Thursday, July 31, 2008

Place and Story: Interview with author Velda Brotherton

I'm fascinated by how writers find ourr stories, and how we make landscape and its community of lives come alive in those tales. Today I'm hosting Velda Brotherton, as she discusses two of her books, both about women, and set in very different eras and different parts of the West. She's on a blog book tour, promoting her books by visiting different blogs around the virtual landscape of the internet. I'm interested in where Velda gets her story ideas, and how she evokes the different landscapes she writes about.

You've written two very different books in Fly With the Mourning Dove, a true story from your family about growing up on a ranch in northern New Mexico in the early 1900s, long before it was a trendy place to live, and Images in Scarlet, a novel about a young woman who sets out to follow the Santa Fe Trail to a new home in the West as an itinerant photographer after losing her entire family. How did each story come to you?

With Dove it was serendipity. I grew up in Kansas hearing stories about my relatives who lived in the distant, wild state of New Mexico. My Dad was fascinated by Cassie's story because she spent a winter alone on the homestead high above Tres Piedras near Taos Junction. The snow often was above the windows and the only company she had was a cat, and when she could venture out, her horse would take her to Tusas or Taos Junction. Many years flash by. I was in Albuquerque, New Mexico attending the Western Writers of America Conference and thought of Edna, Cassie's daughter, by then an elderly woman. All I knew was her name and that she lived in Espanola. I found her and called. She invited me to come see her, and that visit lasted a week. She led me to her small car and drove me all over that gorgeous high desert country. Her knowledge and love of the area was so evident that I was immediately captivated. My husband and I began to visit Edna every year. I played around with writing a fiction novel based on the life her family led on the homestead. She was reading my historical romances by then, and she began to talk of my writing her story, except she didn't want it to be a romance. The book sort of unfolded over the years. The more tales she told, the more I realized that hers was a story that must be written. Edna is now 94 and we both wish we had been 20 years younger when we began the project. We ended the first book when her husband returned from WW II badly injured, and would it up with an epilogue. Readers have asked for the rest of her story, but she no longer has the desire or energy to help me tell it.

As for Images In Scarlet, I've always been fascinated by the lives some women in the west were able to live in spite of all the barriers raised. They ran for office before women could even vote, they dressed as men in order to carry out their desire to be more than a feminine life would allow, some became outlaws while their sisters sat at home darning socks. That's not to put down the courage of the women who kept homes together. They were heroes in the largest sense of the word. But some strayed into forbidden fields. And so Allie Caine accompanied her father to the Civil War battlefields when her mother died because she was too young to be left on her own, and did not want to live with another family. She learned the trade, and was protected by dressing as a boy. The book begins, though after the Civil War, a period I'm intrigued by. So many heroic deeds took place in those times. Imagine setting out alone as a woman with a wagon, a team of mules, and a dream to become a photographer in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a territory that would not become a state until the next century. I could do no less than go with Allie to find out what she would do and what would happen, and most of all, what she would achieve.

One thing that unites these two divergent stories is an awareness of place, and your ability to conjure up the details of different landscapes, from the Ozarks to the Plains and the sagebrush desert. When you are writing about a particular place, what do you draw on to know it well enough to evoke the feel, the sounds, and the sights for your readers?

I've always been deeply aware of a sense of place, no matter where I am, and only have to close my eyes to be transported back to those divergent places I've visited over the years. Say Kansas to me and I feel the hot summer wind that bends all the plains trees until they all bow to the northeast, the sharp aroma of ripe wheat being harvested, the never ending panorama of land that flows into eternity. The high desert of New Mexico appears as a barren, stark and breathtaking landscape. I easily recall taking deep breaths of thin air, being light headed, the crisp smell of sagebrush, the chamisa when it blooms a sunshine yellow. I'm not sure what I draw on, it's just that senses have always been of great importance to me. Even as a child I craved the touch, smell, sight, sound and taste of every single thing. It helps a lot that my father believed in showing us as much of our world as he could afford. Once he came home from the war, it was a rule that we took vacations every summer, camping out in those days was much more rugged than it is today. Often we slept in the car while my parents slept on cots under a tarp stretched from the car doors to the adjacent ground. But we traveled, and so when I married we began to take our children on trips from the time they were tots, again sleeping in the great outdoors. Nothing gives one more sense of place than that.

