Utah writer Jana Richman’s first book, 2005’s Riding in the Shadow of Saints, chronicled an introspective motorcycle trip she took over the path of the Mormon trail, a crossing her great-great grandmothers had made largely on foot. Richman’s debut novel, The Last Cowgirl, concerns the emotional journey Dickie Sinfield must make when she discovers her brother has been killed in an accident in Utah’s Dugway Proving Grounds. Jana Richman recently spoke to NewWest.Net/Books via email about the role landscape plays in her fiction, how she came to be a writer, and the Utah environmental issues that fuel her fiction. Richman will read from The Last Cowgirl in Salt Lake City at Sam Weller’s Bookstore on January 31 at 7 p.m.
NewWest: One aspect of The Last Cowgirl that struck me was Dickie’s age when she has what might be described as a midlife crisis, prompted by her brother’s death. In the present portions of the book, she’s 52 years old, and through the flashbacks, she’s confronting issues and experiences from her childhood and teenage years that she hasn’t fully dealt with yet. Why did you choose to have Dickie this age when she has her moment of crisis and introspection?
Jana Richman: Part of this is simply circumstance. I was more concerned about Dickie’s age in 1968—she needed to be young enough that the entire family would still be together at the ranch but old enough to really grasp the impact of the event—and I didn’t have any reason not to set the present portions of the book in, well, present time as opposed to 1998 or some year that would have made her younger, so she ended up being 52. She could have been 42; she could have been 62. There’s no magic age where we finally begin to unravel the complexity of the life we’ve made for ourselves, figure out exactly how much we’ve messed up our lives with the decisions we’ve made and what can or cannot be done about it. For me, it was my late 40s. Some more enlightened than I might figure it out in their early 40s or even their 30s; some never figure it out at all. I think Dickie might have been one who never confronted the truths of her life—or may have done it much later in life—if the death of her brother hadn’t forced the issue at that particular time.
NW: The landscape of the Utah desert plays a big role in the novel. How do you write about landscape in a way that is dynamic?
JR: I think my love and passion for Utah’s west desert worked its way deeply into the writing of this novel. It’s a stark landscape, one that many find hard to take, one that many describe as a wasteland, which is why the military has been able to heap such destruction upon it for so many years without much interference or outrage. I find it heartbreakingly beautiful. It has always offered me solitude, serenity, and peace. I suppose there’s some irony there given the west desert harbors the most insidious and destructive weapons ever known to humankind, but I defy anyone to sit in the silence of that geography watching—and feeling—a band of 30 or so wild horses run across the flat land with a low, grey cloud barely above their heads and walk away untouched.
NW: You grew up in Utah, and recently moved from Tucson to Salt Lake City. Did this move spark anything in your writing? Had you been working on The Last Cowgirl before you moved back to Utah?
JR: I started The Last Cowgirl while I was in Tucson in a very preliminary way—just dabbling with ideas—but I doubt I could have finished it there, and if I had, it may have been a different story. I was away from Utah for 19 years—three of them in New York and 16 in Tucson. I absolutely love Tucson and the Sonoran Desert, but the truth is, although I made frequent visits home, my heart ached for Utah the entire time I was gone. I spent many hours in the west desert writing this book and I couldn’t have done it any other way. I needed to be there not only to capture the descriptions of the land, but also to reawaken the place I carried inside me, which was the west desert 40 years ago.
NW: The Mormon religion has played a big part in your first two books. You’ve said that you were raised in this religion, but no longer practice it. Do you think it will continue to play a central role in your writing?
JR: I don’t think so (although it can provide some fun material). In the first book, Riding In The Shadows of Saints, I set out to explore my relationship with the Mormon Church and to understand my reasons for casting off such an enormous part of my upbringing and culture. In The Last Cowgirl I didn’t really set out to write about the Mormon religion, and I don’t think it plays an awfully big role in the book. But since I was intent on the setting—Salt Lake City and Utah’s west desert—it also couldn’t be ignored. I couldn’t just arbitrarily assign my characters Catholicism or some other religion because it wouldn’t have fit with time and place. But I don’t have any desire for my writing to be always associated with Mormonism. (The Mormon Church and my Mormon relatives might also be relieved some if I cultivated my material from a different source for awhile.)
NW: When you were pitching your books, did you find that agents and editors were interested in the Mormon aspects of your stories? Is there an interest among non-Mormons to learn more about this religion?
JR: Generally speaking, I find that people don’t particularly want to “learn” about the Mormon Church, but there is a genuine curiosity about it as there is for anything unfamiliar and maybe a little odd. I found a different reaction to each of my books. The first, as I mentioned, was meant to take a head-on look at the Mormon Church from a historical, feminist, and personal view. So in that case, yes, people were interested in the Mormon aspect, but I don’t think the book would have sold on that aspect alone. The larger themes of the book—what it means to have faith, the interconnection of religion and family, feminism within a patriarchy—had a universal appeal outside of the curiosity about Mormonism.
But with the novel, the Mormon aspect almost became a detriment. It was important to me that the Mormon characters in The Last Cowgirl simply take their religion—no matter to what degree they actually practiced it—for granted, as many Mormons do. However, my editor was worried that because readers might have misconceptions or lack of knowledge about Mormonism, certain references would require too much explanation and bog down the writing. The characters themselves don’t see their religion as weird or quirky—most of them have spent their entire lives in Utah—so I couldn’t very well stop in the middle of dialog to explain to the reader what “temple chaps” are or what a jack-Mormon is, or that, yes, some Mormons do, in fact, drink a beer now and again. So the Mormonism had to be worked through in a seamless way where both character and reader could take it for granted.
