My first training was as an actor and that training has been invaluable in my writing. Using imagination, sense memory, empathy, and research, just as an actor imagines a character and makes her come to life, so the biographer takes the raw material of letters, notes, interviews, newspaper clippings, reviews, books read, places lived—never inventing facts but freely imagining and choosing the form those facts will take—and the biographer breathes life into her character.
An event in my life has informed all my work. When I was 12, I stood on a dirt road in Freedom, Oklahoma, and watched as a girl, about my age, slipped from the horse she was riding and fell to the ground. Blood gushed from the girl’s left ear. Her eyes were closed and her face turned deep red and then to purple. When her gasping breath stopped, although no one said so, I knew that she was gone.
For me, writing is a way to raise the dead.
After three biographies, I was ready for the freedom of inventing facts. In writing my novel WILLA, I combined fiction and non-fiction in telling the story of my mother and her frontier family who founded Freedom, Oklahoma. While many of their fellow Oklahomans fled the Dust Bowl, they hunkered down to live out what I had always supposed were their ordinary, hardscrabble lives. It was exhilarating to explore and imagine their world of cowboys and Indians, boxing and bootlegging, dancing and country music, farming and ranching; and it was thrilling to uncover their secrets, solve some mysteries along the way, and learn that Willa and her people weren't ordinary at all.