I had the great pleasure of attending the Squaw Valley workshop with Renée Thompson, where I fell in love with her writing. Today we talk about the relationship between character and plot, small press, and making sure your writing is bold enough that it offends someone.
Renée’s first novel, THE BRIDGE AT VALENTINE (Tres Picos Press), is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, set in 1890’s Idaho. The book tells the story of July Caldwell, the daughter of a sheepman, and Rory Morrow, the son of a cattleman, and their fathers’ desire to control the rangeland and their children. Renée expertly crafts a protagonist willing to oppose her Mormon father by falling in love with a Gentile, exposing a world where trouble comes not from the head, but the heart. Ultimately, July learns that women trapped by fate or circumstance have a choice, but with choice comes consequence.
I love that you’ve created a story in which the choices the characters face are so often fraught with peril—their struggles to make the right decisions create this marvelous tension, and that tension deftly moves the plot forward. How challenging was it to balance character with plot?
It wasn’t as difficult in BRIDGE as it was in my second novel, probably because I had the structure of Romeo and Juliet to guide me. Maybe this is the case with all writers, but the plot often informed the characters, and vice versa. I wrote the last scene first, because I knew I wanted July to emerge as more mature, more determined, and once I had the ending, I knew I could then comfortably start at the beginning, trusting the plot would build character, both literally and figuratively.
Although you used Romeo and Juliet as a template, the story quickly becomes your own. Did you know when you started writing that you’d divert fairly radically from Shakespeare’s path to follow your own?
I knew I wanted, at minimum, the Juliet, Romeo, Tybalt, Mercutio, and Paris characters (July, Rory, Tom, Mads, and Preston, respectively), but I didn’t want them to embody Shakespeare’s creations so much as suggest them – I wanted them to be my people, and I think that determination served me well. I also created characters based on my grandmother’s siblings, because I had so many fabulous details to draw from—some of their more mischievous deeds made their way into the novel.
Did you talk to your grandmother about her history—take notes, maybe, on what it was like to live in Idaho at the turn of the 19th century?
No, she died long before I started writing BRIDGE. But she was a terrific storyteller and a Mormon, which means she recorded her family’s history in a Book of Remembrance—a Mormon journal of sorts. So I had access to names, photographs, and lots of rich details about the family farm. Too, she included her father’s recollections of hostilities on the range; there was one incident where a cattleman named Alex Durty shot and killed a sheepman named Tom Nook. The shooting made it into my book, but I reversed it, so that the cattleman died instead. I was a little worried my cattlemen friends might come after me for that, but they’ve been really good sports about it (laughing).
Are you Mormon, too?
I was baptized when I was eight, as are all children in the LDS (Latter-day Saints) church, and was devout for many years. But I fell in love with and married a non-member—my high-school sweetheart—at age 20, and gradually fell away from the Church.
So how are Mormons reacting to your book?
So far, three for, one against (more laughing). I actually haven’t heard from too many Mormons, but I will say that some of July’s history is naturally my own, because I wrote from my own perspective—which a history professor at BYU encouraged me to do. On a side note, I’ll mention that I was living in Atlanta when Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer for THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY. I went to his reading at the Jewish Community Center, and afterward a young man asked how writers should handle their fear they’ll offend someone with their writing. Michael said, “If you haven’t offended someone, somewhere, you’re probably not doing your job.” So while I never set out to offend Mormons, I didn’t worry too much about it, either. Michael’s remark was always at the back of my mind, and I’m sure it gave me the courage I needed to tell my own truth. Having said that, it would be nice if Mormons didn’t hate the book.
In the end, you sold BRIDGE to Tres Picos, a small press in California. I’m really fascinated by the whole blurb process, and am wondering how a small publisher landed that great blurb from Larry McMurtry, who called your book “very original and very appealing.” Do they have a relationship?
I actually got the blurb on my own. I’ve been a fan for years, and I wrote him a letter telling him how much I loved LONESOME DOVE, and how I hoped to one day write characters that moved my readers as much as his characters moved me. I sent the first chapter, asking if he’d provide a blurb, and offered to send the rest of the book, if he liked it. He did like it, and wrote back about 10 days later to say “send it!” I did, and then my husband and I went camping. I thought I’d die of anxiety while we hiked the Warner Mountains, wondering if a letter had come, and if so, what he’d said about my book. The letter was there when I got home, typewritten, his signature in blue ink. I’ve since framed it, and it’s hanging not in my office but in my bedroom. I know it’s weird, but my husband Steve understands.
So. How does it feel to be a published novelist?
Pretty darned good. And very surreal. The day of my launch, I told Steve that when I sat down to sign books, I had something of an out-of-body experience; it very much felt as though I were standing at a distance, watching myself do this thing that until that day I had only dreamed about. After so many setbacks and so many struggles, I just couldn’t believe my novel had finally come into the world. It was a day I’ll remember for a long time. I’m very happy.
Renée Thompson’s short stories have appeared in Narrative Magazine and Chiron Review, and have placed in competitions sponsored by Glimmer Train and Writer’s Digest magazine. Her writing has received praise from Pulitzer-Prize winning authors Larry McMurtry and Robert Olen Butler. She has attended the Sirenland, Squaw Valley, and Tomales Bay workshops, working with award-winning writers such as Ron Carlson, Carol Edgarian, Lynn Freed, Michael Jaime-Beccera, and Howard Norman. THE BRIDGE AT VALENTINE is her first novel.
You can hear Renée on the radio by clicking here: Enjoy!