Amy Hale Auker’s book, Rightful Place, won the Women Writing the West’s WILLA Literary Award for creative nonfiction and Book of the Year for essays by Foreword Book Reviews in 2012.
This is a beautiful book. It is a love story—love and sense of place are portrayed in vivid imagery. I can see the cowboys in their rigs, the old men in the coffee shop, talking about the weather. I can feel the prairie, the heat, the cold, the wind, the life that teems beneath the surface. It is poetry—Amy finds jewels in insects, spider webs and drops of dew in the dawn’s silver light. And it is a poignant memoir that will leave you wanting more.
Amy, why did you write this book?
Heidi, I was at a gathering of writers in 2011 and the question around the table was, “Why do you write?” Before it got to me, a brilliantly talented man on my right said simply, “I can’t NOT write!” And of course, that is true for many of us. We can’t not write. Rightful Place came about because I was in a creatively charged time in my life, writing long complicated “blog posts” about my current living situation and the natural world around me. Fortunately, a kind man put a stop to my flinging those posts out into the world and showed me that they were, or at least most of them were, essays. Andy Wilkinson made me read Verlyn Klinkenborg, Jeanette Winterston, Merrill Gilfillan, E. B. White, and other great essayists until I embraced the format as well as writing from a strong sense of place. I was off and running.
Share with us your journey in compiling these essays and getting published.
Writing Rightful Place did not take very long. I wrote essays for about a year and a half. When I had a good-sized collection, I sent the manuscript to Wilkinson who was, by then, working with Texas Tech University on their series Voice in the American West. Andy and I continued to work on the manuscript for about a year, mainly tightening up the loose strings, polishing on the language. I probably printed and re-read it thirty times. Andy never micro-manages my writing. He is, instead, a big-picture editor, saying things like, “Well, this is a good start!” or “You can do better than this.” When the manuscript finally got to the head of the line and went before the advisory committee at the press, they decided to implement a peer review process since I don’t have any “credentials.” I’ve never taken a writing class or a workshop, never been in a writing program. The peer review process took several years and a re-structure of the order of the essays. Andy actually split the opening essay into two… and put the first half at the beginning of the book and the second half at the end. In the meantime, I was going through a huge upheaval in my personal life. In the winter of 2007/2008, Andy asked me to write an introduction to the book. I did write an introduction, but in the process, I also accidentally wrote another essay, “Legacy of Snakes and Stones.” I believe that the period of time from 2006 to publication date 2011 was quite beneficial for this collection.
You’ve spent most of your life as a cowgirl on working ranches. How has that shaped your writing life?
Actually I have not spent most of my life as a cowgirl. I don’t even like the word cowgirl. I was born into a livestock family and have spent all of my adult life on large ranches, living in houses owned by those ranches. Most of that time I was cooking for cowboy crews, doing laundry for cowboys, giving birth to a cowboy, homeschooling that little cowboy and his sister, cleaning up after cowboys, and moving from ranch to ranch with my ex-husband. Only in the last five years have I cowboyed for a paycheck. The time living on working ranches shaped my writing drastically. It is, basically, the only life I know intimately. At this point though, every time I step out of doors, I see the metaphors in the natural world. The top of this ranch is 6700 ft with ponderosa pines. The bottom is prickly pear and mesquite and gila monsters. All this diversity and change in about twelve miles. I ride for hours and hours, miles and miles, trailing up or following slow moving mama cows. By the time I get to my office, my head and heart are full to overflowing. So, I show up at the page.
What did you do the first time you saw one of your books on a shelf in a bookstore?
Asked if they needed more!
You have a novel coming out soon. What is this story about?
Winter of Beauty is set on a large Southwest commercial cattle operation. It is a work of literary fiction about the working ranch cowboy living far off the pavement, in a somewhat antiquated way of life, and yet, also thriving in contemporary society. This novel is a tribute not only to those men and women raising beef and families while working for paychecks on these ranches, but to the owners and managers who are trying to hold it all together and be good stewards of the land. The title character, an infant named Beauty, is born in the last fourth of the book. More than anything, this is a novel about belonging and beauty.
