Forty years ago I traveled a great distance and saw many things and places. The highlight is always the people we meet along the journey. In this case, we were asked to have a cup of tea with an Afghani storeowner. We sat on the rug in his shop while he prepared the brew. He served the piping hot tea and told us how to hold the sugar cube in our mouths and during each sip; the sweetness blended with the subtle flavors of the tea, resulting in a perfect and exquisite experience. When we finished, he asked if we wanted another. Then he sat with us and told us that in his family, they drink the second cup bitter, thus there was no need to use sugar.
I think he could tell from my expression that I did not understand. He said, we enjoyed our first cup and we enjoyed each other’s company. He said the second cup reminds us that life is not very sweet for so many people and we do this in honor of those less fortunate. I understood what he meant….I thought.
Four decades later, my plane arrived late in Philadelphia. We had faced inclement weather all day and were forced to divert to Harrisburg to refuel. I was six hours behind time. When I tried to hail a taxi, my driver was eager to assist me. He said I was his fourth call in fourteen hours. The weather caused more than my plane to divert. We had a thirty-minute ride to my destination. It was late, but I could tell the driver wanted to talk. Within minutes he talked about what life was like in his village and the villages of his region of Afghanistan. I sensed the longing in his tone. The life he knew was extinct…except in his mind and in his heart.
“When we were boys, just young teens, we walked to a neighboring village. It was not long before someone stopped us and asked where we were from. We told the stranger our village. The man invited us home and told us we could stay at his home and that he had extra carpets we could use. He invited us to dine with his family. It was not long before the neighbors heard about the strangers and they brought food to make sure there was enough. They invited us to be part of their lives and took us to prayers and to meet others within their community. We were not strangers nor could we buy a meal.”
I asked him if he still had family over there. He said, “Yes, but nothing is the same. I miss my home.”
He blessed me when we arrived at my destination and told me that my plane being late may not have been a bad thing. He left Afghanistan some time after the Russians invaded and worked as a driver in New York. He said he had a passenger late for his plane that he seemed anxious and seemed distraught when he arrived to the airport after the plane’s departure and had missed his flight. He said, “Do you know what flight he missed? He missed TWA Flight 800.”
I wished him a good night. I will likely never see this person again, though he left a lasting impression in my heart.
There are many things in this life to celebrate. The biggest is family and friends. The world is brimming with beauty and wonder, but there is a dark side of the picture. There are places like my driver described that now only exist only in memory and there is the hope of better times and for the strength to endure the hard knocks and challenges that lay in our path.
I just finished my second cup of coffee. I drank it black.
I wish everyone a wonderful and blessed New Year and hope for better times and for strength to endure the challenges, though seemingly unbearable.
“The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.” Numbers 6:24-26
Randal Jentzen is a native New Mexican, a full-time medical provider, and enjoys reading, cycling, and travel.
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.
I’m pleased to introduce the writing team of Sue Boggio and Mare Pearl. Friends since childhood, Sue and Mare have been collaborating for 50 years.
(Kathleen): Please list your book awards and nominations.
(Sue): A Growing Season won the 2013 Tony Hillerman Award for Best Fiction by New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards. (We tied for first place with Lesley Kempes for Bone Horses.)
A Growing Season was a 2013 Finalist in the New Mexico Press Women’s Zia Award for Fiction and a 2013 Finalist in Women Writing the West’s Willa Award for Contemporary Fiction
KMR: How long have you been friends and when did you start writing as a team? Tell us briefly about your background growing up in Iowa and how you both ended up in New Mexico.
SB: Our friendship began fifty years ago when I moved into Mare’s neighborhood in West Des Moines, Iowa. We were creatively energized by the Beatles invasion and decided at age ten that if Lennon/McCartney could collaborate, so could we. The whole idea of two people creating something together was transformational. We began writing stories and passed them to each other in intricately folded notes. By adolescence we wrote poetry and co-wrote some short stories for our creative writing class in high school. Our teacher, the wonderful Mary Swenson, nurtured our writing collaboration.
