Jane Kirkpatrick is well-loved by many Northwest readers as a writer of historical women's fiction. Many of her books are set right here in Oregon in our famous pioneer days, making them especially attractive to Oregon readers. Her books have won numerous awards, inclouding the WILLA Literary Award and the Western Heritage Wrangler Award. Kirkpatrick’s own history is interesting enough for a book, and indeed, one of her books, Homestead, tells how she and her husband, Jerry, bought and homesteaded a remote property on the John Day River.
Earlier this year, the Kirkpatricks moved from their remote ranch, which they're in the process of selling to a conservancy that will make the property public, to a comfortable home between Bend and Redmond. When I said I wanted to interview her about her newest book, Barcelona Calling, Kirkpatrick invited me to come to their home and, with characteristic generosity, said, “I’ll make you lunch.” I was greeted at the door by two dogs, one big, one little. The humans sat down for green salad with tuna and chatted about the book business, swapping stories about our worst book signings and author events. After lunch, we got down to business with the interview. Barcelona Calling is a contemporary novel about a writer named Annie Shaw who has had one successful book and is now struggling to get subsequent books noticed. She and her friends come up with a brilliant plan for her to get Oprah to mention her book, and a series of shenanigans follows.
Barcelona Calling is quite a departure for you. Instead of historical fiction, it’s a light contemporary novel, and it’s published by Zondervan, a new publisher for you. Tell me how this book came about. It came about because I used to say at events, when I would talk about why people write, that it's not my job to write a bestseller. It’s not my job to get Oprah to know my name. It’s my job to tell the story the best way I know how. Inevitably, someone would come up afterward, very well-meaning, and ask, 'Have you thought about getting Oprah to pick your book?' So I used to say, 'Someday I’m going to write a book about an author who thinks her angst and financial problems will be over if she can get Oprah to pick her book.' So my publisher, then Random House, who is still my publisher now, said 'We want you to write that book.' And I wrote it, and at first it was all about a lot of the terrible things that happen in publishing. So I got a lot of that out.
So it was a catharsis? It was a catharsis! And it was a pretty terrible book. Then they took it to New York, and New York said, 'No, no, she writes historical fiction.' I think that was their way of being polite, because it really was a pretty terrible book. So later on, my editor remembered that in my contract, it said I couldn’t publish a full-length work with another publisher unless it had been rejected by my current publisher . . . So once Zondervan got ahold of it, I got a sweetheart of an editor, Sue Brower, who saw what this story needed. I really didn’t want it to be a negative book, a whiney book. It was difficult because I didn’t have history as a spine to hang a story on. This editor gave me a wonderful idea, to make the main character, Annie Shaw, a descendant of one of my other characters. I’m not going to tell you who the character is! I’ll give you a hint: It’s one of the characters in the Kinship and Courage series.
How was the process of writing Barcelona Calling different from writing your other novels? I’d been assuming there was less research involved for this one and that would make it less work, but you just said it was difficult. It was scary writing a contemporary. The way it was less work was I didn’t have to identify the time period and make everything consistent with 1850 or 1870 in terms of the clothes and all the other depth of detail. But it was harder because, as a historical writer, I create that world for the reader, and the reader is pretty much willing to let you define the world and to step into it. It’s somewhat like science fiction. You define the world, and if you get it mostly right, the reader accepts your authority. In a contemporary, people have their own experience of watching Oprah, or being oniine, or whatever, and they’re going to evaluate your book by their own experience and see if it “fits.”
Annie is kind of limited in her writing by being published by Ardor Press, a fictional romance publisher. There’s an expectation of “boy gets girl” in romance, mentioned several times in the book. Have you ever felt like there are certain expectations or limitations in being published by a Christian publisher? My publisher has never said anything, but I’ve gotten reviews that were critical because they said, “She’s not a Christian writer; why is she writing for a Christian market?” because it’s not evangelical enough for them. When A Sweetness to the Soul came out, some Christian bookstores wouldn’t carry it. In particular, they objected to a scene where a Native American character who is not a Christian is holding the main character, who is a Christian, accountable for her faith life. My publisher wrote a lovely defense of it, pointing out that we live among all kinds of people, that all kinds of people enhance our faith. I hope I write books where the faith of the characters lived out in their lives is the Christian focus, not an evangelizing kind of story. And then I think the books are too religious for some secular readers.
Who are some of your favorite authors, and ones who have been an influence on your work? I love Sandra Dallas. I think she is great. I like Laura R. King, the Holmes and Russell books. I just finished a book by Sandra Byrd called To Die For: A Novel of Anne Boleyn and it was stunning—I’m gonna read everything she wrote. I read Michael Connelly, Craig Johnson, Sue Grafton. I think her characters are so rich, so well done—she’s so gifted. Molly Gloss. I think she’s one of the greatest writers around. Anna Seyton. She wrote a whole lot of historical novels and there was usually some snippet that was real. When I wanted to write a novel, I read all these books about how to write a novel, and then I
took Seyton’s books and outlined them chapter by chapter, because I didn’t know how to shape a plot, to shape a book. I like Susan Meissner. She wrote a great book called The Shape of Mercy about the Salem witch trials. Some people objected to that as a Christian novel because of what she exposed about the witch trials, the horrors of them. I think it’s a period in the church’s history we need to face up to. Linda Hall writes great mysteries; they have faith throughout but they’re not evangelical. When I can read a book without stopping to think about how it was put together, that’s a great experience!
