For years I longed to visit the historic Castaneda Hotel located next to the railroad tracks in Las Vegas, New Mexico. My maternal grandmother, Olga Berg, left the security of her Iowa home in 1928 and came to Las Vegas, NM to work as a Harvey Girl for the Fred Harvey Company. She spent two years at the Castaneda before transferring to the Harvey House in Belen, NM, now home to the Harvey House Museum. She also worked special functions at the La Fonda in Santa Fe and the Alvarado in Albuquerque.
Thanks to Kathy Hendrickson of Southwest Detours, I got to walk in Olga’s footsteps and imagine what it was like to be a young girl far from home, donning the starched black and white uniform, and serving hungry train passengers at all hours of the day and night. With my husband Tom by my side, we entered the hotel lobby with our tour guide and stepped into the past.
While Tom and Kathy Hendrickson chatted at the long counter, I was pulled across the room by a lone black and white photograph hanging on a wall to my right.
As I approached the photograph, my heart began to race as I honed in on the Harvey Girl with deep-set eyes and a quiet smile in the center of the photograph.
I knew instantly it was Olga, my beloved grandmother! But just to be sure, I whipped out my cell phone and took a picture and sent it to my mother back in Clovis, NM. Within seconds, Mother texted back and said she was certain the young woman was her mother. I also sent the photograph to my two sisters and both of my grown sons. We all agreed the young woman had to be Olga.
I spent the rest of the tour thinking about my grandmother and wishing I’d asked her more questions about her days as a Harvey Girl before she married a railroader and became the mother of a daughter and two sons.
Olga Berg Lamb passed away on March 17, 1978. Until her last breath, she was always waiting on others and she knew the proper way to set a table.
As we walked up and down stairs and entered quiet rooms now occupied by ghosts of the past, I tried to tap into the Harvey Girl spirit. These women were more than glorified waitresses working at trackside lunchroom counters and dining halls across the west. They were risk takers! I wish I had half their gumption.
Author’s note: The Castaneda is currently under renovation. One day soon, this grand dame will shine again and welcome travelers looking for comfortable lodging and a link to the past when passenger trains ruled.
Olga’s younger sister Nellie Berg answered the Fred Harvey call and came to New Mexico and Arizona years later to work as a Harvey Girl. A large photo of Nellie graces the museum in Belen, NM.
I am pleased to introduce New Mexico writer and historian Lesley Poling-Kempes, author of Bone Horses and Winner of the 2013 Tony Hillerman Award for Best Fiction, New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards.
Update 3/8/15: Lesley’s book, The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West, has been optioned by Atalaya Productions of Santa Fe for a television series. You can read about Atalaya Productions here.
Update 8/15/14: Bone Horses won the 2014 Willa Award in Contemporary Fiction from Women Writing the West.
(Kathleen): Welcome, Lesley. Please give us a brief summary of the book.What is your genre and who is your target audience?
New York school teacher Charlotte Lambert is practical and predictable, and never allows life to veer off course. Until she comes to New Mexico. During one summer in Agua Dulce, a village haunted by a phantom herd of wild horses and where ravens embody the spirits of ancestors, Charlotte’s world is upended as she unearths the details of her mother’s forbidden love affair, chilling murder, and courageous last act of redemption. Pursued by a madman hell-bent on killing her, Charlotte finds shelter, romance, and her own misplaced soul at the desert camp of a surprisingly sophisticated cowboy, and learns how love in its myriad forms is the only path to lasting salvation.
My target audience was and is readers like me…I love a good story about people living through the best and the most difficult times of their lives, and emerging stronger and happier. The heart of all of my stories is…my heart. BONE HORSES has been called a mystery, woman’s fiction, and last week in a review by the Western Writers of America Roundup Magazine, the novel was called literary fiction. I like all of those genre/labels. I did not, however, start out to write a genre novel.
KMR: What did it feel like to have John Nichols’ endorsement? (See text at left.)
