Jane Kirkpatrick, Award-winning Author

My guest today is Jane Kirkpatrick, an award-winning author of 14 historical novels, two non-fiction books, as well as numerous articles. A Tendering in the Storm, second in the “Change and Cherish” series, has just won a WILLA Award and was a Christy Finalist. The first book in the series, A Clearing in the Wild, earned a WILLA finalist Award. Her most recent novel, A Mending at the Edge, the third in the series, was released in April, and Aurora: An American Experience in Quilt, Community and Craft, a non-fiction book of interest to women’s studies, historians, quilters and craftsman will be out in December. She’s also been working on promotion for her next novel, A Flickering Light, due in April 2009.
Jane, you are such a prolific writer, with such a busy life. Maybe you can help us understand “how it’s done.”

Have you always had an affinity for writing fiction?
No. I didn’t start writing fiction until 1995. I’d had one book and many articles published before then but fiction was a new venue. I used to make up stories to entertain my younger brother and they always had metaphorical aspects that I doubt he got but that helped me explore story more. I just think that fiction “comes along beside us” in ways that non-fiction can’t. Because I loved biography, I wanted to write the book that became my first novel as a biography but I just could not find enough information about this woman. Lots about her husband and father but very little about her. Yet her obituary and the stories of the way the Indian people that were their neighbors responded to her told me she must have been a remarkable woman and I wanted to know her better. So fiction became my route into her life and soul.

Which was your first book?
My first book was a memoir called Homestead. It was reissued with a new section in 2005 and a new subtitle: Modern Pioneers Pursuing the Edge of Possibility. My first novel was A Sweetness to the Soul. It earned the Wrangler Award from the Western Heritage Center and was named to Oregon’s Literary 100 as one of the best books about Oregon published in the past 200 years. It’s being reissued this month too, repackaged etc.

Where do your ideas come from?
Oh, all over the place. They’re like little first graders in the talented and gifted classes saying choose me, choose me! Sometimes it’s a sentence in a diary I’m reading. Sometimes it’s an experience I had where I became aware of a historical woman. People tell me about stories. But mostly it’s finding something strange and exploring it. If the path has too many barriers on it I try another journey; but often, once I say I’d like to write that story, some amazing contacts seem to materialize to make the research easier and voila, the story won’t let me go until I’m finished!

You have such a gift for metaphors, such as light, quilt patches, and oyster shells, and the many meanings of words in your titles: Clearing, Tendering, Mending. Does this come naturally or do you work on this?
I think I have metamorphosis or metaphormosis, some mental health disorder I’m certain! I just see metaphors everywhere. But in the books, they come out of the story itself. I knew nothing about oysters until I began researching A Tendering in the Storm. I do try to have a title with more than one meaning. The tendering part of that title was to focus on how things get tenderized to soften them; and also that a tender is a small ship going to a port. I saw this second book in the series as a tender of sorts, going between the first and third books and because my main character, Emma, would experience great trial and softening. But after it came out I happened to be looking in an old fabric book and discovered in the glossary the word “tendering.” It meant “the disintegration of material when exposed to caustic substances.” Well, that’s what happened to my character, to Emma! She’d been exposed to caustic substances in life and had nearly disintegrated but she did not. In the end, she allowed others to help her find a new direction, something very difficult for strong people, women included.

Do you do a lot of rewriting?
You bet. Ivan Doig, the famous Montana/Seattle writer, says that’s when you find out what the story is all about. I think revising is when I find out what the story has to tell me, why it wouldn’t let me go in the first place. I try to keep going as I’m writing but sometimes I get stopped in finding the perfect word. My Super Thesaurus is dog eared. The right word can direct the entire paragraph. After I finish a manuscript I let it sit for a couple of weeks then re-read and revise. Then it goes to my editor who sends me back suggestions, things to keep, things to consider. My editors are wonderful and always make the work better. Then I revise again and send it off. When the ARC comes out, I revise yet again though I try to do less then unless I’ve discovered some perfect piece of history that I can’t leave out!

I certainly feel like I can identify with your heroines—such strong, independent women of their times—and I get exasperated, annoyed, even angry at their antagonists. You have such a quiet graceful writing voice, yet it’s not at all lacking in conflict and turmoil. You have a background in the mental health field. Do you think that gives you an insight to developing well-rounded and sympathetic characters in your fiction?
I’ve always been interested in the landscape of the mind so I’m sure that helps in characterization. But so does living at the end of 11 miles of a dirt road called Starvation Lane. I do think that characters we can relate to despite the separation of generations comes from portraying their desires. I spend a lot of time trying to imagine what my characters want. What were they doing there in south Florida (Mystic Sweet Communion) or as the only woman with 60 men traveling out with her husband and two little boys 6 years after Lewis and Clarke returned (A Name of Her Own)? What did Emma want that made her come west as the only female with nine male scouts seeking a site for their religious community? (Change and Cherish Series). In my latest novel, A Flickering Light, (coming out in April) I wondered what Jessie wanted and why do creative women sometimes sabotage the expression of their gifts? After looking at a character’s desire, I have to explore the barriers that would get in the way of that, barriers that shape the character. There are universal desires (Joseph Campbell, Carolyn Pearson, Elizabeth Lyon and others have explored this so well) and it’s my job as a writer to try to see what desire is driving my character. Fiction is really made up of change, causation, conversation, conflict and characters. It’s the weaving together of those qualities along with landscapes, relationships, spirituality and work that creates the turmoil. Just as in our lives!

