Author Interview: Fairlee Winfield

buffaloed-cover1My guest today is Fairlee Winfield, author of the Arizona Authors Award winning novel, Buffaloed, based on the premise that famous Montana cowboy artist Charlie Russell didn’t actually paint the Lewis and Clark mural permanently displayed in the Montana State House.

This is an intriguing hypothesis, Fairlee. Tell us how you came up with the idea.

I wanted to write a story about my Norwegian grandmother’s immigrant experience. She worked in Charlie Russell’s household. When I visited the Charles M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana, I could see that the house was exactly as my grandmother described it. There was the kitchen and the bath, the parlor and the dining room, and most especially “the shack” where Charlie painted.

I had plenty of personal material to work with, but I needed a situation to put my protagonist in. Surprisingly I found it in a Wall Street Journal article “Lassos and Lawsuits.” A Russell art expert, Ginger Renner, was saying that no other American artist has been faked as often as Charlie Russell. “In three weeks before Christmas, I had seven fakes come through the door,” she said. That set me on the path of the forgery.

Did you know your grandmother and were you able to talk to her about her experience working in the Russell household?

Oh yes, Heidi, I knew my grandmother closely. In fact, I lived with her for a year while I was in high school. She talked frequently about arriving in Great Falls in the early 1900’s and working for the Russells. My grandmother was only in her teens then, and I believe Nancy Russell became a surrogate mother to her.

Your forward is written by William Carl Andersen. How is he related to you?

I have to confess, Heidi, William Carl Anderson doesn’t exist. I needed someone to tell Ovidia’s story. Someone similar to Ralph Fielding Snell in Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, someone fatuously academic and gullible. Billy is pure fiction.

Interesting concept. You use him as a character in the novel, as the character based on your grandmother relates her story.

Billy is taken in by Ovidia’s story. The reader can identify with Billy, or the reader can suspect the unreliable editorship or the possibly senile narrator.

What kind of research did you do for this book?

The Charlie Russell biographies, of course. Most paint him as a saint, hagiographies really, so they can’t be trusted. Frank Linderman’s recollections were useful. The Russells did use American Indian sign language and that research was interesting. Research on cowboy talk was just up my alley.

How has your background as Professor of Linguistics and Cultural Studies at Northern Arizona University influenced or helped in writing your novel?

Absolutely invaluable. Let’s take the issue of profanity. I’m particularly sensitive to this fairlee-winfieldsince some agents and publishers rejected BUFFALOed because of it. Let’s consider characterization.

Halsey Watson an early Montana newspaper man describing Charlie Russell says, “. . . he rejoiced in the most extensive and foulest vocabulary of any man I have ever known. No exclamation without an oath; no sentence without vulgarity; scarcely an uttered thought without obscenity.”

When both Charlie and Nancy Russell are notorious for their use of obscenities, how can they be authentically portrayed with “oh dear’s,” “goodness me’s, and gosh darn it’s.”

The violation of linguistic taboos carries meaning. Breaking language taboos sets the user apart from the dominant culture and gives the user power. By the early 1900’s the open range of the cowboys no longer existed, but the use of profanity and “cowboy talk” binds them as a group and gives them identity and a more powerful status. These ex-cowboys detest the settlers and the sheepmen (groups that avoid profanity). The ties that bind come from language.

And then, in comes the little immigrant, Ovidia. She learns her English primarily from Nancy and Charlie, but the gotdammits, and sommabitches she uses have absolutely no vulgar meaning for her. She’s not breaking any communal rules. Her only taboos come with Norwegian profanity.

I had a wonderful time thinking and writing about these linguistic issues that are sneakily imbedded in the story.

Have you lived in Montana?

No, Heidi, I’ve never lived in Montana. My mother was born there and I’ve visited. Maybe someday I’ll get to spend more time there.

View a trailer on Fairlee’s blog. The book can be purchased through Amazon.

Join us tomorrow for the “rest of the story” and other works by Fairlee Winfield.

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Published in: on April 23, 2009 at 6:53 am  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Enjoyed the interview. I also agree that the glaring avoidance of profanity can be a major putoff. Depends on what and about who you are writing of course, but bad people use bad language.

    Hey thanks for the visit and comment on Free Spirit, Heidi. Nice blog ya got goin’ on here! 🙂

  2. Thanks for sharing the good interview, Heidi! It’s interesting to learn a bit about Fairlee Winfield and Buffaloed.


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