NW: Your first book was a chronicle of your motorcycle journey along the Mormon trail, and in “The Last Cowgirl,” Dickie spends a lot of the book on horseback. Do you see any similarities between those two modes of transport?
JR: Other than the fact that you straddle them both and neither one has a seat belt?
NW: You’ve written that your father is “a retired schoolteacher and part-time rancher,” just like the father in the novel, and you, like Dickie, have written an article about Dugway Proving Grounds (the piece “A Cloud Over My Hometown” that you published in The Progressive in February of 2000). Is The Last Cowgirl autobiographical in these or other ways?
The Last Cowgirl does have some seeds of autobiography in both character and event, but both have been exploited, twisted, and manipulated to serve the story so it pretty quickly becomes purely fiction. And then, of course, once the characters are in place and living their lives, the writer is manipulated to tell the story the characters want to tell. My father did buy an old run-down ranch when I was a child, but he never moved us out to the ranch as George Sinfield does with his family in the novel.
My father’s decision to buy the ranch, however, was a pivotal event in my life; it changed my relationship with the geography of the West. Similar to Dickie’s experiences, my summers went from roller-skating and playing statues on the lawn to riding horses and hauling hay and working cattle. So my father’s decision gave me a much larger perspective and a deeper understanding of the West. I grew up with full awareness of the aridity of the west and with an understanding of what the West can and cannot offer its residents. We—Westerners—have yet to truly acknowledge the fact that we reside in an arid desert and our ignorance—or arrogance—is about to bite us in the ass. That’s the background for the next novel.
NW: I’ll give a spoiler warning to readers, because I’m about to ask about a key scene. The moment when Dickie and Stumpy find the livestock in their death throes from nerve gas that had escaped the Dugway Proving Grounds was shocking and vivid. This is based on a true incident, isn’t it? Did you or anyone you know have a personal stake in this incident in the 1970’s?
JR: That scene is based on a true event that happened in 1968, and pretty much happened the way it is described in the book. The nerve gas didn’t so much “escape” Dugway Proving Grounds; it was sprayed outside Dugway Proving Grounds from two low-flying jets after the dispensers failed to clamp shut as anticipated. About 6,000 sheep were killed in the incident, however, no cattle perished—that piece of it is fiction. My family did not have a personal stake in this incident in the same way the Sinfields—along with Bev and Merv—did in the book. However, I think all U.S. citizens, and in particular, residents of Utah’s west desert had a personal stake in what the U.S. Army was doing at Dugway Proving Grounds. We still do. It seems shocking now, but at that time, the military was routinely conducting open air nerve gas tests in the west desert. The 1968 sheep killing incident stopped that practice, but we are no more aware of what’s going on at Dugway today—under intense security and secrecy—than we were 40 years ago.
NW: Have any people actually been killed by nerve gas in Utah as Heber is in the opening of the book?
JR: To the best of my knowledge, no person has been killed by nerve gas in Utah, but “leaks” and other “incidents” are not an uncommon report at the incinerator (which is not on Dugway Proving Grounds but on the east side of the Onaquis), and there has been some controversy over the treatment of incinerator employees who raised safety concerns in the past.
NW: What was your profession before you began to write and publish books? Had you always wanted to be a writer?
JR: I have always wanted to be a writer, but I’m an unlikely writer. I didn’t grow up in a world of literature and art, I didn’t grow up in a house where books were highly valued, and I didn’t get a very good liberal arts education. I grew up in a house where “a secure job” was about the most a person could aspire to, which is why, unlike Dickie who left the west desert immediately after high school, went to college and became a journalist, I stayed and got a job at Tooele Army Depot. That’s where my motivation to go to college started; I couldn’t envision working that job until retirement age. But I also couldn’t make the leap from that to writer. So instead I became an accountant—ever seeking the secure job—worked for a CPA firm in Salt Lake City then moved to New York and got a job on Wall Street. But the desire to write never abandoned me nor did the knowledge that I’m a westerner—utterly and hopelessly out of place anywhere east of the hundredth meridian. So when I moved back to the west—Tucson—I first got a graduate degree in journalism and worked as a freelancer, then got accepted into the MFA program at the University of Arizona and started writing nonfiction and fiction.
NW: How long had you been writing before you had your first success, and how did it come about?
JR: That’s a tough question. I guess it would depend on how one defines “success” and how one defines “writing.” I’ve written my entire life, but for the first 30 or so years simply didn’t show it to anyone. It does feel a little strange—although I don’t mind—to be called a “new” writer or an “emerging” writer at this age—I’m in my 50s. But I began to seriously consider myself a writer about 15 years ago. Once I made that decision, and because it had been a such long time coming, pretty much every little step along the way—including sending a piece out 50 times and having it rejected 50 times—felt like a success. It still does.
NW: Your first book was nonfiction and your second is fiction. Do you consider one or the other genre your primary interest?
JR: Right now my primary interest is fiction, but I’ll always work in both genres.
NW: What are you working on now?
JR: I’m working on a novel set in Nevada.
Jana Richman will read from The Last Cowgirl in Salt Lake City at Sam Weller’s Bookstore on January 31 at 7 p.m.