A Conversation with Barbara K. Richardson

Aside from writing, Barbara has renovated four houses, enjoyed Argentine tango, fallen in love with tai chi, helped can the West’s finest plum jam, adored conifers, and planted thousands of trees and shrubs for others. Barbara is also an avid environmentalist. She now writes and designs landscapes in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies.  Barbara took some time to answer questions about herself, her book, and her love for the West.

Q: What personal events or people inspired you to write Tributary

A:  I joined the Mormon church when I was ten. It was the religion of my ancestors, and when my parents retired from the military and moved to Utah, my mother said, “There’s a church I’d like you to look into.” That statement resulted in conversion, nine years of faithful adherence, and taking on the mantle of my ancestors. I left the church at age 18.

Growing up Mormon, I wondered whatever happened to the ones who got away? In such a devout, closed community, folks who strayed from the path tended to fall off the rim of history. I could see the necessity for this—the need to close ranks and only tell the devout version of history, to keep the faithful faithful—but I still felt deep curiosity about what did indeed happen to those who dared leave the fold. That gap, that gulf, that abyss triggered the need to write a novel.

Q:  Did you have any contemporary issues in mind while writing this historical novel?

A:  Women finding their own way through life. The conditioning to be a man’s helpmate is very strong in our culture. Or it was when I grew up. Clair’s story shows one woman’s struggle to move past societal expectations. Not that motherhood can’t be a genuine calling. It’s just that Clair’s path is a different path than the one outlined for her. The truer each person lives, the better for this planet. I find contemporary obsessions with appearance and ownership as tragic and limiting as the religious conformity demanded of Clair in the 1870s.

Q:  Would you share some experiences about how you came to write this book—any interesting experiences on researching it, writing it, getting it published?

A:  Well, Tributary took twenty years to complete. For six of those years, it sat in a closet forgotten.

I wrote and researched Tributary for twelve long years, and no one was interested in publishing it. I then wrote a contemporary novel, Guest House, which did find a publisher. Just as I was choosing a cover design for Guest House, my college sweetheart found me on Facebook. Having spent the thirty years since he’d seen me as a graphic designer, he offered a lovely heart red cover design. I cried when I saw that cover, a big open-hearted valentine of a farm house with a lichen-covered apple tree, and I said YES. I said yes to him, too.

We dated long-distance for a year and a half, with monthly in-person visits. At the end of a hike one Saturday, he asked me about my earlier novel. I said, “Oh, that’s lost in a closet somewhere.” He said, “Tell me about it.” We stood in the parking lot for half an hour as I spun the beginning of the Tributary tale. He said he’d love to read it. The history was fascinating. Was that really part of America’s past?

His interest, coming just after two dear women friends had also expressed interest in reading the manuscript, resurrected the entire project. The stars aligned in so many ways: I had the life experience needed to draw out the spiritual message of the last hundred pages, Torrey House Press editor Kirsten Allen knew exactly how to draw Clair forward into the story, and national interest in Mormonism had awakened, at last. The cover of Tributary—also designed by my beloved.

This book is not the solitary work of one writer. It is the Shoshones speaking, and the Mormon settlers listening, historians giving us their remarkable gifts, and the birds and streams and sunsets of Utah saying, “It’s all here, it is all one.”

Q:  How does your book express the Torrey House Press mission? 

A:  My main character, Clair Martin, sees clearly that human accomplishments pale next to the grandeur and bounty of the Wasatch Mountains. Her true ties are with the land, not with her associates whose ambition is to claim and tame the desert. Clair’s ultimate freedom from sorrow and societal constraint comes in nature. She experiences vast connectedness at the City of Rocks in a vision of the untorn fabric of consciousness. Clair Martin, a realist, herein launches the “real magicalism” school of literature. Magic is real. Nature dishes it up continuously. If we are starving (for meaning and connection), it ain’t nature’s fault.

Q:  How does the West shape your characters?

A:  Mormons were admirably tough and determined. “Men to match our mountains,” as the saying goes. Of course, to me, Mormon women pioneers’ strength almost outdid the men’s. Together, they all wrenched joy and faith and a livelihood out of a salty dusty desert valley. Unfortunately, they displaced the Shoshone and Goshute (and so many other tribes) to do so. Because resources were sparse, a very Western reality, white settlers chose to dominate and subdue the land. Native people who had lived with the land, following the currents of harvest over a thousand mile annual route, left a very light footprint. Their bounty relied on balance and moving with the seasons. Which Western traits do we remember and admire and emulate? The stubborn invasion tactics of the Eastern settlers! The so-called “rugged individualism” of the West and the “rugged communalism” of Mormon pioneers.

