A conversation with Paulette Jiles on writing NEWS OF THE WORLD

  

 

What draws you to write about the Civil War era?

I was first drawn to it when I was researching the Civil War era in the Missouri Ozarks when doing family genealogy. That research went into Enemy Women. If you are a writer, research is really kind of an investment, a storehouse of stuff, facts, images and documents ready to hand. I was thinking of a sequel to Enemy Women in which I envisioned Adair and the Major moving to north Texas.  So I looked into conditions in North Texas at the end of the War and discovered stories about the black frontiersman Britt Johnson, which led to more research for Color of Lightning. This included discovering Captain Kidd by hearing about him from a neighbor here where I live. This neighbor’s ancestor was a real newsreader named Captain Kidd, or Kydd. It also led to looking into the intriguing subject of captives held by the Kiowa and Comanche tribes. And these things gave rise to News of the World. When you begin research, you step onto the Yellow Brick Road and there is no end to it. No end to the stories.

How many months or years of research went into gathering the fascinating historical details we see in the book?

It is hard to say how much time went into research for News of the World, because it all came from that storehouse I have of sources for both the Civil War, Texas and the clothing, etc. of that time. It was cumulative, from two previous novels. I used Wikipedia a great deal and especially the further references at the end of every Wikipedia article, and their sources. Also, I must say the fact-checkers at Harper Collins were wonderful, very keen and interested, they found mistakes I had let slip by and also pointed me to other sources. To get things right you have to love research. It’s an addiction.

Fans of The Color of Lightning will be happy to see Britt Johnson reappear in News of the World. How did you come upon the idea of bringing him into this narrative?

I was amazed that he had not been given a fuller treatment in literature, he is an archetypal hero figure, like Roland or Beowulf or El Cid. His story, while true, has all the attributes of the classic tragic hero. I just went back to the scene in Color of Lightning when Captain Kidd is reading from a newspaper about the Fifteenth Amendment while Britt and his crew, Dennis and Paint, stand in the back of the hall listening. It is raining. Something momentous is taking place. I shifted this scene into its own book, page one, and suddenly the subject becomes a captive girl. You can always use a good scene twice!

How would you explain your love of the Texas landscape, which figures so prominently in your overall body of work?

Some people are just born with a love of landscape or the outdoors, or gardening, or raising large animals, or searching through the non-urban world for treasure. It’s in your DNA or something. I am one of those people. We should have a secret sign. Part of the fun of researching Color of Lightning was driving up to North Texas with a friend, June Chism, to the Red River country. She and her husband Wayne have relatives there, as well as friends (ranchers) who took me down to the Red River, where I found the place Britt would likely have crossed, and we found the Stone Houses, and visited Spanish Fort, etc. It is a beautiful and also dangerous country. It is dramatic. There are fires, droughts and floods, rolling red land, astonishing skies. June’s husband Wayne Chism is the one whose ancestor was the real newsreader, who traveled from town to town in North Texas to read the news of the day to those assembled. Captain Kidd or Kydd. The moment Wayne told me about his great-great grandfather I knew this was a truly great character. I put him into the rainy chill landscape of North Texas in Color of Lightning, but I knew there was more there.

What emotional aspect of the story do you think readers will appreciate most?

I think readers will most appreciate the Captain’s courage in doing the right thing. His protection of the innocent, his staunch defense, even to the risk of his life, of a child in need.

Paulette Jiles is a novelist, poet, and memoirist. She is the author of Cousins, a memoir, and the novels Enemy Women, Stormy Weather, The Color of LightningLighthouse Island, and News of the World. She lives on a ranch near San Antonio, Texas.

Find out more about Paulette at her website.

NEWS OF THE WORLD takes readers on the memorable journey of an old man and an Indian girl across a lawless Texas in 1870

News of the World  Paulette Jiles tlc tour host 2017

News of the World

By Paulette Jiles

William Morrow: June 20, 2017
(originally published Oct. 4, 2016)

$15.99, 212 pages


Paulette Jiles’ latest book about Texas in the post-Civil War years, News of the World, belongs in the elite group of Old West novels that includes Lonesome Dove and True Grit. A sequel of sorts to The Color of Lightning, this short novel tells the story of a retired military man-turned-news reader, Captain Jefferson Kidd. While in Wichita Falls to read the news to the isolated locals, he is offered a $50 gold piece to return a young orphan girl to her relatives near San Antonio. Johanna Leonberger was kidnapped at age six by a Kiowa raiding party, and her parents and sister killed. After four years, she is rescued by the Army; but Johanna has been transformed from a blonde-haired, blue-eyed German immigrant girl into a Kiowa who speaks no English and wants nothing to do with the white man’s world or white-haired Captain Kidd. He is reluctant to get involved but sees no other way for her to be delivered home. As a military man, he understands duty.

