Writing the West

by Judith Kirscht

judy informalI am not a Westerner, by birth, so some would say it’s presumptuous to place my stories there. But the West shapes the imagination even for those raised East of the Mississippi. Chicago kids like me dream of the open skies of the Great Plains, the mountains beyond it and the sea—a fairytale land of space and freedom. My husband-to-be was from Oregon, and my first experience with the West was a train trip across the country to visit him, my first adventure, being snowbound (in that same train) in the Blue Mountains. Far from being put off, however, I loved the mountains, the space, the air.

When I began to write, some twenty-five years later, my writing coach said, “You write from place. It shapes your characters and your stories.” Now, some forty years of writing later, he has proved right. My first published novel, Nowhere Else To Go, is set in a fictional Midwest college town, based on Ann Arbor, Michigan where I raised my family. The story—a college town caught up in the turmoil of the Sixties—is clearly born of place and time. The second, The Inheritors takes place in Chicago, where I grew up, and at its core are the sensibilities of those who live in cultural, racial, mix of cities created by the great migrations of the Twentieth Century.

Chicago Street Scene 1By the time I actually moved west to California, my sensitivity to place was well formed. I had spent six years in Berkeley, so I already had a sense of California as the home of all those who escaped seeking a golden life—all of those like me. They were as rootless as the characters of my first two books were rooted. Santa Barbara was similar in that regard, but it was there that the power of nature took dominance. The beauty of that coast is legendary, and for the fifteen years I taught at the university there, I lived beside some forty acres of open meadow leading to cliffs above a mile of wild beach and the sea. I swore I would walk that meadow every day—and I did. And so Home Fires, my third novel takes place there and carries that sense of the almost unreal beauty of that place and the woman who breathes it in.CA Scenery

All of these places reinforced my sense of the power of place to shape story and character, but I think few are as aware of the power of nature as the Northwesterners, where the expanse of water and mountain dwarf all else. I think I was drawn to Washington, some ten years ago, because the combination of water and forest remind me of northern Michigan, Wisconsin,

Hawkins Lane Cover

Hawkins Lane Cover

and Minnesota—vacation country of the Great Lakes states. And here in the Skagit Valley I’ve found people rooted in a way the Californians of my experience weren’t. They are fishermen, hunters, farmers, wedded to the land and sea. And so the protagonists of Hawkins Lane, Ned Hawkins and Erica Romano, are brought together by their love of the mountains. They carry that love of the space and solitude of the wilderness, the escape, the self-reliance that has shaped the national imagination.But in Hawkins Lane the power of mountain and forest becomes a character—a dominant, powerful force to be contended with before all else.

Here are a few snippets.

“As March neared its end, the stream behind the Romero house rushed with melting snow, the crowds of skiers and snowshoers on the streets of McKenzie Crossing began to thin, and eagles passed over the house on their way to the river. Erica recounted every change in her journal, every new bare patch of lawn, every bird, and every change pushed her harder …”

A sheen of white glimmered ahead. A moment later they were staring without breath at the vast expanse of snow where the trail had been. He reached for Bonnie’s hand but it was gripping the pommel of her saddle. … tears running down her cheeks.

‘Bonnie …’

‘He’s in there, isn’t he? Archie.’”

“Over and over, he radioed her. Her line was open, but she didn’t answer. He was overwhelmed by the enormity of the woods, of the lunacy of their illusion that this mountain was their friend. The night belonged to the mountains, the wind, and the rain.”

 And finally, the image of a frightened child looking down a tree-roofed lane that gave birth to the story became this ending.

“   he stood looking down its tree-roofed length. It was stripped and naked, but nature would re-clothe it. In a month, the alders and evergreens would take up everything that had happened and fold it into their branches.”

North Cascades

North Cascades

Read more about Judy in this article from GoAnacortes, and you can purchase her books on Amazon.com. Check her website and blog too for more about her books.