Clair Martin literally draws daily sustenance from the Western landscape she inhabits. That’s why she relates so naturally to Kashess, Tierre’s Shoshone wife. When sheep and guns and grazing disputes complicate her livelihood at the ranch, she dumps them for a simpler and more sustainable way.

Q:  Are any characters based on real people?

A:  Yes. My Swedish, Danish, English and Scottish ancestors settled Brigham City, Utah. To me, Brigham is the geographical center of the universe. In part, I wrote this novel to claim my stake in that settlement. To work out my love for that place. I also have a really deep appreciation for my ancestors, whose stories show great humanity, insight and courage. I don’t believe any of them were polygamists . . . that takes courage, to be non-polygamists in a highly-polygamous society. I may be mistaken, but I don’t recall reading of any polygamous households.

Clair and her friend Florrie are my two grandmothers. Harlan’s past is based on one of my ancestors who converted the first Mormons in Sweden. Daniel Dees and his wife Evelyn are based on Scottish ancestors who were professional weavers and calico printers. They made their living weaving in Brigham City. This explains my delight in fabrics. It’s a genetic predisposition!

I had a mentor similar to Audwin, Clair’s friend in New Orleans. He was British, poor, artistic, an atheist and a very bright spirit, who lived and taught art to children at Baruch Place, New York City’s poorest tenement/housing project. He opened my eyes to the great big sloppy happy human family. I met him right after I graduated from high school. Like Clair, I was ready for mentoring.

I taught a young black boy named Tierre, a first grader with a magnanimous smile. He often cried, “That ain’t fair!” when he did not get his way. He had a smashing strong spirit and yet, too, a somewhat broken heart. His father was not in the family picture. His mother was a single mom, struggling to make ends meet. Tierre came to our upper-class independent school and claimed a permanent place in my psyche.

Ada seems like a candidate for a composite of all the strong women I’ve known, but really she just popped out her very own self. She just started talking. The first inkling of this novel, which came in a dream, was “The Ballad of Clair and Ada.”

Q:  Your protagonist, Clair Martin, leaves Utah as a very young woman to learn more about her past.  Why did you choose New Orleans as the place for Clair to search for her roots?

A:  I taught grade school with a Southern woman, whose fair complexion and flashing red hair and high spirits and sheer daintiness made me think—what a mother. What would it be to have a mother like that? She became Clair’s absent mother in my heart. Perhaps because the loss of such a profoundly feminine influence seemed a perfect metaphor for the Saints’ hard dry experiment in the desert. The Mormon pioneers did not land in the loving arms of a verdant valley. They orphaned themselves into hardship in the Utah Territory. For them, the answer was to bond together in community. For Clair, it was to seek her own truth.

Also, I moved to coastal Mississippi while writing a draft of this novel. I had access to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, so I soaked up all the history I could and in time, fell in love with the locale. Love is a powerful part of writing any novel. The settings have to be more than intellectually important to you—they need to resonate inside of your body.

And lastly, nothing could be farther from the land Clair loved—austere arid Utah—than the busy worldly feverish green South. It seemed a perfect counterpoint, a falling off place. Clair had to be dunked in the Deep South in order to return to Utah. That is the “Gulf” she enters, in order to finally bridge the gulf  “designed by God.”

Q:  Do you have polygamists in your family tree? If so, what family stories about it have intrigued you? Did any of your relatives reject polygamy?

A:  I wish I knew more, here. I know my ancestors were devout, but I have no stories of polygamous households. I do have one ancestor, the basis for Harlan, who later in life rejected Mormonism and the overpowering rule of the Prophet to form his own religion, based on Christ’s teachings of love. He had a small following and was allowed to preach and have his own spiritual flock. His family, to their credit, did not toss him out on his ear. At least, I’ve read how lovingly they cared for him in his advanced old age. I relied on their record keeping and story keeping to learn about him.

In the same vein, one of my great grandmothers loved studying world religions, and she invited many speakers to Salt Lake City, including a Hindu holy man. She read the Bhagavad Ghita eight times. So independence of thought and belief runs in my family.

Q:  What did you learn from your research into the American Indian tribes mentioned in Tributary?

