I first met Jo-Ann Mapson because I stalked her. Yep. It's true. It was the early days of the Internet and I saw her name on AOL and tracked her down, introduced myself and told her how much I adored her books. But Jo-Ann wasn't interested in THAT. She wanted to be a friend, peppered me with questions, and soon we were emailing back and forth, and managing to see each other every few years, too. You've never met anyone as loyal, kind, funny or smart. She's edited my pages, handed me both good advice and virtual tissues when I've had meltdowns, and she introduced me to Old Gringo cowboy boots!
Jo-Ann's the author of Hank & Chloe, Blue Rodeo (a CBS TV movie starring Kris Kristofferson), Shadow Ranch, Loving Chloe, The Wilder Sisters (An LA Times bestseller), the Bad Girl Creek trilogy, which includes Bad Girl Creek (An LA Times Bestseller), Along Came Mary, and Goodbye Earl, The Owl & Moon Cafe, Solomon's Oak (Winner of the American Library Association's RUSA award). and her new extraordinary novel, Finding Casey, will be published by Bloomsbury USA and UK in October 2012. And don't miss the book trailer for it!
Jo-Ann is part of the core faculty and co-creator of the University of Alaska Anchorage's low residency MFA Program in writing. She's married to the artist Stewart Allison, whose cartoons grace this page. And wait, that's not all! She's also working on a new novel, Owen's Daughter, which will be out in 2013. Thanks so much, Jo-Ann, for being here. My blog is always your blog.
Tell us about Finding Casey, which offers characters from a previous wonderful novel. Do you find you carry your characters with you? Do they ever get put to rest?
Finding Casey is not the book I imagined writing after I finished Solomon’s Oak. That story of a girl who never returned from walking her dog had been sitting in the writing place in my heart (see diagram), gestating for maybe 12 years? Solomon’s Oak was supposed to quiet that down. Instead, I slowly began to realize that I had written the first book so that I could write another, which became Finding Casey.
And duh, don’t we writers know that? The idea for the next book germinates in the one you’ve just finished. For me, it shows up at the 2/3 mark when I’m rewriting, when I’m about to throw in the towel. A little shining carrot: Finish this and you can have me.
Remember when Patty Hearst was kidnapped and then found? I do. Some years back, I watched a news anchor well up with tears, saying, “Some good news for a change: Elizabeth Smart has been found, safe, and reunited with her family.” We’re human, and we hope for happy endings. But for every good outcome there are hundreds of tragic outcomes. As a writer, though, my wheels begin turning (see diagram), I wondered, now what? What is the life of Patty/Elizabeth like?
Then Jaycee Dugard was found, this long-term kidnap victim everyone thought was dead for years. I began writing Finding Casey that very day. I read books on kidnapping, Stockholm syndrome, sociopaths, true crime accounts, courtroom transcripts, and at times my head was not a good place to be. The writer Sherry Simpson told me that how she wrote her first book was learning to keep looking, without flinching. When Jaycee telephoned her mother, she said, “Mom, come quickly.” That tore my heart. An aspect of the story that resonated with me was reuniting families with horse therapy. I’m an old urban cowgirl and rode horses until my back began disintegrating. I’d worked a summer job with juvenile offenders. Lesson 1: here is a halter, now go catch a horse. These inner city badass boys were humbled. They learned to ride. They very quickly bonded with their horses. They reminded me of kindergartners sometimes; so accepting of the animal world, communicating in all the ways they couldn’t with the real world. When the 6-week class ended, they cried.
The program won an award. Then it folded.
I often think of the year I did nothing but ride horses. All my friends were getting published but me. I was depressed; this was my husband’s order: Go ride your horse every day. That year was my breakthrough. I had a new world to explore. Not everyone there spoke English. Nobody there spoke horse, but I was trying to learn. Our plug ugly Appaloosa helped my son through a tough adolescence. When they died, I mourned for years. Some experiences you want to stop thinking about because they hurt. But if you don’t turn away, there are lessons that will change you. Then the sorrow turns bittersweet. It sticks like a piece of caramel lodged in your heart.
I had just arrived at the real story in Finding Casey. That lesson. No one can run away from the past, though we try hard to. That kind of pain can eat you alive unless you do something with it. Finding Casey stands on its own two feet. But it also will (hopefully) cheer some to learn what happens to the Vigils after Solomon’s Oak. Glory and Joe were meant to be, but it’s hard work to build a family out of pieces. They come together like pieces of a quilt, but one of the squares is missing. You’ll find out how they deal with that in Finding Casey.
What was it like revisiting the characters?
Heaven. A story never really ends. I purposely write books that when you shut the cover, you’ll find yourself wondering what the characters are doing today. Who dried the dishes? What sidetracked the character, sending her on an entirely different track? Was there a storm? Certainly they adopted a few dogs…or horses. Growing up, I had no real ally in my family besides books. Only a thin veneer separates the characters in my life and books. They’re with me wherever I go, like one of those ladies who carry a dog in her purse.
