Barbara K. Richardson's novel Tributary follows the life of a woman raised in 1870s Utah Mormonism--just as polygamy was gaining momentum. Determined to find a life outside of the church, she sets out on a journey that is not only fascinating and inspiring but resonates with anyone seeking their place in life today. (It's on my bookshelf, waiting for a second read).
It took Barbara roughly 20 years to bring Tributary to life, from its first beginning as a dream to its final arrival on book shelves. Her patience and determination give her a unique perspective on writing, one that I'm excited to share with you here.
When I met Barbara at a reading in Crested Butte, she signed her book with the following: "The stronger the woman, the better the tale." I suspect that in Barbara's case, you could also say, "The stronger the woman, the better the writer."
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
In third grade, I wrote a poem about a stick horse named Linden which I hid under a geography book so that my teacher wouldn't see it as she passed by. Mortification at being exposed—that is one mark of a deep desire to write! Or of introversion. Or both. I think I also feared being original. Schools didn't go in for that much in my day.
Were you able to embrace that dream right away, or did it take time to become convinced that it’s possible to be a writer?
It took a very long time. I did write poetry in college, but I was pretty angst-ridden—having left a church I didn't believe in, having never had any life experiences outside of Air Force bases, classrooms and books. So I decided, after graduation, not to write. I made that vow. The world didn't need my self-absorbed misery clogging up anyone's attention. I swore off writing until I had gained some happiness and a small sense of my own wisdom. Heaven help me, that took 12 years. I started my own sailboat refinishing business. I got married. I taught grade school. I bought a house. And all the while, the longing to write became an actual physical ache.
Finally, at age 34, poems arose during the daily journal time I spent with my beloved sixth grade students. When I had written a dozen poems, I applied to an MFA program. I recall those graduate school years as writer kindergarten: so many lost souls wishing they were already published (grown up), and acknowledged as writers of the highest caliber (chosen to be the nap fairy), tousling over the attention of their elders. Pretty silly stuff. But it served as a crucial hurdle—I knew, after surviving those years, that I would be a writer no matter what. No matter how badly I wrote or what anyone said, writing mattered to me more than anything. I knew it was my personal spiritual path.
What’s your own writing process like?
It's utterly dependent on inspiration. I am naturally disciplined. If I have a novel in the works, there's nothing I'd rather do than write. But if I have no stroke from heaven, no penetrating manuscript delivered from above, I don't write at all. I wait. I've learned to wait. Now that I'm in my 50s, I wait with patience and assurance. I confess I used to worry a lot as a writer. Now I don't push. Editing for other writers provides creative delight in between my own projects.
Writing novels taught me how to write novels. I'm stubborn that way. I had no idea how to tell a story at the start. I had so many bad to terrible habits! Sheer determination and love of the novel form kept me going for 20 years. Stubbornness has been my shield and sword.
There are genuine roadblocks to writing well. I call them gatekeepers: self-consciousness, perfectionism, cleverness, longing for acclaim. Every writer has different gatekeepers. It takes years of effort for writing to become effortless. It's like dance or athletics or music: practice and fail and fall down and run your crazy patterns until—AHHH—you just become the process and the self bows out. Or, that has been my experience. When the material takes over, the author is not in the way.
It sounds shocking, but you have to fall out of love with words. To write something of genuine value, you have to love what lies beyond words more. And serve it. Self-conscious writing, arty writing—as a reader and an editor, I just don't care for that at all. That's not to say that language shouldn't be beautiful or bracing or challenging. But it's not serving up mind tricks. It's not showing off.
Your most recent book, Tributary, was a long time in the making. Can you tell us about the process of bringing it to life? (When I heard you talk about it at Townie Books, I thought a lot about the timing of stories—when they come to us, how long it takes to write them—and how they have lives of their own in a sense. Does that resonate with you?)
In 1992, one week after I finished grad school, I took a walk with a friend who said, "Why don't you write a novel?" I laughed out loud.
