What inspired you to write The Riven Country of Senga Munro?
The short answer is Life, but other authors inspire me; in particular, Gretel Ehrlich, Chris Cleave, Diana Gabaldon and Louise Penny, and my father’s mythic life as an early aviator—who happened to write very well. But ideas for the main character and the Cheyenne scout came to me about thirty years ago—an impossibly long gestation—and I scribbled down some notes and scenes, actually, one similar to Senga’s, where she “sees” the hunter on the hillside. I once saw (imagined, conjured) a beautiful man squatting down behind our house, checking out our family’s goings-on, bow in hand. I don’t know if he was Cheyenne however. . .
After passing the entire year of 2014 mostly reading (my husband thought I’d checked out on him), I recognized and honored a more-than-insistent nudge to finally “be about it,” how a friend once chided another would-be writer to just get on with it. I began to work mornings in a tiny cabin below our home, treating it as my “work.” For Christmas, my husband presented me a small propane heater so I wouldn’t be interrupted by a hungry woodstove. I’ve been about it for five-and-a-half years now, and have completed three novels in the series, and have begun a non-fiction project.
Can you tell me about the book?
Distilling it is difficult, but it’s about love, in the end. And loss. And restoration. Now those are themes, and not what most readers look for at first, so here are the story’s main points: Senga Munro—named Agnes at birth—is raised by grandparents and her unstable mother on a mountain in North Carolina. Tragedies and triumphs swing in a wide arc. At seventeen and pregnant, Senga goes on the road with her musician boyfriend, to wind up in rural Wyoming. Nine years later, she blames herself when her young daughter dies—the defining tragedy of her life.
In the aftermath, she learns what it means to be “other” in the rural West. Senga can see what others can’t, in the novel’s thread of magical realism. An arrow shot through time by a 19th century Cheyenne scout jolts her awake from her sleepwalk of a life, but then she is provoked by a modern-day outlaw. In waking from her grief, she re-inhabits the world, warts and all, as they say. Does she risk quiet routine and come to terms with something approaching purpose? That answers itself, of course.
What did you learn when writing the book?
Well, that’s The Thing, isn’t it? I believe writing engenders the next day’s writing and the next, this momentum of imagination; this stimulus of “knock-knock, who’s there?” Everyone. I have learned it’s magical—the process. And besides the required research in several areas, I learned I do have imagination. (Else I’m simply tapping into the collective unconscious. But that’s another essay.) I have learned that every event, confrontation, relationship, kindness and desire has purpose in a storyteller’s life.
What surprised you the most?
The joy and satisfaction in the doing of it.
What does the title mean?
Senga’s lover coins the title after seeing her backbone rising like a miniature mountain range. Riven is an unusual word, but not entirely archaic. Her lover knows her brokenness at losing her child. Senga is a country to him, and he names it “riven.”
As a first novel, is it autobiographical?
I suspect all novels are, and this one has elements drawn from my own life, but I won’t say which. The characters are delicious composites. My tired old joke is, we have too many chairs in our home . . . they must have been waiting for the denizens of Senga’s country.
Who is your favorite author, and why?
Well, that’s an unfair question, but I’ll confess an influence. Diana Gabaldon, who created the Outlander Series. She is generous—if fierce—in her encouragement, and she has expressed her process in such a way as to make the steps seem less daunting—though they must be. Her treatise on writing sex scenes is invaluable.
What book is currently on your bedside table?
When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chödrön. I just finished Louise Penny’s latest Gamache mystery, A Better Man, and Pierce Brown’s Red Rising Trilogy, a gift from my son. What world builders they are!
Who is the author you most admire in your genre?
I loved Rosamunde Pilcher, for her unforgettable characters and tone. But, as I enjoy a touch of magical realism, I’d add Barbara Kingsolver; also, for her social justice consciousness.
What was the first book to make you cry?
I believe it was Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë. I was about fourteen. And impressionable. Still am. I have sobbed while working on my novels several times. With all the re-reading, you’d think you’d become inured, but I haven’t, which is oddly gratifying. Some nerves must remain vulnerable.
Favorite quote? (doesn’t matter the source)
“Nevertheless, she persisted.”