A Conversation with Jana Richman

Jana Richman, a sixth-generation Utahn, was born and raised in Utah’s west desert. She writes about issues that threaten to destroy the essence of the west: overpopulation, overdevelopment, rapidly dwindling water aquifers, stupidity, ignorance, arrogance and greed. She also writes about passion, beauty, and love. She is the author of the memoir, Riding in the Shadows of Saints: A Woman’s Story of Motorcycling the Mormon Trail, and the novel, The Last Cowgirl, winner of the Willa Award for contemporary fiction. She lives in Escalante, Utah, with her husband, writer and transpersonal therapist, Steve Defa.

Q:  Which events or people inspired you to write The Ordinary Truth

A:  I never know when or how the events and people I’m carrying within myself will find their way into my work, and the manifestation of those people and events in the work often surprises me.

I’m drawn in my writing to the places where tension exists—relationships between lovers, relationships among family members, relationships with strangers, relationships to geographical places, conflicting needs, colliding values, that sort of thing.  I have been carrying the idea of a story about three generations of women from the same family for many years. I started toying with it in when I was writing plays during grad school at the University of Arizona in the early 90s, and then it finally coalesced in this book.

I’m also drawn to the darker, everyday stories of life that people don’t often talk about, and I knew that motherhood could be one of those. We all hear about the joys of motherhood, but we never hear from those mothers who never embrace the role even after the child is born. Yet those mothers are out there, often struggling and often pretending to love motherhood. I was also curious to explore how a passionate relationship between a husband and wife might change when a child enters the scene. I know from extensive interviews with a therapist that jealousy within the threesome is not uncommon, and I wanted to dig into that.

An event from my mother’s past also found its way into the book. She lost her father to an accident when she was thirteen, and I believe that single event changed the trajectory of her life in a drastic way and contributed to a pervasive state of sadness that she carried her entire life. I was interested in looking at how life gets shot off in unanticipated directions when something like that happens.

So I initially started with those factors and elements—the seeds of the story. Then as I started to develop the characters and the relationships, the Southern Nevada Water Authority announced its plans to build a pipeline to pump water from the desert valleys of Eastern Nevada and Western Utah to Las Vegas. When the plan was announced, I was appalled. I’m still appalled. It sounded then—and still does—absolutely absurd. A precedent is being set: whoever builds the biggest pipeline wins, but it seems to me that the victory will be so short-lived as to render it useless. It is one of the most shortsighted policies—among many contenders—I’ve seen in my lifetime. If Las Vegas can build a pipeline to get water from its neighbors to the north, what’s to stop Phoenix or any other large city from doing the same? Los Angeles already gave us the blueprint for this when it pumped water from Owens Valley, and the result in Owens Valley was disastrous.

Having grown up in Utah’s west desert, I’ve always known the value of water, and for many years, I’ve been expecting exactly this: the advent of the Western water wars. Too many people, too little water—what we’re seeing now has been hurtling toward us for a long time.

As much as I hate the idea of the pipeline, it is one of those juicy, complex issues that makes a good story, because the reality is this: it is not evil versus good, it is not black and white, there are no clear lines of good people versus bad people, and there are no easy answers. In fact, there may be no answers at all.

Q:  How do you identify with the characters in The Ordinary Truth?

A:  On one hand, I don’t identify with them at all. The story is not autobiographical, and my job as a writer is to remove myself from the story and let the characters tell it in their own way.

On the other hand, I identify with all of them. I have empathy for them because I created them, and if I’ve done my job as a writer, I’ve created complex characters who are the products of their pasts and their circumstances and are acting accordingly.

Q:  How does the West shape your characters?

A:  In every possible way. My characters know nothing but the West and the lives they were born into, so that’s kind of like asking, “How does the sun shape your characters?” They basically take the West for granted as they do the sun, which again, comes around to haunt them.

Q:  A lot of therapy occurs in your novel.  What kind of therapy do you believe is the most effective?

A:  Hmm, interesting question. For the most part, Kate’s therapy sessions are there as a writing device as opposed to an endorsement of therapy. Because of Kate’s childhood, she was not going to open up to her boyfriend, her family, or her friend, Matt, which meant I had to find a way to get her talking somewhere with someone. I had to find a way to jar loose some of the pain she had buried, and therapy seemed the modern way to do that.

Q:  The parent/child relationships in The Ordinary Truth are sometimes difficult but rich and multi-layered. Do your relationships with either of your parents relate to the parent/child relationships depicted in the book?