Life intervened and after high school, we began to drift apart. I pursued a career in nursing while Mare moved to NYC to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy.
December 8, 1980, the night John Lennon was murdered, Mare called me and we talked all night, reunited in tragedy. Mare was in Pennsylvania and I had moved to Albuquerque in 1979 and was working as an RN at UNM. We began writing long letters back and forth, sending stories one of us would begin and the other would add on to and mail it back until it was too big for an envelope, no email or internet back then!
Mare made several trips a year to New Mexico to visit and fell in love with the Land of Enchantment. By 1989 she moved here and we began to get serious about our writing in the early 1990s, joining Southwest Writers Workshop, and learning as much about the publishing industry and fiction writing craft as we could.
KMR: What did it feel like to have Tony Hillerman’s endorsement on the cover of your debut novel “Sunlight and Shadow” when it was first released by New American Library (Penguin Group) in 2004? Tony Hillerman wrote, “Filled with emotion. A real winner of a story.”
SB: We got to know Tony Hillerman through Southwest Writers. He got a kick out of our collaboration and always asked us, “What are you two girls working on now?” In 2001, we won second place in the SWW novel contest with Sol y Sombra, Sunlight and Shadow. And after we told him it had the mystery element of a missing person, he offered to read it for a blurb. Even before we found an agent, we had a blurb from Tony Hillerman. He said, “I never could figure out what happened to that guy until you revealed it at the end!” His endorsement helped us get our agent and I know it impressed New York editors as well and helped us get published. So winning the Tony Hillerman award for Best Fiction this year is especially meaningful.
KMR: Can you describe your journey in getting “Sunlight and Shadow” published by a major house? Did you have an agent? How long did the entire process take?
SB: We spent some years writing and trying to sell a first novel and like many first novels, its purpose was for us to learn our craft. When we accepted it belonged locked away in a drawer, we began our second novel. “Sunlight and Shadow” was conceived as our love letter to New Mexico. After it won second place in 2001 SWW contest in September, an assistant editor, Jennifer Jahner from NAL/Penguin who attended the conference requested it for the new Accent Books they were launching to appeal to book clubs, i.e., “Oprah Books”. She loved it and pitched it to her senior editor who turned her down because they were only launching 6 books that year and they already had one with Hispanic characters. Jennifer was about as disappointed as we were. She sent us the editorial notes she had planned to use if she had been green-lighted. We took about a year to re-write the book based on her pages of detailed notes.
In the fall of 2002, we began to query agents using Jeff Herman’s Guide (our first agent for our first unsold novel, but that’s another story!) and Sandy Choron of March Tenth Literary agency offered representation by December. She sent out a first round in late January, which included sending it back to NAL/Penguin Accent Books, to Jennifer Jahner. It was Jennifer’s last day there, but after seeing it was our book from the previous year and that we had rewritten it using her notes, she hand carried it to her boss, editor Laura Cifelli who read it and loved it and called our agent four days later with an offer.
So from writing the first draft to publication offer, it took around three years, then another year until its release in February 2004, moved up from November 2004 due to our editor’s pregnancy/maternity leave, which is a very compressed production schedule. (Especially since we were presented with 8 pages of single-spaced editor’s notes which resulted in an entire overhaul of the manuscript, complete with new characters and accelerated investigation timeline in the story.) Normally it is closer to 18 months between contract and release, so all deadlines were moved up and it got rather frantic at times since we were both still working full time. I was going over final line edits with our editor over the phone as she was going into early labor with her third child. She was a talented editor who helped us make a better book and you can’t hope for more than that. As a bonus, both Laura and her assistant, Rose Hilliard, were completely wonderful to work with.
We pursued traditional publishing because we believed it was the best way to go, given the options at the time. We wanted the validation of being vetted through the crucible of mainstream publishing at a major house, even though the path is fraught with rejection and heartbreak. It’s a great way to learn tenacity and self-belief beyond all reason. We still can’t believe our luck.
