Welcome to Jana Richman, author of The Last Cowgirl and Riding in the Shadow of the Saints. I was able to interview Jana for an article for The Syracuse Islander and I'm pleased to share our conversation with you.
What inspires you to write?
That’s a difficult question to answer. Life, in general, I suppose is what inspires me to write—my persistent state of bewilderment in regard to the actions of humans both individually and collectively. Through my writing, I’m trying to understand why we do what we do, how we interact with one another and with our geography, how our past influences our present, how our wounds heal or don’t heal, what makes good people act in bad ways, how do people live with devastating choices they’ve made in the past, etc. It all fascinates me and keeps me writing
It's been said that your book reads like a memoir. What inspired you to write a novel this way?
I didn’t intend to write a novel that reads like a memoir, but I’m flattered by the comment. It means that I’ve succeeded in making the first-person narrator “real” to readers. My first book, Riding in the Shadows of Saints, was a memoir, and I was excited to turn to fiction in the second book, to be freed-up to follow my characters wherever they led me—and they led me to some surprising places. I don’t write from an outline; I begin with a general idea of where the story will end up and a few of the scenes that will take me there. But the story never ends up where I think it will, and the characters never conform to the imagined scenes in my head. Once the characters are fully formed, they decide on the story they will tell, and if I try to manipulate them too much, the story doesn’t feel right—I guess you could say that the character is acting “out of character” when I try to force a preconceived scene.
Is any of the book autobiographical in nature?
Yes, some of it is, but readers are usually surprised to find out that much of it is not. The family in the story is based upon my family, and my experience of my father’s desire to be a rancher when I was a child. But as I wrote, the characters morphed away from the people they were originally based upon, and the scenes did the same. I’ve been asked by many readers who the character of Bev was based upon. She’s a strong, good character—the kind of woman everyone wants as a friend—but she came entirely from my imagination. And maybe that’s why she’s such a strong character—she’s a combination of a woman I would love to have as a friend and the woman I would like to be. But in my life, I know no women like her.
The book is also based on an historical event—the 1968 nerve gas incident in Tooele County that killed more than 6,000 sheep. I grew up in Tooele, and I was 12 at the time it happened. Mostly what stuck with me was the lid of silence that fell upon the town as the federal government lied about their part in it, tried to cover their actions, and tried to blame the deaths on a “poisonous plant” in Skull Valley. It was a time of cognitive dissonance. The federal government employed most everyone in Tooele at the time, we were in the middle of a war, patriotism ran high in town, so it was difficult for residents to come to terms with the idea that their government would lie to them and betray them in this way. And those are the times that are fascinating to write about—lots of ambiguity, lots of complexity, nothing can be explained away easily. I wanted to plop characters into that incongruity and see what they would do with it, and The Last Cowgirl is the book that came out of it.
What do you hope readers will take away with them when they read your book?
I don’t write with a “take away” in mind. There’s no moral to the story, there’s no message I’m trying to convey. What I hope readers take away is simply a good reading experience. I hope every reader finds something that resonates with him/her. I write about the west because it is what I know, but I’ve heard from readers in Florida, readers in the mid-west, even one reader in Peru who found resonance with the book. That’s my job as a writer—to write specifically about universal ideas, to set the collective human consciousness into a particular story.
Are you working on another book? Can you share with us what it is?
I just finished another novel and sent it to my agent. It’s set in Nevada, and the backdrop for it is the proposed Las Vegas pipeline and the impact the pipeline will have on the people in the valleys that Las Vegas proposes to drain.
Please list any awards The Last Cowgirl has received.
The Last Cowgirl won the 2009 Willa Award for Contemporary Fiction, the Salt Lake Weekly Arty Award, and was a finalist for the Utah Book Award.
How did you get your start as a writer and how did you end up with an agent and a publisher?
I wrote from a young age, but never took it seriously until I was in my 40s. I went about getting an agent and publisher the old-fashioned way. I went back to school at the University of Arizona and studied my butt off—got an M.A. in journalism, and then freelanced as a journalist to pay my way through the creative writing program where I got an M.F.A in creative non-fiction. Then I just wrote and wrote and wrote until I really understood the craft of writing and developed the instincts to know when my own work was good and when it was not. I worked to publish short pieces in literary magazines, worked on a book proposal for more than a year for my first book, Riding in the Shadows of Saints, attended writers’ conferences, and eventually got the attention of an agent. He sold both books—the first to Crown, an imprint of Random House, and the second to William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins.
What do you like to eat while reading/writing?
Excellent question. In any state other than Utah, I think the question would be “what do you like to drink while you write,” because writers are notoriously good drinkers. The answer is anything I can get my hands on. It’s an interesting question—there does seems to be a relationship between writing/reading and oral gratification—but I’ve never considered the question before. My husband, who is a transpersonal therapist, loves to bake, and he’s perfected crusty breads, so that’s usually what’s sitting next to me as I write.