Nestle into a cozy couch as author Barbara K. Richardson reveals the value of a flashlight and the passage of (decades of) time in writing a historical ancestral Western epic. Yes, it's a "Between the Covers" guest blog for Denver's Tattered Cover Bookstore.
Some Novels Write Us
At age 36, fresh out of graduate school with a bunch of dead poems and a despondent heart, I had a visitation. Clair and Ada, my two main characters, came riding out of the Void and descended together in a dream. They chatted and revealed themselves and their lives in early Utah, and took up nightly habitation.
These women had a mission. They wanted to be on the page. They knew a greenhorn novelist has a lot to unlearn. Namely, the literary control I’d spent my MFA years perfecting would make writing about my Mormon ancestors nearly as much fun as pushing wet concrete up a slide.
Perfectionism, polishing, cleverness, language for language’s sake, intelligence and the desire to be profound—all these went overboard in the first twelve years of writing my novel Tributary
, which just hit bookstore shelves this September. I actually remember the pleasure of not remembering grammatical rules. Of not caring whether I came across as literary. Of cutting pretty writing to get to the goods. Of following a character’s heart which blazed out of the Void with its own sure track into little black marks that indicated its presence on a page where others could find it . . . Read more by clicking here.Thanks, Tattered Cover, for adoring books and helping authors do what they love most. Support your local bookstore, which supports the community and you!
Author Insight: Barbara RichardsonTalks About Women in History and Why Writing is Like Making Sauce
Clair Martin, the feisty heroine of Barbara Richardson’s novel, Tributary
, is a force to be reckoned with – and so is her creator. Barbara sat down with All Things Girl
and shared some great insights about life, writing, women in history, and truck stops!. . . Magic happens when you boil things down awhile. To read the entire Q & A, click here.
In 1966, I ran the 100 yard dash alongside Dilaun Terry and all of the boys in our fifth grade class. I won. In sixth grade, Dilaun won the pentathlon. Fleet of foot, tiny, slender, with straight flying dark hair, she outran, out-jumped and out-threw every strapping young adored boy and girl Adelaide Elementary School placed at the starting line. (OK, it was a five-way tie with a basketball toss tie-breaker. Still, she won!) 43 years later, Dilaun and I re-met on Facebook.
45 years later, Dilaun read and reviewed my novel Tributary.
She doesn’t normally read literary fiction. She’s a sculptor and a painter. She didn’t think she could write. She sent the review to me to see if it would do as an online review.
I said, Oh my goddess—she’s outpaced the professional bloggers. I love this review.
"Tributary is a book for those who want to learn how to see.
"Barbara Richardson has masterfully blended extremes between the humble and ordinary lives of poor Utah settlers during the early formation of the Mormon Church and complex literary poetry.
"She has used her craft to introduce an untold historical viewpoint that had no place in common history books, but nonetheless delivers that voice today. Clair Martin rises to find a family she never knew by a lifetime journey following her roots and, in the end, finding what real family truly means. Her story illustrates that some wealth and riches transcend social hierarchy and money.
"Barbara’s superb command of poetry helps one see history through another vantage point, while treating the reader to a rich tapestry of beauty beyond social constraints and materialism."
Run, Dilaun, Run!
Thanks so much, Dilaun. The stronger the woman, the better the tale.
Two books that give you a glimpse into the world of shamanism, and a Boulder, CO comedy routine. My new guest blog opens a spiritual window and lets the cooling breezes blow in!
Visit Spiritual Media Blog for the particulars.
The blog begins: "I live in Boulder, Colorado. My niece and nephew, who live in Salt Lake City, nearly fell off their chairs at Sharon’s Café when I casually mentioned that everyone in Boulder has their own shaman. Admittedly, I was doing schtick. And it wasn’t that hard to do. Jim had kicked off the routine with his first sip of coffee, “What’s it like living in Boulder?” he asked, and the comedy just started rolling . . . "
The thrills and spills of getting a manuscript to the printing house are nearly behind me. Launch plans percolate for this fall.
Mark your calendars! Tributary will meet readers at the following lovely independent bookstores.
I hope to see you there!
Why is it so often that humiliation and grace appear together, or in close proximity, if we are willing to listen?
