September 17, 2016
Winner of 2016 WILLA Award and Winner of 2015 Reading the West Nonfiction Award
“Both enjoyable and edifying.”—Library Journal
“Ladies of the Canyons shows the way in which O’Keeffe and others were just the latest in a tradition of audacious women who carved a well-traveled path of freedom and challenge.”—Bookslut
My thoughts on this exceptional book:
Long before artist Georgia O’Keefe and patron of the arts Mabel Dodge Luhan fell in love with New Mexico, other gutsy women from privileged families back east set out to explore “The Land of Enchantment” and claim it as their own. But their names were lost to history until recently.
Just as Natalie Curtis Burlin left the comfort of privilege in New York City to capture the songs of the Hopi, author Lesley Poling-Kempes left the comfort of sitting on her literary laurels to dive into the past and recreate the lives of some remarkable women who blazed new trails in the American Southwest. As I savored this engrossing and educational tale, it was almost like the author had gone back in time and accompanied her subjects as they bounced along in lumbering touring cars or trotted on horseback under the blazing sun, taking notes that would become The Ladies of the Canyons: A League of Extraordinary Women and Their Adventures in the American Southwest.
Even now, a year after the release of this amazing book, I like to envision the author seated at a place of honor in a tiny casita a few blocks off the plaza in old Santa Fe. “The Ladies” are all gathered around Lesley when Natalie Curtis Burlin bustles in and offers her special guest a nice cup of tea. And with piano music drifting in through an open window, Carol Bishop Stanley (founder of Ghost Ranch), stands up and declares, “Dear Lesley, we knew you would come. It was just a matter of time.”
Q&A with the author:
Kathleen: After reading Ladies of the Canyons, I am in awe of how you gathered your material buried in archives and private collections and assembled it into an intriguing story. Can you describe your process? How do you puzzle together bits and pieces of the past into a narrative that feels alive?
Lesley: For Ladies of the Canyons I knew I had to begin by finding and making sense of the stories/biographies of the four main characters, Carol Stanley, Natalie Curtis, Alice Klauber, and Mary Wheelwright. Because they lived a century ago, it meant visiting in person many of the places they lived, and also locating the physical archives that held what scant scraps they left behind in diaries, letters, journals, paintings, and music. I kept notebooks about each of the women and also a massive timeline that showed where and how they intersected with major events of their time and also with each other. It took about two years to gather the material together, and another two years to write their stories into one narrative. The ladies came alive for me about halfway into the research as my connection to their lives strengthened and I began to get a real sense of who they were as people. They began to feel alive in my life and time.
KMR: How long did it take you to write the book, and were you ever overwhelmed as you sifted through historical documents?
LPK: About four years. I was overwhelmed daily, truly, every day, by the size of the task and the amount of material involved. I never let myself look too far ahead. I just kept to the page before me. I likened it to laying track over a very long and often forbidding distance.
KMR: I’m a huge fan of your novels Bone Horses and Canyon of Remembering. As both an historian and a novelist, can you describe the differences between writing fiction and nonfiction?
LPK: The freedom I feel when writing fiction cannot be overstated. I do research for my novels, but not to the extent I do for nonfiction. And living in ‘fictionland’ for months at a time is liberating and often just good fun. It is hard work, as all novelists know, but without the sense of intense responsibility that goes with writing history and biography where getting the facts right, and documenting sources and etc., is fundamental to the success of the book. The contrast – working on a novel for a few years after working on a book of nonfiction – is satisfying and therapeutic.
KMR: When you first started researching your nonfiction subjects for Ladies of the Canyons, did you have any idea that the story would take you (and the reader) from New York and Boston to the desert Southwest and all the way to Paris?
LPK: I did. I had glimpsed the stories of the ladies while writing the book Ghost Ranch and knew Natalie’s and Alice’s stories would involve Europe, New York, and San Diego, and Carol’s and Mary’s stories would involve Boston and environs. Still, I had to give myself a crash course in the birth of Modern Art in Europe and the US, and also read up on everything Victorian, especially as that era affected women.
KMR: Art plays a big role in this book. You come across as someone very comfortable at writing about art, music, important historical events, and even former presidents. Does this come naturally to you or is it a skill you’ve acquired over your career.
LPK: It comes naturally because I’m curious about art and music and the intersection of historic events with common and uncommon folks. I live in Abiquiu within the cultural landscape that extends to Santa Fe and Taos. Many remarkable and creative people (O’Keeffe tops the list of local lights) have come to work and live here over the last century. And the making and celebration of art has been part of daily life since prehistory and the culture of the Pueblo people.
I have always admired the life of TR Roosevelt and being able to include him in the story of Ladies of the Canyons was a wonderful gift. I read most of Roosevelt’s writings about his time in the American Southwest, and studied his opinions and the evolution of his policies and thoughts about and toward Native America so that I could place his time with Natalie and Alice in the desert Southwest into historic perspective. Natalie Curtis and Roosevelt’s relationship was fascinating to piece together. And theirs is a great story, too, one that had never been told. Finding the archival photographs and rare film footage of Curtis and Roosevelt together in Hopi land in 1913 was among the most affirming and satisfying moments of my writing career.
KMR: What are you working on now? Last time we chatted, you mentioned that you were eager to get back to work on the sequel to Bone Horses. I’m looking forward to reading your next novel.
LPK: Yes, I am writing the sequel to my novel Bone Horses. Ten years have passed in the town of Agua Dulce and there are some familiar characters and also several who will be new to readers. I love being immersed in this fictional place in northern New Mexico. It’s challenging – I find the first draft of any sort of book, fiction or nonfiction, extremely difficult. But writing, completing, and publishing 6 books have given me one gift: faith in my ability to get through a messy, awkward, crappy first draft. I know how to rewrite (and rewrite and rewrite) my first drafts into something coherent and hopefully beautiful.
I recently completed my first historic novel, Gallup. Set in World War 2 New Mexico, this novel is based on the screenplay written by Robert N. Singer with whom I share co-writer credit on both the novel and the screenplay. I’ll keep you updated on the development of the film and the publication of the novel, both of which I hope will happen in a few years.
Lesley Poling-Kempes is the award winning author of fiction and nonfiction books about the American Southwest, including “Bone Horses” winner of the 2014 WILLA Literary Award for Contemporary Fiction and the Tony Hillerman Award; “The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West,” winner of the Zia Award and recently optioned for a US-UK television series; “Valley of Shining Stone: The Story of Abiquiu,” and “Ghost Ranch.” Her first novel “Canyon of Remembering” was a Western Writers of America Spur Award finalist.
“Ladies of the Canyon: A League of Extraordinary Women & Their Adventures in the American Southwest” was released in 2015 and won the Reading the West Award for nonfiction, the WILLA Literary Award, the Silver Medal for US History from the Independent Publishers Association, and is a WWW Spur Award finalist.
She lives in Abiquiu, New Mexico.
October 22, 2016 3:00 pm-5:00 pm