KMR: Your latest novel “A Growing Season” was released earlier this year by University of New Mexico Press. If you’re both comfortable discussing the details, can you explain why you chose to go with a university press over a major house?
SB: We wrote the first draft of A Growing Season the year Sunlight and Shadow was released, 2004. I had several detailed phone conversations about character arcs, etc., with our editor who expressed enthusiasm for the project. But then (cue heartbreak music) she passed on it saying it was “too regional” and she was also changing her focus to editing Romance books for the new Eclipse line.
On the shelf it went while we worked on other projects. Then in early 2011 I got a call from a writer friend who had heard that UNM Press was looking for “quality regional fiction”. We quickly brushed up A Growing Season and then requested a meeting with John Byram (Director of UNM Press, whom we had just met at the UNM Writing Conference) and Clark Whitehorn (Editor in Chief). At the conclusion of our thirty minute pitch, they both wanted to read it. We pulled out our two copies of the newly revised manuscript and gave them each one.
Once they approved it, it went to two outside professional reviewers for evaluation. The reviewers fill out extensive forms, citing strengths and weaknesses, and state whether they recommend publication. Both recommended publication with specific feedback on how it could be improved. We did another rewrite incorporating their suggestions. Then Clark presented A Growing Season to the University Press Committee (Twelve professors representing various specialties) at their monthly meeting. The committee voted in favor of publication. We signed the contract and a publication date was set for one year from that time, September 2012.
It was fun to work with Clark and UNM Press. We met with Clark and other UNM Press staff throughout the process. When I was still working on campus, I could just walk over for impromptu meetings or to drop something off and actually conduct our business face to face a lot of the time. So it was a much more personal experience than working long distance with New York.
But whether it is a major house or small press, it is pretty much the same process and we approached both situations with humility and gratitude and strove for a high degree of professionalism, so hopefully it was a pleasant experience for everyone concerned.
KMR: Give us a brief summary of “A Growing Season.”
SB: In A Growing Season, authors Sue Boggio and Mare Pearl return to Esperanza, New Mexico, where a devastating drought threatens the farming community’s survival. Vultures circle in the form of developers who see failing farms as ripe pickings. Court battles pit the endangered silvery minnow against the farmers as the once mighty Rio Grande shrinks from its banks even as demand for its precious water increases.
Abby Silva and her adopted son Santiago must heal from the violence of the past to claim their futures. CeCe and Miguel Vigil must care for CeCe’s octogenarian Jewish parents, whose disapproval of their marriage is now played out under their own roof, threatening their once solid union. Their daughter Rachel finally confronts the Jewish half of her ethnicity through her grandparents, Holocaust survivor Zeyde Mort, and feisty Brooklyn Bubbe Rose. But cultures must cross divides if all are to thrive. Love is risked and secrets are revealed as the community of Esperanza struggles to preserve its traditional way of life despite overwhelming odds.
KMR: How difficult was it to write a sequel to “Sunlight and Shadow”? Can “A Growing Season” be read as a stand-alone story or do readers need to first read S & S?
SB: When we wrote Sunlight and Shadow, we put great emphasis on creating a fully-realized fictional world in Esperanza, New Mexico, complete with a detailed cast of both primary and secondary inhabitants. We hadn’t planned to write another Esperanza book until 3 things happened. First, we began to hear from Sunlight and Shadow readers who said the book ended rather abruptly and they wanted to know more about what happens with the characters. Second, New Mexico was hit by a devastating and continuing drought that hit farmers along the Rio Grande very hard, resulting in rationing of irrigation water, battles over the endangered species silvery minnow that was federally protected, and we wondered how this would affect our family chile farm. And third, I came upon a beautiful, fallen cottonwood tree on a walk and had a vision of Santiago as a young man finding such a tree on his property, and seeing it evoked a very unsettled reaction in him. That vision became the scene that opens A Growing Season.
