What was the inspiration for this book? Why did you want to tell this story?
Because it was my story, in so many ways. And my conscience.
I'd always felt linked to the story of westward migration through my ancestry. But as someone who read and taught history, I also felt I knew this story in a way I'd never seen presented in a novel. By the time I was growing up (in the 1960s), the story of Oregon emigration had faded into this hazy foundational myth that was corny or romantic or politically incorrect, or all three at once, depending on the evolving viewpoint.
But I knew it wasn't any of that–it was a real thing that had happened to real people, my own ancestors. Knowing what they'd done had always given me a willingness to take risks, to endure life's inconveniences, to value basic survival skills. As a teacher, I used to take teenagers on wilderness trips, and I saw how many of them had no idea what humans were capable of. I'd tell them stories of these people, of explorers and mountain men, things that I'd learned about the Mojave people or the Nez Perce or the Sioux, and they would listen and sometimes it would change their outlook in the way it had changed mine. I started feeling like this was an important thing to save somehow, to pass on.
At the same time, I was very conflicted about what was essentially a colonial legacy of destruction. My college years were informed by the environmental movement, by the American Indian Movement (AIM), and by historical revisionism, and I came out of those years with a raging sense of white guilt. But at the same time, I knew, again, that the people in conflict at the time saw a much more complex picture, or saw their conflict from a very different perspective than we do now. I don't think I ever expected to exorcise the conqueror's guilt I felt, but it seemed the best thing I could do would be to try to understand this story.
So I opened the door and walked into it.
You say that knowing these stories influenced your willingness to risk. And the willingness to risk, or the desire for safety, is a theme you visit often in the book.
It's always the first question I ask, especially in these amazing accounts of people taking these huge leaps of faith–leaving everything they know and jumping into the void, so to speak: What makes people do that? What do they think they're doing? And wasn't there always some mother in the background saying, "You want to go where? To do what?"
So, are you a risk-taker?
Growing up, I had the reputation in the family (in a very careful family, too) for being the safe one. The one afraid to try new things, or to attempt things I thought I'd probably fail in. And that still runs pretty strongly in me, and more so now that I'm a mother. But I've always had another side, which develops more as I age–this side much more like the men in the book, who either don't envision the dangerous possibilities or think they're up to the challenge, and who welcome what comes with risk.
But I'm always going back and forth, as we all do. I had a funny moment this spring, in fact. We'd had a long muddy winter and had decided to rent a house in the desert and dry out. So we took the three kids and six horses in this big trailer–it took four days of camping to get there–and it had kind of been my fantasy, but my husband was the one to really grab the idea and say, Let's go.
And we'd hardly settled into this place before I took my youngest boy out to ride. He's six. Dave took the others, but I wanted a safe ride for Lachlan, so I was leading him as I walked beside my horse. We were only about a mile from the barn when this big tractor came up through an orange grove and scared the horses. My horse took off and so did Lachlan's, but I couldn't let go, because both horses were bolting full speed for the barn, and I knew if I let go my little boy would be helpless on this runaway horse. So I held on to the lead-rope, and the horse kept running, until I was on my knees, and then on my belly, and then kicked in the head, and finally I had to let go and see him carried off screaming. He fell off pretty quickly.
But we were both okay, really. We brushed each other off and compared injuries, and limped home. Put the horses away and went back to the house.
And it was just a modest little manufactured home, but it was immaculately clean, and I remember standing on the kitchen linoleum with sand still coming out of my clothes, thinking "I can't get this place dirty." We washed our scrapes and I told Lachlan how brave he was and talked about what we'd do better next time, knowing it's my job to shape him into someone who can take a knock and appreciate it, someone who won't be put off by something unexpected. But at the same time, I'm thinking, What was I doing? He might have been killed. I might have been killed. Why am I encouraging this?
