Author Interview: Meet Jamie Lisa Forbes

My guest this week is Jamie Lisa Forbes, author of the WILLA Literary Award-winning novel, Unbroken. Congratulations on your award, Jamie. It was great meeting you at the Women Writing the West Conference, and I loved reading your book. I identified with many similar experiences from growing up on a ranch.

I enjoyed meeting you as well, Heidi, and thank you for this opportunity to share with your readers.

Synopsis: Ranching is a life of extremes, perhaps even more so on the high plains near Laramie, Wyoming. And no one knows that better than Gwen Swan, who married both her husband Will and his family ranch where she works hard beside the men and struggles to raise her two children. There is little time for reflection on anyone’s part as the wheel of the seasons grinds relentlessly onward bringing disasters and triumphs and a rough road for all concerned. Relationships shift, old resentments resurface and friendships are strained and tested as everyone finds themselves struggling against the elements and each other to continue their way of life. In this remarkable debut novel the author presents us with fully formed characters that ring as clear and true as the picture of ranch life she paints as a background for the universal struggles we all confront.

Read a review at  Mary Trimble Books.

Jamie, this is your first published novel. Have you always wanted to write?

I had a ranch childhood very much like the children I describe in my novel.  I grew up as those children did, learning to put up hay, ride and brand, but I also spent a great deal of time reading and from reading, I went into writing my own stories and poems.  I wrote almost from the time I could read.  And I have written continuously ever since.

I was struck by the fact that winters seem to dominate the story, and I realized from my eastern Montana ranching background how true this is. Winters can last for six months some years, and summers seem so fleeting in comparison. Tell us where the inspiration for this book came from.

I got the idea for this novel in 1990, while I was still working on the ranch.  By that time, I had ranched as an adult for over ten years.  I had become more and more troubled by the fact that literature about the West was dominated by cowboy myths, when all around me, there were women whose lives of quiet courage went unrecognized.  Ten years later, long after I had left ranching, the idea of this novel just would not let me go and I sat down to write the story that had been in my head for years.

For ranch wives like Gwen, hard work beside the men along with juggling meals and family in relative isolation, is a fact of life. Do you think ranch women are tougher than average?

That is a great question and now that I live in the southeast, I often think about this, especially now that I am writing a novel that takes place in North Carolina.

I think that what makes successful ranching women unique is their self-sufficiency and independence. They can make do with less and not feel troubled by it. Ranching women, in my experience, are also very stoic. They meet the twists and turns of their lives more with a sense of dark humor than complaint or self-pity.

Having said that, I have met remarkable, ambitious and successful women outside of ranching who are certainly tough in the worlds they inhabit.

Is there a message in your novel you want readers to grasp?

In the face of the unknowns of life, every one of our relationships is important and should be treated with respect and care.

Are you working on another project?

Yes, I am working on a novel that takes place in rural North Carolina about a relationship between a teenage boy and an abused little girl who is rescued by his family.

What books or authors have influenced you?

Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky was a huge influence on me.  His memoir, which I read in the early 1980’s, convinced me that stories about ranching life could have a broad appeal to readers.

(I love Doig’s writing too.)

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was also a huge influence.  What I learned from Melville is that once the reader learns the rhythms of the life that is depicted–in his case, the harvesting of whales, and in my case, ranching–then those rhythms can be used as the drumbeat to drive the plot to its climax.

What do you find challenging in writing?

I think writing is very hard.  The way I work is I conceive of a plot broadly and then break it down into scenes and then break each scene down to its elements focusing on the characters I want to spotlight.  But this process of cobbling together sympathetic characters in a believable and engaging story is to me the most challenging part of writing.

What is the most surprising thing you’ve discovered through writing?

That you often cannot control your characters. They end up acting like themselves and send the plot in directions you didn’t imagine.  As an example of this, when I originally started Unbroken, I thought I was writing about Meg.  She was going to be my heroine.  But Gwen, the character I intended to be a secondary character, hijacked the novel and took it over.  I think all my readers are glad she did.

I am going through the same experience with my second novel.  My characters are taking it in directions that I did not expect at the outset.

What advice would you give to new writers?

Do not stop reading.  Do not stop writing.

Unbroken may be found at Jamie’s website and her publisher, Pronghorn Press,  Pronghorn Press also sells an audio version of Unbroken and the audio version is very moving. Also check out Jamie’s author page on Amazon.

Once again, thank  you for this opportunity, Heidi, and good luck in your writing endeavors.

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I loved Unbroken, too, and loved it. In fact, I reviewed the book. I enjoyed this interview and hearing some of the author’s observations.

  2. Great interview, Heidi and Lisa. Some interesting questions posed and enlightening answers shared. Unbroken is on my TBR list, for sure!

  3. I’ve always been amazed by the accounts of women in the 1800’s who raised 8 eight children in a sod house with no running water – it seems that brave, resourceful women are still among us!

    • Yes, wasn’t that amazing! I can’t imagine it!


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