What is your favorite passage from each book? In Fly With The Mourning Dove, I think it's the epilogue when she speaks of her God and where she would like to spend the remainder of her life. It is so touching that I still cry when I read it or speak or write about it. Of course, Images in Scarlet is a different type of book, though much of it takes place in New Mexico near where Edna's family actually settled. I think my favorite passage is when Allie is taken to Jessie James camp and asked to take photos of the entire gang. The scene is humorous and rather sad as well, for these men reveal their ordinary side. And when Jake comes to rescue her, the scene is relieved with a bit of humor as well. I don't like intensity with no relief.

If you could read only one author for the rest of your life, who would you pick? James Lee Burke, no contest. His work has the most in-depth sense of place of any author I've read.

If you could write only one more story, what would it be about? The memoir I'm working on when I catch a few free minutes now and then. I want to finish it so my children and grandchildren and great grandchild can understand what makes me who I am. It's titled Tigers and Snakes and Flying Machines. Though it only covers 9 years of my life, the years I spent working as a reporter for a small, rural newspaper, I believe that what I accomplished in those nine years and how I felt about that life, will reveal my true self. That title I will insist upon keeping.

Thanks, Velda! Read Velda's other virtual book tour stops including those with poet and blogger Janet Riehl.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Proud Parents: Two Friends, Two New Books

Last month saw the birth of two new books, one each by two different friends. Both books are fall broadly in the category of memoir, both are by women, both take place at least in part in southern New Mexico, where Richard, Molly, and I lived for many years.

The first (I'm mentioning them in the order the books came to me, with no prejudice or preference implied) is Katherine Durack's Unmentionables: A Woman's Journey, Body to Soul, a deceptively slim volume that packs a punch as Durack explores how she began to lose her voice as a young girl, and how many years later on the cusp of middle-age she found that voice again--along with a powerful new sense of self. It's a courageous look at the perils of not speaking up or out, and trying to fit ourselves into a mold that is not our own. It's also a wise and witty look at our bodies, our lives, and their relationship to who we really are. Here's how Unmentionables opens:
While the lessons life teaches are not of our choosing, they are nevertheless indelibly inscribed in our flesh. Keeping silent about some wounds extracts a high price: when we don't speak, we lose the ability to do so.

I began the essays in this volume to recover my voice after losing it, both literally and figuratively. I had spent years trying to conform myself to the expectations of others: to teach how others thought I should teach, to write what others thought I should write, to be who others thought I should be. The result was predictable. I developed a stubborn case of laryngitis that threatened my ability to teach my classes, to talk with my students during office hours, to talk with my husband and my friends after work.

Worse, for the first time in my life, I developed writer's block. This was devastating and potentially career-ending, as failing to publish either the right kind of book or the prescribed number of approved types of articles in the accepted academic journals would mean the end of my academic career. While I was accustomed to feeling somewhat awkward when speaking, I had always felt at home home the page, yet I couldn't bear to write another word or another essay that only a handful of people would ever read.

The second book, Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist, by Sharman Apt Russell, is a thoughtful and awe-full (as in full of awe) examination of our relationship with nature by a writer who is known for the breadth of the subjects she tackles (butterflies, hunger, archeology, the cowboy myth, the inner lives of flowers, pre-historic matrilineal culture, for a few examples) and her clear-eyed explication, but not for getting personal very often. In Standing in the Light though, Russell traces two journeys: the development of the philosophy of pantheism (the belief that all of life is sacred, and that which is holy is in every living thing) and her struggle to redeem her faith in life and in herself. This is a haunting book, the kind that eases its way under your skin and gradually becomes part of you, until you find yourself looking at the world in new ways. That's a good thing.

I can't help but love a book that opens with this quote from the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius: "Everything is interwoven, and the web is holy."

