Women Writing the West

WWW LogoI just returned from my annual Women Writing the West Conference, this year held on the UCLA campus. This was an out-of-the-ordinary venue with an emphasis on screenwriting, cultural presentations such as “Homelands: How Women Made the West,” from the Autry National Center Traveling Exhibit, and “Untapped Treasures: Tips From California’s Leading Archivists,” tours of Hollywood and the Getty Museum.

We also had opportunities to meet one-on-one with agents, publishers, and marketing coaches, attend workshops on marketing, boosting creativity and panels on what agents and publishers are looking for.

We honored the winners of our literary contest, the WILLA Awards, and listened to readings from their wonderful works.

All of these wonderful events aside, what I take away from these gatherings is the richness of friendship and the warm, supportive generosity of the women (and men too) in this organization. I’ve forged lasting relationships with fellow writers through the years and look forward each fall to making new friends.

I had the pleasure of meeting Bob Scott (B.J. Scott) who has written The Angel Trilogy, books about women of the Gold Rush, with enough action and adventure to satisfy men readers as well. WWW is “international” with our members from Canada, Hope Morritt and her daughter, Lynn. I was delighted to meet Marcia Meredith Hensley from Wyoming, WILLA Award-winning author of Staking Her Claim: Women Homesteading the West. And so many more–I could go on and on. Thank you all!

Women Writing the West is open to women and men who live and write in the west (members don’t necessarily have to write in the Western genre) or to authors who live anywhere in the U.S. and write about the West. The WILLA Award (named for Willa Cather) are open to any published book set in the West with a strong female protagonist. We are authors of contemporary as well as historical fiction, romance, mystery, and poetry. We also sponsor the LAURA Award for short fiction, named for Laura Ingalls Wilder.

It is a rich and diverse group, and I’m proud to be a member.

Published in: on September 16, 2009 at 9:15 pm  Comments (2)  
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WILLA Winner: Tendering in the Storm

A Tendering in the Storm, the second in the “Change and Cherish” series has just been named a WILLA Award winner. This series is based on a true story of Emma Giesy, a strong-willed German-American who settled in Washington territory and later in Oregon.

You’ve been involved with Women Writing the West for 12 years and Chaired the 2007 WILLA contest as past president. Last year, A Clearing in the Wild was a finalist. How does this feel, receiving this award after looking in from the sidelines for so long? It’s a delight!  I’ve been fortunate in having a book to submit every year since the WILLA Literary Awards began. Last year, chairing the competition, I made sure the previous chair handled that category.  Not that I thought I’d win but I wanted to have the competition be unrelated to my role as chair.  I was stunned, truly, after all those years, to be a finalist.  This year, to be a winner, still has my jaw-dropped!

How did you come across Emma’s story, which you began in A Clearing in the Wild? Two different quilter groups have quilted their versions of two of my novel series.  I was deeply moved by their inventiveness and creativity and how stories come in all shapes and sizes.  Several joined me at a signing for the books and they “told their story.”  Later I was asked to tell stories to a quilter’s retreat offered by author and quilter Mary ByWater Cross.  I laughed because I’m not a quilter (though those quilters attending that retreat sat up with me until 2:00 AM to help me make a nine-patch that is now a pillow on my couch!)  Anyway, while there I read one of Mary’s books, Quilts of the Oregon Trail that included a picture of Emma’s quilt and the sentence that she was the only woman who with nine male scouts was sent west from their Bethel, Missouri religious community to find a new site in the Northwest.  Here was an artifact with the woman’s name still attached to it, lovingly cared for.  And the story of the only woman just intrigued me along with what was the religious community?  Why did they come west?  Did this woman want to come?  Was she sent? As I researched a bit I discovered when her first son was born and it meant she was pregnant when she began the journey.  What was that like?  What was the desire of this woman?  All kinds of unanswered questions.  The story took off from there.

Did you have letters or journals that gave you the gist of her journey? Census records gave me information about her husband, father, brother and sons which is often the case in researching historical women.  Virginia Woolf once wrote that women’s history
must be “invented, both uncovered and made up” because so much of their record is simply a reflection of the men they were connected to.  The Pacific County Historical Museum and The Aurora Colony Historical Museum had some documents, letters that the leader wrote back to Bethel after they joined the scouts some 18 months later, but I knew, for example, that she had four children, two girls and two boys, but the genealogy the museum had didn’t include the girls!  I included the girls in the first book and at a signing a woman introduced herself as a great-granddaughter of Emma.  She said she loved the book, but “you made up the part about Emma having girls, right?”  When I told her no, gave her their names, who they married etc., she was astonished and said she had only ever been told about the boys.   In the Aurora newsletter early on, they printed a picture of me researching there and I was contacted by a descendant who did have family letters.  Only one came from Emma but it was enough to give me solid information about who she was…along with the family stories and other historical records we uncovered in obscure places like divorce filings thirty years after she’d come to the region.

