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Jane Kirkpatrick


Jane Kirkpatrick is the bestselling author of two nonfiction books and eleven historical novels, including Oregon Book Award Finalist A NAME OF HER OWN and the acclaimed Kinship and Courage series. Her award-winning essays and articles have appeared in more than fifty publications, including Daily Guideposts and Decision. A winner of the coveted Western Heritage Wrangler Award, Jane is a licensed clinical social worker as well as an internationally recognized speaker and inspirational retreat leader. She and her husband, Jerry, ranch 160 acres in eastern Oregon.

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May 2007

What makes veteran novelist and nonfiction author Jane Kirkpatrick's stories such a treat to savor is her ability to bring her own experiences as a family therapist and as a woman living in the West wrestling with her faith to mingle with rich historical research as she creates the fictional characters and themes found in her award-winning novels. In this interview, Kirkpatrick --- whose most recent book is A TENDERING IN THE STORM, the second installment in her Change and Cherish historical series --- talks with's Cindy Crosby about her writing life, her love affair with the western landscape, what elderly rats and her character Emma Giesy have in common, and how horror novelist Stephen King unknowingly has helped her reach new readers. What inspired you to write the Change and Cherish historical series?

Jane Kirkpatrick: The series began when I found a picture of an unusual quilt in a friend's book. A commenting note gave the quilter's name, Emma Wagner Giesy, and said she was the only woman who with nine male scouts headed west in 1853 to find a new site for their religious colony. I was intrigued that she was named when so many historical women aren't, and that an artifact of hers remained. I explored a little more and discovered the colony had developed many new sites but had never sent a woman out. The unanswered questions about who she was, what her desires might have been, how she made herself heard in a community that didn't always honor a woman's voice, kept me curious. As I researched, I wondered about the choices the colony made wanting to be salt and light in their world while protecting the integrity of their own distinctive beliefs. So began the Change and Cherish series.

FR: What a great quote you included by Paul Tillich at the beginning of A TENDERING IN THE STORM: "Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness…."

JK: The quote has become a favorite. I felt it captured the essence of this novel, which is about the many siblings of grief: doubt, separation, guilt, anger, unworthiness, being in bondage; and how as human beings we seek light in that darkness and ultimately acceptance despite our sometimes poor choices. The prologue of this book begins with my character taking a night walk on a beach holding a lantern high above her head, seeing just what the light reveals. She's about to undergo a very dark time in her life. Tillich says a "wave of light" breaks into our darkness and we come to feel accepted. I just loved the image and was so grateful that the Tillich estate gave permission for me to use it.

FR: It's a delight to find such beautiful writing in an inspirational historical series! How did you learn the craft, and what do you do to improve it?

JK: As a child I wrote "wretched little poems," as I called them, so I'm pleased the words sound beautiful to readers. I always loved the sounds of words and their rhythms. My teachers said encouraging things through the years so I know that much of how I write arrived under my skin. In my mental health professional life, I knew my words could move people because I'd write about concerns I had and I'd get phone calls from legislators, for example, asking how they could help.

But when my husband and I chose to move to our "rattlesnake and rock ranch" in 1984, and I wondered what I'd do here, the word "write" came into my head. So I took some classes at a local community college and then read all kinds of books about craft and how to write. Then I began writing, risking by sending things out, learning from the comments editors sometimes made in the rejection letters, but also selling some of my class assignments. I still read many books on craft, but I also read novels and nonfiction with a writer's eye asking myself questions about how the author did what she did.

FR: Who do you read?

JK: I read lots of poetry (Mary Oliver) and many western landscape writers (Ted Koozer, Rob Whitbeck, Linda Hussa, Sandra Dallas), and they continue to help me improve my craft. I also read each chapter out loud to my husband, both to see if he stays awake but also to hear how it sounds and to identify glitches in the sentence structure. Mostly, I write and revise and pray that I won't get in the way of the story.

FR: The way you change points of view, writing in first person from several very different women's perspectives, reminded me of Barbara Kingsolver's THE POISONWOOD BIBLE. What is the biggest challenge of writing fiction in this way?

JK: Wow, I love being in the same sentence as Barbara Kingsolver, one of my favorite authors. But to your question: Joyce Carol Oates says one of the three tasks in writing a good story is creating empathy for a character struggling in his flawed world (the other two are being a witness and memorializing). 

The biggest challenge for me is creating a desire in each character that a reader can empathize with, even when it's quite far from their own perections of the world. In this book, both women wanted to support their husbands, for example. But one woman followed her husband blindly while the main protagonist, Emma, was more directive.

FR: Any other challenges?

JK: It's also a challenge to take the reader seamlessly from one perspective to the other while making it look like there's nothing to it! That requires attention to word choice, sentence structure, creating unique dialogue tags for each voice, pacing, giving them each a different sense of humor, choosing or allowing the story to provide distinctive metaphors for each so a reader knows within the first sentence who the speaker is and can get into their head quickly to move the story along.

FR: Emma Wagner Giesy, the rebel in the Change and Cherish series, has morphed quite a bit in just two books. How do you plan to develop her character as the series continues?