You live on an isolated ranch in eastern Oregon. Has living there given you a feel for the way some of the early settlers lived?
Yes, I think so. We had to harness a spring to get water, clear sage-brush to plant crops; build a house when supplies were 50 miles away. We buried our own phone line 7 miles, twice since it didn’t work the first time. We had crops planted and totally destroyed by wind and fire. Rattlesnakes visit…one plopped itself at the end of our walk just last week. I stepped right over it, couldn’t find the .38 so used a hoe. If I’d been out in the field I’d have let it go but close to the house, huh-uh! But these challenges have made me wonder how my characters would have dealt with those things and made me speculate about where they drew their strength from? When we were going through our building trials I knew that someday we would have electricity and running water or I wouldn’t stay living here. But these historical women did not. Theirs was life as they knew it without end. Their endurance has been an inspiration and a never ending pool of exploration.

What challenges do you face in writing historical novels?
Really the same as writing any novel. Silencing the harpies that sit behind me telling me it isn’t worth it, that I can’t really write, that there are more important things to be doing in the world, that 50,000 books a year are published and why would I imagine anyone was going to buy mine? The mental stuff of all creative people is perhaps the greatest challenge. Then I think it’s not overloading reader with wonderful trivia of history that doesn’t move the story forward while at the same time choosing just the right detail to include in order to characterize a room, a time period, a person. Details add depth but they can strangle a story. I have to watch that because I love discovering things like how many people it took to make a single hat pin up until 1838 (seven) and why Queen Victoria restricted the sale of hat pins to one day a year, New Year’s Day and that’s why people saved their “pin money” all year to buy them. Pin money! A term my mother used all the time that I never knew where it came from until doing research but then, how to use it? I never could…until now! The other thing about historical novel writing is that one must be true to the shared knowing as I call it, the facts as people agree they are; and at the same time if discovering a fact that isn’t what people generally agree is so, decide whether to use it or not creating the buttress for it within the text but again, not so it overwhelms the story. People want to trust the history that is the spine of a historical novel; but they want the story to be the flesh and blood they’ll take with them. Weaving both is important.

How has the publishing industry changed since you first started?
Most of the publishing houses are owned by foreign nationals. There are probably only three or four big publishers now with a zillion imprints so decisions by imprints have more restrictions on them, less freedom to take on a new author or try something inventive unless New York approves. There are fewer university presses. I remember when the University of Idaho Press not only published award-winning titles for example (Bold Spirit by Linda L. Hunt for one) but they innovatively printed some of their hardcover texts in a format that would make publishing the soft cover later much easier and less expensive. Smaller presses could do that. But it went out of business. So has the Oregon Historical Society Press. The funding of university presses must compete now with departments that seek grants etc. for funding. I think regional presses are innovative but they’ve had to cut back on the number of titles they publish each year. Paper costs are higher. At the same time, there are many more print on demand books, self-publishing and even coop publishing venues. Titles are getting in to print but authors must do even more promoting than they ever did before, especially if you’re not a NY Times bestseller which most of us aren’t. I think there are also more supportive groups through the internet, through Women Writing the West, for example, so there are more of “our” kind of stories being written and published. Congratulations are in order for you for landing that Treble Heart contract, Heidi. Perseverance still pays off.
Thanks, Jane. Yes, it does.

What is your writing schedule? Do you research at the same time as you write?
I’m always researching. I read many more nonfiction books in a year than fiction. My yearly schedule looks like this, sort of: November-April, fewer speaking events, fewer writing classes or leading women’s retreats and more writing. Usually I write from early in the morning–4:30 until 4 p.m. with breaks in between. As the deadline approaches I’ll be awake at 1 or 2 AM, write for four hours, come back to bed; get up in three hours and write more. My husband is incredibly tolerant…. I usually have a book released in April so that means scheduling events from April onward. But I’m also then revising as I usually have a book DUE in April too. I may go several days from April until October without really “writing” but rather revising, researching. The best time for me personally though is early in the morning and I love it when I have nothing scheduled for two months so I can write all day long. This is a gift I know; but my first ten novels were written while I worked and commuted 100 miles twice a week, staying away from home for three days at a time. I worked on an Indian reservation in mental health and wrote from 5 until 8:00 each morning then went to work until 5:00 PM. I researched in the evening. You can get a lot of pages written three hours a day but you can also write a book with only an hour a day. It’s just doing it every day.

What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t a writer?
I’d hopefully still be working in mental health and hopefully as part of the community at Warm Springs, the reservation where I was surrounded by terrific story-tellers and amazingly strong women. I’ve also thought I’d like to get a degree in spiritual studies just because I think I’d enjoy the reading list.

What are you working on now?
I’ve got two projects going. Well, three. I have the second book in my Portrait of a Woman series based on my grandmother’s life. She was a photographer at the turn of the century in Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota. I have a contract for three more historical novels after that. And I’ve been approached about writing a contemporary “lighter” novel that I’m truly considering. I have to finish the quilt book first, though! It’ll be out December 16 and we’re having a replica quilt made of Emma’s quilt, the textile that began my Change and Cherish series. If you want to get in on the drawing – nothing to buy! – you can go to www.waterbrookpress.com and click on contests. Pendleton Woolen Mills here in the Northwest has donated the wool and the quilt it is being made and quilted by those from the community that Emma settled in back in 1862 called Aurora. There’s a picture of it on my blog and website www.jkbooks.com. Those projects should keep me out of trouble for awhile. That and maintaining a relationship with my husband of 32 years and keeping my dog, Bo, happy with daily walks beside the river.

Join us for Part Two of the interview on Monday, Sept. 8.

Published in: on September 5, 2008 at 2:15 am  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. What a fantastic interview. Jane has such a beautiful way with words, not only in her books but when she speaks of writing. No wonder she won a WILLA this year. No one deserves it more. Thanks, Heidi for a terrific interview. I look forward to seeing everyone at WWW Conference in October. What a great year it’s been for many of us.

  2. Great interview. Can’t wait to see the rest.

  3. first time i have read your blog i have RSS bkd you, please post more.


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