LPK: Oh, John is such a rock star author and person! I just glow every time I read his blurb for BONE HORSES. I suppose John remains the author against whom all Southwestern writers measure ourselves at some point in our careers. He is generous, smart, relevant, politically active, opinionated, incredibly well read, savvy, human, loving, and funny as heck!
KMR: How long did it take you to write Bone Horses? The story has multiple layers and is peopled with characters that feel like your own family and neighbors. In your acknowledgements, you mention that it took many drafts and revisions. Can you talk a bit about the process? For fiction, do you write from an outline, notes, or do you wing it? Did the story change over time from the original vision you had in your head and did any scenes and characters appear that surprised you?
LPK: Yes, yes, and yes. The novel began with the story of the wild horses – told to me by several old-timers when I was researching my book GHOST RANCH. I couldn’t get past that story and what the shooting down of those mustangs did to the heart and psyche of the people who knew and loved them. From that extraordinary and heart-wrenching bit of history, BONE HORSES was birthed. Characters began to step into the story – Charlotte’s mother, Alicia, was first, and her story was told in more detail in early drafts. Charlotte and Thea came next, Barty Bill and his gas station – I just love that gas station! – and Conchata speaking from the Other Side. I would wake in the night and scribble notes about these characters; they were chatty and had lots to say. I’d take a pad and pen out walking on the desert (I go out every day) because one of the characters from Agua Dulce would strike up a conversation and I had to write it down. (I need written notes…how did we write books before post-it notes were invented?)
It took seven years to pull the stories and scenes together (the novel had to be shelved while I wrote the book GHOST RANCH), and many revisions of a 500 page manuscript that eventually was cut to 350. I draft out an outline and scenes in longhand in a notebook over many months, and when I’m ready to really dig in and write, I use a computer. My handwriting is atrocious and I’d never be able to figure out what I’ve drafted if I wrote in longhand…although I love good journals and wonderful pens!
I am taking notes for a sequel.
KMR: Was it hard for you to switch from writing nonfiction to fiction? If so, did you find writing fiction more challenging?
LPK: I find nonfiction much harder to write than fiction. When I began writing after college, I hoped I’d only write fiction,but then I kept finding great untold nonfiction and I was given contracts and even advances for those projects, so I have written more nonfiction than novels. I am just this very moment completing a new book of nonfiction LADIES OF THE CANYONS for the University of Arizona Press. It has taken two very intense and challenging years to research (at archives and collections on both coasts) and write. I think it may be my best book of nonfiction. I was both energized and exhausted by the scope and potential of this project. (The narrative is based on the true stories of four women friends who came to the Southwest before WWI.)
I next will return to complete a novel that is 3/4ths done. I so look forward to fiction again! This new novel is called GALLUP, and is a fictionalization of the true story of Gallup, New Mexico, in World War II: Gallup was the only community in the US that did not intern their Japanese American citizens when ordered by Executive Order 9066 to do so. The novel is based on a screenplay of the same name, and both are co-authored by me and Robert N. Singer. The film is in development.
KMR: I first read about Bone Horses in New Mexico Magazine shortly after the book came out. Although I didn’t order it at the time, I was intrigued by the title and the whimsical cover art that depicted a lonely gas station with red mesas and snowcapped mountains in the background. I stared at the artwork for a long time, getting homesick for my native New Mexico.The coverbrought to mind all the old gas stations that dotted the highway between my childhood home in eastern New Mexico and my aunt’s and uncle’s home in sprawling Albuquerque on the other side of the Sandia Mountains. Can you talk a bit about the cover artist, Carolyn Barford, and if you had any input in the design? It’s a striking cover.
LPK: Carolyn Barfordis a gifted painter and illustrator and one of my oldest and closest friends. We work very closely on a cover – she also did the cover for the paperback edition of my first novel, CANYON OF REMEMBERING. For BONE HORSES we sat down and discussed what we imagined for a cover – after she had read the manuscript – and then she just goes at it. First as a sketch, and we tweak and discuss the first drawings – and then she paints. And Carolyn brings to life my vision in a way that is even grander than what I imagined. She also drew the page from the missing notebook that is key to the novel – she was fooling around and showed me the sketch and I grabbed it and said, “this is going in the book.” And it became the wonderful title page illustration.