JK: Such an insightful question. Emma won't be on a physical journey as in book one nor is she involved in an isolating personal crisis as in book two. The actual historical events inform some of what happens next since my stories are based on the lives of real people. Emma matures, is calmer and better able to live with her life choices but still ruffles feathers and is not easily understood or appreciated by others as happens in families and communities. She still has many desires not the least of which is to have a meaningful life, to be, as Mary Oliver wrote, "a bride, married to amazement, a bridegroom who opened my arms to the world." How her desires are played out amidst the tension of communal life drives the third and final book. We'll see Emma as an adult child interacting with her family continue to explore how she changes as a mother and as a member of a community and how she affects the character of that community.

Scientists tell us that even old rats can grow new brain cells when they're given new mazes to learn. Emma isn't even that old in book three, but she still has new mazes to learn.

FR: You write about the settling of the Pacific Northwest, an area where you live. How did you do your research?

JK: Landscapes are woven into all of my stories along with the threads of relationship, spirituality and work. I love being able to walk in those landscapes and that's what I did with one of my earlier novels, too, set in Florida. For this series, I spent time with oysterman on the Pacific Coast, talking about starfish and drills, walking along Willapa Bay, looking up at the huge timber and trying to imagine bringing down a tree like that to build a house. My husband and I drove through pouring rain, crossing rivers along the same route the colonists took back and forth from Oregon to the Washington Territory, only they did it on horseback or in wagons. I spent nights in the region of both sites listening, smelling and letting the landscapes seep into my being. I read local history books, and I try to find articles by hunters and fisherman about the region because those writers are great observers of the landscape and see details I'd otherwise miss not living directly in that area. I live in a high, dry desert part of the Northwest, so writing about the rainy side was a challenge.

But I also spent long hours in musty back rooms of museums and libraries. I interviewed descendants to hear the family stories and held the objects that families had kept: Emma's quilt, the lantern Christian made, the musical instruments the German-Americans played always wondering "what would it have been like?" How did the landscape assist their everyday lives and how did it challenge it? Seeking out these artifacts are a part of that landscape experience to me. I confess, I love the research and I always have to begin writing before I think I should or I'd never begin! I'd just keep researching and letting myself be washed by the waves of the landscape.

FR: How did the research about the Pacific Northwest influence your own sense of place or change the way you view it?

JK: I'm a transplant from the Midwest --- Wisconsin --- coming West to stay in 1974. I followed my sister and her family to Oregon vacationing while I was still in high school. Something about this landscape drew me. So when I finished my graduate work in clinical social work, I came west to work. When I met and married a native Oregonian I knew I'd stay. I'd found what my native American friends would say is my "place of belonging." I spent 17 years working on an Indian reservation in Oregon, and how the families there saw their land and its history changed the way I looked at my own upbringing on a dairy farm. I appreciated it more and saw its distinctiveness through gentler eyes.

There is great variety in the Northwest, from the coast to mountains to high desert to lush landscapes that look like the Ohio Valley. I think often of the German poet Rilke's statement that he defined himself as a landscape, studied at length and in detail or like a word he was coming to understand. Landscapes, as our lives, are constantly changing. Such variety allows many opportunities for studying. The deeper we experience those landscapes, the more we come to understand about ourselves I think. So here, I am constantly schooled and constantly soothed at the same time, and I hope it helps me create a meaningful experience for readers who might never come here except through my words.

FR: You incorporate such interesting historical details, such as a "spider," which turns out NOT to be an insect! What new things about the mid-1800s were most interesting to you?

JK: The worst part about writing a historical novel is having to leave out so many wonderful tidbits of history that don't advance the story, so thanks for giving me the platform here! 1) How Indians and later settlers used cedar bark for clothing. 2) The reason that Washington state has so many Native American place names while most of Oregon's place names are either French or Anglican, for example, is because it's believed that the mosquito-carrying malaria that wiped out Oregon's Indian tribes didn't cross the Columbia River. When settlers from Portland, Maine and other places back east came to Oregon, few Indians remained to give them local names. But in Washington state, the tribes were strong, and names like Tacoma and Seattle and Sammamish are still used today because of it. 3) Or this tidbit: until the 1830s, it took seven men to make one hat pin. Queen Victoria set one day a year for the sale of such pins, New Year's Day. Women all year long saved their "pin money" for spending that day. My mother used the term "pin money" a lot, but I never knew where it came from.

I didn't know oysters had natural predators in the starfish and this little worm called a drill, or that miners in the California gold fields were oystermen's biggest buyers. Settlers from the west moved back and forth much more often than I ever thought possible, taking ships around the horn, riding and walking. Women wore quilted petticoats in the winter. Blackberry juice makes a fine ink. Don't get me started...!

FR: Your passion for history is infectious! How about "the diamond rule" that is practiced by the colony? Is it something you made up? Or was this factual?

