As I sit at my small writing desk overlooking Washington’s Skagit Bay, there is nowhere on earth I would rather be, the place that draws me and grounds me and calms me. No matter how far or wide I travel, I love to get back to my desk, where my stories unfold and deepen and spill out over the page like wind skimming across the skin of water.
So why do I do what I do? As author Susan Orlean said in her recent masterpiece, The Library Book, it takes a type of “crazy courage” to put words on a page. “I had been convincing myself that my hope to tell a long-lasting story, to create something that endured, to be alive somehow as long as anyone would read my books, was what drove me on, story after story; it was my lifeline, my passion, my way to understand who I was.”
I’ve been long enamored with underserved women’s voices. My technique to hitch a heroine to history dovetails with a fact that (unfortunately) didn’t surprise me: women’s stories make up only a fraction of narratives set in the American West. There are as many tales waiting to be told as the day is long on a warm July day in New Mexico or Wyoming or Montana or anywhere under the wide western skies.
My newest novel, Answer Creek, introduces a stoic and hardy protagonist who braves the rigors of the Oregon-California Trail as a member of the ill-fated Donner Party. In Answer Creek, I tackle deep—and even taboo—topics: starvation, madness, murder, and yes, cannibalism. Although Ada Weeks is a fictional character, she, and many other young women like her, traveled the Oregon-California Trail in the 1840s and 1850s. Their struggles were more similar than different, including that most of them were bound largely by the decisions of others (namely men—husbands, fathers, brothers, uncles), rather than their own.
As a product of the 20th century, I find our foremothers’ challenges daunting and constraining. I’m the first to say that I wouldn’t have made an ideal pioneer woman (I’m too opinionated and outspoken, and, frankly, not that tough). So I infuse Ada Weeks with qualities I admire and urge her to speak up against injustice and misogyny and foolhardiness. Does it change the outcome? Perhaps not. But it changes her.
Although readers ask for sequels to my novels, I have too many heroines waiting patiently (or, in some case, not so patiently) for their turn on the page. “Over here! Pick me!” they say, just like in elementary school when we’d pick for teams. It’s no easier now than then to choose just one who I commit to pouring my heart and soul (and two years of my life) into her life and her story. The voice that rises to the top is the one that grabs me, hooks me, stares me in the face and says, “My time has come.”
What’s up next is Flora’s story. You’ll have to wait to meet her.