My publisher sometimes does “how did your novel happen?” interviews with writers. I was recently asked to contribute. Here’s the scoop.
Okay. Not even Seattle. But in Heather Lockman’s fictional small Washington town, all manner of upheaval occurs when a big country and western star chooses a historical house museum to shoot his new video.
The Indian Shirt Story is one part funny, one part romantic, one part whimsical speculation on the past and all parts beautifully written. In the interest of full disclosure, Heather is a colleague of mine, whose book was recently released at Musa Publishing, and she kindly sent me a review copy of her novel. Like Jack, Heather’s book was given an Editor’s Top Pick designation by our publisher.
Without further ado, here is my interview with Heather about her debut.
You seem to be a real history lover. How do you come by this passion and what do you do with it beside write fiction?
I think history is interesting—that’s the short answer. I’ve always been drawn to the basic questions of “What happened?” and “Why did it happen?” (And, when I got older, “Why does it matter that it happened?”) It’s probably not a coincidence that my parents found history interesting, too. My sisters and I all remember tramping around in a remote cemetery in eastern Washington State on a long-ago family vacation, searching for the grave of the great Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph, when I was about five years old. That sort of thing makes an impression.
For most of my career I’ve written nonfiction, and a lot of that has been history related. At some point I graduated from magazine stories to museum exhibits and outdoor historical markers—those big signs you see in public parks. I also give a wickedly good historical tour of the Washington State Governor’s Mansion.
Your other book is a local history of a small Washington town. Did working on that inspire you to invent the fictional town history in The Indian Shirt Story?
What a funny—but logical—question! I’d already completed the novel before I was asked to write the text for a pictorial history of Tumwater, the town once famous for brewing Olympia beer. So no, the nonfiction book didn’t influence the novel. But the story of fictional Port Heron definitely draws on the history of real towns along Puget Sound.
Where did you get the idea for the Indian Shirt Story itself—the story within your story?
I once helped rescue an old Northwest homestead and reinvent it as a historic house museum. As you might imagine, one of the biggest challenges in interpreting a pioneer-era home is balancing the Oregon Trail emigrant story against the perspective of American Indian people. There was one particular family story associated with the house that was, by modern standards, appalling in its portrayal of Native people. Yet it was an important story to the older generation of the family and likely had its roots in something that actually happened. That got me thinking about what might really have taken place between the white family and their Indian visitors—and what would the Indian version of that same encounter have been?
I’m curious as to what you think the novel’s heroine, Bess, would think if she knew all the different iterations of the Indian shirt story. She seems like a stickler for authenticity and yet, if anything, the message of your novel is that such authenticity is a constantly moving target.
Bess would love to get her hands on all those different versions of the shirt story, both to answer the question of how it originated and to watch how the story changes through time. Each version of the tale has significance for the culture and generation that tells it. Bess would totally get that.
Bess is not a country music fan, but you are. How did this happen to a multi-generational Northwesterner?
I didn’t know anything about country music when I started plotting this novel. I was interested in the question of what would happen to an authentic historic site if it became associated with a big pop-culture celebrity. Originally I thought the star would be a sort of Kurt Cobain/Northwest grunge kind of guy. But then I realized there were all sorts of Red State/Blue State possibilities if he were a Nashville star instead. So I started watching CMT and buying issues of Country Weekly and listening to country radio in the car, which—trust me—is not seen as cool in the granola-crunching, kayak-paddling, espresso-drinking part of the Pacific Northwest. I kept saying, “It’s just research. I need to know what I’m writing about.” Then one day I was driving to the grocery store with the windows down and the radio cranked up, singing Hillbilly Deluxe at top volume along with Brooks and Dunn, and I thought, “Screw it. I don’t care what the neighbors think.”
Who are a few of your favorite country artists?
Ever since country music first hit the airwaves in the 1920s each generation has complained that the new stuff on the radio isn’t country enough. Folks tend to like what was popular when they first started listening. I’ll probably always prefer the songs and artists who were on the radio while I was writing The Indian Shirt Story. Lately every song seems to be about getting drunk for fun, which isn’t actually very country. In traditional country music, getting drunk is what happens when things go bad.