What books or authors have influenced your writing?
I mentioned some essayist above, and those authors will always be on my shelves. In the past several years, I have taken Stephen King’s advice to heart. He says to read one thousand books for every one you write. I haven’t quite met that goal, but I have not had television in my home since my father threw ours out when I was in the fourth grade. I read. Many times I read a lyrical genius and want to curl up and quit. But reading great literature is necessary. I rarely read genre fiction anymore. Sometimes I read a book and think that I am learning what not to do… and then sometimes I read a great writer and wonder how in the hell they got me to go along on such a journey with them, specifically Junot Diaz and George Saunders recently. I am a huge David James Duncan fan. Colum McCann inspires me toward excellence with each sentence. One of my favorite things is to read a strong female voice: Louise Erdrich, Teresa Jordan, Jennifer Eagan, Ann Patchett, Annie Proulx, Anne Tyler, Barbara Kingsolver, Lucia Perillo. Lately I am reading poetry by Linda Hussa and Patricia Frolander (WILLA winner).
What project are you working on next?
You are going to be sorry you asked that question. Winter of Beauty is not, actually, my first novel. It is my second novel. The first one is The Story is the Thing. Written in an old man’s voice, this novel is very dear to my heart. I dream of Uncle Bill’s voice at night because I so loved hearing it as I was writing Story. That novel is unconventionally structured and so has yet to find a publisher. I am considering publishing it myself. I am also working on a new novel for a character I had to cut from Winter of Beauty. But my current hot project is another work of creative non-fiction for Texas Tech University Press. It had a working title, but my editor doesn’t like it, so I am calling it “That Shadowy Something” that is taking up my days and nights as we prepare to move cows for a few weeks… and when I come back to my desk, I hope to see it more clearly. On one wall of my office I have taped symbols of past and current and future projects… one of those projects is a chapbook of writing about writing, another is a book of short stories, another is a novel called Bobcat and the Lady about going all the way crazy and then coming all the way back. This wall keeps me motivated and inspired and helps to jerk me past that evil thing called “writer’s block.”
The truth is, I would always much rather talk about the process than the product. The creative process rather than the nuts-and-bolts of writing and promotion. The product is directly reflective of the process. It is very important for me to show up at the page, every day, even if the page on some days is a little notebook tucked into my pack where I scribble ideas and phrases. I still feel very connected to the page. One thing I guard against when I am in my office is spending more time on promotion and publicity and the strange world of publication than I do on actually writing, actually swimming in the big sea of words and creativity.
Amy’s bio: I write about the real world where things grow up out of the ground, where the miracle of life happens over and over and over again, where people can and do survive without malls or Arby’s.
I want to produce something of value from a place where the bats fly, the lizards do pushups on the rocks, the bears leave barefoot prints in the dirt, the hummingbirds do rain dances in August, spiders weave for their food, and poetry is in the chrysalis and the cocoon.
I believe that what you put out there is what you get back, and that if we do the good work, stay true to the creative process, we will be rewarded.
- I write and ride on a ranch in Arizona where I am having a love affair with rock, mountains, the pinon and juniper forest, and the weather.
- As Rightful Place indicates, I truly believe that art and sense of place go hand in hand.
- I believe that life is a miracle and it is demonstrated all around us in the natural world where things grow up out of the ground, birds build nests, bats fly at night, cows turn our national forests into healthy beef, beavers build dams, and flowers bloom in deep canyons where no one sees.
- I married a working ranch cowboy when I was nineteen years old, and every ranch road I have walked has led me here to where I am today. Every moment on Texas ranches was a gift. Now that I am with my new love here in Arizona, I continue to be grateful for each day and each bend in the road.
- I am the proud mother of two children who are now 21 and 17. I am married to documentary film make, singer, and songwriter Gail Steiger.
- For years I cooked for cowboys, cleaned up after cowboys, listened to cowboys tell stories, but for the past two years I have done my own time in the saddle. And I have even learned to rope in the branding pen.
- And I write. Always I write. Essays, poetry, fiction, and sometimes a big mixture of all three.
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