News of the World immerses the reader in a time and place that most of us know little about: Texas in 1870, two decades after it has been obtained from Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and five years after the end of the Civil War. It is still a mostly lawless land, where a trip from Dallas to San Antonio, 400 miles southwest, is considered dangerous and borderline suicidal. Yet Kidd sets off on this “fool’s errand” with an uncommunicative, ten-year-old Indian girl in the back of his wagon. It will come as no surprise that Kidd and Johanna slowly learn to trust each other and then to communicate. Kidd is a widower with little but his news reading travels to occupy him and a hole in his heart where his wife Maria Luisa once resided. So while their developing relationship is predictable, the details provide all the pleasure.

On their journey south, the Captain and Johanna – which she pronounced “Cho-henna” encounter Army men, a child prostitute trafficker, a collection of crazy brothers who want to know why they’re not in the newspapers, and other colorful and occasionally threatening personages. The Captain gives Johanna English lessons and they discover that she remembers some German from her early childhood. At the same time, she proves to be an astute observer of human nature in both the Captain and the strangers who cross their path, as well as an independent girl with a variety of skills learned in her four years with the Kiowa. Watching their relationship develop is the novel’s chief satisfaction.

The other pleasures of News of the World are Jiles’ pitch perfect voice, with its authentic Old Texas sensibility and droll dialogue, and her prose poetry descriptions of the natural world in this mostly empty land. Early on their trip, during an impressive North Texas storm, she escapes, and the Captain finds her standing at the edge of the flood-level Red River.

“There at its edge, on a lift of red stone no more than thirty yards ahead, stood Johanna, wet as a dishcloth and her skirts heavy with rain. She clutched the doll to her chest. In the explosive lightning flashes the Captain could see, on the far side of the flood, a party of Indians. They were on the move. They had probably been flooded out of their campsite. The Red was still rising. Entire pecan trees rolled and ground like mill wheels in the current. The Indians had stopped to look across, perhaps at the distant lights of Spanish Fort, and Johanna was calling to them in Kiowa but they could not hear her. It was too far, the river was too loud.

“She put down the doll and shouted at the Indians with her hands around her mouth. What could she possibly think would happen? That they would come for her? She was shouting for her mother, for her father and her sisters and brothers, for the life on the Plains, traveling wherever the buffalo took them, she was calling for her people who followed water, lived with every contingency, were brave in the face of enemies, who could go without food or water or money or shoes or hats and did not care that they had neither mattresses nor chairs nor oil lamps. They stood and stared across the water at her like creatures of the sidhe, wet and shining in every flash from overhead.”

It will not surprise the reader when the Captain and Johanna arrive in Castroville, west of San Antonio. As he promised the Army officer at start of the story, he delivers his young charge to her aunt and uncle, who had no idea she was coming, and aren’t quite sure what to make of her. A complicated situation ensues that does not play out the way some would expect.

Underpinning this traditional story is the pragmatic but compassionate soul of Captain Jefferson Kidd. One feels honored to meet this man and get to know him. The world has brought the news to the Captain and the story of these two vastly different survivors and their second chance at experiencing a sense of family is touching and memorable. It is no surprise that News of the World was a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction.


News of the World blog tour schedule

Read Her Like an Open Book is the final stop on the NOTW blog tour. If you’re interested in what other bloggers had to say about the book, here is the itinerary.

