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Interview with Jane Kirkpatrick

Author Jane Kirkpatrick’s latest book is based on the true-life story of Carrie Strahorn, a woman who spent 25 years in the late 1800s traveling the American West with her husband, Robert. After reading Carrie’s memoir, Kirkpatrick wonders about the “story behind the story.” What was Carrie really like? What motivated her to leave her family, travel to new territories, and put herself in dangerous situations? In Everything She Didn’t Say, Kirkpatrick uses her rich imagination to weave together those missing pieces into an inspirational story that both educates and entertains.

In my recent conversation with Kirkpatrick, I was delighted to get a little bit of the story behind her story. We talked about her books and her day-to-day life as a prolific author.

You and your husband have personal experience as homesteaders. How did that set you on the path of writing historical fiction?
In 1984, I finally agreed with my husband to leave our suburban life and move to what I called “Rattlesnake and Rock Ranch” in Oregon. It was 160 acres of nothing except sagebrush and river. He promised me that there was a spring that we could harness for water. We didn’t know anybody. The road was terrible. I wasn’t sure I could get out in the winter. I had a lot of fears. The property was seven miles from the nearest mailbox.

I didn’t know how I could keep busy on a remote ranch. One day, while I was reading a devotional series about finding God’s will for your life, I felt a wonderful sort of presence—not audible at all—but something that said, “Write.” I remember thinking, what on earth would I write?

I took a class at the local community college in creative writing. The instructor was a sports writer from the local paper who became a friend of mine. As I submitted assignments, I was terrified that people would think I was a fraud. He actually thought I could sell some of my pieces to major magazines. I did sell a number of articles, which was very affirming. Since we didn’t have a phone for me to use for interviews, I put on mittens and a stocking cap so I could use the phone in a neighbor’s barn.

Once we had electricity, I started writing to family and friends to reassure them that we were okay. One person told me they waited until after supper to turn off the TV and read my letters out loud because they were like chapters in a book. I thought maybe I could write a book. Not just about the crazy homesteading thing we were doing, because everything that could go wrong went wrong. I wanted to write about following your heart even when everyone else thinks it’s not a good idea.

That became my first book, my memoir called Homestead. It was chosen as a Word Book Club book. Soon after, Joyce Hart from Hartline Literary became my agent. The inspirational market was her specialty. When I wrote my first novel, she approached Multnomah, a local Christian publisher which was later purchased by Waterbrook, part of Random House. She introduced me into the historical fiction genre, and I sold my first novel. The rest is history.

The good news is, I am able to convince the industry I have a great story to tell. The bad news is, I never know if I can actually tell it! I’ve relied on all my editors who have made me a better writer and storyteller.

You based much of Everything She Didn’t Say on Strahorn’s memoir, Fifteen Thousand Miles by Stage. How much additional research does a book like that require?
I kind of fell into a wonderful writing life because I write about the lives of actual historical women who might otherwise be forgotten. I always start writing before I think I should because I could keep looking for some census item or something on a death certificate that intrigues me. I can get on rabbit trails like what crayon colors were available in 1908. I love those little tidbits.

My first drafts are full of data. When I start revisions, I ask myself if the reader really needs to know the name of the ship captain where the couple had their honeymoon. Am I just being pompous to the reader by including all the data? One of my writer friends was told that she never met a fact that she didn’t love. That sits in the back of my mind when I’m doing final revisions.

With my early books, I traveled to several places and went to libraries to conduct research. Now that my husband has some significant health issues, I can't do that as much. I have a friend who has been helping me with my last three books. Her specialty is medical research. When her child started school, she felt that God urged her to help me. At the time I was working on a book about one of the first women physicians to practice in the Northwest.

My researcher friend knows her way around the internet. For this book, she accessed many first-hand newspaper accounts. That’s how we learned Carrie Strahorn used pen names. She was also helpful with the spiritual aspects of the story. She read to the fourth chapter, then told me she wasn’t sure that she cared about Carrie. That was the kiss of death. Like Joyce Carol Oates said, in a great story, first you have to feel empathy for the character. I knew I had to find out what was getting in my way of conveying that to the reader.

How long did it take you to write Everything She Didn’t Say?
I heard about this story and read the memoir about 12 years ago. It percolated in my brain while I wrote other books. Then, I talked with my sister about her family trip, which she had documented in a tape recording. She said was surprised when she listened back to hear her wonderful words, because in fact, the trip was pretty terrible.

That made me wonder if prominent people like Carrie Strahorn filtered words she wanted to say. I reread her memoir, and I realized there were places she could have—but didn’t—share her epiphanies. I decided to write the rest of her story.

So, how much of the book is factual, and how much fiction did you add to create a compelling story?
The things that she did and when she did them are all accurate. She rode on a cow catcher. She went into mines. She was the first white woman to enter Yellowstone. She rode 144 miles in four days. Why she did those things and how she felt about them is totally my speculation.

For instance, she talks about how important her nieces and nephews were to her, but doesn’t talk about her own childlessness. She reports as fact a situation in which a desperate mother tried repeatedly to give her a set of twins the mother couldn’t care for. What she doesn’t say is what that felt like. How hard was it for her to say no when she really wanted to say yes? Did she argue with her husband about it?

How are strong women portrayed in your book?

Carrie never shared how it felt to see her older sister become a well-regarded journalist or what it was like for her younger sister become a physician. That was unusual for the time. Obviously, Carrie was not ambitious, but she was certainly engaged in the larger world. She basically supported her husband and didn’t have her own track except when they were in Caldwell, Idaho where she invested a lot of time to get a Presbyterian Church started.