Russell begins the first chapter this way:
In the summer of 1996, I sat on my porch steps in the small town of Silver City, New Mexico, trying to decide if I should become a Quaker. I had attended my local Meeting off and on for twelve years but had not yet written my official letter asking for membership. Should I write that letter now? I was forty-two years old, a wife and mother. I felt anchored in my life. I felt the sun on my face. I felt the rough concrete against my legs. I watched an ant move across the sidewalk. Was I ready, for the first time, to join an organized religion? Did I have in fact any religious belief, or was I mainly attracted to Quaker culture and history?

The Quakers in my Meeting are also known as unprogrammed Quakers and Universalists. Following the earliest tradition of Friends, we have no scripture, no preacher, no creed. Instead, we practice silence, the act of sitting in a circle, saying nothing, and waiting--waiting for the Light. The Light is a deliberately broad concept. Among Universalist Friends, the Light can take the shape of Christ, the son of a heavenly Father, or the shape of Buddha, a human prince who enlightened himself and preached the Middle Way. Or the Light can take no shape at all and serve only as metaphor, a substitute for the ineffable. In my Meeting, how each friend defines the Light is a personal choice. We conform to Quakerly ways of opening and closing silence. We share similar ideas about social justice and nonviolence. We wait for the Light. We do not ask much of our members. We do ask this.

In front of me, on my porch step, was a sidewalk, a patch of grass, a broad strip of asphalt, more sidewalk, a stone wall, a pine tree, and, higher above, electrical wires. Cars drove by. A raven gurgled, liquid and insistent. In the blue sky, white clouds floated above brown hills. "Well," I said to myself, "the Light is all this, I suppose, these steps, this concrete, this ant, that raven. The weft and warp. It is," I gestured, "the street."

On Thursday, I'll be hosting novelist and writer of creative non-fiction Velda Brotherton on her blog book tour. We'll look at what inspires her stories, and how she goes about conveying the essence of very different landscapes and lives. Join me for that interview

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Recipes from the garden

I've been intending to post some of the recipes from the local-food dishes I made for my father's 80th birthday picnic last week. But with two sets of house guests (including two members of the former Women's Breakfast Group of Las Cruces, New Mexico: fabric artist Donna Cooney and writer Katherine Durack) and a feature article deadline for a piece on natural burial for Audubon magazine, I've been seriously absorbed. But tonight the house is quiet, my article is finished, and I'm sitting by the window with cool evening air blowing in and the last blue ebbing from the sky. It's a good time to be reflective and think about food!

I love to cook. It's a license to play with food, by which I mean experiment with color, texture, and flavor, not toss the stuff around the room. I especially love to cook with food I know intimately, things I've grown in my garden or picked or caught myself. I prefer to know what I eat: where it comes from, how it lived, and what nurtured its cells. That's part of why I garden: I know my food and it knows me. I've raised it with my own hands; it has grown up in the same soil I walk on, nurtured by the sunlight that blesses my skin too.

So here are two recipes that use food I know intimately, food from my very own gout de terroir, a French phrase that translates roughly as the flavor of the soil or taste of the landscape.

Quinoa salad with beets and sugar-snap peas
2 cups cooked quinoa
1 cup steamed beets, sliced into thin wedges
1 cup steamed sugar-snap peas, whole
½ cup feta cheese, crumbled
½ cup walnuts, chopped coarsely
juice from one lemon
2 T olive oil
fresh-ground pepper to taste
a sprinkle of salt

Rinse a cup of quinoa in a sieve until the water is clear. Put the soaked quinoa in a pot with one-and-a-half cups of water, bring to a boil, and simmer for 15 minutes. Let sit for five minutes, and then put it in a salad bowl. Sprinkle with salt (about a quarter of a teaspoon is enough) and grind pepper over it to taste. Add olive oil and lemon juice and stir. Arrange the beet wedges on top of the quinoa, top with the steamed sugar-snap peas (let some beets show through the green peas--it's prettier that way). Then top with feta and walnuts, and serve. (Makes four medium-sized helpings.)