Do you remember a hugely humiliating time, when you were little, perhaps, when your spirit was reduced to cringing ashes?
And did anyone or anything insert a saving grace?
I Break All the Rules at Ben Franklin Elementary
I am talking to a hundred of them
about death, God and the Indians
when one of them farts loudly
and time stops;
the silence and the stink hang there.
All of the scoldings and whippings
and public humiliations are not enough
to stifle the low wave of giggles
and then I say, Who farted?
All hell breaks loose.
The teachers are lined up along one wall;
their faces freeze over.
The principal rises, her jaw set like iron pipe.
Jeffrey, she intones in an icy rage,
you go wait in my office. NOW.
The little boy rises from the sacred circle
I have so carefully made. No, I say,
able to save only one face, hers or his.
I put my arm around him and sit him
up front, next to me. When I am done
she comes up to me with a look that
would bring God to heel.
3 things you never do in a school,
she says handing me my $50 check,
Talk about God or death
or violate a teacher’s authority.
I give her back the check,
which stops her in mid-reprimand.
She seems pleased and dumbfounded.
As I walk to my car, the students along
one side of the building bang the windows
and wave to me. They do not know
I have just purchased Jeffrey’s redemption,
all they know is that here is a man
who laughs at farts and
does not like the principal. —Red Hawk Humiliate,
by root definition, means to bring low, to be made humble. So although we tend to avoid humiliation like some dread plague, the agonized captivity of it can somehow spring the trap for the soul’s release. Take two of the most humiliated women in Shakespeare’s plays, Desdemona and Ophelia. Hamlet wounds Ophelia’s heart cruelly, infecting her with his scorn and germy indecisiveness, until she drowns herself in the river. Desdemona—Othello’s perfectly attuned true wife—suffers at his hands literally, when he is duped into believing she has cuckolded him. Othello strangles her at play’s end.
Put them in Pasternak’s
hands and you get this. English Lessons
When it was Desdemona’s time to sing,
and so little life was left to her,
she wept, not over love, her star,
but over willow, willow, willow.
When it was Desdemona’s time to sing
and her murmuring softened the stones
around the black day, her blacker demon
prepared a psalm of weeping streams.
When it was Ophelia’s time to sing,
and so little life was left to her,
the dryness of her soul was swept away
like straws from haystacks in a storm.
When it was Ophelia’s time to sing,
and the bitterness of tears was more
than she could bear, what trophies
did she hold? Willow, and columbine.
Stepping out of all that grief,
they entered, with faint hearts
the pool of the universe and quenched
their bodies with other worlds.
—Boris Pasternak, tr. by Mark Rudman and Bohdan Boychuk
Northwestern U Press, “My Sister—Life”
Grace/release usually comes utterly unexpectedly.
One great example of this comes in Father Gregory Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart
. Boyle is a brand new priest, serving in Bolivia. He’s asked to give Mass at a native Quechua community high in the mountains where locals harvest flowers for their living. He starts a flop sweat on the drive up, because not only does he not speak Spanish well, he doesn’t even know mass in English without his missive, which of course he is missing. These people have not received holy communion for a decade. They await Father Boyle in a huge open field, hundreds of them.He recalls,
“I hobble and fake my way through the liturgy of the Word, aided by the health workers, who read everything in Quechua . . .
I’m like someone who’s been in a major car accident. I can’t remember a thing . . . lifting the bread and wine whenever I run out of things to say, I can’t imagine this Mass going worse.
When it is over, I am left spent and humiliated. I am wandering adrift, trying to gather my shattered self back together again . . . I turn to discover that I have been abandoned. The field where we celebrated Mass has been vacated . . . I am alone at the top of this mountain, stuck, not only without a ride, but in stultifying humiliation. I am convinced that a worse priest has never visited this place or walked this earth.
With my backpack snug on my shoulder and spirit deflated, I begin to make the long walk down the mountain and back to town. But before I leave . . . an old Quechua campesino, seemingly out of nowhere, makes his way to me. He appears ancient . . . As he nears me, I see he is wearing tethered wool pants, with a white buttoned shirt greatly frayed at the collar. He has a rope for a belt. His suit coat is coarse and worn. He has a fedora, toughened by the years. He is wearing huaraches, and his feet are caked with Bolivian mud. Any place that a human face can have wrinkles and creases, he has them. He is at least a foot shorter than I am, and he stands right in front of me and says, ‘Tatai.’
