I met Jana Richman at a reading she gave with Barbara Richardson at Townie Books in Crested Butte. Her book, The Ordinary Truth, felt like an answer to a prayer because she used some of the storytelling elements I hoped to use in the novel I'd begun to uncover in my own writing. I was also struck by the thoughtful way she spoke about writing---how she discovered her characters, how her story come to life. It didn't take long to ask her to be a part of WritingStrides, and I'm thrilled she said yes (I also highly recommend her book):
That’s a difficult question for me to answer. The desire may have always been there, but for a long time, I didn’t know it was an option, so I took a circuitous route. I’ve always had a love for books, as all writers do, but I didn’t grow up in a home where literature was valued. My father thought reading was a waste of time when there was “real work” to be done, and he had an explosive temper, so I hid my books under my bed whenever I heard him approaching. English was my best subject in high school, which unfortunately also made it the one that was easy to test out of when I finally found my way to college seven years and one marriage after high school. I was on my own, broke, and looking for a way to support myself. I became an accountant. It took me another ten years to find my way back to writing.
What was it like to claim that dream of being a writer? Was it automatic, or did it take some time to believe it was possible to be a writer?
It has never been automatic for me. I reclaim that dream every day when I sit down to write, and if I don’t sit down to write it begins to slip away. My father’s voice telling me how foolish it is to be a writer gets loud and insistent if I’m away from the page too long. Writing is the only life that makes sense to me. Sitting alone in my writing shed creating something with words creates happiness in my soul. It balances every other part of my life. Whenever I begin to drift off course, whenever I begin to worry about things I don’t have such as retirement plans and health insurance, my husband says, “You really need to go write,” and he’s right. It’s the only thing that brings me peace.
The process varies depending on where I am in a project, but I try to write every day, and I try to give my best hours to my writing. Everything else—including the kind of work that actually pays—has to fit around that. Once I made that conscious choice, the pages started piling up.
There are an endless number of reasons not to write. I once lamented to a writer friend how busy I am and how difficult it is to find time to write, and she said, “You have 24 hours in a day just like everyone else. How you spend them is up to you.” Stark truth. After that I spent less time complaining about not writing and more time writing.
Drafting—the artist’s part of the work—is difficult for me because I spent my early life thinking of myself as a noncreative person. That wasn’t true; it’s not true for anyone. We can all tap into the creativity in the world if we learn how to do so. I didn’t learn that as a young person, so I still struggle with it. But the revision process—the artisan’s part—that’s where I get my best writing. That’s where my characters come to life, that’s when I begin to hear their voices and their stories.
I can’t say how many revisions I end up doing—I would guess between ten and fifteen—because I save right over the top of my prior draft. That’s one of many writers’ rules—save each draft—that I break with consistency because I believe each draft is better than the one before it.
Once I get into a rhythm in the revision process, it’s a joy to return to it each day. At heart, I’m a blue-collar worker—I get my lunch pail and my coffee thermos and show up at work one day after the next.
Your writing strikes me as very place-based, centered around the West and what it means to live in the west. What role do you think a sense of place plays in your writing, and how do your ideas come to you?
I get asked the question about place in my writing quite a bit, but it is difficult for me to think of it as an element that can be separated from the rest. I grew up in the rural West, and I’m a Westerner through and through. I lived in New York for a few years, but my values and my sensibilities have been formed by the West, so it is the perspective from which I write, and that would be true even if the book weren’t placed in the West. The issues of the West, particularly the water issue, which is one of the most urgent issues facing Westerners, are part of who I am, part of my makeup, part of my belief system.
Besides growing up rural, I grew up outdoors. My father was a small-time rancher, so I had space available to me. My father also created a lot of noise and chaos in my house, which drove me outside. It felt quieter and safer there—it was my escape—so I feel as if I’m part of the outside world. I never think of it as “going out into nature.” It’s as much a part of my life as my living room or bedroom. Coming from that perspective, I tend to write characters who have an intimate relationship with their geographical place. That feels natural to me.
My ideas come at me from all angles. Ideas flow freely if a person is receptive to them. Some turn into something; others don’t. I’m never in a rush to jot ideas down. The good ones stick with me and germinate before they ever hit the page.
The Ordinary Truth began with the thought that I wanted to write about three generations of women from one family and how they might see things differently based upon age. I also wanted to explore my mother’s loss of her father at a young age, and the ways in which that changed the trajectory of her life. In addition, I wanted to explore motherhood from the perspective of women who struggle with it, who never do embrace it, along with my own decision not to be a mother. I also wanted to understand how introducing a child into a marriage that is based on passionate love might change the marriage. While those characters and ideas were bouncing around with no place to go, the Southern Nevada Water Authority announced plans to build a water pipeline, and I immediately recognized that as a story and location that would accommodate my characters and my ideas.
Your latest novel, The Ordinary Truth, is told in four different voices and each in the first person. At a reading in Crested Butte, you mentioned that first person was the only way you could hear their voices. Could you elaborate on that? (What it means to hear the voices of your characters and tap into or follow the story?)
I don’t write outlines and I don’t know the full story of my novels before I begin to write. But I know my characters intimately. I often start by writing long character sketches. Then I put the sketches away and never look at them again while I’m writing. That allows characters to grow and evolve as needed on the page.
During the first draft, I feel as if I’m forcing every one of them down a road they don’t want to travel. It’s drudgery. I’m begging and cajoling and pushing and lifting and carrying. But once I have something on the page, a little something that a character can respond to by saying, “No, that’s not the way it was at all; here, let me show you,” then I just need to move out of my own way.
In The Ordinary Truth the first voice I heard was Cassie’s, and I initially thought it would be told only from her perspective. But she didn’t know enough. There were too many family secrets that had been kept from her. I then thought Kate, Cassie’s mother, would tell the story, but she’s too reticent. She has the information, but she doesn’t want to talk about it. So I went back to the idea of Cassie telling the story, but as soon as she started, Nell began jumping in to correct her. And because Nell doesn’t always tell the truth, Leona jumped in to correct Nell, and I ended up with those four voices.
Writing produces more writing. The more you write, the more the creativity flows. You don’t run out of ideas unless you never go to the page. If you wait for your muse to show up before you begin to write, you won’t produce much work. If you show up at the page every day, inspiration will eventually meet you there. (Five things, not one, but they’re related.)
Do you have any advice for a writer who’s just beginning to claim their dreams and goals?
You have 24 hours in a day, just like everyone else. What you do with them is up to you.
Jana Richman is the author of two novels, The Ordinary Truth and The Last Cowgirl, which won the Willa Award for Contemporary Fiction; and a memoir, Riding in the Shadows of Saints: A Woman’s Story of Motorcycling the Mormon Trail. She was born and raised in Utah’s west desert, the daughter of a small-time rancher and a hand-wringing Mormon mother. With the exception of a few misguided years spent in New York City trying to make a fortune on Wall Street, she has lived her entire life—more than 50 years—west of the hundredth meridian. She writes about issues that threaten to destroy the essence of the west: overpopulation, overdevelopment, rapidly dwindling water aquifers, stupidity, ignorance, arrogance and greed. She also writes about passion, beauty, and love. You can visit her website at www.janarichman.com and purchase her books at Indie Bound.