When I was 20, I couldn't get a library card unless my husband signed for it. Women have come a long way, but there are still barriers. Carrie pushed to have new experiences. She made herself go through hard emotional times. Her thoughts from Chapter 23:

What I hadn’t realized then—and that Caldwell helped teach me—is that it’s how we respond to the broken tracks that matters, because there will always be brokenness. It’s what we do with the punches we take, the heart-stopping moments, those are the knives that carve out who we are. I came to believe that people born with silver spoons in their mouths never get the real nourishment they need to grow to their full height unless the spoon tarnishes or the food drops off now and then and they have to find a way to pick it up themselves. They’re really deprived, which may be why we call them “spoiled,” like meat left out in the sun.

Other thoughts about your book?
So far, I’ve been pleased with the response. Some readers felt like Carrie hadn't had the kind of life that she really wanted. But, she made the best of what she had. She stayed focused, found things that mattered to her, and made a good life. We are often handed things that we don't want. It’s how we respond that is the mark of our character. She wasn't just a rich woman who was pretending to be a pioneer. She cared about the people around her. I rewrote the ending many times. I hope what I finally conveyed is that the fog always lifts.

Reflecting back, what do you see as most significant to your publication journey?
My writing life started as a child with wretched little poems. I loved words. As an adult, I learned that writing could affect people. I went into mental health and wrote letter to legislators who often said they’d never looked issues from my perspective. From that, I learned that words had power.

What’s your biggest challenge in balancing writing time with your other responsibilities?
I feel like I could be writing and researching all the time. I never feel alone because I have all these characters in my head. Making myself not constantly think about the next story so that I can actually be present with the people in my life is a challenge. In some ways, it’s easier to spend time with these dead people [smile].

I’m grateful that I can be at home and not have to have another job to juggle. When I did that, it was difficult. I have to make sure when I am with my husband I am truly with him and not wondering if I should move a scene. Staying present in everyday life is important, because I tend to escape from some of those challenges by coming into my office and living in another century.

What does your routine look like?
I usually have a book that comes out in September. I turn it in September 1st. The book that will come out next year is now in the editing phase. Research is going on all the time. Once I know which person I’m going to write about I gather newspaper accounts or look at census records. I try to visit small museums that honor people in their region. The first part of June, I sit down and write eight hours a day for five days a week.

There are four threads you will find in almost all of my work:

• The landscape and how it affects my characters.
• The relationships of the protagonist.
• The characters’ spirituality: what gave them the ability to persevere?
• What kind of work did they do? Was it work of the soul or work they had to do to support themselves?

I used to stop writing at the end of the day when I finished a chapter. Now I stop in the middle of a sentence. When I come in the next morning, I finish that sentence which takes me to the next. I have no fear or procrastination about what to say next.

My editor had me read Structuring Your Novel by Robert Meredith and John Fitzgerald. They analyzed four great books like From Here to Eternity. They said each one answered three questions: What’s my intention in writing this book? What’s my attitude about this story? And, what’s my purpose? I spend a lot of time trying to answer those questions. I write many pages, then I cut the pages down to one sentence each. I print them in a tiny font and put them on top my computer. Those three sentences keep me focused until I get to the end. They silence the harpies that sit behind me and say, “Who told you that you could write?” or “Who’s going to read this book?”

Writing a story is like a horse race. Once I start, it’s just getting across the finish line. Then I can go back and add the nuances to the narrative. One of my favorite writers is Ivan Doig, a National Book Award winner. He wrote about spending the winter in a cabin in Alaska where he found another man’s journal. Doig said the best part of writing was revision. That’s when he found out what the story was really about. Revision is like a spiritual connection for me, almost like prayer. I am open to what my story is trying to tell me and hope that I convey it in a way that reaches the lives of other people as well.

If you could have coffee with an author whose work you admire, who would that be?
I would pick Jane Sherar, whom I wrote about in my book, A Sweetness to the Soul. She was a survivor. She had a rich life as a pioneer in Oregon, getting to know the native people that I actually able to interview. I would ask her if I captured what her life was like my book. At her wake, the Indian people came through the night and sang to honor her. I wondered what might she have done that would have endeared her to these people.

What do you enjoy doing when you are not writing?
I love my taking my two dogs, Bodacious Bo and Caesar, for walks. I’m really involved with my church which is active in the community, with social justice issues, and in mission work. We work in partnership with three villages of indigenous people. I’ve started doing a lot of fundraising for other nonprofits that matter to me. I also love to read.

What books are on your nightstand right now?

I love well-written nonfiction or creative nonfiction. I usually have three or four books going at once. I love Louise Penny, a Canadian author who writes mysteries, and Jacqueline Winespear, who writes about World War 1. My new favorite author is Alan Bradley who writes a series called Flavia de Luce. I think they were written for young adults. Flavia is an 11-year-old chemistry genius who’s just a delight.

I also love my sister writers like Sandra Byrd and Susan Meissner. I’m currently reading a book by a friend, Greg Nokes, about the first governor of California. My best vacation is going to the beach with about five books, my husband, and my dogs.

Any sage advice for new or aspiring ACFW authors?
Find a story that is driving you forward and write that story. If it’s a story that’s been on your heart, find a way to silence the little harpies that would keep you from writing it. The story has chosen you.


Teresa Haugh, a graduate of the University of Montevallo, is a recently retired public affairs specialist with the U.S. Forest Service. She and her husband enjoy life in Alaska, the Last Frontier. She takes pleasure in talking with other authors about their writing journeys, and is completing her first full-length novel.

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