Writing the West in Albuquerque

I just returned from the 18th annual Women Writing the West conference, held this year in Albuquerque, NM. This is always the highlight of my writing year, traveling to a new state each year, catching up with old friends and making new ones.

WWW is a great support group, a non-profit association of women and men writing and promoting the Women’s West. As our website states: “Our stories are set in the Western United States — past and present — but our organization considers the “West” as more than a geographic location. The West represents a way of thinking, a sense of adventure, a willingness to cross into a new frontier.”

Our organization gives the WILLA Literary Award in several categories, one that I’m proud to say I won last year in Young Adult fiction. If you’ve published a book featuring a woman or girl set in the west in 2012, you are eligible to enter this prestigious contest.

As I left home last week to catch a plane to NM, I was greeted by the most beautiful sunrise. Unfortunately, I was driving on the freeway and wasn’t able to stop to take a picture. As the sun painted the horizon with burnt-orange brush strokes, a low-lying sea of fog hung over the water, indigo trees and mountains rising from it. It was a good omen for a good conference weekend.

I landed in Albuquerque to an equally spectacular sunset, which I was able to capture through the plane window.

At the conference, I heard a moving, inspirational keynote presentation by Susan Tweit on “Writing from the Heart” and met Anne Hillerman, daughter of novelist Tony Hillerman, and best-selling author Sandra Dallas (a WILLA Award winner). I also did a practice interview in front of the camera with Laureen Pepersack, which turned out not as terrifying as I thought it might!

After the conference, I had enough time to browse Old Town Albuquerque.

Our conference location, the Hotel Albuquerque:

A lovely weekend, filled with sunshine, friendship, information and support! We’re already planning next year’s event in Kansas City, MO!

Jane Kirkpatrick: ‘Oprah Doesn’t Know My Name’

Jane Kirkpatrick is the author of twenty-three books and is a two-time winner of the WILLA Literary Award. Her first novel, A Sweetness to the Soul, won the Western Heritage Wrangler Award, and she is known for writing historical fiction based on “real” women pioneers.

Jane, I loved reading Barcelona Calling. This is a totally different book for you, even a different voice. Tell us how this book was inspired and how it evolved.

For years when I spoke to groups I teased that one day I was going to write a book about a writer who confused fame with fulfillment and that I would call it “Oprah Doesn’t Know My Name.”  One day my publisher heard me say that and suggested that I write that book.  I told them they wouldn’t like it because it would be so different but they insisted.  I wrote it.  They rejected it!  But one of the editors, after leaving that publisher, remembered the book and when he went to another publisher, approached my agent and wanted it. It went through huge changes during the four or five years as it sat in my document file never to be opened! I had a great editor and that helped a lot and voila, it arrived as Barcelona Calling.  It seems there is something about Oprah having her name trademarked??? I still think the title would have grabbed a few people but one adjusts as did the writer in the book.

I think every writer can see parallels in this story, trying to get published and then trying to get noticed by the “big leaguers.” How much of this is from your own experience? Sadly, quite a bit! Every time a book of mine comes out some well-meaning person says to me “Have you ever thought about getting Oprah (or Ellen or NPR etc.) to pick your book?  I bet that would help your sales.”  They mean well but it’s such a long shot. It’s like telling myself, “If only I could win the lottery then all would be well”…and of course it wouldn’t be. I don’t think I was quite as conflicted as Annie but sadly, some of the obscure things that happened to her (in bathrooms, at salons, on airplanes, etc.) have happened to me. I mean hasn’t every writer at one time had someone say “I always wanted to write a book” when they learn that they’re speaking to a writer? Yet neurologists rarely hear “I’ve always wanted to be a neurologist” after stating their profession. I did have to learn that I wouldn’t always get to choose my titles and that publishing is a team occupation and that was something that took Annie awhile to understand.

I loved learning a new word, “Bezoars,” for hairballs! What fun. How did you find this word? I read my alumni magazines!  There it was, people at the University of Wisconsin were doing research on cat food to reduce hairballs and there was the scientific name for it. It fit perfectly for my story. I was so happy!

Your current release is Where Lilacs Still Bloom, another historical novel. Who or what was the inspiration for this book? This book is more like what my readers are familiar with. Hulda Klager was a simple German housewife with an eighth grade education who had a dream…she wanted crisper apples easier to peel and that led her to the world of botany and hybridization eventually developing 250 individual varieties of lilacs. The garden she created is on the national historic registry and a descendant patiently but persistently suggested over several years that I write Hulda’s story. When I realized how generous Hulda was and how persistent I found it to be one of the most inspiring stories I’d ever encountered. People can visit the garden in Woodland, WA south of Seattle and 30 minutes north of Portland, OR. A real treat for everyone.

What is your next project? I just completed my latest historical novel, One Glorious Ambition: the Compassionate Crusade of Dorothea Dix. Dorothea was an early reformer on behalf of the mentally ill. It’s also an amazing story of a woman who turned tragedy in her own life into energy to relieve the suffering of others. She was also an early teacher, starting a school when she was 15, for girls, a rarity in the 1820s of New England. I also have a novella I’m working on and a devotional for caregivers Promises of Hope for Difficult Times coming out in January.

Do you think you’ll do another contemporary? I wouldn’t say never, but I realized in this process that I rely heavily on the spine of history to tell my stories. It’s also true that a historical writer must create an unknown world that a reader finds believable (as do fantasy writers). In a contemporary, people bring their own “world” experiences to the piece. Everyone has a story about Starbucks or flying, for example, that affects how they see the contemporary world inside the book. In an historical novel people rely on the author to create experiences with stagecoaches or corsets, so I think it might be easier for the reader to step into the historical world leaving their own world behind for a time. The contemporary author has a more difficult job I think keeping the reader inside “their story” without us bringing “our world story” into the mix. Does that make sense?  Anyway, it was much more work than I had imagined though I truly learned a great deal in the process. But then stories are always teaching us, right?

That does make sense, something I hadn’t thought of before. I agree, as writers, we continue to learn and that’s the fun part of our chosen profession. Thank you, Jane, for sharing with us today.

Book synopsis for Barcelona Calling:

Annie Shaw is a writer with one bestseller, one book that tanked, a third book that isn’t doing all that well and a fourth book that may never see publication unless she can meet her new editor’s demands. She’s seeking fame and believing it will give her fulfillment and in the process acquires a dog, huge legal fees for unusual accidents and comes face to face with a love she left behind in Barcelona, Spain. “In Barcelona Calling protagonist Annie Shaw throws herself into all the zany ideas for attracting Oprah’s attention.  Along the way she forgets for a little while about what is really important and loses herself in schemes for fame and recognition.  This is a funny, entertaining story that brings home the message of being true to yourself.”  Deon Stonehouse, Owner of Sunriver Books and Music, an independent Book store in Oregon.


“Jane Kirkpatrick showcased her writing skills on Barcelona Calling, from outrageous to hilarious to inspiring words about the life of a novelist–and those people she touches. Bravo, Jane, for showing us what this life of writing is really all about–touching one heart at a time.” Hannah Alexander, author of The Wedding Kiss and The Hideaway series

“For years Jane Kirkpatrick has created wonderful, engaging characters and detailed plots that keep the pages turning. And she’s done it again with a completely new genre. Hats off to Jane Kirkpatrick for showing her versatility and humor and making me a fan all over again.”  Tracey Bateman, author of Thirsty and Tandem

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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