Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Q&A with author Gabrielle Burton

Gabrielle Burton has quite a story to tell. So, I'm going to let her tell it...

Hi, Gabrielle! What can you tell us about your new novel, Impatient With Desire?
It's known from history that Tamsen Donner, the pioneer heroine of the ill-fated Donner Party of 1846, kept a journal but it was never found. Impatient with Desire is her lost journal as I imagined it, particularly during the more than four months she was trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains with her dying husband and five starving daughters.

At the heart of it, what’s this story really about?
Several things: (It has a big heart.)
--Endurance. Why and how do some survive terrible adversity and others just lie down and die? I've always been deeply interested in survivors: Terry Anderson, Brian Keenan, Jacobo Timerman, refugees--how people maintain hope in wretched circumstances. I was a crisis counselor in a Vietnamese boat people's camp in Malaysia, and am presently making PSAs about human trafficking in the U.S. with my daughters' film production company (Five Sisters Productions).
--It's also about the struggle between a woman's being adventurous and her responsibility to her family. I think most modern wives and mothers throw in the towel on the adventure part, never even considering it, but face the same struggle between work and love.
--And ultimately, it's about hope and love.

You’ve been reading about Tamsen Donner for over thirty years. Why are you so drawn to this woman and her story?
I never thought once about that until a reader at U of Nebraska Press asked: What drew you to such a disturbing remote character? I was taken aback: Disturbing? Remote? News to me. Considering the question, I had to dig deep, and I came up with a lot of answers.
--In the early days in the women's movement, we were all searching for heroines--for ourselves and for our daughters--and Tamsen Donner was a remarkable woman. Born in 1801, she taught school, spoke French, wrote poetry, botanized, and was eager for adventure, traveling alone at a time when women didn't travel alone. She endured personal tragedy--losing her first family in a 3-month period--and tragedy on a grand scale, really symbolizing the price paid for our being able to sit out here in CA.
--She had five daughters as I did and, although 2 of hers were stepdaughters, that parallel carried me quite a while.
--My Catholic upbringing had made me comfortable with gruesome martyr stories, so the cannibalism and gore that typically predominate in stories about the Donner Party neither repelled nor intrigued me deeply.
-- I've always been interested in survival stories, wondering how I would fare in a similar situation.
--In those early days, I felt that we--my "sisters," my family, and I--were also pioneers, searching for new ways to work and love.
--And maybe this most of all: The common representation of Tamsen as a "heroine" because she stayed with her husband until death did they part at the cost of her own life, rankled me and scared me because I was afraid that an authentic part of me, my writing, might be sacrificed to marriage and motherhood.
In the beginning, because so little was known about Tamsen, I think she was a blank page I was trying to write my story on. As my personal story got more fleshed in, my goal evolved to find the real woman behind the myth and honor her, and honor all pioneer women whose stories we too rarely hear.

Why thirty years? Can you tell us about your process and journey as a writer, and how it came to be that you finally came around to telling her story?
Well, I didn't work on her story consistently for thirty years--a lot of other writing and life intervened.
--I published a non fiction book in 1972, I'm Running Away From Home But I'm Not Allowed To Cross The Street, subtitled A Primer on the Women's Movement--the story of a traditional housewife and mother joining the Women's Movement for my five daughters and finding out it had come in time for me.
--I was writing a lot of poetry then, but I started writing a short story that turned into a novel--about a modern woman, but having a small fraction of Tamsen and her lost journal woven into it. I worked on that novel seven years, finally deciding that the raised and dashed hopes connected with it were taking too large a toll on me and my family, and I put it away. By the end of this period--we're up to '79--my sensibility, my eye, my whole take on things, had completely changed from poetry to fiction.
--My next novel, Heartbreak Hotel, took another seven years and twenty-eight rejections before being published by Charles Scribner's in 1986.
--In 1987-88, I was living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and in between taking wonderfully exotic trips, I transcribed all my tapes from my family's retracing the CA/Oregon Trail ten years before, and wrote a non-fiction book. My editor wanted more personal revelations than I was willing to write, so I put that away.
--In the mid 90's, I was in film school in L.A. and, after my family badgered me to attend the Donner Party Sesquicentennial, I wrote a screenplay about the Donner Party. Now there are 87 characters in the D.P., and countless drafts and some years later, I realized that I didn't want to write about the Donner Party, but about Tamsen Donner, and not in a historical way, but to be true to her spirit. Easier said than done. I kept at it, and also wrote other screenplays, articles and reviews.
--In 2002, my daughters' film production company, Five Sisters Productions, made my screenplay, Manna From Heaven, and I was heavily involved in the filming and editing. Our family traveled with it for nearly a year from Branson, MO to Juneau, AK.
--In 2006, feeling the pressure of age and time, I got out that non fiction draft of our Donner Trail trip, and was horrified to see that my editor had given me notes in 1988! Like an Irish warrior, I bled a while, then rose to fight again. Oh, that's just Irish bravado; in fact I was sick that so much time had passed and I felt sorry for myself and quite despairing. Then I talked sternly to myself and made a plan, working like crazy with a laser focus on rewriting that book. After 19 rave rejections by agents--"love it, but who's the niche?"--the part history/part memoir, Searching for Tamsen Donner, was published by U. of Nebraska Press in 2009. While that had been going through the rigorous screening process of a university press--outside readers, committees, boards, a rewrite--I wrote the novel, Impatient with Desire, which Hyperion bought (March, 2010).
So ultimately, my writing about Tamsen Donner went through as many metamorphoses as I did and, of course, they all informed the book. Probably a half dozen women wrote those two books, and I'm glad I'm alive to see them come to fruition.

Success after sixty! Tell us about where you are now and what your writing plans are for the future.
Now I'm crazy busy with marketing Impatient with Desire. So much is in the author's ballpark now, and of course with the internet and blogs it's an entirely different world. An exciting world, and one we've barely begun to tap.

How has your family played a role in your writing journey?
They have supported me and sustained me and continue to do so in every possible way. In a real way, the publishing of these two books about Tamsen Donner are a family triumph as well as a personal one. Tamsen Donner was practically a member of our family. Even our dog was named Tamsen.

Where can readers learn more about you and your work?

Thanks for stopping in for the weekly Q&A!

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