Barcelona Calling is a sort of comedy of errors, and a lot of that comes from the elaborate ways Annie avoids actually writing. What are some of your favorite ways of avoiding writing? I’ll read and read and read and READ because I don’t want to go in there and write . . . When we were on the ranch, there were all kinds of things I could do instead of write! (to Jerry) What do you think I do? You have a little smile on your face.
Jerry: I know nothing.
Jane: Come on, you can say.
Jerry: Well, you get really involved in emails.
Jane: That’s true. I don’t let myself check email until 11 in the morning. I write from 8 to 5. I take a break for lunch . . . Sometimes I have to go do something else completely different for a while. I’m always amazed at how quickly the time flies when I’m writing because I’m totally in another world. How many people get to live in that other world and do something they really enjoy?
Annie gets a lot of letters and emails from readers throughout the book. In one instance, she says, “I know it wasn’t wise to let one nice letter make my day, because that meant I could also let a bad letter ruin my day.” How much does correspondence from readers affect you? I try not to read reviews unless somebody sends it to me and says, 'This is a really great review,' because it still does affect me, even though I think I can intellectualize it more now and say, 'It’s okay, people can have their opinions . . .' It’s lovely when people send me an email and say how the book has affected their life. You don’t know how you’re going to affect people. There's a mother in the book who told Annie 'Your books are the only thing I can talk about with my daughter who’s in jail.' That actually happened to me.
For would-be writers who read this book, I hope what they will get from those reader emails is that Annie is missing the point here—she's trying to make it as a bestseller instead of seeing how she's touched individual people.
Many people throughout the novel find out that Annie is a writer and instantly say they’ve always wanted to write a book. I’ve noticed people say that to writers a lot, and I doubt other artists get quite that response. I doubt painters hear 'I’ve always wanted to paint a picture' quite so much. What do you think it is about producing a book that is so appealing to people? I think because a good writer makes it look easy. And it’s true that some people have read published books and thought 'I could write something better than that,' and lo and behold, they do.
It’s an art form we’re all exposed to. We don’t all take painting classes, but we do all have to write, and we get affirmation for it along the way. I do think most people can write. It takes a lot of hard work, and it can be learned and refined, but I think lots of people have stories and they think they can’t write, and they miss out on something they could learn about themselves by writing their story.
Your books aren’t generally known for being funny, but this one is intentionally humorous, and it made me laugh out loud several times! How did you do it? Well, you know, Brian Juenemann from PNBA did a review in the Eugene Register-Guard where he said, “She must have been saving some of these incidents and anecdotes for years!” And it’s true! Where would I have had the opportunity to use these in a historical novel?
I’m impressed by how you wrapped a pretty weighty spiritual lesson in this charming package. The book is great just as a fun read, but by the end, I realized I’d also been taught something really important in a pleasant and non-didactic way. Which came first for you, the story, or the lesson you wanted to teach? Oh, thank you! That’s great! I think the sort of overarching lesson that I wanted to incorporate is telling the story of your heart and silencing the harpies and then that it’s not about fame. Ann Lamott’s book Bird by Bird is a wonderful book full of lessons that we remember because we’re laughing! I hope a writer could read this book—but also other people—because a lot of times we say, 'If only I could win the lottery, if only I could be the top salesperson . . .' That is a false way to fulfillment, or fulfillment with a trapdoor.
What can we look forward to next from Jane Kirkpatrick? I have a book called Where Lilacs Still Bloom coming out in April. It’s about Hulda Klager and her lilac garden, which you can still visit in Woodland, Washington. She only had an eighth-grade education, but she began to work hybridizing plants and she developed over two hundred varieties of lilacs. This kind of work was not typical for a woman in her day. A Log Cabin Christmas was my first novella; that was in a collection of novellas by different authors, and it was on the New York Times bestseller list in September—a first for me! So I’ve done another novella called The Midwife’s Legacy, in a similar collection. It’s out in June. I’m working on a book that doesn’t have a name yet, but I think it will be about Dorothea Dix. She did a lot of reform for the mentally ill. And that will be the end of my contract with Random House, so we’ll see where we go from here.
Amanda MacNaughton works as a front-line bookseller and events coordinator for Paulina Springs Books in Sisters and Redmond. She has worked there for over six happy years. She also dabbles in the dangerous art of freelancing and is the primary chef in her cedar-shingled home in Central Oregon.