Mint-cilantro chutney

1 cup mint leaves, packed loosely
2 cups cilantro, packed loosely
1 medium-sized green chile seeded and chopped (about a quarter-cup)
2 T lime juice
1 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt

Combine the ingredients in a food processor or blender (if you use a blender, do a half-batch at a time) and process until almost smooth. Makes a great dip--I love it for shrimp! If it's too spicy, mix with an equal amount of plain yoghurt. Can be refrigerated for a few days or frozen for longer storage. (Makes one cup, or two cups with the yoghurt.)


Wednesday, July 9, 2008

A picnic to honor my father's 80 years

This month, my father turns 80. To reach one's eighth decade (correction, thanks to the quick mind of Deb Robson: he's entering his ninth decade) seems to me a milestone very much worth celebrating. My dad always says he has everything he needs, but I know he loves a family gathering, especially if it involves food. He and my mom live two and a half hours away over the mountains, but right now they are traveling in Norway with my brother, sister-in-law, and youngest niece. The latter three live far away in Washington state, but they're stopping in Colorado on their way back home to visit my sister-in-law's dad. So for something like 48 hours I have a chance to gather this part of my family for a birthday celebration to honor Dad's upcoming 80th, and I'm grabbing that moment.

I'm planning a picnic, most of which I'll prepare here at home. Then Richard and I will pack up this summer meal for eight, and drive it over three mountain passes and down onto the Plains and into the city, where we'll pick up my parents, and carry them to the town an hour away where the rest of the family will be. There we'll celebrate my Dad's life and his eighty years.

I'll be away at a writing workshop until the day before the picnic, so it's going to be a bit of a challenge to prepare all the food. I realize that I could simply buy some picnic food at the deli of the grocery store I regularly walk to, and pay their bakery to create a cake, but making the food myself is an act of love. If I'm honoring my dad and his life, what better way to do it than cooking something special to share? And if I'm going to cook something special, I want it to include a taste of our terroir, our own soil, with food we've grown right here in our garden.

So I've come up with a menu rooted in very local food.

It starts with shrimp, which do not come from our valley, but will be delicious dipped in a spicy cilantro-mint chutney made with herbs we grew ourselves, and green chiles from a farm downriver.

Then we'll tuck into the main dish, a quinoa salad (the quinoa, that marvelous nutty and earthy grain from the Andes, grown by an organic farmer in the San Luis Valley, just south of us). It'll be topped with steamed beets and whole sugar snap peas picked fresh from our garden, and sprinkled with feta cheese and chopped walnuts. The combination of deep purple beets and bright green fresh peas will be spectacular, and the sweetness of beets and peas will be balanced by the salty feta, the earthy quinoa and the rich and slightly astringent walnuts.

Along with that I'll serve a simple tossed salad of mixed lettuces and other salad greens picked fresh from the garden and dressed with orange-infused olive oil (this from Stonehouse Olive Oils, an olive oil maker in California, which also isn't local, but the stuff is delicious and at least comes from this continent) and balsamic vinegar. The salad greens--Monet's Garden and French Market mixes from Rene's Garden Seeds--come in eye-pleasing combinations of smooth and ruffled and lacy and lobed, and a whole range of greens and burgundy and reds.

(I believe in food that is beautiful to look at, without being too contrived or fussy, so that it nurtures the spirit as well as the body.)

We'll have bread on the side, not Richard's beautiful sculptural loaves made with local organic whole wheat flower, but some bread made in the Denver area since Richard won't have a chance to bake with his two-day levain process between the time we get home and leave again for the picnic.

And for dessert, a cake--of course! I'll bake a sourdough chocolate cake with local eggs whose rich orange yolks show that the chickens have been outside, eating bugs as they naturally do. Instead of icing I'll top it with some of the eight quarts of fresh cherries that Richard pitted last weekend, and over those dark and juicy globes of fruit, a thick layer of creme fraiche, sweetened with honey from a beekeeper friend's hives and a bit of special aged port brought to us by visiting friends.

So we'll celebrate my father's 80th birthday with the gifts of food, family, and lots of love in the growing, cooking, and eating together.

