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.

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.

Women Who Defy the Forbidden Boundaries of Gender Roles

I am featuring an essay today by my writing friend and colleague in the Skagit Valley Writers League, Judy Kirscht, who has had her second novel published, The Inheritors, a book that I couldn’t put down.

Synopsis: Raised in Chicago’s Latino working class community during the Sixties, Alicia Barron uncovers her mother’s Caucasian roots when she inherits a time-worn mansion, the remnant of the estate of a Chicago industrialist who, she discovers, is her grandfather. Her search of the house takes her into the lives of past generations of women whose love carried them across forbidden boundaries, and into the conflict of class, nationality, and race that is the history of the city itself. The identity she finds there, however, leads to increasing conflict with her first great love, Ricardo Moreno, who wants Alicia to reject her gringo roots.

The InheritorsLand of our Mothers

by Judith Kirscht

When Heidi Thomas explores the life of her rodeo-rider grandmother in Cowgirl Dreams, she draws us into the life of one of those women who defy the forbidden boundaries of gender roles. We share a fascination for such women, and I think that, slowly over the years, they have created, for us, the same sort of freedom-seeking legends of the frontier for the men.

It is a little less obvious that the immigrant women of the cities contributed to the same identify-forming activity, but in marrying across class, nationality, and culture lines, I believe they did, and my novel, The Inheritors, explores the pain and anguish as well as the determination of such lives.

“Stick with your own,” Thelma O’Malley, advises in The Inheritors, and the large majority of both genders do just that. They hold tight to the security of the familiar town, religion, nationality or social class of their birth. For they know well, as Thelma says, that going beyond those boundaries spells trouble.

And trouble, of course, is what novels are about. In Cowgirl Dreams, it is written into Nettie’s DNA that she will be forever torn between the rodeo ring and her family and forever battle the opinion that she doesn’t belong in the ring. As Hispanic/Caucasian Alicia Barron searches through her mother’s family, she finds a long trail of women who, like her mother married beyond those boundaries. Those stories, like that of her grandmother, Lucetta, are potent mixes of great love and tragedy, but through all of the stories, there is an energy and determination that over the generations has shaped Alicia.

To be so drawn to the horizon beyond is to be American, but in the traditional male legend, the cowboy rides off into the horizon unencumbered by wife, children or any responsibilities beyond his own needs. This is not a woman’s tale. The women in The Inheritors bear the responsibility of shaping new roles for their children, and indeed, this is the conflict faced by women today.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Eighteenth Century French critic/ admirer of American democracy, decided the American experiment, though misguided, would succeed because of its women. It was the American women, he found, who carried and passed on the moral code of interdependence and community obligation and would, in the end, provide a counterbalance to individualism—a brand new concept he was sure would degenerate into selfishness. Food for thought. Indeed, I think deToqueville’s Democracy in America should be required reading in our high schools and colleges.

For now, the women in these novels reshape our idea of ourselves and the role we’ve played in the creation of America. Cowgirl Dreams focuses on the individualism half. In The Inheritors, I’ve focused on the ways these women shape the attitudes and identities of their children because I think this role is vital in the ever-transforming American culture, and because I think women will rediscover its importance very soon.


 Judy was born, raised, educated and married in Chicago, and raised her family in Ann Arbor, Michigan. SheJudy photo 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. She taught 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 lives in Washington State to write fiction full time and has two novels published: Nowhere Else to Go and The Inheritors.

Her books are available on her website, from her publisher New Libri and from Amazon.com

Meet Judy Kirscht and Her Debut Novel, Nowhere Else to Go

My guest this week is Judy Kirscht, Past President of the Skagit Valley Writers League. Her first novel, Nowhere Else To Go, has just debuted.

I recommend this book as a wonderfully engaging coming-of-age story, showing change and growth in her characters, their small town, and American society during the 1960s era of racial unrest. Crossing the bridge from the “poor” side of town to the integrated school on the other side is a powerful metaphor for life, no matter our station in life or skin color.

Synopsis: A quiet Midwestern college town is caught up in the social and political upheavals of the 1960s. Racial tension comes alive in the schools and tears lives apart. An earlier version of this novel, entitled The Delta, won an Avery Hopwood Award from the University of Michigan.

Judy, would you share the story of how this book came about? Where did the idea come from?

During the Sixties and early seventies, when campus protests, riots, and civil rights marches were in full swing, I was raising my family in Ann Arbor. My husband and I had always been involved in politics, and in fact, he was a city councilman during this time, which made us a target. The story itself and its characters are purely fiction but the feeling of being pulled apart—and seeing my children pulled apart– by forces polarizing the nation gave birth to the novel.