Tuesday, June 20th: A Bookish Affair

Wednesday, June 21st: Book by Book

Thursday, June 22nd: Literary Lindsey

Friday, June 23rd: Diary of a Stay at Home Mom

Monday, June 26th: The Book Diva’s Reads

Tuesday, June 27th: The Feminist Texican [Reads]

Wednesday, June 28th: Book Snob

Thursday, June 29th: Ms. Nose in a Book

Monday, July 3rd: 100 Pages a Day…Stephanie’s Book Reviews

Tuesday, July 4th: Into the Hall of Books

Wednesday, July 5th: She’s All Booked

Monday, July 10th: Real Life Reading

Tuesday, July 11th: Wining Wife

Wednesday, July 12th: Cold Read

Thursday, July 13th: Reading is My Super Power

Friday, July 14th: Lit and Life


Purchase Links: HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble 

Writing Out of Rage: How Sexual Politics Inspired “The Unraveling of Mercy Louis”

This essay was originally posted on March 30, 2015, but it seems appropriate to post it again as 2016 crawls off into the sunset.

Keija_Parssinen_-_credit_Shane_Epping  Unraveling-of-Mercy-Louis-hcc-226x342

By Keija Parssinen

The advice goes that you shouldn’t compose an email while angry, but what about a novel? Can good art emerge out of rage? I’d argue that the answer is yes, but that’s because I was a flaming nova of fury while writing my second book, The Unraveling of Mercy Louis. In an interview with the NEA Arts Magazine, Toni Morrison said, “Writing for me is thinking, and it’s also a way to position myself in the world, particularly when I don’t like what’s going on.” Maybe that’s why I sat down in early 2012 and started The Unraveling of Mercy Louis. I didn’t like what was going on in our country, not at all. And I wanted someone to hear me roar.

It was election season, which meant that Republicans were attacking reproductive rights with increased zeal. But suddenly, the politicians weren’t just injecting themselves into the private health decisions of American women. They were also weighing in on sexual violence, to horrifying effect. In Missouri, where I live, Todd Akin infamously coined the term “legitimate rape,” when he told a local TV station: “If it’s legitimate rape, the female body has way to try and shut the whole thing down.” The comments might have been laughable, the unhinged croakings of a drunken uncle at a reunion picnic, but Akin was running for the U.S. Senate, hoping to represent about three million Missouri women, and so his comments were deeply disturbing. Indiana’s Richard Mourdock soon blundered his way into the conversation, saying that even when a pregnancy resulted from rape, God intended it, and therefore, a woman should be forced to carry the baby to term.

At the time, I was pregnant with my first child, a planned pregnancy for which my husband and I were grateful. But the pregnancy evoked complicated feelings in me. I became hyperaware of the fact that suddenly, my body was not my own. Beyond the fact that people openly commented on and touched my body lay the fact that, if for some terrible reason I needed an abortion after twenty weeks, I would not be able to get one. The local Planned Parenthood clinic stopped doing the procedure at all that year. As my husband and I trekked to the doctor for our prenatal visits, I felt like Akin and Mourdock and Romney were there in the doctor’s office with me, micro-managing my pregnancy. I wondered how anyone—particularly any man—could have the gall to believe he should be a part of this intensely personal journey.

As the year wore on, the Steubenville and Maryville rape cases gained national attention. I cried tears of grief for those girls who lost their innocence so violently, and so publicly. And I cried tears of rage for how the respective communities responded to the crimes: by shaming the girls, excusing the boys, burning down houses, driving families out of town.

Throughout all of this, I wrote. Every day, heavy with the pregnancy, I sat down and wrote the story of the girls of Port Sabine, Texas—a community much like Steubenville, or Maryville, or Anywhereville, USA. In my story, I made the girls fierce—strong, smart and athletic—but I made the town a powerful oppressor, interfering in the natural development of its young women out of fear of their nascent sexuality. A fear that runs deep in this country, all the way back to Salem and the Colonies.

I wrote out of rage, and I wrote out of fear, hearing my teacher Elizabeth McCracken’s advice that “revenge is a fantastic reason to write” as I typed. “Don’t tread on me or the girls or women of this country, you Tea Party motherfuckers,” I would think as I wrote another scathing chapter. At times, I worried that my anger would somehow affect the baby growing inside me, so I did yoga and meditated, to try and counterbalance the high emotion that fueled the writing.