We went into the bedroom together and lay down on this bed for the first time, and I felt like Goldilocks, like an intruder, because it was so soft and clean, with this down comforter in a floral print that was like nothing we owned. Everything in the house was soft and clean and comfortable. So I lay there with my eye swelling shut, thinking, This is what the people who prepared this house for me thought that I should want: to step into a life that is soft and clean and comfortable. And somehow we always seem to choose lives that are hard and dirty and dangerous instead.
I guess I just forget how wide this continuum is. I think I'm somewhere in the middle and then I realize, maybe not. And I forget how much people's place on this continuum shapes every aspect of their lives, not just what they aspire to, but where they go and what they do and what they tell their kids. It shapes what they expect and what they buy, which carpets they choose, what they keep in their drawers. The most intimate aspects of our lives are shaped by what we are willing–or not willing–to risk.
Your writing seems full of surprises like this.
I have learned to look for what is unexpected. I love unexpected details. And the story took a number of turns I didn't anticipate. Certainly the themes that developed were what I understood least when I began. For this reason, the characters' journeys really became my own, things that I was learning during the years it took to write this.
Can you give an example?
I was near the end of the book when the twin towers fell. And I did have a kind of crisis then–I think many people did–and really started questioning the importance of what I was doing in my life. Questioning the validity of sitting at a desk writing a love story when the world around me seemed literally to be falling apart in so many ways. And had been, and still does seem to be, of course. But I was also so frustrated by what I felt was such a range of inappropriate reactions so many of us had–of unintelligent or uninformed responses to what had happened–and it seemed to me, of course, that the only way to respond intelligently in the world is to cultivate that intelligence, and that the best way to cultivate intelligence is to read what others have written: not only the best reporters, in this case, but also to have read the best philosophers and novelists, the best historians. Because nothing human happens that hasn't happened very similarly many times before, and because reading those stories in their less immediate forms allows us the detachment we often lack in the present. I realized that, above all, morality is shaped by story. How we understand what we see, how we decide what to do, those things are all colored and influenced by the number and range of stories we know.
Of course, this has been obvious to most civilizations through time. That's why intelligent, modern governments fund the arts. But I'm slow to process these things. Or inattentive. Or crisis-prone. Or I'd known this, but only on some shallow impersonal level.
But I ended up realizing that this was, as much as anything, what A Sudden Country was about: the power of stories. Not ideas, not attitudes handed down, not legends or agenda-based interpretations, but the power of other actual lives to expand our own understanding of the world we are in and the people who inhabit it. Why they do what they do. "For every life we learn, we are expanded." I just found a quote by the early colonist John Mason, who wrote something like, "History is most properly a declaration of things by those who were present at the doing of them." And if you look at what he was able to tell us, and at how that story was shaded and ultimately shadowed by time, you really appreciate that truth. What I'd been attempting, as a historical novelist, was to resurrect "those who were present," by trying to imagine accurately all the details of their pasts, by reading what they'd read and what they'd written. I'd been trying to bring all that together, to shine a light where I hadn't been able to see before.
So I suppose the most important thing I discovered was this very personal thing: that my power to ask questions, to combat ignorance by example, was what could finally reconcile me to what sometimes seems too much a guilty pleasure. I gave myself permission to tell stories, and to love the kinds of stories that help us understand the world a little better.
Do you like the cover?
I love the cover. I assumed Random House would come up with something good. We talked about a few ideas, and I knew what I didn't want. But then I had to put together a production book to go with a script I was working on, and I needed images. I knew Viggo Mortensen had a pretty new book out and thought it might have something with the right kind of atmosphere.
I needed something with horses, and most horse photographs are awful. I thought these would be good, and they were–so light and responsive, so far beyond mere composition. Even good photographers sometimes seem too calculated to me, like they're trying too hard. I love artists who are able to capture something unexpected, to allow mystery, to be led by feeling–who take risks, invite surprise. Who are unpretentious. It's what I hope for in my own work, and when I saw this one (the rider against the sky) so beautifully realized, and so close in feeling to what I wanted, I thought, Yes! There's my cover! I sent a copy in to my editor, and she passed it along, and it ended up getting selected.