A:  Profound respect. Their thousand mile annual round just makes me envious. The Northwestern Shoshone followed a seasonal route from Brigham City, Utah to the Camas Prairie in central Idaho to the City of Rocks in Southern Idaho to the hot springs in Honeyville, Utah and then off to Montana to winter there. They harvested the riches at each location, with meet-ups to celebrate with larger groups of Shoshone. It was an annual route of about a thousand miles. They harvested grains and fish, camas root, pinon nuts, and hunted large game in Montana.  ‘Let’s follow the riches of each season and love every place we go.’ I don’t think that is too far from the reality of it. There were no doubt years of struggle and lack, but to have such a vast homeland and to know and love all of the plants and animals and creeks and weather patterns. That makes for a very rich tribal life, a rich personal life, too. Better than zipping around in an SUV taking in almost nothing.

I had not heard of the Bear River Massacre until I researched Tributary. I was struck by the patterns of history that clobbered many tribes. In Colorado, the stories match those from Utah. The treaty already signed, the agreement for peace already reached, and then a bored angry troop of white soldiers rides out to ambush a sleeping community of Indians in an isolated valley, far from white settlements, and slaughter them without mercy. Just to put an exclamation point on white domination.

I believe that the natural world offers continuous messages/wisdom/advice for right living. Shoshones and Bannocks believe that, too.

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

A:  Authors and books I loved as a child:  Margeurite Henry’s  King of the Wind, Anne H. White’s  Junket, Lenora K. Madsen’s  Green-Eyed Phantoms.  Mrs. Madsen was my fifth grade teacher. She read her own book aloud to us. She had a magnificent heart, and I had an author right in front of me holding twenty-five kids spellbound.

Barbara Wassom—petite, educated high school speech teacher who dared also to teach us modern dance, and hold recitals in the high school auditorium. Girls wearing flesh-tight leotards in Bountiful, Utah in 1973?! She was fired.

Willa Cather—I read My Antonia in my late twenties. It became my favorite novel for that decade. Cather loves women with a sensibility untethered by traditional views. She also vibrates Nebraska. I love her mind. Reading Cather is like seeing my inner self reflected in a mirror. Not that I could or would ever write like her, but I live and perceive life and its beauty in a similar disinterested passionate way.

George Eliot—I read Middlemarch in my late thirties. She evoked an entire village, displayed an entire epoch. A small village and a quiet epoch, but that made me love her all the more. I simply delight in her values and her sensibility. She makes me glad to be alive and proud to be human.

Molly Gloss—I read Wild Life in my forties. This is a novelist set on fire. A novelist who fears no deconstruction, but takes it up like a quirt to get her horse to run through the fiction flames. I have so much admiration for this blending of all of Gloss’ strengths and interests, with a meta-fiction ending that kicks meta-fiction off the map. Gloss has a beautiful heart.

Spending time with fine women broadens the scope of what a woman believes she can be.

Q:  How has the West shaped you?

A:  That may be obvious from my other answers. It is my body. I would not be surprised if I was Shoshone before being born as me. I simply belong to this northern Utah landscape.

Q:  Which books are you reading now? 

A:  I am mid-way through The Scholar of Moab, a very zesty Torrey House Press novel. I’ve also begun Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. This novel is very long and very lush and a crash course in great storytelling. I’m smitten. I just finished Jana Richman’s Riding in the Shadows of Saints, her memoir about riding the Mormon Trail on a big shiny motorcycle all alone. I loved it.

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

A:  A broader view of Utah settlement. A willingness to listen to the land. Acceptance of their ancestors. Interest in healing the rift between European and Native American worldviews.

4 Responses to A Conversation with Barbara K. Richardson

  1. Sue Ith says:

    I was excited to read about your reference to Mrs. Madsen. She was also my 5th grade teacher. She is someone I have always admired.

    • Cindy Evans says:

      Barbara and Sue. You both have made my day,Week,Year!! I love the green-eyed phantom book! I read it several times while I was growing up. I had a copy that I cherished. Years later, In the cover of my very read book Mrs Madsen signed it to my 2 young Sons. Several months later I was devastated when it was stolen from me. I wanted all my Children to grow up knowing the likes of Sicily slats & his Friends just like I did. I have gone to several websites, stores that carry old books and still have not found one. I will not give up! I always wanted to be in Mrs Madsen’s 5th grade class. I begged my Mom to take me to Bountiful every morning so I could be in her class. My Mother Lenora k Madsen Tapp would laugh and say ” I will take you to Grandma Madsen’s house this weekend”. The wait seemed like forever. When we finally got there’ I remember snuggling close to Grandma Madsen as she would tell me for the hundredth time the antics of Sicily slats And the Green-phantoms. Thank you both for bringing up such beautiful memories! May the good Lord bless you and your Families!

    • We were so lucky to have her! Such a bright spirit. She set a great example for us all.

    • We were so lucky to have her. She had such a bright spirit. And set a great example for so many of us.

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