When I was twenty-two, I left home to escape the things I knew and to make myself into a writer. I moved to Aberystywth, Wales, a seaside town centuries older than my own country. I woke each day to a view of the gray Irish Sea through an ancient lead-glass window, walked to work past standing stones, ate lunch in the castle ruins. I traveled London, Dublin, and Paris, stayed in hostels, collected stories and histories wherever I went. The longer I traveled, though, the more space my own home took up inside of me. It was a surprise to discover that the first story I had to tell was rooted in the history I’d left behind.
When I wasn’t traveling or working, I began to spend long afternoons in the National Library of Wales, reading about the Gold Rush, and found myself connecting with the landscape and the history I had left as I never had before. The Gold Rush was no longer a rusted Pelton wheel in my town square, or “a time in American history when…” The Gold Rush was young, hopeful, sunburned, broken-soled men and women, living far from home in tinderbox shacks with canvas walls. I recognized myself, not in their circumstances, but in their desire for adventure and reinvention, and in their grudging homesickness. I recognized the resilience and the cost of the get-rich-quick mentality I had taken for granted in California. I recognized how cycles of hope, opportunism, and failure, shape communities all over the world. History, at least recorded history, is built on wins and losses, booms and busts.
Then, one day in a reading room the size of a high school gymnasium, I discovered a photograph of an androgynous young man, or a woman dressed as a boy, glaring from the pages of Susan Lee Johnson’s Roaring Camp. An oversized panama hat shaded haunted eyes; a stained flannel draped from narrow shoulders; the gun cinched to her waist with a belt looked more like a prop than a threat. As I looked at that photograph, my obsession with the history became a story.
What if, I wondered. What if a stranger came to town… What if a young woman dressed as a boy on the run from the law…
Then I needed a town for my stranger, for Alex, and a rag-tag supporting cast of men with constitutions sturdy enough and personalities large enough to survive the labors their dreams demanded of them. Soon Emaline and the Victoria Inn emerged as the center of the town, a reason, beyond survival, luck and riches, for a community, for a story, and for a writer to grow.
Funny to think I left California to become a writer. The first story I had to tell brought me back again.
Calling all you Sacramento natives and transplants...
Join Stories on Stage for a
Black Friday Literary Feast!
Bonnie Antonini will read my story
Sally Stevens will read Vanessa Hua's
$5 donation is appreciated to keep this award-winning program solvent
Join us for refreshments, beginning at 7PM
Sacramento Poetry Center
1719 25th Street (Between Q & R)
Please join me to celebrate the US launch of my debut novel, Crown of Dust (Soho Press), "a gender-bending story of friendship, love, and redemption set in the Wild West during the Gold Rush!"
The celebration will be held at Orinda Books on November 4th, at 5:30pm. A reading and book signing will be followed by a social with light refreshments. Bring an extra buck and enter a raffle to win a "free" autographed copy of Crown of Dust. All raffle proceeds will benefit the Lamont Madden Book Fund.
Crown of Dust by Mary Volmer
November 4th at 5:30pm at Orinda Books
276 Village Square, Orinda Way
Orinda, CA 94563
From a distance Nelson, British Columbia is an idyllic community of new agers and aging hippies, folded away in the Selkirk Mountains. People move to Nelson to escape frenetic city life and to live their own way; when they leave, they remember the place fondly. No town, however, is idyllic to the children born and raised there. No town is immune to tragedy. In Never Going Back, Antonia Banyard’s atmospheric tale, estranged friends return to Nelson to observe the ten-year anniversary of a layered tragedy that still entangles them all.
Never Going Back is as much a mediation on memory and guilt as it is a novel. It examines a community’s responsibility for the happiness and well-being of its outcasts, and mourns the personal cost of the cruelties we commit to save ourselves. I think you will enjoy it, so long as you don’t expect sweeping drama or large epiphanies. The book begins with the death of a culprit and ends with a birth, but these are bookends of a diffuse narrative driven more by ideas than by plot. The tragedy, after all took place ten years before the story begins, so the drama comes to us as memories that, while still raw, are incapable of causing further harm. You’d be hard pressed to assign the role of main character. Siobhan’s perspective begins the book; we then meet Evan and Lance. But none of these characters is any more capable of taking hold of the story than they are of taking hold of their lives. Banyard describes Nelson as “not a backwoods town, so much as an eddy in a stream.” These characters might well be leaves stuck in that eddy and the resolution, satisfying, though small, is that by the last page all three will be able, finally, to free themselves and move on.
If you love to travel, and are an admitted bookworm and history buff like me, you pack as many books as extra pairs of socks. These books are must haves when traveling through California’s Gold Country.
The Age of Gold by H.W. Brands
The World Rushed In by J.S. Holliday
They Saw the Elephant by JoAnn Levy
A Frontier Lady by Sarah Royce
The Shirley Letters by Louise Clappe
Roaring Camp by Susan Lee Johnson
In the mood for humor? Try...
Bret Harte’s Gold Rush: Outcasts of Poker Flat
Looking for fantastic fiction? Try...
Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune
Karen Joy Fowler’s exquisite Sarah Canary and Sister Noon
And don't forget to check out my novel, Crown of Dust.
Happy travels! If you’re lucky enough to tour historic Highway 49 between now and November you’ll enjoy fall color that would make the state of Maine blush with envy.
The land makes demands of the people who claim it. Those of us who live in cities surrounded by concrete and florescent light, sometimes forget this. But in the 19th century, when the majority of the US population was still living off the land and subject to the weather’s fickle temper, the knowledge was instinctual. When land was contested the very life of a community was at risk.
In Renee Thompson’s debut, The Bridge at Valentine, cattle and sheep ranchers feud over contested Idaho grazing lands. July, free spirited daughter of a Mormon shepherd, falls for Rory, the son of a cattleman. This may be ripe territory for yet another tale of star-crossed lovers, but after allowing a brief romance, Thompson discards Shakespeare’s template in favor of a twist more suited to the romantic optimism of the American West. Thompson’s July is no repressed Juliet. She is a frontier woman, a child of the land, fierce, strong-willed, self-reliant, and willing to sacrifice family and community for a chance to live on her own terms.
Thompson places the reader breathlessly within a difficult landscape. We feel the heat and cold, smell the rot of carcasses and cured leather. She excels at relaying the hardships of everyday frontier life and I was impressed and satisfied by the pacing and the meticulous attention to clear, balanced detail. The Bridge at Valentine is a promising debut from an author to watch.