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Author Interview – Jana Richman of The Last Cowgirl

What follows is my email interview with author Jana Richman, the author of the wonderful The Last Cowgirl: A Novel, which I reviewed here.

1. The Last Cowgirl reads as if it were a memoir, the narrative combined with flashbacks to childhood is very powerful. Is the story somewhat autobiographical?

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 a small, run-down ranch when I was about ten years old. He never moved us to the ranch, as George Sinfield does with his family in the novel, but from that point forward we were “ranchers” whether we liked it or not. While my friends spent their summers riding bikes, going to the municipal swimming pool and the movies, I spent mine hauling hay, working cattle, irrigating, and training a fat, stubborn steer to walk on a rope and halter. I didn’t recognize it then, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I grew up with an appreciation, understanding and love for the arid west that I otherwise would not have acquired. But at the same time, that decision of my father’s damn near tore our family apart and took us pretty close to financial ruin. So it was his motivation—whatever had a stranglehold on him and wouldn’t let go—that I felt compelled to explore in this novel. That exploration turned up the romantic myth of the rugged western cowboy and the conflict embroiled within—the destruction (personally and geographically) caused by the pursuit of such western myths and the irresistible allure of those same myths. That conflict fascinates me—because I feel both sides of it strongly—so it ends up in much of my writing.

Another event in the story that is based in fact is the 1968 nerve gas event. That was an actual occurrence, although my family was not personally affected in the same way the Sinfield family is.

But Dickie Sinfield and Jana Richman are not the same person. When we first meet Dickie she is holding her emotions pretty close to the vest and protecting herself from potential pain by playing it safe. I’ve pretty much lived in the opposite way—blundering through life wide open and subjecting myself to all kinds of pain and humiliation. I suppose Dickie, who shares my beginnings, might be considered an alter-ego, an exploration of how my life might have been lived had I made different choices. And that’s what the book is ultimately about from every character’s viewpoint—the choices we make, where they take us, and how we live with the consequences. Dickie made her choices without much conscious thought—as many of us do—and eventually found herself in a life she didn’t intend. And that also happens to quite a few of us. The death of her brother forces her to trace the steps of how she got there, dig the scabs off some old wounds, and then decide if she wants to stay where she is or make some big changes in her life.

2.Why did you decide to write the novel in that format?

The story and the characters dictate the form. When I first started drafting, I thought it was George’s story and I thought it would be told from his point of view. But George’s voice never came through in a way that would allow him to narrate the story. I then turned to writing the story in third person with an omniscient narrator, but that felt too far removed and impersonal. In the end, Dickie’s voice/story was the one that emerged clear and strong.

3.You’ve chosen unusual names and nicknames for your characters, how choose them? Are they named after anyone?

Dickie was my mother’s nickname when she was child, and even after she was married and had children of her own, her sisters still called her Dickie. She always hated it, but I always liked it. My mother and I are very close, she’s now quite old and somewhat ill, and my gut feeling is that she won’t be around when my next book is published, so the nickname is a tribute to her and what she’s contributed to my life.

I did know a boy who had the nickname Stumpy when I was a child, but other than the name, the character is not based on that boy. I barely knew him, but apparently the nickname stuck with me.

Heber and Alma are common Mormon names, so they emerged from the setting of the book.

4. While we can guess at why Dickie has stayed away from Clayton for 30 years, we aren’t told the details until quite late in the novel – what was behind that plot mechanism?

Because Dickie is narrating her own story, the reader doesn’t find out certain details until Dickie is ready to confront them herself, and for the most part she’s not ready to confront the truth about anything until she’s forced into it. She’s been pretty much avoiding anything that will make her emotionally vulnerable since she was 18 years old, so she’s slow to dig back into those still raw wounds now.

5. As a mother of 3 daughters, I have seen the “Mean Girls” phenomenon, in addition to having a rough time in middle school. Did you draw on real experiences in your portrayal of Holly? Was there a reason why you chose middle school as a flash-point in their relationship?

I did draw on personal experience for the friendship between Holly and Dickie. I chose middle school for the flashpoint in their relationship because in Ganoa County all of the elementary schools would then funnel into one middle school, meaning they would be attending school with kids they’d never met before. This often changes the dynamic between friends like Holly and Dickie, and allows a girl like Dickie to begin to see the reality of the friendship even if she is not yet ready to challenge it.

6. As a reader who is not Mormon, nor living in Utah, I was surprised by the concept of jack-Mormonism and the influence of the Mormon church on everyday life. Is this still the case now? Are jack-Mormons more accepted than people of other religions?