Writing A Growing Season had both the comfort of returning to a (fictional) place and characters we knew well and loved, combined with the challenge of researching and presenting new characters, the details of chile farming, and the complicated issues concerning water use from the Rio Grande.
We wrote A Growing Season to stand alone. It takes place seven years after Sunlight and Shadow’s conclusion. So both books may be read independently, however, the mystery element in Sunlight and Shadow is revealed at the beginning of A Growing Season. We have readers who have read them out of order and still enjoy both, but if you want to preserve the mystery in Sunlight and Shadow, read that one first.
KMR: Your cover art on “A Growing Season” is breathtaking and captures the essence of New Mexico. The same can be said for the artwork on the UNM Press re-release of “Sunlight and Shadow.” Tell us what it was like to work with New Mexico artist Barbara Clark. Did you know her before you signed your contract with UNM Press?
SB: When Nal/Penguin published Sunlight and Shadow, our editor talked about a cover that would focus on the dappled sunlight through a towering cottonwood tree, CeCe’s garden in full bloom, perhaps a basket of chiles…then she went on maternity leave and the cover that ended up being selected had none of that and we didn’t have a say. Granted we didn’t push the issue out of diplomacy and we loved that our names were on the cover—but beyond that we were less than thrilled.
So when A Growing Season was under contract, we began searching for New Mexico art that would do justice to a book set in New Mexico and that is so much about the beauty of the land. I went to the Corrales Bosque Gallery and saw work by Corrales artist Barbara Clark who did gorgeous pastels of New Mexico landscapes with arroyos and mountains.
I went home and looked at her website and it was as if I saw the setting of our book come to life. I called Mare and we selected our favorite eight or so and sent them to Clark at UNM Press. He and others at UNM loved them and once we narrowed it down to two or three, UNM Press made the final selection, though they did pick our first choice. I called Barbara Clark and introduced myself and asked if she would be interested in having her work on our cover and she was thrilled. Then after UNM Press decided to re-issue Sunlight and Shadow (and liberate it from its previous cover) it was a no-brainer to select another Barbara Clark painting. We’ve met Barbara on a number of occasions and become friends. She is a fabulous person and amazing artist. Please visit her website: www.bacpastels.com.
KMR: Give us a peek into how you work as a writing team. Do you meet in person for brainstorming sessions? How do you decide who writes what sections and scenes in your novels or do you both work on the same scenes together?
SB: We talk a lot about a project before we begin writing, taking notes. We talk about theme, define our characters and their arcs, we talk about setting in detail, and sketch out the broad strokes of the plot. We meet once a week for about half a day to read aloud to each other the scenes we’ve each written for that week. Reading aloud is so critical to our process. We listen intently to dialogue, description, whether the scene accomplishes its mission and give our feedback. We might say ‘this goes too long and needs trimming’ or we might say ‘expand this part—needs more development.’ So we do revise as we go along to an extent. Then we decide what’s next and assign scenes to write for the following week (along with rewriting anything problematic from the week before). We each write at least one POV (point of view) character, sometimes two, and we write our scenes through their thoughts and feelings. (In A Growing Season, I wrote Abby and Santiago. Mare wrote Rachel and CeCe.)
Brainstorming is a lot of it since we like to allow for discovery of something we hadn’t thought of before that moment. We plan ahead with a loose outline but it changes as we go along. Usually we pretty much know the ending. We use tools like scene cards, charts, time-lines to track everything. We draw maps of our settings, floor plans of houses, etc., since we both need the same mental image of shared settings and detailed character appearances/clothing/eye color. With two writers, you constantly check for continuity issues. We don’t worry about chapter divisions until we’re finished with the first draft. We use scene cards to decide the final order, then Mare gives me all her files and I merge them with mine and figure out chapter breaks. Then I go through everything multiple times, line editing, cutting as much as possible (we tend to over-write), and re-working rough spots. I confer with her about anything significant of hers that I think I should change, reading it over the phone to get her approval.