I know a lot of writers think you should always be talking about the next project in the pipeline, but I’d rather write now and talk about it later—when I can say for sure it’s worth reading. Right now I’d rather coax readers into sampling The Indian Shirt Story. That one I know is good.
Pop quiz: How many genders are there?
If you said “two” you are far from alone. Most people tend to assume there are two genders: male and female–you know–men and women, boys and girls.
In my experience, there are as many genders as there are people on the planet. Before you object, just think about it for a minute:
Recently, Sarah, purveyor of all things sparkly and romantic for lesbian teens, got my attention with her revolt against so-called realism in young adult stories featuring queer characters. She points out two important things, one, that in this case “realism” means an unhappy ending and two, that only the queer characters (usually not the main characters, but their gay friends) are subject to this rule of the realistic.
It’s a bit of a reverse “It Gets Better” campaign I suppose. After all, in order for it to get better in the future, it has to be rotten now, right? Maybe. But not necessarily (especially, but not exclusively, in books that, as Sarah points out, are full of fantastical elements of all kinds).
To a certain extent, Sarah’s post reminded me of my own recent musings about why the coming-out story–though it will probably always be relevant–is not the only one that matters in young adult fiction featuring queer kids. But most of all, Sarah’s post got me thinking about the Trope of the Dead Lesbian.
For the past–oh–two hundred years, a lesbian in books, plays and film has pretty much been consigned to two possible endings: either she dies or her love interest leaves her for a man. There are variations on these endings of course. Maybe it’s a murder-suicide and both women die! Maybe she gives up her love interest willingly because she knows she’s not as good as a man. Maybe the man kills her and “rescues” her love interest from her debauchery.
When I began writing stories that featured women who were passionate about other women (“lesbian” being a bit of an anachronism in my historical fiction) I swore that none of my main characters would die tragically and they would all get happy endings. Perhaps that’s a bit of a give-away, but plenty of drama can occur without the whole story ending in some Jacobean bloodbath. After all, we know that the main characters in, say, Star Trek are not going to die (that’s what the nameless red shirts are for, right?) but we watch with rapt attention and bated breath anyway, right up to that last split-second when everyone is saved by tetrion particles. (By “we” of course, I mean, um, “I.”) There are undoubtedly good, artistic, educative, and interesting reasons to let your lesbian die in fiction, but someone else can have that job. Mine are going to be breathing on the last page.
Boardwalk Empire [spoiler alert]did this three episodes ago and crushed my hope that we had entered an era in which we could follow the story of a lesbian into territory that did not include blood and/or an utterly broken heart. Instead, a truly Jacobean bloodbath–two, mostly naked, dead lesbians–ended Angela’s subplot. (Last season, poor, long-suffering Angela got the “love interest leaves with a man” ending, but since the whys and wherefores of that leaving were left a bit hazy, I kept hoping HBO would turn her story around. Instead, Angela got both tragedies.) It would be one thing if this were only one of the many lesbian stories out there, but to me it was proof that HBO was only using the lesbians as a sensational motif to prove their edginess, rather than having any interest in telling a story about a lesbian in the 1920s.
I have said it before and I’ll say it again, “lesbian chic” means it’s cool to know a lesbian. It’s still not so cool to actually be a lesbian.
Was Angela’s demise “realistic?” I’d argue that it was less realistic than a considerably happier ending might have been. There are all kinds of ways it could have gone. She could have had an open agreement with Jimmy–whom she was coming to respect and treat with honesty, and he, her–and had her affairs on the side, just as he did. She could have left him, as planned in Season One, with less drama and fanfare and moved to a bigger city with her new girl friend as a “roommate” and lived as a typist or a magazine advertising illustrator and raised Tommy. She might have survived Jimmy’s death and inherited the Commodore’s money and started some very interesting combat with Jillian. In short, I can see all kinds of “realistic” dramatically interesting, lesbian plots for Angela that don’t require her bloody demise on the bedroom floor and maintain the show’s gritty realism and intense character relationships.
