Author Interview: Jana Richman

My guest today is WILLA Award-winning Jana Richman, author of The Last Cowgirl. This is a bittersweet story of the heart, a poignant coming of age tale, a tapestry of relationships and love. It grabbed me from the beginning and yanked me right into Dickie’s life, into her heart and kept me riding through the pages right along with her.

Jana175Jana, welcome to my blog. Did you grow up on a ranch?

Sort of. When I was about ten, my father bought a run-down ranch similar the one George found for himself in The Last Cowgirl. We were ill-prepared for it. My mother hated the idea, having been raised on a farm herself and finding no romance in the life. But my father, whose own father worked as a hired ranch-hand his entire life, was driven to own land and live a life of ranching. However, he never moved us to the ranch permanently. We stayed in town during the school year and lived at the ranch during the summer.

How much of this story is from your own experiences?

I get asked this question a lot and I find it difficult to answer. Some characters in the book (George, Ruth, Annie, Heber, and Stumpy) are based upon people I know or have known in my life, and others (Bev) come entirely from my imagination. As I mentioned above, my father did buy a small run-down ranch when I was a child, and many of the ranching scenes in the book come from my own experience. The book is set in Utah’s west desert, which is where I grew up, and the love and sadness that Dickie feels for the place are emotions I share with that character. I believe this is no doubt true throughout the book—that the overall sentiment comes through my own experience.

What inspired you to write this book?

The Last Cowgirl coverTwo moments in my life have stuck with me as pivotal events. The first was my father’s decision to buy the ranch. I grew up hating that decision and it took years for me to realize what a positive difference it made in my life. It changed my life completely, shaped the way I view the west, contributed greatly to my understanding of the west and taught me how to live in the west.

The second event was the nerve gas incident in 1968 that killed about 6,000 sheep. It wasn’t the event so much as the reaction to it—or lack thereof—from my community that stayed with me. The event passed without much conversation, without much outrage, seemingly without much notice. I’ve written about that in several different genres—both fiction and nonfiction. The cognitive dissonance required by the people of my hometown—most of whom were receiving a paycheck from the military branch of the federal government at the time—always fascinated me. Outsiders wrote about the people of my community describing them as apathetic dupes, but I knew it was much more complex than that. I go back to our (westerners) relationship with the federal government over and over in my work.

Those two events were the basis of my exploration in The Last Cowgirl. I initially thought it would be George’s story, but as I tried to write that, I realized that George wasn’t reflective enough to tell the story so it became Dickie’s story.

You’ve used flashbacks seamlessly, and the book is written in present tense, which I didn’t even notice until I was half-way through. Both of these techniques are evidence of your writing skills. Do you have a writing background?

I used to be a CPA and then went to work on Wall Street, but I was always a closet writer. When I was growing up, my father thought reading was a “waste of time” when there was real work to be done, so I did my reading and writing on the sly. I don’t come from a literary background. That’s always intimidated me but never stopped me. When I decided to come out of the closet, I moved back west and enrolled in a journalism graduate program at the University of Arizona. After that degree, I got an MFA in creative writing with an emphasis in nonfiction. I did a lot of freelance writing—any job I could get—to get myself through both graduate programs. I deliberately let my CPA license lapse so I could never fall back on that.

What do you like/don’t like about writing?

There’s nothing I don’t like about writing. That’s not to say I find the process easy; I don’t. But I love the process. As my husband likes to say, I’m ill-suited for any other life. I can’t get out of bed before 10 a.m., which means I cannot hold most jobs. I am decidedly not a team player, as has been noted on every report card and every performance appraisal throughout my life. The word “team” makes me shudder. And I like to lie. Writing fiction is a good job for me even if the pay sucks.

The part I don’t like is the part that has nothing to do with writing—the marketing/promotion of a book. I do it because I want to go on writing, but it’s not nearly as fun for me as sitting in a room alone. I love to hear from people who have read the book and have found that it resonates with their experiences, but it is stressful for me to market my own work. I would find it much easier to market the work of another writer. Maybe we should set up a system to do that for one another (just like you’re doing here with your website!)

Hey, good idea!

How long did it take you to write the book?

That’s also a difficult question to answer. I started on it before my previous book came out in 2005, but then got pulled away from this novel for the final editing and marketing of that book. My guess is about 2 years—maybe a little longer.

How long to find an agent/publisher?

I already had an agent before I wrote The Last Cowgirl. I’ve worked with the same agent since 2001. He has handled my nonfiction and fiction. When I was working on the nonfiction book, I spent close to a year writing and polishing a book proposal. Once I felt that it was ready to show, I started to attend writing conferences. I won a nonfiction fellowship at the Writers @ Work conference in Salt Lake City and that included meeting with an agent or an editor. I met with an editor from Norton. She didn’t end up buying the book, but she showed enough interest in the proposal so that I knew I had something, and I went from there. I showed the proposal to a select group of writers that I had some earlier contact with. Eventually it got the attention of my current agent and the rest is history. He’s been fabulous to work with. I feel as if he understands my work and he gets it in front of the right editors whom he believes will have an interest in the work.

What has been your biggest obstacle in getting to this point of your writing career?

Writing is one obstacle after another. What other job do you know where you work for hours, weeks, months, years for nothing more than a remote possibility that you might get paid some nominal amount of money in the future? It’s an absurd career choice. I would say my biggest obstacle thus far has been the recognition that I either need to live alone or I need to live with a partner who has a deep understanding of the creative process. I was set on the former, but I’m lucky enough to have found the latter.

Any favorite authors or genres you enjoy?

Everything. I read literary nonfiction, fiction and poetry. I read work that challenges me every step of the way, and then I’ll read crap for a while. I won’t name names or titles, but there’s endless crap out there to choose from.

What is your next project?

I’m working on another novel.

How would you like to be remembered?

You mean next year or after I die (assuming it’s not next year)? Next year I’d like to be remembered like this: “Oh yeah, I liked her last book; I think I’ll buy her next one.” I don’t spend too much time worrying about whether I’ll be remembered after I’m dead. What do I care? I’ll be dead.

You are also the author of a non-fiction book, Riding in the Shadows of SaintsShadow of Saints: A Woman’s Story of Motorcycling the Mormon Trail. Can you briefly describe your inspiration for, and what this book is about?

I grew up Mormon and after meeting me most people are shocked by that. I am too. But there are pieces of me that are undeniably Mormon. What exactly does that mean? I’m the first in my family to leave the Mormon Church after five generations of devout Mormons. Why? That’s what I wanted to explore in the memoir, Riding in the Shadows of Saints. And I wanted to explore what we mean by “faith” in America. And what we mean when we claim a particular religion or none at all and what we mean when we say we do or do not believe in God.

Jana, thank you for your willingness to share your writing journey with us.

You may purchase The Last Cowgirl from your locally-owned bookstore. If you do not have one close by, you can purchase it from The King’s English Bookshop at www.kingsenglish.com or any independent bookstore.

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Published in: on October 14, 2009 at 12:40 am  Comments (8)  
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