KMR: Do you ever have disagreements over how a scene is written or how a character is portrayed? If so, how do you work through these issues?
SB: In our brainstorming, we debate about everything. It is pretty free-wheeling. We tend to explore things using, “What if –blah blah blah?” Until we hone down what feels right and it is usually a mutual gut instinct. Sometimes we’ll try something one way and then after a read-through decide to modify it or throw it out altogether. For us, story comes out of character, so sometimes we’ll call each other on “I don’t think she would do that, or say that.” We really rely on the reaction of the other a lot, which comes out of fifty years of trust. I think we trust each other even more than we trust ourselves when it comes to the kind of decision making necessary in writing a novel. I don’t know what I’ve written until I read it to Mare for her reaction.
KMR: Do you both still have day jobs? If so, when do you write?
SB: I retired from UNM fulltime RN work July 1, 2011. Mare retired one year later on the same day. Mare picks up night shifts at the children/adolescent psychiatric hospital maybe once or twice a week, if that. I work for UNM on particular projects that come up seasonally, with months off in between. Prior to our retirement, not only did we work fulltime, but I worked days and Mare worked nights and we had different days off. We still managed to write five novels and a screenplay during those years. But then we reached an age where something had to give and fortunately, it was fulltime work. We have balance now and our productivity—and I think our quality—have improved.
KMR: We all met at the Southwest Writers Workshop Conference in 1998 held in Albuquerque, NM. Are you both still active in the organization?
SB: We would like to get back into it. The times/days they hold their meetings haven’t been conducive for us to attend. SWW was instrumental in our development as writers, both learning our craft and how to navigate the industry, and obviously the contacts and friendships we made there are priceless. (Including and especially yours!)
We are more involved with New Mexico Book Co-op and attend their monthly lunchtime meetings. We can network with other writers, publishers, and hear the latest industry news, including opportunities to market our work.
KMR: How has the publishing industry changed over the years since your earliest attempts at writing novels? Since you are traditionally published, what are your thoughts on writers who choose to go indie?
SB: We’ve always been told how hard it is to get published, and with corporate mergers, it is even harder now. Things move at glacial speed. Rejection is the norm. But, we’ve always taken that with a grain of salt. We own our careers. We believe no matter how dismal the odds, if there is a chance, it is up to us to make it happen. Meanwhile, we love the process, we love our partnership, we love hearing back from readers.
We support all forms of getting the written word out there. Many writers are making a great go of it publishing independently and more power to them. We haven’t gone that route, but we don’t rule it out. Distribution and marketing, I think would be even more challenging, but you hear about indie books that rise to fame and make a lot of money for their authors, so who knows?
KMR: What are you both working on now?
SB: We have an agent shopping our novel, Four Fools, about a counterculture 1960s family. It is our most ambitious novel, spanning decades and required a lot of research into the events and politics of the 1950s and 1960s. We just finished a novel called Hungry Shoes, based on our work with adolescents in psychiatric care. It is now in the hands of our beta readers, a child psychologist/social worker, a child psychiatrist and a former mental health worker (and long-time trusted first reader). Once they report back to us, we will incorporate their feedback into another revision and then get it to our agent to see if it is something she wants to take on. If not, we’ll embark on another agent search!
We are in preliminary discussions about a third Esperanza book, if UNM Press likes our ideas that may be next.
KMR: And the final question. Is your partnership like a marriage? Till death do you part?
SB: We have a feeling we’ve already shared many lifetimes together and there will be many more. But, we have a particular attachment, at the moment, to this lifetime and want to wring all we can out of it. When we were little kids, I did a sketch of us sitting in rocking chairs as old ladies next to each other on a veranda, so we’ve always taken the long view. As we’re turning 60 this year, we’re completely boggled that we’ve gone through fifty years already! We have so much more we want to accomplish together that one lifetime will not be enough.
Cover art by New Mexico artist Barbara Clark. To read more about her work please visit her website at: www.bacpastels.com