On Research, Google Maps, and the Importance of Landscape
Tracy Chevalier and Paulette Jiles in Conversation
Tracy Chevalier is the author of eight historical novels, including the international bestseller Girl With a Pearl Earring. Paulette Jiles is a novelist, poet, and memoirist. She is the author of Cousins, a memoir, and the novels Enemy Women and News of the World, among others.
Tracy Chevalier: I have long loved Enemy Women, and gobbled up News of the World. You have such a knack at combining lively characters, riveting plot and poetic language in a way I completely envy. Though the two books are different, they are both set in the 19th century West and involve journeys through harsh landscape and tumultuous society. Most of all, they have two fabulous heroines. I hesitate to use the word “feisty” to describe Adair and Johanna, as it can have a negative connotation. But I’ve always loved the word—to me it means spirited with a touch of Tabasco sauce. How would you describe them, and how did they emerge from you?
Paulette Jiles: I have a brief answer: they love life. Perhaps both women, different as they are in age and experience, find themselves on life’s journey with a priceless gift of curiosity and energy. This of course could be a burden as well as a gift, but like birds or cats they are taken by what is bright. At least I have tried to describe them as such. They have places to go, driven by needs, but also joy in the traveling. Today I was riding with two good friends on a ranch of about 7,000 acres and we rode along a deep valley, and I looked up at the ridge and said, “Look, there’s a saddle and we could get across there and see what’s on the other side.” And they said, “Let’s go!” And so we did, and it was much like what was on this side, but it was the other side, a longer view, a little ravine with running water, a new place, startled deer, a long column of rain drifting toward us. What better? Meeting adversity with courage and joy in discoveries, this is what I tried to convey in both Adair and Johanna.
TC: Your answer also explains how you manage to describe horses so well—in both books, but particularly in Enemy Women. They have very distinctive personalities, especially Adair’s wonderful horse, Whiskey. I am a city kid and have only ridden a horse once in my life. A friend talked me through horse-related things for when I was writing At the Edge of the Orchard. There’s a nameless gray in that book with some personality, but I kept it light as I know so little. You, however, write with the authority of someone who has horses in her blood.
But back to people. I loved Johanna, the ten-year-old girl who was kidnapped and raised by Indians until rescued by the Army. An elderly man (the Captain) is taking her back to her relatives. Her slow relearning of English as she travels with the Captain is a delight. I bet you had a lot of fun with that.
PJ: Yes, it gave me a chance to play around with broken English, that was fun. She learns to count, names of the horses, etc. Since the Kiowa language has no R, she struggles with it; “bleakfast” she says, or she drops it altogether when she can as in “watah” for water.
As for your writing—did you learn Dutch or the semantic constructions of Dutch for Griet in Girl with a Pearl Earring? The social life in the streets and alleyways and on the canals is so lively and absorbing. I love the little touch of her losing her pail or basin in the canal and the waterman picking it up for her. She’s a beautiful young girl caught up in intense pressures as regards her personal life and she must find her way out of these tangles to make a life for herself. How much research did you do and did you spend a lot of time in, say, Amsterdam?
TC: You’d be amazed how little time I spent in Holland! A couple of days in Amsterdam, four days in Delft where the novel takes place. But you know, I feel like I was there a lot because I spent so much time looking at Dutch paintings of streets and squares and houses and markets. When I was writing I would think, Hmm, I need to see what a fish market looked like. So I’d look at several paintings of fish markets, and write it up from that. I confess I didn’t learn Dutch; I just winged it by trying to make the language as simple and stripped back and “timeless” as possible.
Can I ask about your research? Specifically the newspapers and letters of the time. In News of the World, the Captain makes his living by going around reading the news to people since they didn’t have much access to newspapers. Were there really people who did that? Did you read a lot of papers from then and choose what stories he would read? When I reread Enemy Women recently, I noted that Adair read aloud the ads to the women she was imprisoned with. It made me smile. The seed there of things to come?
PJ: For my research, first of all, a friend of mine’s great-great-grandfather whose name was Adolphus Caesar Kydd actually traveled around North Texas in the 1870s and read aloud from newspapers published in distant places. My friend, Wayne Chism, told me about him, and I immediately used him in Color Of Lightning, but it was too good to let go. So I gave him a story all to himself. Wayne and his wife June also had a picture of Captain Kydd, who was indeed called Captain.