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The Magic of Creating

?????????????????“Why do you write?” Most authors hear that question or its near relatives—“With the market so impossible, why on earth do you keep at it?”—over and over and probably ask ourselves that every time we spend a day marketing. I’ve heard a dozen answers, none much more satisfactory than “Just because,” and I don’t suppose my answer is much better, but I can’t resist trying. So here goes.

I see a woman in the distance, her hair flowing in the breeze, standing where I am, in the meadow above the sea. Dreamy, floating on air. When I get home and take pen in hand (not really, but computers sound so mechanical), I enter into her sense of unreality, which I share, and discover she’s from Minnesota. At this point, she emerges from me, Chicago born, with an enduring sense of incredulity at having landed on the Santa Barbara coast.

But once I name her, she acquires her own destiny and I drop away. I don’t know how this happens. I recognize some elements of her story as transformations of my own experience much as we recognize dreams as arising from our hopes and fears. Such transformations are the magic of the unconscious, not to be interfered with. She is Myra and her world is about to collapse. This became HOME FIRES, the novel that was released in December, 2013.

Let her go, and she will take me places my conscious mind never dreamed of or even wanted to go. I saw one heroine heading for adultery, and my conscious mind rebelled. I stopped writing until I gave in and gave her her head. In HOME FIRES, the surprise was of a different, and more amazing, sort. Myra, torn apart by her husband’s infidelity, mortified at her own willful blindness to it, retreats to her art studio. Here she is.

 ~~~~~~

 Myra turned on the light, finally, and stared at the print run, which was, in fact, complete, and she was in no mood to mat either prints or watercolors of sea lions playing in the surf, tide pool creatures, clouds of silver-winged plover—scenes from a life that had vanished. Instead, she taped fresh paper to her drawing board, and soon an oversized hen with disheveled feathers and long scrawny neck appeared from the point of her pen.

“Matilda. That’s surely your name.” She smiled, as she cast the day’s shame and humiliation onto the paper. If Matilda wasn’t art, so what? She brought laugher. “You need company.” She laid the chicken aside and took a fresh sheet. A porcupine. Eyes narrowed, he was calculating the distance to a heron who stood nearby, his long beak in the air. Alphonse. That was the heron. And the porcupine? Rufus. That would do nicely.

Feeling blood flow through vessels that had been numb since morning, Myra drew out still another sheet. Quills flew, striking not only Alphonse but a gull who had the misfortune to fly by. The gull tilted and crashed, giving out a long drawn-out screech. Eustasia, Myra named her, as the gull’s squawking brought Matilda’s head, at the end of her long neck, into the picture, and Alphonse flapped his wings, knocking Rufus over as he took off.

“You’re the clumsiest heron I’ve ever seen,” Matilda remarked.

“Bad knees,” Alphonse answered.

So there they were. An overgrown chicken with too much neck, a porcupine with lousy aim, a gull bristling with quills, and a heron with bad knees. “I think you’re going to be great company,” she told them, taping them in a row above her desk. She sat back and looked at them, her body released from the day.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The adventures of The Rabbleville Varmints, as they come to be called, become an on-going strip throughout the novel. Here is my artist-friend Helen Gregory Nopson’s depiction of them.HomeFires critters

No reader will be more surprised than I was at the sudden emergence of much needed humor in this story. I assure you Myra is the cartoonist, not me. It was as though beneath the level of creativity that created Myra, another emerged.

Why write, you ask? Because it’s magic.

Judy was born, raised, educated and married in Chicago, and raised her family in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She went back ????????????????to school as an adult and began to write, winning two writing awards from the university—one for a novel and another for an essay.
Following a divorce, she began teaching academic writing at the University of Michigan and continued at the University of California, Santa Barbara where she was active in developing career paths for non-tenured faculty. Though she continued to write fiction during those years, she published largely professional articles and, finally, a textbook (Engaging Inquiry: Research and Writing in the Disciplines) with colleague, Mark Schlenz.
Judy has now moved to Washington State to write fiction full time and has two other novels published: Nowhere Else to Go and The Inheritors.

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