But his question landed in that tiny open spot that remained untainted in my psyche—I'd tried and failed at poetry. I'd tried and failed at short stories. And I had always, always wanted to write a novel. So I asked the universe if I could. One week later, Clair Martin and Ada Nuttall descended in a dream. My two characters (one shy and one audacious) talked all night about their lives on the Mormon frontier. For six weeks, I sat up with a flashlight in bed taking notes from them. The story just poured in from nowhere. That ecstatic six-week vision begot Tributary.
It's almost like the universe gave me the gorgeous download so I would endure 20 years' hard work and frustration. The research for the novel took a decade: frontier Mormonism, the history of weaving, Reconstruction New Orleans, hospitals and yellow fever, sheepherding, the Northwestern Shoshone, the City of Rocks and the California Trail. Being new to the craft, I at least wanted to be historically accurate.
But the quiet, atmospheric, slow-moving novel did not sell. My response: write the sequel! An agent shopped this new novel around the globe for two years, and when the very last publisher said, "Not enough story," my agent quit. I threw Clair and Ada in a closet and wrote Guest House in a white hot fury. A contemporary page turner, Guest House took just six years to write, publish and promote. It taught me the value of story.
Before I'd even recovered from that learning curve, my sweetheart said, Hey, tell me about your earlier novel, and I did, and he said, Yowsa, so I dragged out the poor forgotten thing and faced Ada and Clair and my Mormon ancestors and their clannish behavior head on.
Meanwhile, Mitt Romney had made a bid for president. The Book of Mormon slayed audiences on Broadway. And everything I had learned in the 18 years since I met Clair came to my rescue. Along with a Shoshone healer named Rose.
In 2011, Rose took me to the burial ground of the people my Mormon ancestors displaced. She opened my heart to the spirits. She made the desert there at the wide open largely forgotten intensely beautiful Utah/Idaho border blossom "as the rose." I finally felt permission to speak for all of the people who'd lived in the Salt Lake Valley, for everyone with ties to that wonderful austere place. And so my authority arrived, year 19, and the last 70 pages of Tributary gained the traction they'd lacked.
Don't be surprised if your novel drags you places you never expected, and opens you to your deepest truths.
When I checked out your website for Shelfish [your editing and book design website], I loved your ideas about helping writers follow their books’ leads, stay true to their original intent, and then “remove the scaffolding from the manuscript so that readers feel undistracted and welcome.” What does that mean, remove the scaffolding?
I borrowed that idea from a mathematician, oh, I do not remember which one. But his theorems were so elegant, once published, you couldn't find the mathematician in the math.
Great books have that selfless quality. You rewrite and rewrite to remove the clunky bits. An editor's job is to discern what clunks, and to describe how to make your book more true to itself—a book so clean and strong its author vanishes. Margaret Laurence, in her novel The Diviners, has a neighbor read author Morag Gunn's work, and then wonder, after reading, "How can it be you and not you?" Laurence pinpoints the mystery.
What kinds of things should a writer consider when choosing a writing coach or someone to help edit a manuscript?
Instinct and passion are key for a writing coach. And honesty without cruelty.
When choosing an editor, it's crucial to find someone who works from inside your manuscript. It's easy to find an opinionated big shot who will poke at your work from the outside. Negative feedback can make you so mad you want to triumph over it, but do you really want to pay for that? And risk the damage their editing will incur?
When writers approach me, I make sure we're a good fit. I want to edit from the inside. I want to offer genuine help. Reading a 20-page sample lets me know if I'm the right person for the job. I'll often say no thanks and try to point them to other resources. Or I might offer to be their coach, to improve their writing style before taking on a whole manuscript. It's like Match.com. If the first date doesn't feel right, it's best to send them on to someone who will be right.
I personally know that an editor is right for me when taking their advice feels bracing, breathtaking, like a giant and daring relief. They've helped me solve problems I only gaped at. They've provided a way through the thicket. It's delicious, receiving and giving such help.
That is the upside of the writing life.