JK: The diamond rule was factual. Despite all their other quirks, the colonists truly did believe that, as faithful Christians, part of their mission in life was to make others' lives better than their own. It was the basis for their taking in orphans, widows, misfits that might have been rejected by the larger society. Generosity was a hallmark of their interaction with the outside world. In book three, the colonists pay a terrible price for that belief, but they held onto it and it's what's remembered most about them to this day.

FR: I love the pull and tug in this series between the lure of security through strict religious rules and strong leadership and the freedom found in risk and independence. There seems to be danger in both. How did your own view of God and religion influence your writing here --- or did it?

JK: The Italian word religio gives us the English word "religion." It means "ambassador," that person you'd go to while in a foreign land or when seeking help or direction. That's how I've come to see religion --- as a way through uncertainty, as a place of sometimes agitated security, but a way to take the next step in the midst of confusion. In my stories, I want to convey the tension in our own faith communities where we trust we're in good hands but still want to push our own agendas and how that impacts us and each other.

I left behind my Methodist upbringing and all things Christian when I was in my early 20s. Along the way to being 61 years old now, I met a number of ambassadors who helped me find my way back. While writing this series, I drew on those times of personal agony, separation and seeking, and the variety of faith communities and their leaders I encountered.

As Christians, I think we want to touch the world around us and yet not lose ourselves in the process. I think that's true of my characters, too. Someone once used the metaphor of the open umbrella, where each of the ribs is in tension against the cloth and each other, but in doing so it creates shelter.

FR: You use a great word, sehnsucht, in your story that describes why the characters journeyed west.

JK: I first read this German word in a work by C.S. Lewis, and it means human longing or yearning. Literally, Sehn ("to long for") and sucht ("like a mania.") It suggests a kind of compulsion, almost an addictive quality, of something that draws us to it that we can't stop seeking.

In this story I do think it symbolizes more than the land journey west or even establishing the new colony. I think it represents a universal longing of the human spirit to be drawn toward God, to find meaning in our lives. The Proverb says, "Desire realized is sweet to the soul," so having a desire, and longing, are part of the human condition I think. At the same time, there are all these barriers that get in the way, not the least of which is living with uncertainty and risk and what sometimes seems like the arbitrariness of life. But there is hope in the longing, in believing we are drawn to something worthy and are loved enough to pull us through the quagmire of our lives.

FR: The idea of a "hinge" appears in several places and seems symbolic. Please tell our readers about this.

JK: It has always struck me that in families we often argue about different sides of the same issue. We aren't indifferent to the subject of religion, let's say, or politics, but rather passionate about it; but we're on opposing sides. Something stands between us that keeps us apart but also holds us together. I think of that as the hinge of our experience. So long as there is a hinge there, the door can still be opened and closed; the oyster shell is still wholly intact. Only when that hinge is severed are we truly separated.

When I worked as a family therapist, I tried to help families identify their defining hinges and to help then put the disagreements that fell on either side of those connectors into perspective. We'd try to find less volatile hinges that could keep them together even though they might never agree. I also wanted to explore what kind of hinges existed for my characters and the colonists as a group. It's another way of looking at families and stories, what holds us together and what keeps us apart.

FR: What type of readers do you usually find buying your books?

JK: I find my books on a number of shelves in bookstores: women's studies, inspirational, Christian, western, regional, literary, religious, fiction, historical fiction and sometimes "new arrivals." I hear mostly from female readers who like the strong female protagonists, or who like the way I write, or who are struggling in their lives, and someone who cares about them has given them one of my books as encouragement.

Men often write or come to my signings and presentations and tell me that they find community in my books, other men they can look up to. I know many readers have said they didn't read novels until someone gave them one of mine. Because most of the characters are based on real people, I think readers of nonfiction and history read me for that aspect and for the hopefulness of stories about real people who didn't have easy lives but who grew and learned and changed. One reader said she was looking for a Stephen King novel she hadn't read, and there I was next to him on the library shelf, so she started reading me! Location, location, location.

FR: What sort of questions do they ask you?

JK: The questions people most ask is about sorting out what is fictionalized and what is factual in the books: did Emma really live, did the colony leader really bring a casket all the way across the plains, etc. and what about this story drew me to it.  But they also "tell" me that I should write their great-grandmother's story or the story of their great uncle who was the first person to did this or that. Now I get to tell them that if that story called my name, I'd do the best I could to write it down and I know I'd learn something I otherwise wouldn't have learned; but I wouldn't learn what they'd learn if they wrote the story down. They are the keepers of that story and then I try to encourage them to just begin to write it. They'll never know what amazing things will come from the process.

FR: Speaking of writing, what's next for you, writing-wise?

JK: Today I'm working on the revisions for the third book in the series, A MENDING AT THE EDGE, which will be out in April 2008. I've begun researching the next story calling my name that will come out in 2009 and have commitments for four more novels after that. In between I've taken on this exciting new project related to the actual colony of this Change and Cherish series that will celebrate the quilts and their unique crafts. It'll be a coffee table book, with inspirational pieces linking the arts and history to the nurture in our contemporary lives. In some ways, it'll be an extension of the colonists' lives, so I don't have to say good-bye to them just yet. It'll be out in the fall of 2008 if all goes well.

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