Hey, HBO, wanna hire me?
The fact is, most lesbians have the same basic life trajectories as anyone else. Some die tragically. Some commit suicide. Some have their hearts broken (well, probably nearly all have their hearts broken sometime, just like everyone else). But most just live a mundane life with its highs and lows, its conflicts and injustices, its triumphs and its long stretches of peaceful, uneventful contentment. Just because there is homophobia in the world (and in history, though over time, oppressive structures shift and change in their strategies and so are different, in different times and places) doesn’t mean it is unrealistic to show happy queers. After all, we are GAY, right? If anyone knows how to sparkle in the face of adversity, it is my people!
Not to mention, there is/was sexism, racism, rapacious Captialism and class oppression, ableism, etc. ad infinatum and yet, people oppressed by these things manage to still pull out some satisfaction in life. There’s no reason “realistic” has to mean “unhappy” in any kind of writing.
I’m a happy lesbian and I’m here to attest it.
The fact is that once you’ve gotten past that initial hump of coming out to yourself and to the most important people in your world, it’s not all that interesting to be queer anymore. “Gay” Y/A is going to start needing more than “gay” as a theme if it hopes to engage readers.
I have a confession. I’ve been cheating on you. I’ve been writing a novel set five hundred years into the future. I slink past this blog now and then, woefully noting how out of date it is becoming, then guiltily plunge into 2612.
But after several weeks of this double life, I have decided to come clean with you, and here is why:
Writing the future is actually not all that different from writing the past.
When I started writing historical fiction, I would wonder to myself why it wasn’t branded “genre” fiction like mysteries, romances, sci-fi and fantasy. Because the fact is, even if the world it takes place in correlates to reality in some rough way (sorry historians, I can only give you “rough”) it is really a fantasy land. I may know what people wore, what people ate, how people travelled, even how they talked, in 1880, but the fact is I have absolutely no idea what any of that actually felt like, let alone meant, to someone in 1880. It’s simply gone, like the water of the river you stepped in yesterday.
So while I can use research to create a thick, rich, colorful setting for my characters, and while I can speculate on their internal landscapes, I can’t really do anything but make it all up in the end.
Likewise futuristic science fiction. Of course, right? But I have found that 500 years into the future is actually not long enough to just make it up wholesale. I don’t feel quite as obligated to get it “right” for my future story as I do for my past stories, but I am still doing a lot of research. I am trying to take what I have heard credible people say* about the next hundred years–politically, scientifically, environmentally, culturally–and extend those predictions for another couple centuries. In some ways, that future could be quite similar to our present. But in some ways it could be quite different. For me the balance is just a little bit on the speculative side of realism, whereas in historical fiction it is just a bit on the realistic side of speculation.
Either way, and perhaps it’s just as true of contemporary realism–which I haven’t tried yet–fiction is sort of fiction is fiction.
So hello again. And please recycle.
* I have been angsting ever since E.O. Wilson told Bill Moyers that in 100 years, half of all species currently alive on Earth would be extinct. That happens in my new book, and then some, since the story is yet 400 more years along.
Several years ago, I had a prophetic dream about the death of my paternal grandmother. It was a year before she died. (Which, I admit, surprised me, because I had had a similarly prophetic dream about my grandfather–her husband–and he died the next day, without my having really known he was ill. But I digress).
In that year, though, the dream really informed how I thought about her. It also informed how I thought about forgiveness in general and within families in particular.
Anyway, at the time, I wrote this poem for her.
Not being an Episcopalian in the least (see my FaceBook entry of yesterday) it is fair to expect that if the trumpet blows and the graves open later today, my grandmother will be among those on the rise. I’m sure the skies of Arkansas will be pretty crowded, but if you happen to get left behind, keep a lookout for Elsie, and give her a wave for me, okay?