We talk to HWA Debut Crown author James Terry about family history, the Wild West and his shortlisted novel, The Solitary Woman of Shakespeare.
The HWA Debut Crown celebrates new voices in historical fiction. Have you always been interested in history?
I must confess, with some embarrassment, that history is not one of my great passions. Ironically, I’m married to a professional historian. What I do love is history from the mouth of someone who actually lived through it, in other words oral history, probably because I’m more interested in individual experience than in broader history. I like hearing older people talk about the way things were in their childhood; it gives one a sense of living history. My grandmother was a great one for telling stories. She lived through most of the twentieth century. At some point I realised that I didn’t want her memories to die when she did, and I started recording her, often clandestinely. Over about a decade I amassed a little treasure trove of microcassettes, and last year, long after she had died, I listened to them all again and was transported back to both the time of the recording and the time of the story she was telling.
How did the initial idea for The Solitary Woman of Shakespeare come about?
The idea arrived in several stages. When I started writing the novel I was under the spell of the Hungarian writer László Kraszhnahorkai, who writes sentences several pages long with very dense descriptions. I sat down at my computer one day and started writing a description of frozen mud on the main street of an Old West town. The idea then took hold of me to do a “Western” in the richest possible surface detail while still honouring the underlying mythology. The Shakespeare angle came about when I recalled an actual ghost town in New Mexico called Shakespeare, with a main street called Avon. I was less interested in the factual history of the place than in using the town as a metaphor, with Shakespeare’s works as my guide. I would take a pinch of Hamlet, a smidgeon of Othello, mix them in with the usual cast of characters of a Western, smuggle vignettes wholesale from the plays into my town; I would have fun with language, sending up florid Victorian writing styles, juxtaposing them with cruder Western speech patterns; I would subvert the codes of masculinity associated with the mythos of the Old West by throwing in a little Shakespearean gender-bending; my town would be like the island in The Tempest, cut off from civilisation; there would be a “play within the play”; there would be five acts, with alternating subplots. In short, I found myself stealing from the master thief, turning my mythical town into a receptacle for all things Shakespearean.
The book is set in American frontier country in the 19th century – the Wild West, if you will – what attracted you to that particular place and period?
I grew up in it. I come from a small town in southern New Mexico, and while I may not have lived in the 19th century, the stories passed down to me from the old-timers, including my grandmother, were a mainline to the frontier days. Not to mention that the characters of the Wild West are alive and well in the 21st century; they may drive pickups now, but the spirit of the frontier lives on in them. In truth, I wasn’t so much attracted to the historical period as to the myths of that period, the stories that are so much a part of the American psyche to this day. But perhaps more than anything, I wanted to capture the singular beauty of the landscape and life cycles of southern New Mexico. In that sense I was more interested in the natural history of the region than in its factual history. The landscape of New Mexico today isn’t very different than it was a hundred thousand years ago.
Historical research: a pleasure or a chore?
I do enjoy historical research, but not for its own sake. I believe that research, historical or otherwise, should always take a back seat to the demands of the story, that the story must first of all resonate with the reader on an emotional level, which has little to do with research, and that one or two choice details can sell the illusion of the past more effectively than a lot of inessential information. (My Bible for this novel was the Sears & Roebuck catalogue of 1889.) Also, I find that research can get in the way of imagination, so I try to resist research until I really need it, after I’ve already sketched out a scene. Then I set out on my treasure hunt with a better idea of what I actually need, searching for some beautiful little prop or stage dressing, learning a lot of fascinating stuff along the way, which I promptly forget. But I won’t deny that there is a visceral pleasure in looking at original documents, especially handwritten ones. Nothing brings history alive like holding an old love letter in your hands.
Antonia Senior, one of our Crown judges said, ‘Our shortlisted writers, although very different in subject and style, all share a talent for making the past holler to the present.’ Were you conscious of any modern day parallels when writing the book?
Every novel, be it set in the past, present or future, is by definition really about the contemporary world, whether the writer knows it or not. The question then becomes, is the writer consciously trying to make parallels to the present? I think that the more meaningful parallels are the ones that are wholly unconscious, perhaps only discernible to us with the passage of time. I wasn’t conscious of any modern day parallels to my mythological world while writing the book, but of course they must be there. In one instance I did sort of wink at the reader when a character gets the great idea of selling cheap beef and fried potatoes from a colourful little shack – i.e. a 19th century McDonald’s.
What was your path to publication?
Long and tortuous. I finished the book in 2003. I sent it out to dozens of publishers and literary agencies, where it was rejected in the usual fashion. Not exactly a historical novel, not exactly a Western, it was not surprising that editors, even if they liked it, didn’t believe they could sell it, especially since I was an unpublished writer. I put it aside and moved on to new things. I wrote a bunch of short stories and two more novels, which also went unpublished, except for some of the stories, which found a home in various literary journals. By sheer luck (which will eventually find you if you keep at it long enough) a scout for a literary agency (Pontas) read some of my short stories and asked to see more work. I showed them one of my other novels; they liked it and signed me on. They tried without success to sell that novel, then moved on to The Solitary Woman of Shakespeare, which finally saw the light of day, thanks to Sandstone Press, thirteen years after its birth.
What advice would you give someone starting work on a first novel?
I would say just write for the pleasure that it gives you, write exactly what you want to write, don’t let things like publication or “the market” interfere with your creative process. Put everything you’ve got into it and believe in your heart that it’s going to be a masterpiece. Slave over it until you feel that not a single word could be changed without destroying it, however many years that takes. If need be, rewrite the whole thing from scratch in the first person. As long as you feel that something is not quite right, keep at it. When it’s finally done, forget about it. By this time you should be so sick of it that it will be a relief to move on to something else. One day, when you’re stumped on the new thing, go back and reread it. If you find yourself getting swept up in it, wondering how on earth you ever wrote this amazing thing, welling up when you reach the final page, then it’s time to send it out into the world. In all likelihood, it will be rejected. No matter. You have already received your reward.
Do you have any favourite historical novelists?
If Ulysses can be considered a historical novel, then my favourite historical novelist is James Joyce.
As I’m still in the thick of it, I can’t really synopsize the novel I’m working on now. But I can tell you about my most recently completed novel. It’s called Very Like a Whale, and it’s about an independent film director making a feature film. The story is told in the form of the director’s production diary. There are two interwoven plot strands: the plot of the film itself as it unfolds, and the plot of the director’s daily struggle to create the film with his crew. Since the film is largely autobiographical, the line between the past and the present, fiction and reality, becomes blurred over the course of the production. As in The Solitary Woman, I am drawing on Shakespeare for plot elements. The director’s film is a modern take on Hamlet, with the prince as a small-town, American teenager. Meanwhile, the storyline of the novel proper — the director’s struggle to work his magic, his relationship with his daughter, etc. — is my own take on The Tempest. I like to think of the novel as Prospero does Hamlet. Coming soon to a theatre near you.
And finally, just for fun, can you describe your book in five words?
Transgenre metaliterary Wild Western tragicomedy.
Born in 1970, James Terry grew up in a small New Mexico bordertown, earned his BA in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and worked in film and television production in the San Francisco Bay Area before moving to Dublin, Ireland, where he lived for six years, teaching English. Since leaving Dublin he has lived and worked in New Delhi, India and Edmonton, Canada. He currently lives with his wife and son in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.