Did this novel take a lot of research?

Not really, oddly enough. I knew from my own past the culture of the various communities involved in the book. I’d worked as a caseworker in black inner-city Chicago along with many black colleagues, been a part of academic communities all my life, and lived in a neighborhood like the “Delta.” I chose 1968 as the time setting for the novel because, with the assassination of King and Robert Kennedy, it marks the depths of national turmoil—a time that, for me, didn’t need much research. It was memorable.

Tell us about your background. Were you a college professor? How did this help you in your writing?

Well, let’s start with the fact that I wasn’t a professor. I was a non-tenured lecturer, teaching writing. That made me one of the fringe faculty many professors felt to be unnecessary. If you can’t write you shouldn’t be in college. I was, however, raised in academia and my husband was a professor, though he never felt at home in that culture and was happiest in the basement, working with wood. All of this certainly resulted in a feel for those alienated from their home culture—the sort who ended up in “the delta.” My own experience as a teacher was at the college level, so I don’t know how much that contributed, except that I was well aware of school politics and educational dogmatism. Finally, I was always active in politics. It’s a longstanding love, and so we lived very close to the fire in those days.

What other writing have you had published?

In that long ago time when I was a grad student at the University of Michigan—actually the time when this novel was first conceived—I published one short story. Then, for years I published teacherly non-fiction on academic writing, ending with the publication, with a colleague, of a textbook on writing in the various fields of study. Once I retired from teaching, I turned to fiction in earnest and have published two excerpts from another novel, and two more short stories. I also published the essay that won another Hopwood Award back when I was a U of M student. It’s strange and somehow gratifying that the two works that won awards thirty-five years ago have now seen the light of day.

What project are you working on currently?

Projects, and too many. I’ve just finished the first draft of a novel titled The Camera’s Eye, which sprang from a short story, and while that is cooling I’ve been revising another, earlier novel. I hope to have that finished in a couple of months. In addition, I’m currently marketing a novel I finished soon after retirement and another is waiting on a back burner for revision.

Who/what motivates you to write?

I don’t know, honestly. My mother said I wrote wonderful stories as a child. I don’t remember that. I simply woke up one morning thinking I was going to do something else with my life besides raising children. I was going to write. So I went into the room at the UM where creative writers hung out—the Hopwood Room–and made an appointment to see Robert Haugh, the professor who resided there. Then, as I awaited the day, it occurred to me he surely would want to see some writing! I had none. So I sat down that afternoon and wrote. When I showed him the piece, he said I was a writer. That was it. One of those moments that change your life. He offered to work with me a special student (not enrolled in a program) and I began to write. I wrote two novels under his tutelage, Nowhere Else to Go and another. Fifteen years later, that first piece I’d shown him won the Hopwood essay award.

What authors have inspired you?

My first love was short stories—Flannery O’Conner, Eudora Welty, Dorothy Parker. An Acquaintance recently reminded me of Saki, who I haven’t read in years but loved. As for novelists, Ursula Hegi, Margaret Attwood, Amy Tan, and Nadine Gordimer are favorites, along with some classics like Tolstoy and Steinbeck. Kaled Hossein’s Kite Runner and Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants are recent additions to that list.

What audience are you targeting?

That’s a tough one. Those who like a good read that takes you deep. My critique group says I write literary fiction, but I aim at a mainstream audience. So I guess I’m aiming at something called literary/mainstream or literary/commercial. I believe—or hope—my writing is accessible to anyone who wants a good story.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

 Write. Don’t wait for inspiration. If I hadn’t had to show Robert Haugh a piece of writing that afternoon, I never would have written a word. And I hadn’t a clue what I was going to say when I sat down with that yellow pad on my knees. That sounds strange, and it is, but many if not most authors with confirm that ideas don’t come until your finger are at the keyboard. Then, don’t fall victim to the “I only write for myself” defense. Like all defenses, it is born of fear. Face up and share. That’s what writing’s about—sharing our view of the human condition because in that sharing we deepen our bonds. A critique group is the first and best motivator to love and stay with the craft.

Judy’s book is available from Florida Academic Press (www.floridaacademicpress.com), Amazon, or local independent Washington  bookstores (Snow Goose in Stanwood, Tattered Page in Mount Vernon, Watermark in Anacortes, and the Next Chapter in La Conner, WA).

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