KMR: When your novel tied for first place with Growing Seasons, penned by myfriends Sue Boggio and Mare Pearl, I immediately ordered your book. You are an extremely gifted storyteller and you write with emotional impact. Your story rings with authenticity and your characters feel like real people, and yet you employed the use of magical realism and it all worked for me. I never questioned the legend of a phantom herd of horses coming down from the mountains to attend the burial of young men killed in the Bataan Death March. If anything, the legend of the horses lends dignity and honor to the military ceremony.
The same goes for the conversations that the story’s matriarch, Dorothea Durham, carried on with her late friend, Conchata. For me, these were some of the most unforgettable and emotionally charged scenes in the novel. I highlighted so many lines in the story that made me pause, look off in the distance, and ponder life and death. And what’s out there beyond the mountains of life. Were these the moments in the middle of the writing that recharged your battery? That told you that you were on the right path?
LPK: I depended on the sage counsel of Thea and Conchata throughout the writing of this novel. They were a calm, steady, affirming source of guidance. The best kind of self-help! My husband’s favorite line in the novel is Thea’s answer to Barty‘s question as to why Thea and Conchata don’t give people warning but let them suffer life’s catastrophes: “Because Conchata’s not all here… and I’m not all there. Yet.” (p. 255)
KMR: BoneHorses was published by La Alameda Press based in Albuquerque, NM, and your first novel, Canyon of Remembering, was published by Texas Tech Press. If you’re comfortable discussing the details, can you explain the difference between working with a university press and a smaller traditional press? I’m curious because more and more authors (including myself) are finding success with small presses. While many of us still dream of getting picked up by a major house, the paradigm in the publishing world has shifted and small presses offer hope to writers who want to get their work out there but wish to avoid self-publishing.
LPK: BONE HORSES had a winding road to publication, including two agents who had to give it up for personal reasons, several Big Houses that were very interested, but then the crash of 2008, and mid-list novels were cut from lists, and BONE HORSES became a casualty of the global crisis and its effect on publishing. I put it in a drawer for a year or more, and then began to discuss the novel with La Alameda Press. I knew if Alameda published the book, I would do all of the marketing. But I also knew if JB and his press wanted to do the book, it would be a beautiful book from design details to paper/typeset choices, to cover and etc. Alameda said yes, and BONE HORSES was published.
KMR: Does your literary agent represent all of your work, including your novels?
LPK: Yes.I now have a wonderful agent (Liz Trupin-Pulli) and I discuss everything past, present, future that I am working on or thinking of working on. For the first time in my literary life, I have an agent with whom I feel safe, cared for, and completely affirmed as a writer and a person. We even share recipes!
KMR: When it comes to marketing and promoting, do you have a publicist or do you do most of it yourself?
LPK: For BONE HORSES, I am the publicist. I have had to learn as I go along. I really prefer having a marketing/PR department behind me and a book – I’ve published 2 books with the University of Arizona Press, and look forward to working with them to promote LADIES OF THE CANYONS. But I’ve learned a LOT about the Internet and book marketing with BONE HORSES that will serve my other books.
In 2013, I also took the initiative and published CANYON OF REMEMBERING as an eBook (Texas Tech U Press, the publisher, wasn’t interested, so I acquired the ebook rights) and I’ve been amazed at how a book can have a new audience as an eBook. It’s been wonderful to have new readers and reviewers for my first novel, published in 2000.
KMR: You are originally from New York. I read where you first visited New Mexico as a child. What led you to return to The Land of Enchantment years later, and did you envision how much the state would shape your life as a writer?
LPK: My dad was raised in El Paso,and we had family out west. My parents moved to Albuquerque when I was in college, and I transferred from the College of Wooster in Ohio to UNM because I just loved New Mexico. That was 1971. I’ve never left.