This is Quechua for Padrecito, a word packed with affection, and a charming intimacy. He looks up at me, with penetrating, weary eyes and says, ‘Tatai, gracias por haber venido’ (Thanks for coming).
I think of something to say, but nothing comes to me. Which is just as well, because before I can speak, the old campesino reaches into the pockets of his suit coat and retrieves two fistfuls of multicolored rose petals. He’s on the tips of his toes and gestures that I might assist with the inclination of my head. And so he drops the petals over my head, and I’m without words. He digs into his pockets again and manages two more fistfuls of petals. He does this again and again, and the store of red, pink, and yellow rose petals seems infinite. I just stand there and let him do this, staring at my own huaraches, now moistened with my tears, covered with rose petals. Finally, he takes his leave and I’m left there, alone, with only the bright aroma of roses.”
--Tattoos on the Heart p. 36-38
It is spring, folks, and new things are rumbling in the breezes. Bears are coming out of hibernation, and with them, this new book on Colorado bears by the talented writer Laura Pritchett.
Laura just wrote the first endorsement for my novel Tributary, thereby cutting off all fears that not one soul on the planet would really enjoy it. Ridiculous fears run like freak windstorms through the publishing process. And here is Laura's loverly blurb:
"This is a gorgeous novel. This book does what art should do, which is to show us our lives with renewed clarity and better insight. Tributary takes the incomplete history and mythos of the West to task, and instead shows us some of the far more interesting and unexplored stories of American West – Mormonism, racism, women who don’t need marriage or men. Beautifully written and engaging, this is a story of one woman and her refusal to cave into societal norms in order to seek her own difficult and inspired path."
--Laura Pritchett, author of Sky Bridge and Hell’s Bottom, Colorado
Deepest thanks to her for the smashing Tributary endorsement.
Pritchett turns from powerful fiction writer to stellar storyteller in her newest book
, a collection of historical, geographical, sorrowful, heart-pounding tales about the bears who did and do exist in the wilds of Colorado. I can’t wait to read it. And neither can my significant other who loves all things bear. Great Colorado Bear Stories comes out this week
, so check it out at online booksellers, or ask at your nearest dearest bookstore. Laura’s website
features all of her other award-winning books. In fact, how can one author win so many awards—PEN USA, Milkweed National Fiction Prize, Colorado Book Award, WILLA Literary Award—and not be in her dotage?! I’ll ask her when she comes to read in Boulder, April 17.
From strangers to colleagues in two days flat. Life is good. And if you have a minute, listen to dear young Amos Lee sing “Shout Out Loud.” (Hit mute for the noisy advertisement at the start!)
I spent last week chasing widows and orphans. It’s all in a novelist’s job.
When at long last your book galleys arrive, you think: Hooray, it’s done! But the dear wee book is never done.
Though you’re bleary with rewrites, you are profoundly motivated to get the book out the door
, so you fine-tooth-comb-it through every single page, studying spacing, hyphenation (Ste-phen?! Not good.), quotation marks (which show up backwards after ellipses), capitalization,
paragraph indents, extra line breaks, italics, and the proverbial widows and orphans. Widow
: the first line of a paragraph appears alone at the bottom of a page. Orphan
: the last line of a paragraph appears alone at the top of a page.
These look odd and are to be avoided. (I just learned these definitions on Ehow
! When I was proofreading my book, I thought I was looking for single lines at the top of an otherwise empty page
. And we’ve already sent in the galleys. Arghh. As I said, the wee book ain’t never done!)
Unless you have nerves of titanium, you also cannot resist making a hundred or so tiny changes that you just know will make the book irresistible. Add to this sleepless nights from note-taking at four A.M. for those final final details—check the spelling of Vere’s maiden name, what would a 1,200 mile train fare be in 1875, when did the Curlew Valley herds change from sheep to cattle, was “butt” a word back then!?
I quote, “Butt
: In sense of 'human posterior' it is recorded from mid-15c.” Oh, how I LOVE the Online Etymology Dictionary
. It’s a historical writer’s best friend. I have used it several thousand times while writing Tributary
. I want to send them a cheesecake.
