted to write the script but I knew (and still know) nothing about writing screen plays and didn’t want to stop writing and learn. I didn’t know enough about writing novels yet. Still don’t.

Q: Did you have approval on the script?

A:  I had script approval but never saw a script. I never asked for it or pushed for it. I was busy writing another book probably.

Q: Did you have any say in the casting of the movie?

A: No, but I was pleasantly surprised with the casting. I recognized many of the names, and I loved Glenn Close as Arvella Whipple. She had the strength and determination and stubbornness the character called for.

Q: Did you visit the set while they were filming the movie?

A:  I did. They called and said We’re in Park City, Utah, in our last week of filming, and thought you’d like to see Lucky Diggins before we burn it down. I sure did. Unfortunately I had recently had surgery on my face (another story) and I was uncomfortable with the scars and how I looked. Phil and I went anyway, and it was great. People were very warm and friendly. I saw many, many takes of each scene—movie making is incredibly boring. What I loved most was the set decoration—the town, the boarding tent, the donkeys. The general store was amazing. Even the shelves and drawers were filled with appropriate objects. We didn’t stay to see it all burned down, but I was told later that everyone cried.

Q: Did you meet any of the actors in the movie?

A: Before filming started, I was flown to Los Angeles to meet Glenn Close. She’s a lovely, down to earth woman, and I liked her immediately. In Utah, I met them all, hung around with some, and hated leaving them when my time was up.

Q: Was there a special celebration when the movie was finished or when the movie was premiered? Did you attend?

A: It was a CBS movie of the week on television so there was no premiere. I can’t remember if Philip and I saw it on TV or on the videotape they sent me. We definitely celebrated.

Q: Were there differences between your book and the script?

A: There were some. They added the lawyer who commits suicide at the beginning, the intimations of sexual abuse, the woman miner disguised as a man, and Lucy’s judicial prowess. I would have argued against those decisions if I had known (and if I had any power).

Q: Were you pleased with the finished movie?

A: On the whole, yes, The actors were good, the sets were fabulous, and it was pretty true to Lucy’s story. I got to have dinner with Glenn Close and sit in Meat Loaf’s chair! What’s not to like?

Watch the movie on Hallmark Now.

Philip and I arrive at Lucky Diggins, July 1999. It was only a month after my surgery and I was very self-conscious about my scars.
Lucky Diggins
Lucky Diggins, the boarding tent. The sets were amazingly detailed and complete, down to tools and laundry on the line.
Lucky Diggins boarding house
The boarding tent and a boarder. The costumes were splendid—very miner-like.
The miners’ camp and privy.
The miners’ camp and privy.
Philip admiring The General Store.
Philip admiring The General Store.
It’s the Wild West.
It’s the Wild West.
My friend, the donkey
My friend, the donkey—or mule. I never asked. He was friendly (for a donkey) and very dusty when I petted him.
Glenn Close as Arvella Whipple
Glenn Close as Arvella Whipple. Perfect casting.
Robert Pastorelli
Robert Pastorelli (Rev. Clyde Claymore) with Glenn Close. I understand they started dating after the movie wrapped. I remembered Robert Pastorelli as Eldin, the painter, on Murphy Brown and I was starstruck.
Jena Malone turning into Lucy Whipple.
Jena Malone turning into Lucy Whipple.
There’s Meat Loaf’s chair! I sat in it!
There’s Meat Loaf’s chair! I sat in it!
Buck McPhee, Judy Gold
Hanging out with Buck McPhee (Judy Gold). Judy is a stand-up comedian and a lot of fun to be with.
Arvella and the miners
Arvella and the miners, Philip and me, on the steps of the General Store.

California Gold Rush Expansion

There were so many immigrants moving to California during the Gold Rush, from the East Coast and other countries, that the population of San Francisco grew from 1,000 to 20,000 in two years. Can you imagine the construction and the need for sanitation, food, and medical practitioners? Teachers?

The Harvard University Library Open Collections has photos you can study, quite closely, for your own research into the period, as well as digitized newspaper and magazine articles, passenger lists, maps, and more.

At the foot of the Big Tree, Grant National Park

For instance, Hunting for Gold, by William Downie, shares his personal recollections of hunting for gold from California to Alaska.

Sunset magazine, published by the Southern Pacific Railroad, published “Gold Mining in California,” by Chas. G. Yale, in August, 1899, describing California’s status as the leading gold mining state whose mines in 1899 were still “productive and profitable.” The photo below was published with this article.

Ten Dollars a Day

Ballad of Lucy WhippleMy book, The Ballad of Lucy Whipple, is set in the heyday of the California Gold Rush, in Lucky Diggins, California. When Arvella Whipple moves to this gold mining town to become proprietress of the boarding house, she brings her three children with her. Her oldest, California Morning Whipple, who later renames herself “Lucy,” is the narrator of this story. She resents the move from Massachusetts and wants to return to civilized surroundings. An avid reader, there are few books in this rough-and-tumble town. Will she ever grow used to her new surroundings?

It’s Thanksgiving!

Happy ThanksgivingAh, Thanksgiving, a holiday all about family and food and being grateful. No wonder it’s my favorite of the holidays.

Except for Thanksgiving, 1952. We had recently moved from Chicago to Los Angeles. Thanksgiving Day dawned bright and sunny and 80 degrees. My parents were thrilled and set up the picnic table in the backyard. We ate in our shorts and flip flops.

I was devastated—Thanksgiving meant frost on the pumpkins and long cold walks after dinner and “over the river and through the woods,” not picking oranges in the yard and sunglasses. Those of you who have read The Ballad of Lucy Whipple will have a clue to how I felt about the move.

Here in the Pacific Northwest I have the Thanksgiving I always wanted, except that we make heaps of turkey thighs instead of a whole bird because my loved ones and I are all dark-meat eaters. I hope your Thanksgiving is just the way you want, filled with light and love and gratitude.

Thank you for all your support. I couldn’t do it without you.


The Ballad of Lucy WhippleReading The Ballad of Lucy Whipple? There are a number of Gold Rush history museums throughout California that will give you a look at different aspects of that particular time in American history. Among them: the Maidu Museum, the Gold Country Museum in Auburn, and the Rocklin History Museum.

If you’re in California for the holidays, plan a visit. As always, double-check the library’s open dates and hours. http://bit.ly/1e0XDa5