No. I didn't grow up around cattle or horses. I'm a lousy rider. When I'm on horseback, I feel like I'm on top of the Empire State Building. I'd rather jump out of an airplane, where I'm in charge of pulling the ripcord on my own parachute, than ride atop all those pounds of uncontrollable muscle and hot wind. Not that I have ever jumped out of an airplane, but you see what I mean.
I did grow up in western Nebraska. I haven't lived there for a long time, but my mother does, so I go back once or twice a year. My people were of the land. My dad loved the outdoors and working the earth. By the time I was born, he'd given up farming, and I grew up hearing stories of hardship mixed in with nostalgia for the independence and beauty of living on the land. I have devotion to the land rooted in my bones, even though I live the life of a city person. I think my insider-outsider status gave me a perspective that fueled the story in a positive way..
What do you mean by that?
Just that I had some distance to combine with my observations. Sometimes that can be very helpful. I wanted to write a tale that captured the ambiguities of rural life. I didn't want to fall into sentimental nostalgia (remember "the good ole' days"), nor did I want to suggest that all the changes sweeping across rural America are progressive and good. Life has been hard on the rural landscape, and it's still hard. It's hard in a different way. There are new challenges, and some people are being squeezed out of a way of life they have known and loved for generations. I don't think we know yet what that will mean for us as a society.
How did you decide to make an aging widow the protagonist for your story?
Who knows? Perversity, maybe. I'm of an age when I see myself and others like me disappearing from public view. When I go to a movie starring a man my age, he's usually paired with a woman closer to the ages of my daughters. Well. That just makes me crabby. I find mature women fascinating. I've always been enthralled with older women. I grew up listening to the stories of my mother and her sisters. My husband's mother was one of seven sisters, and I loved hearing them sit around the dining room table and spin tales. As a girl, I used to sing at the Women's Club in my home town. My first librarian—a woman who changed my life—was in her 80's. Women are the keepers of families and stories. The women I've known are smart, tough, resilient, subversive, and funny. What more could you ask for in a character?
There are a lot of secrets that get uncovered in your story. What do you make of that?
I'm perplexed by secrets. My natural inclination is to get things out in the open. I think we cause a lot of real damage by hiding from each other. Plus, it takes a lot of energy to remember what's out and what isn't.
But then again, there's Chekhov to consider. His work revolves around fragile families who manage to hang on because certain things are not spoken. They aren't secrets, exactly. Things aren't hidden so much as unnamed, and once they're named, no one can pretend any longer not to know. And the knowledge destroys the family.
So, Toby and Gertie have secrets. So does George. Some of them fall in that category Chekhov explores—things everyone knows but can't name—and some are true secrets. And I was interested to see what would happen if some of them got revealed.
Do you know what's going to happen before you write?
No, I write to discover. Sometimes I think I know, but then I get surprised. That's when it's the most consternating and the most fun.
You have a lot of different family relationships in this story. What can you say about that?
I wrote about sisters, grandmothers and grandchildren, a mother and daughter, cousins. Father and children, too—Luther has a profound presence in the book even though he's long dead when it opens. George, who isn't blood relation, is part of the family. There are also adoptive relationships in this book. Maybe I was working at defining family.
What about Toby's house, the Alhambra on the prairie?
My husband and I stayed at a B&B in South Dakota, Kenny and Lyndy Ireland's Triangle Ranch, and Lyndy's great-grandmother's house was an Alhambra. (www. bbonline.com/sd/triangleranch/) I was struck by the incongruity and surprise of it— this ornate house rising up out of the prairie. I loved the suggestion that the Midwest and the West are not what the cultural clichés tell us. During the Depression, people in the plains states used to send away for fancy dresses and host bridge parties. They found ways to keep their spirits alive. I'd been thinking about writing this story— something about women and lost children and changing times and love of land—and when I saw the Alhambra, it all began to fall in place.
Why did you decide to tell the story through four different characters?
I think it's the playwright in me. When you write a play, the interrelationship of characters fuels the action. I'm naturally drawn to that mix. I like observing how different people see things. I like that way of exploring the truth, through relative perspectives. In this story, each character holds information that the others don't have. The reader has all the information, as it unfolds, so that creates tension.
Plus, many people in western Nebraska don't talk much. All that isolation has turned them out to be reticent, so I needed a practical device for the reader to know these people. Moving into different points-of-view gave me access to their thoughts.
You have a theology degree. Does that interest play out in this story?
I'm interested in how people make meaning, how they interpret religious symbols and systems they've inherited, how they cope with loss. I consider all of those issues theological issues, in a broad sense. I'm not interested in writing in service to any certain ideology. I am interested in characters who are enriched or enslaved by the ideologies they hold.