The research came in when I had to look up what stories would have been current at the time, such as the wreck of the Hansa, the invention of the typewriter, the Franco-Prussian War, and then other more amusing bits. I did that online. It was fun. Captain Kydd/Kidd is the only person I have ever heard about who did that.
And yes, it was intriguing to look up advertisements for Adair to read, although at the time I wasn’t online and got them from reprints. Most of the women there in the prison cannot read, and so the advertisements and their promises seem almost magical.
TC: For Johanna, I wondered what sort of research you did on white children kidnapped and raised by Native Americans. It felt really genuine.
PJ: For research on children taken by the Kiowa and Comanche, there is quite a lot of documentation and personal narratives. What a lot of people forget is that thousands of Mexican children were also kidnapped. It seems that capturing children was a sort of custom that was going on long before Europeans showed up, and I don’t know the reason for it. But it must have been a carefree life for a child, if they survived. I hiked the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma and they are really beautiful, and this was a special place for Comanche and Kiowa. The Wichitas stand up out of the plains all by themselves, not very high, but with clear running streams and pines, good grass for the horses, a welcome place to rest and the children swam and played.
So mainly I read quite a lot of the personal captive narratives, traveled and hiked the Wichitas and several places on the Red River. It seems that once the children became adapted they didn’t want to leave. Imagine no ringing telephones or deadlines or paperwork and you wouldn’t want to leave the Wichitas either!
TC: One of my favorite scenes in News of the World is when the Captain and Johanna are being pursued by bad men, are outnumbered, and have to fight them in a gulch. It’s a classic western set-up—the underdogs using the girl’s cleverness to outwit their foes. At first I thought, Oh, here we go, this will be hackneyed or stolen from a movie. But it wasn’t at all, and it was thrilling! How did you come up with that ingenious solution? Did you watch many westerns while writing this book?
PJ: I came up with the solution from a YouTube video. That’s where I do a lot of research. I don’t want to give it away but it made sense on all levels, and it worked. It’s fiction after all and it’s up to the author if the decision is that the good guys should win, and it is especially gratifying with an ingenious device! They say history is written by the winners but in truth I think it is written by the survivors.
I don’t go to movies at all, not out of any political or philosophical reason but simply that the nearest theater is an 80-mile round trip from here. So my imagination is not informed or guided by movies or TV, even though I know there are wonderful plots to be had in that area.
TC: Wow, research on YouTube—I wouldn’t have guessed that! Me, I do most research through books and visiting places—though the internet is becoming more and more useful. Google Maps street view can be a godsend. But there is nothing like being in the place itself. At the Edge of the Orchard involves giant sequoias in California, and when I went to see them at Calaveras Grove, the first place they were encountered by white people, the feeling I had standing next to them was one I could only attempt to describe in words from actually being there. I could never have done it through photographs.
Do you know what’s going to happen before you write? Is it all planned out or do you make it up as you go along? I get asked this question all the time, by the way!
PJ: I know, I always get asked if I plan things out ahead of time too, and I think it’s 50-50. There’s just a sense of when your story needs something—a quiet time, reflection instead of action, or when it is time for a naturally occurring crisis. I knew when the Captain and Johanna started their 400-mile journey there was going to be trouble, and knowing the history of the area I could say where the trouble was most likely to come from. There were, for balance, moments of quiet play and meditation, moments of caution and stealthy movement—as when they first start into the Hill Country and at every ridge the Captain pauses and carefully searches out the country ahead. A sense of real danger at every step and every turn of the wheels and then moments of intense conflict. I also have chosen to write of admirable people, generally likable people, because that is who I like to spend time with.
TC: Do you too have a kind of visceral connection to landscape? I certainly felt it in both books I’ve read—and a western landscape at that.
PJ: Yes, the landscape means so much, simply as visuals, sensual input. The kind of country we were raised with always brings intense memories; sight sound smell of certain vegetation. My family took vacations out West when I was a child and the scent of pines and that high-altitude air always means happy times to me, and here in Texas I do miss the “Missouri” smell of fallen oak leaves and foggy mornings. Even if a person is raised in the city there is always something to trigger that intense sense of “being there.” Also the outside world does impinge on us, unless we live in a cocoon. A writer can’t really write with conviction of a landscape or place, I think, unless they have been there, but then there’s always the exception: Patrick O’Brien comes to mind.