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This past July, our book of the month was 'The Widow Nash' by Jamie Harrison.. It coincided perfectly with Harrison's book tour through Seattle, and we got a couple minutes with the incredible author - who has empowered to write about the freedom a widow in the 1900s would feel.
Seattle Refined: Where did the idea for the book come from?
Jamie Harrison: It came in a couple of different ways. I had a vision of a woman getting off a train and disappearing. I don’t know why. I think I may have wanted to run away at some point. I also had some journals my great great grandfather had left. They were sort of fascinating. They were filled with newspaper clippings and bad poetry and mining receipts. He traveled a lot. He’d been a mining engineer between 1860 and 1900, and gone all the way from Cornwall as an orphan, then to Nicaragua and traveled around the American West. His daughter was my great grandmother and she had a miserable marriage, and should have run away. And, somehow I put the two things together and started writing.
She's kind of surrounded by men who pressure her!
It’s tough for a woman anyway, but in that era, there were very few options open to her if she wanted to avoid this impending situation. So yeah, I think she had to bolt, which would be the phrase for the turn of the century. She was a bolter.
After Walton dies, Dulcy runs away, and becomes a “widow.” Why that role?
Because I wanted to give her some freedom. Because realistically at that time, to be able to live independently, to not have a lot of people asking questions about you, people were going to ask anyway. She gets off a train, she zig zags around, she needs to lose anybody who could trail her, and she has to reinvent herself. And being a widow gives her some freedom.
What kind of research did you do about women of that time and in particular their roles, expectations of them by society, in the early 1900s?
I just did a lot of research about the time period, but I put it all away when I wrote. I think it has always occurred to me that people are patronizing about people in the past. There’s a tendency to think your grandmother was far more polite than your grandmother was. People had real lives, and it wasn’t just rich people in the Bloomsberry Circuit who had rich and varied personal lives. And I guess I sort of wanted to get into that. I wanted to give somebody that kind of freedom.
How do you escape?
I used to write mysteries. So, I kept sort of beating down the urge to over-plot things. But it was fun. I looked up train routes, I covered my office with a lot of images. And I put a lot of the images in the book. Somehow looking at photographs, images, strange things sometimes helped me write whole scenes, sometimes gave me ideas I hadn’t had. And I just kept riffing off them.
Did Dulcy change?
She did change, and I think she does change. If you walk away from your life, and you’re no longer surrounded by the people who know you, if you don’t know anybody anymore and you’ve dropped your past, sometimes you become your own true person. You do change. People do I think kind of reinvent. And I guess I thought of her as shy in the beginning and I don’t now. She did change over the years. It took me about five years to write it off and on, I did other things in between, and I’m sure she shifted and came out of her shell possibly.
Have you ever dreamed of moving away?
I remember once when I was quite young and I was working in New York. I was working at a cooking store and I had this fantasy of being on a boat to Australia. I didn’t do it. I did run away to Montana in my late 20s, so I don’t know, everybody has those moments where they just want to start again.
Why did you choose Livingston, MT?
Well, I lived there. And it’s an interesting town. That corner of Montana and really all the west was an interesting place in that period. I’d been working on a documentary about Butte, Montana, and at the turn of the century, there were 100,000 people there, 40 different languages spoken, there were no cowboy hats, it was a very cosmopolitan place. And it sort of gets back to the idea that we patronize the past and it was far more varied than we care to remember. And, I wanted to bring that out. I wanted to write something that incorporated the past without nostalgia, if I could.
Where did all the cast of characters come from?
Just look around you. I don’t know. People are strange all around here. I hope they weren’t too idiosyncratic. It’s hard to know when you’re writing, how many characters you can get away with and some can handle a cast of 50, and you can completely track everybody, it never gets confusing. That’s one of the hardest things to do as a writer. But in terms of, maybe the town I live in, is fairly idiosyncratic, there are a lot of writers there, a lot of people are self-employed. When you live in a town like that you have a cross section of everybody. I know ranchers, I know all my children’s teachers, everybody knows everybody.
Dulcy has to lie so much in her new life. How do you remember everything she’s said?
I had a lot of interruptions writing it and I would always have trouble with, wait, what did I say on what page? How much is too much information, how much is too little? I like reading books where I have to guess at things, but during the editing process I had to make things a little more open. And she does get in trouble with her lies. You don’t volunteer too much, and she does.
There are suicides in this story, real and/or at least hinted at. Were you using this as another form of escape?
I think so. When I was doing research, suicide rates were really high at the turn of the century, because I think people had no fall back. If you lost all your money, you lost all your money. There was nobody. It was hard to begin again. It was hard to save yourself that way. I think it was just more common. Even newspaper accounts you read for any small town, at the turn of the century, is just filled with woe. So, that I think is just realistic.
I love the journals.
They’re her dad’s journals, so they have different topics. Disasters. He’s obsessed with earthquakes. He’s obsessed with finding a cure for his illness. He’s obsessed with women. He writes everything down. I certainly don’t that, but I like the idea of it. And then I use it as another part of the plot device. So, I wanted to make them work in a couple of ways. As a way of showing his personality and what she doesn’t want to become, and functionally helping with the plot and the ending.
What’s up with the earthquakes?
There were people who were really obsessed with that. I live in Montana right near the super volcano. If it ever goes, we won’t care. It’s interesting. I enjoyed reading scientific theory, so the history of science. I’ve always liked it. This is just a way for me to put in things I’m interested in, frankly. To be completely honest, I can waste my time on research any day and a lot of it just went into those journals. One of the things was earthquakes, and it just seemed that it was a good way, he’s a mining engineer, and it was a hobby to give him, an obsession to give him that would sort of move the plot forward.
There's someone she meets on train, who becomes principle character. In a way a guardian angel. How did you see his role?
I just liked him. I liked Louis. It was fun writing that relationship. He’s a threat, he could be a threat, but he is someone who becomes a bit of a hero. And I enjoyed writing the relationship. I had fun coming up with the tippy balance of two people falling in love and being suspicious of each other at the same time, as people are when they fall in love, if they’ve got a lot to lose. I had fun writing about him. And, I had so many great journalists to model. He’s a great journalist and I enjoyed reading through biographies of people at the time who were sort of similar to Louis. And just how strange their lives had been. So, I could throw that in.
How important was the sense of place?
What you want to write about can change with your day. What’s surrounding you. And sometimes, if you’re in a landscape as extreme as Montana, it just enters into what you start writing about that day. You drive on ice to take your kid to school, you’re likelier to have someone walk home and fall down on the ice. I love living there. And it’s always been a place people runaway to. It’s a place of outcasts. The west in general was treated as a colony for so long by east coast people that a lot of fascinating people ended up there. It’s a pretty varied town.
What do you want us to get from this book?
If there’s a theme, it’s probably reinvention. It’s probably, I hate to sound like Pollyanna, you can be whatever you want to be. That’s truly reinvention. I guess I was curious if it was cowardly to run away or if it was brave to run away. And, how you can pull off a like, remaking a life at any time.
Dulcy had the financial means, but many don’t. Do you wonder about them?
Absolutely. I know when I was first going to write about her, of course I thought about them. When I did the Butte documentary, so much of it was about the prostitutes at the turn of the century. Butte was full of them, and they were fascinating women, and it was such a hard life, such a huge number of women came to Montana with no money and that’s what they did. But many of them managed to reinvent themselves. And, early on in writing the book, I went through that option too. I thought about her having to do that or her having been that in reinventing herself. And then, gave it up. She had the means, she could pull it off. She’s sort of spoiled.