A:  In The Ordinary Truth the mother/daughter relationships—Nell and Kate as well as Kate and Cassie—are strained and complex, and the father/daughter relationship between Kate and Henry was very close, as close to pure love as any relationship gets. My relationship with my parents was the opposite—I was very close to my mother and emotionally distanced from my father. For a long time, I just couldn’t imagine the opposite as a possibility, but it is rather common that daughters bond with the father more closely than with the mother. In my first novel, The Last Cowgirl, I drew upon many of my own experiences, and in this novel, I’ve written in direct opposition of my own experience.

Q:  You spent some time in New York City and now live in Escalante, Utah.  Is there anything in particular you miss about city life?  What do you miss the least?

A:  I love living in Escalante; I plan to die here. New York City was never home for me—just an extended vacation, except I worked long hours and only went to the Statue of Liberty when people came to visit. Salt Lake City was my urban home. My mother loved the city, and we spent hours, months, years, walking Salt Lake City together. I love the layout of the city, the architecture, and, believe it or not, I often like the Mormon influence (damn good horticulturalists). I also often hate the Mormon influence (damn poor politicians and leaders). The surprise of Salt Lake City is that it rivals any large city in restaurant choice and quality, and I miss that, though my pocketbook has benefitted.

What I miss most about the city is the ability to be anonymous among people, to stroll down a street, to sit in a park and “people watch.” Here in Escalante, there are few people to watch and if you get caught watching them, you will likely be pulled into a conversation with them. Sometimes I just want to watch. The other thing I miss about the city is having a library and a bookstore.

What I don’t miss: noise, air pollution, crowds, lack of open space, too many people on hiking trails, the inability to find solitude except inside one’s home, more noise, and more air pollution.

Q:  What were some of the challenges that came up when writing about such a contemporary issue as the proposed pipeline?

A:  I think the danger in writing about an issue such as this one—one that I feel strongly about—is the possibility of over-simplifying it. The truth is that the water issues in Las Vegas are serious, and Las Vegas is only a preview of what all Western cities will soon face, as will other parts of the world. Opponents of the pipeline (myself included) are quick to point out golf courses and fountains in Las Vegas as a reason to oppose the pipeline, but the issue is much more complex than “if you didn’t have fountains, you wouldn’t need fresh water.” Getting rid of golf courses and fountains would be a place to start, but it wouldn’t resolve the water issues facing the West.

To write about a controversial contemporary issue such as this, I was tasked with the job of seeing real people with real lives on both sides of the issue. The people in Las Vegas who need water are not evil, they are not bad people out to steal from good people, but that’s basically the way it gets portrayed in the media. We love our good guy/bad guy myths, and our conversations tend to drift toward that myth—we have lost all sense of nuance. Because I feel so strongly that the pipeline is not an appropriate or even logical answer to the problem, I had to continually remind myself not to vilify those who see it as a logical answer. That’s why the story is set up to include empathetic members of the same family on both sides of the issue.

Q:  Who were your women role models, literary and otherwise, and how did they shape you as a person and a writer?

A:  My first role models were my mother and her three sisters. They were all devout Mormon women, none of whom would have described herself as a feminist, yet they somehow taught me about feminism, strength, independence, and integrity. When I researched my first book, Riding in the Shadows of Saints I found many strong Mormon suffragists and feminists in the early years of the Mormon Church, which surprised and delighted me. The oppression of women in the Mormon Church is a very much a contemporary construct. Female writers that in an indirect way have influenced my work include Virginia Woolf, Gloria Steinem, Mary Catherine Bateson, Dorothy Allison, and A.S. Byatt, among so many others.

Q:  How has the West shaped you?

A:  The same way it shapes my characters—in every possible way. I am a product of the West, and not only the West but the arid West (I can barely conceive of a wet place like the Oregon coast being part of “the West”), which means I carry the values, the sensibilities, the mindset, the emotions, the knowledge, and the psyche of a Westerner—a desert rat. I know no other way to live. Sometimes I toy with the idea of setting a novel outside of the Western United States, but I wouldn’t know where to start. Nevertheless, I think it a worthy goal to possibly expand the boundaries of my imagination.

Q:  What do you hope readers will receive or learn from reading your book? 

A:  First and foremost, I hope readers will be entertained and engaged. The most remarkable responses I receive from readers are the ones that say, “the story and the characters resonated with me,” especially when the reader adds that he or she grew up in Chicago or Peru or on the East Coast—somewhere not remotely similar to the setting of the book. That’s when I know that I’ve managed to write that universal human experience, that experience that touches each of us regardless our backgrounds, our location, our cultures, our religions and the specific issues we face in our own lives.

Secondly, I want to stir readers in some way. My most rewarding reading experiences happen when I’m prompted to think about an issue that wouldn’t otherwise be on my radar, when I’m moved by the emotional journeys of the characters, when I empathize with a character with whom I have nothing in common, when I can’t stop thinking about the world created in the book. That’s what I hope will happen when readers pick up The Ordinary Truth.

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