She is part of a utopian religious community that moved from Bethel, MO in the 1856 to the Washington Territory initially. Some of her troubles come from resisting the patriarchal leadership of the colony. Is her strength and independence something that drew you to her story? Yes, though when I began research I didn’t know if she was a resister or someone who went comfortably along with the communal ways.  I only knew that her name was remembered, an artifact had been preserved that belonged to her and eventually also learned that a house built for her still stood as well.  So she had to have been someone of distinction if not influence.  And yet, it was a German-American society. Being of German descent myself I’m familiar with strong-willed women (sometimes called pushy or stubborn) who I like to describe as persevering.  As I learned of some of the trials Emma and her husband faced with the landscape and with the leader, I became more and more convinced of her fortitude and her wish to do what most 20th century women wish for:  to do the best we can for our families without losing ourselves in the process.  Her struggles represented contemporary issues of many faith communities wishing to sustain their own practices while still being relevant in the larger world.  Incidentally, the colony was communal in economics and property only, not in marital relationships.

You write about the German term Sehnsucht. Can you elaborate on that theme in Tendering? It’s a word that means a deep longing for something, almost like an addiction.  Perhaps it’s what the German poet Rilke refers to when he says that God is “the great homesickness we can never shake off.”  It is a deep passion to find meaning and to be spiritually engaged.  Emma had a great tragedy strike her and she witnessed this tragedy and after speaking with other of her descendants, that event really defined much of her life after that.  I came to believe that grief has many siblings – anger, disappointment, rejection of support, impulsive decision-making, guilt, etc.  I think what brought her through was her longing to make sense of that tragedy and find a way to move forward, living with uncertainty in life and a constant renewing of her faith.   This book is also told in part through the eyes of Louisa Keil, the wife of the religious leader and I hoped to show her struggle as well even though she never doubted or challenged her husband but still had a longing to be known for who she was.

Do you speak German or did you have to learn some of the words you used in the book?  I know a couple of little children’s poems that my father taught me and I can say potato in German!  Once years ago I visited a German lady who had three big German shepherd dogs staked along the walk way.  They pulled and barked at me and they only understood German!  I kept saying Kartofle to them because it was all I knew!  I had a wonderful German friend, Erhard Gross, who helped me immensely with all three books.  So much of German word choice is dependent on context so he would read the manuscript and make corrections.  Nouns are always capitalized too.  My computer often didn’t like that.  I did learn a few words but when I was in Germany earlier this year going through customs and the custom agent barked at me because I forgot to get my passport back from him, he scared away even my danke – that’s “thanks!”

In writing series, do you get so attached to your characters that you want to be “with them” awhile longer? I think that’s why I’m doing this quilt and craft book (Aurora…), so I can hang out with Emma and Matilda and Louisa and Aurora and others longer…they were real people and they became more real to me as I’ve spent the last three years with them.  It’s been a delight to be at the museum south of Portland when others who’ve read the books come to visit.  Last week four people from Ohio took a train to visit the Aurora Colony Museum, to see where Emma first came to the west (in Washington) and then to Aurora where Emma ended up.  I happened to be there and got to meet them.  Two couples.  I told the husbands that they were good men to come across the country just to walk where Emma walked.  But then that’s one of the purposes of fiction, right? to “move” people… in this instance, from Ohio to the Northwest for a week!

Tell us more about the quilt Emma’s descendents have donated to the Oregon Historical Society and the replica that is being made for the drawing. The Aurora Colony has about 80 original quilts, two of Emma’s. This wool quilt is called Running Squares on Point.  You can see a picture of it on my blog  www.janekirkpatrick.blogspot.com It’s done in a plaid of teal and red that was likely manufactured by the colonists either in Aurora or Bethel.  The setting (solid color) blocks are red and she’s hand-stitched and hand-quilted it using a wreath pattern that was common to many Aurora quilters.  She’s quilted using 10 stitches to the inch!  Imagine that!  One of the premier quilters stitched 15 inches to the inch.  I can’t even get one stitch to the inch.  Interestingly, Emma placed the initials CG in one corner.  Some thought it might be a laundry mark as they often washed communally but there are only four textiles in all the collection of the museum including quilts and hand-tailored shirts and dresses that bear any kind of initial.  And besides, it’s such a distinctive quilt I doubt anyone could miss that it was Emma’s.  The initials to me represent either her husband Christian, or her son of the same name.  Perhaps it was another small way of having her voice preserved inside a male-dominated community.  Pendleton Woolen Mills, one of the last surviving family owned textile mills in the country has donated the wool for a replica quilt that my publisher is having made by quilters in Aurora.  We’ll have a drawing for it sometime in the spring and it’s to commemorate the book Aurora:  An American Experience in Quilt, Community and Craft coming out in December.  A close-up of Emma’s quilt is on the cover.  Nothing to buy…just enter at www.waterbrookpress.com and click on “contests.”

Thank you, Jane, for an entertaining and insightful interview. We’ll catch up with you again and talk about your next book.

Published in: on September 8, 2008 at 2:16 am  Comments (4)  
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