You write so much about how people can be broken by loss and need, yet your characters also have this resilience of spirit that tugs them to higher ground. Can you talk about that, please?
Whoa, that’s a hard question, Caroline. My writing and my life have are spent in study of this question: After something has broken you, how do you go on?
Resilience of spirit is even harder to define. I have struggled with depression my whole life. I began to write to use my depression to make something good out of it. I have been bucked off a multitude of times. Like the teacher said in the movie “Precious,” write it out. Life is so surprising. You can fall in love at eighty years of age. There is always a dog that needs rescuing. Chances are good that another person as lonely as you is out there. Everyone who gets back on the horse is a hero. I see people who have done that and I want to celebrate them as characters.
What's your writing life like? Actually, I'd love it if you would talk about your career as a whole. What surprised you about being a professional writer?
What surprised me is that it happened at all. I never thought I was good enough to deserve publication. A few self-esteem issues here. When it happened, you’ve heard me say this before, I had just finished my MFA, with no publications during that time, I came home from the residency to find out I had gotten fired from my crappy job, and I was watching All My Children, crying and dusting when the phone rang. It was my first editor, telling me that my agent had laryngitis, and that she wanted to buy my book.
I pinch myself every day. To be paid money for my favorite thing to do! More than once! More than 10 times!
Just this past week I won the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Chancellor’s Award for Research & Creative Activity. Being nominated alongside scientists and important fields was as far as I expected it to go. Had I known I’d win, I would have taken the red-eye to AK and made a fool of myself crying on stage because this was REALLY BIG for the Creative Writing Department where I’ve taught for 11 years. And to me, having been told that I would never be hired tenure-track because I had “written too many books.” Validation, respect, to be publically deemed to be part of something that big?
Blew me away.
I write every day in my little office. Around 2:00 P.M. the dogs start in to remind me that dinner will be in three hours. They bring me live mice. They “bury” dead gophers on the couch. They bark at ravens. It’s amazing I can get anything written at all. These days I am working in the daytime and at night. I am wailing on the first draft of this new book so I can have months to revise it.
You've lived in a few places, Alaska, New Mexico, for two, and the sense of place really infuses your work to the extent that it's almost a character in itself. Do you think place impacts character or character impacts place, or both? And why and how?
When you grow up in Southern California, you have the Pacific Ocean. We used to rent a beach house for a month every summer. It fosters the sense of having a second identity. When I traveled to Northern California, I realized there were much bigger parts to this state than the one I was living in. It was possible to live in beauty, as the Navajo say. I went to Alaska when I was eighteen, and knew someday I wanted to live there.
My dad died just before I got married, and my mom was left raising two teenagers, so I ended up in Southern California for 47 years. I talked my husband into quitting everything and moving to Alaska and we lived there 8 years. I enjoyed every moment of it—snow, giant spruce trees, wildlife in the front yard, and talk about ocean! There is a frontier mentality that exists to this day. It’s a great place for a woman who wants to buck the system a little. I was hired as a term contract professor to teach in their fiction MFA Program. I thought nothing could top that. This is the job I’ve always wanted. Six years later, my colleague Sherry Simpson and I were sitting at a table every day of the week for a year creating the low-residency program. My contract was 60% time, which allowed professors to live elsewhere, returning to AK every summer. I said to my husband, OK, if you want to move, this is the time. He said he wanted to live in Santa Fe. It was my turn to say yes.
It’s a different kind of pretty here. Prairie and high desert climate, ravens, jackrabbits, coyote central, a big chorus every night. All that finds its way into story because if I had my druthers, I’d be out in it. It’s hard to meet people, but my former student and cherished friend Judi Hendricks (http://judihendricks.com/) lives here. Writers manage to find each. Michael McGarrity lives down the street, and close by, Sally Denton, and David Morrell. We have an indie bookstore, Collected Works, built where there used to be a jail, one that Billy the Kid busted out of. We’re all tucked inside out houses writing. I love the solitude, but I miss Alaska, which is ironically, now where our son is living.
What's obsessing you now?
I’m writing Owen’s Daughter, which features some of the Finding Casey characters, but also Owen, Margaret, Peter, and Skye (Owen’s daughter) from Blue Rodeo. Another story I have been waiting 20 years to tell. I love the fact that just now in Chapter 6, they will miss each other by seconds. Because eventually these folks, who haven’t seen each other for 10 years, are going to meet. And when they do, their worlds blow up. Love is all you need? Well, that and Lorazepam.
And I am obsessed by ghosts, and tinkering around with trying a mainly omniscient narrative, and reading about 1912 Santa Fe. This place is filled with spirits, there’s a ghost tour. So my ghost, Dolores, arrives in Finding Casey, and here she is again in Owen’s Daughter, so I’m giving her some rein, seeing where she takes me.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
I don’t know how do you do it, Caroline, teach, write, raise a wonderful son, stay married to the amazing Jeff, and have time to interview writers, to make space for them to be heard. Bless your heart a million times over. So here’s my question: Which Old Gringos will end up in your closet next? When can we go out for a cupcake? My treat.