What is it like to write and publish a novel? Non-stop long-distance attention. Call novelists the long-haul truckers of American letters. And give ‘em a break when you spot errors in their books. Or is that brake? Truckers are known for chasing tail. Novelists chase tale.Thanks to Denver novelist Veronica Breville for the cute photo of the tail-chasing dog.
This is the story of a cover and two lovers who searched for it diligently through rain and hail and sleet and dark of night. And nearly a hundred hours of online Google work and about forty mock-ups, until the publisher said yes.
Originally, the cover of my coming-of-age novel Tributary
was a gorgeous expansive shot of the
Bear River in northern Utah--the setting of the novel shining in all its glory.
The distributor said no
, the cover needs to
tell a story and indicate time period and character.
So my beloved partner Jeff (aka cover designer extraordinaire) and I set out to do just that.
I jumped online and after many hours found and
fell in love with a great period dress on ETSY. Turns out Vera Vague
, queen of online vintage chic, was both the seller of the dress and the model inside it, and she was thrilled to have her person and her dress on a novel about a young Mormon woman who escapes polygamy.Vera and I emailed joyously back and forth, and here is the resulting cover.
The publisher's response was puzzlement. "Tell us about the flowers in the lower corner," they said. "What do they mean?" Puzzlement was not the response we'd expected, so we showed this cover to family members, who were also puzzled. Tepid and puzzled. Thus, with some sorrow, we let this cover go and proceeded to do a photo shoot. If you can’t find the image you need online, make it. Because most folks we'd asked wanted a sweaty, hard-working, active Clair, not a rigidly posed Clair with her head cut off. My Clair is not a city gal, and this cover made her seem so.
The Shoot: After securing Clair’s tomboy outerwear at local thrift and antique stores (large overalls
and a calico shirt and battered hat), my two sisters and brother-in-law and I tromped through the wilds with a period Remington rifle, taking 170 shots of me gazing out over grand vistas, some with rifle and some without. We also shot my sister's mid-length locks from behind, as I have short hair. Then Jeff worked his magic in Photoshop to produce this cover--Clair in her element.
The publisher commented on Clair’s hair conditioner and highlights, and said the photo didn’t look 19th century. Jeff had spent two late nights and many long hours getting it right (he created three or four different versions of it, full color and sepia tone). Bah! We were three covers in, with nothing to show. And fully aware of how hard it is to make contemporary photographs look antique.
We inserted a shot of my grandmother, who is Clair, into the Bear River scene. Jeff even Photoshopped in the
Port Wine Stain mark on Clair's left cheek.
Too sweet. No story.
Then Jeff found the image of this gorgeous old barn in grass, which does indicate place and circumstance, but alas, this too was too sweet. Too quiet. And most readers want to imagine the heroine's face, not have
her plastered on the book's cover. Good-bye, Grandma. And good-bye to Jeff's favorite cover design.
With seven days left to meet the publisher's deadline, I had a vision. At 3:30 in the morning, inspired in part by growing guilt at all of the unpaid work Jeff had invested on my behalf, I saw a stack of Clair’s pressed flower cards above cracked earth. Earth stained by water. To me, being a poetic sort, this metaphor showed beauty arising from the difficult barren desert. We couldn't find an image of Clair herself, so the work of her hands stood in for her.
I genuinely love this cover. Jeff did, too. We thought we had it. I danced in the kitchen and felt carefree. “It's pretty. But where is Clair’s spirit?” the publisher asked. "Where is the journey?"
Jeff and I ground our teeth, and trekked onward into the historical cover fog!
We dallied with the one and only period photograph
I found of a woman actually working.
Not Clair. Not right.
Then we went back to the dark dress in profile, adding
the flower cards instead of the puzzling red Indian Paintbrush. Clair made and sold these cards, in my novel, so they had meaning. But alas, while searching for other historical covers
to inspire us, I found that we had created the perfect
romance novel cover . . .
Arghhhh. Clair's story is if anything an anti-romance. Back, yes back, to the Google search.