The morning of January 18th, 2013, I emailed a draft of the novel to my agent. Later that day, I gave birth to my son. It was a time of great happiness, and relief. I was glad to let go of my anger for a while, and embrace the special joy a wanted baby brings. But while I breastfed and snuggled my sweet infant, I found my thoughts wandering to the still burning world outside my door. And I thought about my characters, particularly the teenage mothers. Here I was, a thirty-two year old woman nurturing a son I wanted with all my heart, but still, it at times felt impossible. As I struggled with sleeplessness, difficulty nursing, and a body I no longer recognized, I understood viscerally the need for women to be able to make the decision to have babies on their own terms. Because it is the hardest thing we will ever do, and because it can be financially and emotionally devastating if you’re not in the right place in your life.

When my agent returned the draft to me with her comments, I was able to approach the manuscript with the cool detachment necessary to shape an angry screed into something more subtle, more artful—and hopefully more affecting. As we gear up for another election season (groan), I want to send a copy to Akin and Mourdock, Santorum and Cruz, Romney and Bush, and anyone else who has ever reduced women to second-class citizens by denying them domain over their bodies, not just to show them the devastating psychological effects that such a message has on young women, but to introduce them to some kick-ass female characters whose complex thoughts and desires might just shock the imbeciles into the realization that women are fully realized human beings, too.

Richly plotted FRIENDSWOOD probes small town’s toxic tensions

Friendswood  Rene Steinke

Friendswood

By Rene Steinke

Riverhead Books: Aug. 14, 2014

354 pages, $27.95

Rene Steinke, author of the 2005 National Book Award finalist Holy Skirts, has returned to the literary scene after nearly a decade with a timely and absorbing novel. Friendswood explores two issues that are seemingly discrete but are actually intertwined: corporate polluters turning a residential neighborhood into a toxic waste site and sexual abuse by high school athletes in a small town that worships football. In both cases, the immoral and possibly illegal behavior of privileged actors is indulged by the majority, who value economic growth and athletic prowess over questioning their way of life, the choices they make, and the cost of both.

The narrative is shared by four characters. Lee is a mother turned single-minded environmental activist when her teenage daughter Jess dies from a strange cancer. Jess’s death eventually drove Lee and her husband apart; now her life revolves around her part-time job in a doctor’s office and monitoring the adjacent property, the site of a former refinery. When she discovers that the site is belching toxins from the soil again, Lee moves from vigilant to vigilante.

Hal is a former mediocre high school athlete struggling to make a living in real estate; he is living vicariously through the athletic exploits of his son, Cully, and hoping that a recent religious rebirth will save him, his business, and his wilting marriage.

Willa is a 15-year-old student with an artistic streak and an eccentric persona that doesn’t fit easily into the culture of this small town located between Houston and the Gulf.

Dex is a classmate of Willa and Cully with more on his mind than just football and girls. Their lives intersect in ways they could not predict, even though readers probably can.

Time has passed since the toxic cleanup and town leaders believe part of the former refinery property is safe for new residential development. Big shot developer and former football star Avery Taft wants to bring this project to fruition, and Hal is desperate to persuade Taft to retain him for his realtor services. Lee has discovered worrisome materials during her nocturnal prowling behind the fences and attempts to alert the few influential people who are sympathetic to her unpopular obsession. Dex develops a romantic interest in Willa, as Cully begins to see her as an easily manipulated potential conquest.

The two plot strands overlap in the sense that each involves predators steadily moving toward their distracted prey, while one good-hearted person  attempts to intervene to save them. Lee tries to save another round of innocent victims from the health hazards of living near a toxic site. Dex tries to save Willa from the sexual predators and opportunists on the football team, as well as from the town’s illusions about her. In the midst of this, Willa is having terrifying visions straight out of Revelations and struggling to interpret their meaning.

As the narrative progresses, the various plots and subplots become more tightly wound, eventually resulting in a single intertwined thread. Steinke has written a book with engaging characters who are trying to achieve their goals; occasionally they come across as somewhat stereotyped but not to the extent that it undermines the story or its message. You may feel that you’ve met these people before, if not in real life, at least in other books or movies. Steinke grew up in the actual Friendswood, Texas, and she knows small towns and their residents well; she knows that football, religion, and the oil business are often the Holy Trinity in such places. (I happen to teach in just such a town in Central California.)

Friendswood tells a compelling story that maintains interest and tension throughout. It will leave you haunted by what was and what could have been.