KMR: What is it like to live in Abiquiu, New Mexico, surrounded by the landscape that inspired Georgia O’Keefe?
LPK: Abiquiu is my idea of paradise. I love desert living, and with my husband, built a solar adobe house on the edge of the national forest (aka high desert). I met O’Keeffe a few times around Ghost Ranch, before she became so famous and iconic…I really didn’t know much about her back in the 70s.
I love rural life and rural people and their stories. I’m also quite the hermit when I’m writing, and enjoy the silence and space and light of my home country near Abiquiu. I imagine I’ll stay here for the rest of my life, god willing.
Other books by Lesley Poling-Kempes:
Ghost Ranch (University of Arizona Press)
Southwest Books of the Year “Top Choice” Award 2005; Finalist, Independent Publisher Book Awards 2005 – Best western non-fiction; TimeMagazine Notable Paperbacks
“Poling-Kempes is a skillful writer, smoothly dovetailing the human stories that make up the narrative of this pristine, peaceful, and appealing place. The author flat out knows how to tell a good story.” Richard Etulain, author of Re-imagining the Modern American West
“Rare is an author who possesses equal talent for writing both fiction and nonfiction. Lesley Poling-Kempes succeeds at both. Moreover, her historical material is as pleasing to read as a gripping novel.” New Mexico Magazine
The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West (Da Capo Press)
Winner, Zia Award for Excellence, New Mexico Press Women
“A story that seems to have completely vanished from the national memory; for giving it new life, Poling-Kempes deserves gratitude and praise.” Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World
“Although Poling-Kempes’ subtitle might mislead you into thinking they were an all-female wagon train or a roving band of women outlaws a la the James Gang, the Harvey Girls actually were ‘only waitresses,’ as one denigrator put it to the author… an interesting, sometimes even amusing bit of Americana.” Susan Rice, New York Times Book Review
Canyon of Remembering (Texas Tech University Press)
Spur Award Finalist, Best First Novel, Western Writers of America
“Lesley Poling-Kempes has given us a story full of joy, sadness, love and beauty – and most of all, full of truth. Canyon of Remembering deserves a place among American classics.” Tony Hillerman
“Like its New Mexico setting, this debut novel offers beauty in simplicity as it depicts a variety of people, licking their wounds from a variety of hurts, who come together to form a true community…Poling-Kempes writes with a quiet, seductive rhythm…” Publisher’s Weekly
Valley of Shining Stone: The Story of Abiquiu(University of Arizona Press)
“A writer’s acute, compelling history of one of America’s more endangered landscapes…Digging deeply into the history of a place, Poling-Kempes mines a rich vein of lore and myth.” KirkusReviews
Georgia O’Keeffe and New Mexico: A Sense of Placeby Barbara Buhler Lynes, Lesley Poling-Kempes, & Frederick W. Turner (Princeton University Press)
Winner, 2005 Independent Publisher Book Awards, Best Fine Art Book
“In her meticulous account, Lesley Poling-Kempes discusses the geophysical origins of this land of ‘extremes and contrast,’ analyzing the layered stone formations and matching them up with O’Keeffe’s keen observations of red shales, sandshales and silt stones created 200 million years ago.” Dore Ashton, Times Literary Supplement
Forthcoming fall, 2015:
LADIES OF THE CANYONS: A League of Extraordinary Women & the Creation of the Modern American Southwest, University of Arizona Press.
Lesley Poling-Kempes is the award-winning author of six books about the American Southwest, including “Bone Horses,” winner of the 2013 Tony Hillerman Award for Best Fiction, “The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West,” and “Ghost Ranch.” Her work has won the Zia Award for Excellence, and her first novel, “Canyon of Remembering” was a Western Writers of America Spur Award finalist. Lesley was born and raised in New York, and received her BA in journalism from the University of New Mexico. She has lived with her husband, Jim, in Abiquiu, New Mexico, since 1976. They have two children.