I literally burned my eyeballs searching for images online for ten hours straight (I call it OCB—ocular computer burn). Nothing nothing nothing
worked. Women in 1870 did not pose casually in their work wear for photographs. I lay on the couch that night in the dark, my eyes and my heart despondent, when my dear friend Lisa Jones
called. Lisa knew about my novel and knew about the trying cover search. A first-rate author and intrepid visionary, Lisa said, “I see a river, I see a tributary. I see a Shoshone woman walking beside Clair in a snowstorm. There’s your journey. That’s your story.”
“That may be what you see," I said, "but it doesn’t exist.”
“We’ll shoot it ourselves. I have two Indian blankets. We’ll use an I Phone, make it blurry, you know, a Blair Witch Project without the scary bits. Your cover needs grit.” I called Jeff late that night. “Ain’t this a nutty idea of Lisa's?” He said, “It is fabulous. Go for it. The I Phone 4 takes high resolution photos. You’ll be tiny on the actual cover, so we only need outlines. We can add the snow, if it doesn’t snow tomorrow!”
So I gathered up my battered enthusiasm and off we went this past Sunday tromping through Colorado wilderness in eight degree weather
. With Jeff’s daughter in pigtail braids, Lisa Jones with two I Phones, and only thrift store shawls and blankets to keep us warm. You may be saying to yourself about now, does this woman ever learn her lesson? Bonding with friends and family on a photo shoot trumps the need for results, the need for a cover. Really, how much more blessed could I be?
We had a wonderful time. Lisa plunged through snow and bushes, shooting 170 photographs at three different locales, and here’s what Jeff put together from that shoot.
Publisher's response to this mock-up: “Beautiful image, but I’m not seeing the 19th century Clair in there.” Can you hear our groans of agony? At this point, Jeff and I have five days until the cover is due. Jeff wheels into montage mode and, working doggedly, delivers this.
Which sends me out the door, crying in private,
it is so gloomy and has nothing of Clair’s spirit
or the spirit of the novel in it at all. It looks like
a non-fiction downer.
Then late last night, after dinner and a few laughs, with that little unquenchable spark of "I know you are out there somewhere" pushing me to try yet again, I typed “19th century pioneer women’s shoulders” into Google because that is exactly
what I needed to see.
And I found it. I found Clair.
Now if this blog were a novel, you'd have the ending right here, happy or not. And if this cover were in the bag, I might even show you the results. But being keen on representing the human condition fairly, I’d rather you felt the frustration and cliff-hanger unknowing that creating this cover has caused for us.
Yes, the publisher loved the new cover image. No we haven’t secured rights to use it. We may not even get permission, and will have to stage yet another photo shoot to recreate the look ourselves! With three days to go. Impossible?!
The moral of this Cover Story: If anyone ever asks you to design a historical novel’s cover, say no. Unless you value the journey more than the destination. This was our journey. You’ll have to wait for a later blog to see the destination, that is the final cover of Tributary. Let’s hope it’s a good ‘un.
Or I'm going for a brown paper bag.
(Feel free to vote on your favorite cover!)
(And feel free to hire Jeff for your cover design needs, unless your book is historical fiction!)
Hundred-mile-an-hour wind gusts are fairly common in Boulder, Colorado, at least since I moved here. The gusts last night started around dark and walloped our cul-de-sac without mercy until noon today.
I slept approximately not at all.
The house shook,
the windows howled,
the fireplace flue played
the pan flute all night long.
When I walked out my door at eight thirty, I saw this--
This morning around five thirty I heard a little tap, a dainty scrape outside.
being held up by this--
engulfing both cars like this--
as nearly 8,000 pounds of pine tree blocked our driveway.
Blue River Tree Care
was already on the scene. He called in the largest crane that I have ever seen (and I’ve installed landscapes for 14 years)
The arborist from
which dropped a daredevil
down into the crown of the tree
who chopped two branches out
with a hand saw, attached the cables
and while we gaped from the upstairs landing window
that two-story pine tree
danced like a baby ballerina up over our heads
and touched down in point, where the crew promptly undressed her.
the last draft of my novel Tributary, 19.6 years in the making. Sharing the very last hours on this my magnum opus with the flight of the bumblebee pine tree--
This miracle surpassed the miraculous activity indoors: my final day polishing
I may have to take up the pan flute.
And play it hiking in the pines.
(For those of you smitten with pan flute fever . . .
check out this crazy website!)