(As always, the photos above are my own: a native blazingstar that seeded itself just inside the corrugated tin fence of our bedroom courtyard, my lettuce mix ready to harvest, and the climbing roses on the arbor Richard built me several Mother's Days ago.)

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Ten things to be thankful for

Today I brought my husband, Richard, home after his surgery to remove that "beautiful" carcinoma that the surgeon spotted in his bladder back in April. Yesterday was a long and very rugged day, beginning at five minutes before five when the wake-up call jolted us upright so we could be at the Veterans Administration Medical Center at 5:45 a.m. for his seven o'clock surgery.

There's the first thing I'm thankful for: The surgeon thinks he got the entire tumor removed. He had to cut deeply into Richard's bladder wall to do it, so Richard has to have a catheter for a week. That is most definitely not a thing to be thankful for, but if the tumor's gone, it outweighs the rest.

The second thing I'm thankful for is the VA staff: Every single person we've dealt with there, from intake clerks and aides to pharmacists, residents, and surgeons, has been kind, caring and professional. They go out of their way to make sure things go well. They spend time listening and explaining. They are thoughtful. In short, this VA facility has created a culture of caring that pervades the whole place. What a blessing!

The rest of yesterday was not something to be thankful for. After Richard was discharged and I drove him back to our hotel and got him settled in, his pain got worse and he began having muscle spasms. His need for more medication sent me driving back across the city to the VA Pharmacy at rush hour, exhausted, and feeling just a wee bit sorry for myself. A woman vet about my age who was waiting in line in front of me asked what I was there for, and when I told her I was picking up medicine for my husband, who had just had surgery for bladder cancer, she said, "He's lucky to have you." Tears filled my eyes. "And I'm lucky to have him," I responded.

So there's the third thing I'm thankful for: Wisdom from a stranger that helped me remember what was most important when I was on the way to forgetting it. We're lucky to have each other--all of us are lucky to have each other.

The fourth thing I'm thankful for: Richard slept well last night and felt good enough today that I could drive him home over the mountains to our own quiet valley, something to be grateful for in itself, which makes the fifth thing.

The drive up and over three mountain passes restored my equilibrium, so that's the sixth thing I'm grateful for. Most of the way across South Park, Richard spotted two white pelicans, gliding wingtip to wingtip and looking very huge and prehistoric with their enormous wings, short necks and those long beaks with the fleshy pouches hanging beneath for scooping up their fishy catch. They were flying so close together that they were clearly a pair, and the sight filled me with love for the other half of my own pair, the man I fell in love with more than 25 years ago, and who was sitting in the passenger seat right next to me as we sped along. Those pelicans reminded me again to be thankful for the miracle of this love--there's the seventh thing!--and the partnership Richard and I nurture so carefully.

Once we unloaded the car and Richard settled in, I went outside and watered the kitchen garden, and felt myself relax in the company of the plants that feed us. As I breathed in the oxygen they breathe out, and I exhaled the carbon dioxide that's necessary for them to inhale, I realized that the company of plants is the eighth thing I feel grateful for. I picked a bowl of fresh sugar-snap peas, and a bowl of strawberries.

For dinner, Richard grilled himself a wild salmon steak, and I made him a salad of fresh-picked lettuce mix, dressed with olive oil infused with oranges and balsamic vinegar, and topped with whole steamed sugar-snap peas, feta cheese, and a few of those fresh strawberries. To accompany it, I sliced some of the bread he bakes with wild yeast and organic whole wheat flour.

That's the ninth thing I'm grateful for: The gift of good food, much of it local, from our very own soil. True, that succulent salmon flesh comes from the distant Pacific Ocean. But the garden we nurture which in turn nurtures us--and the bees and butterflies and swallows--sprouts from our own terroir, the landscape we love, drawing on the same sunlight that warms our flesh. The organic wheat that Richard coaxes into sculptural and delicious loaves is part of the community of our region, grown just over the mountains in the high and windswept expanses of the neighboring San Luis Valley.

As this long day ends, what I am most grateful for is the gift of Richard's life. May that particular blessing--the tenth in this particular list--continue for a long, long time.