It is true that much of rural Utah is based on the Mormon model of settlements—laid out in a grid and broken up into wards—because, well, that’s who built those settlements throughout Utah. But there’s a section of the book that says a person wouldn’t find Clayton a hospitable place to live unless they came from good Mormon pioneer stock. That reference refers to a fictional town of less than 200 people—initially settled by Mormons—and the year was 1962. Although one can still find some predominantly Mormon enclaves in rural Utah, that characterization really cannot be generalized to the entire state of Utah then or now.

What I hoped to show with the characterization of jack-Mormons is that there are all kinds of Mormons just like there are all kinds of Catholics. Some Catholics go to Mass every day, some once a week, some only on holidays, and some never go but still consider themselves Catholic. Mormons are no different in that respect.

The influence of the Mormon Church on everyday life in Utah varies greatly from area to area and from moment to moment—it is sometimes subtle, sometimes nonexistent, sometimes egregious, sometimes ridiculous, sometimes harmless, sometimes infuriating. Hard to categorize and hard to generalize. For my tastes the Mormon Church has considerably too much influence in state politics, but I think the idea that people of other religions are not welcome or not accepted is not quite accurate in 2008. (Although the state of Utah is under a great strain of overpopulation, so if that misconception serves to keep people from moving here, I’m happy to help perpetuate it.)

7. Dickie has religious and philosophical differences with the newspaper and a large percentage of Utah. Why did you choose to have her stay in Utah when she left Clayton?

I think it fair to say that Dickie certainly has religious and philosophical differences with the newspaper she works for; that’s part of why she likes working there. She has a bit of a contrary nature—she likes pushing the edges—and her job gives her a chance to exercise it on a daily basis.

I don’t believe that Dickie is really at religious odds with a large percentage of Utah, although, yes, probably at philosophical odds. She’s not “anti-Mormon,” she has nothing against the religion, nothing against her mother’s devout practice of it, simply chooses not to practice it herself. So from a religious standpoint, I would say she’s largely indifferent. She doesn’t mind living among Mormons even if she does poke fun at them once in a while. She also lives in SLC, which in 2008 is less than 50% Mormon and continues to elect a liberal city government, so she lives among like-minded liberals in her Salt Lake City neighborhood.

But all that aside, Dickie simply would never leave Utah because she is attached to family and place even if she’s not wiling to admit it. She’s has the same attachment to the geography of Utah—the basin and range, the deserts, and the mountains—that Bev, Stumpy, and Heber all have. Although she is unwilling to consciously indulge her passion for the place, it never leaves her. And she will never leave it.

8. There are no children in the contemporary portion of the story – none of the characters’ children return to Clayton, and Dickie has no children. Did you have a reason for that? If so, what was your rationale?

That wasn’t really planned; it’s just a natural result of the characters’ lives.

9. Dickie is told a lot that “she’ll be fine” when it’s clear that she’s not fine. You have a wonderful paragraph that outlines everything that happened to her, with the adults saying she’d be fine. How did you come up with this theme?

Hmm, that’s an excellent question. Looking around me, I’m often stunned by the innumerable ways parents can (and do) mess up their children—even the well-meaning, attentive parents—simply because they’ve never figured out their own lives, and have stopped trying (I think it’s a lifelong process.) I grew up with a mother who had settled into her sadness, into a life she didn’t intend and didn’t want, but simply accepted as so many women of that era did. She was so steeped in her own misery, I don’t think she ever considered what impact that might have on her children, and I don’t think she was capable of making changes even if she had that awareness.

I don’t think my parents had an awareness of how much children soak in their environment, and when I look around me today, I’m not convinced that today’s parents—generally speaking—are any more enlightened. Otherwise there would not be an average of three televisions in American homes, and Americans would not be watching television on an average of close to five hours a day—higher for many kids and teens.

But I’m also amazed at the resiliency of some kids (not all) to emerge from their environments, certainly not unscathed but with some self-preservation tools intact, which end up serving them well. But parents should not take comfort in this possibility as many seem to do. That’s where the paragraph mentioned above came from—a group of adults so embroiled in the mess of their own lives, they simply don’t have anything left for Dickie except hope that “she’ll be fine” no matter what.

10. You paint incredibly vivid pictures of the landscape around the family’s ranch in Clayton, especially a few hidden canyons and caves. What inspired those descriptions?

Utah’s actual west desert—the place in the book and the place of my own childhood—inspired those descriptions. I think my love and passion for the 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.

Please check out my review and pick up The Last Cowgirl, a wonderful book with a lovely author! 

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