We are thrilled to have debut author Jeannie Mobley here today, along with her brand-new middle grade novel Katerina’s Wish. I couldn’t put Katerina’s Wish down while I was reading it, and about a third of the way through the book I figured out why: the story, more than any other that I can recall, evoked memories of reading as a child…of that very specific phenomenon of feeling a book transport and hug, all at the same time. Jeannie’s writing is magical like that.
I am lucky to be able to call Jeannie my friend. She is truly one of the warmest, funniest, smartest women I know. What I didn’t know, until I interviewed her, was how much landscape resonates for her. I feel even more connected to Jeannie after having this conversation.
KTE: Hi Jeannie! Thank you for coming on over to Kissing the Earth to chat about Katerina’s Wish. First, what does landscape mean to you?
JM: Landscape is very important to me. I have always been a person who is rejuvenated by quiet space, and nothing does that for me like nature. So not only have I spent a lot of time outside, but I have also always sought out the quiet, peaceful places in the landscape to think, take comfort, relax, and connect. Even as I write this, I am sitting outside, and a breeze is singing thought a cottonwood above me.
KTE: Can you describe how, exactly, landscape is important to you?
JM: Nature is a very visceral experience for me. When I am outside in a beautiful place (and I find many kinds of places beautiful) I feel like my senses are more awake to everything. There is a concept in Buddhism of distracting the senses in order to free the subconscious, and I think that is what nature does for me. I feel hyper-aware of detail in the world around me, and less aware of myself. It is simultaneously calming and exhilarating.
KTE: I love that! Boy, does that idea of being hyper-aware of details and thus less aware of self really resonates for me.
What does landscape mean to Katerina? I am thinking, especially, of the juxtaposition of that magical place just over the hill and the coal mine. As we talked about earlier, there is such a stark difference between the two.
JM: Because I seek solace in the quiet places of nature, that is what I wanted for Katerina too. I don't think it ever occurred to me to have her find comfort in any other way. It seemed very natural to me for her to find a quiet, natural place, away from the frenzy of the world she dislikes. And for me, water and trees are in the places that comfort me most, and so that is what Katerina experiences. For Katerina, though, I added another layer, one that I haven't experienced. Because she is an immigrant from north-eastern Europe, I think the landscapes of Southern Colorado would be so starkly different, and it would be hard for someone from the green mountains of Bohemia to see beauty there in the best of times.
The tree that Katerina finds is a cottonwood. Cottonwoods have always been a special tree to me, because in the arid landscapes of the southern Colorado, they feel so out of place. They are truly oases, with their huge trunks and their huge, shady rustling leaves. They seem to shout of something lush and green and cool, right out of the hot, dry, brown world. It was the best way I could think of for Trina to have a poignant reminder of home.
|three generations of the Mobley family exploring|
JM: I grew up camping and traveling in the west, and my family explored many old ghost towns in the Colorado Rockies.
|an ancestral Pueblo structure in southwest Colorado, |
returning to earth after about 800 years
When I am in a place where people have lived in the past, whether it is an old cabin, or an archaeological site left behind hundreds of years ago, I find myself listening hard.
It's not something I consciously do, in fact, I didn't realize that was what I was doing for a long time. But when I am exploring a ghost town with family or when I am working on an dig with a whole crew of archaeologists (the
day job), I find myself seeking out chances to get away from people and to find a quiet place to listen.
KTE: Are you able to articulate what you hear in a place like this?
JM: There is something different about the silence of a space where people have been, and where the memories are slipping back into nature. It is a deeper silence, one that calls me to strain to hear it. The lives lived in a space become part of it somehow, in a collective memory of the ordinary. It's not as if great deeds have been done there. In fact, I often don't have that feeling at a place commemorating great deeds. Great deeds speak for themselves. But landscapes seem to absorb the essence of ordinary lives, the sacred spark of lives lived for the sake of living. That is what I strain to hear, that calls to me. That seems to be a layer of story embedded in the deeper silences of places people once lived. Its as if the living and the dying there has changed the place. Even as nature takes it back into itself, those places never seem to go back to being just nature. They remain different.
None of which exactly answers your question of what the landscape of Katerina's Wish means to me.
KTE: That’s okay! I am still buzzing with this: The lives lived in a space become part of it somehow, in a collective memory of the ordinary… Its as if the living and the dying there has changed the place. Even as nature takes it back into itself, those places never seem to go back to being just nature. They remain different. Oh man…what a gorgeous, true statement.
JM: I suppose the landscape of the book per se means nothing to me, in that it is a fictional landscape that I have not been in myself. But the reason the landscape exists at all, is because of the time I have spent walking, sitting, and listening in the abandoned coal mine country of southern Colorado, with its ugly coal tips, it's arid, brown landscapes, its empty houses, and its silence, asking to be listened to, with a tangle of ordinary struggles flowing through it.
KTE: So you have, in fact, listened hard enough to hear the voice--in this arid, brown place--of Katerina. An ordinary girl with an ordinary struggle, but then you, Jeannie the writer and artist, have elevated her with this remarkable story.
KTE: Katerina's Wish is, of course, historical. How did you manage to create such a rich, true landscape when it is not here today for you to go visit, and research? How did you gather and then articulate the details of this landscape?
JM: I do quite a bit of browsing through historical photos, because they capture the ordinary details of lives—the laundry, and picket fences, smoke and litter. Also, because I love browsing through old photos and it is a fun way to blow an entire morning when I don't feel like writing. Although I read history books, oral histories, and other primary documents, my greatest inspiration comes from visual sources.
But really, what I try to capture is the feeling that a landscape gives me, and this draws on my years of collected memories in those places, and the wanderings of my imagination. In the case of Katerina's Wish, I had been in that area not long before I decided to set my story there, so I could draw on the feelings it gave me. I drew on it barren, dry, dead places and the sense of desolation they would give a Czech immigrant.
The town would have been in an area like this, which once held the town of Ludlow. These are the old company stores and offices…
And these are some of the few miners' houses left standing…
And then there is the mine. The hoists and shaft housing is all gone, but left behind, the piles of waste…
And shells of unpicturesque concrete buildings.
This row of coke ovens would have kept the air constantly full of coal smoke. Note the black, barren earth in the foreground. Coal dust and debris still leaves it nearly sterile, decades later.
And yet, amidst this all, just a few hundred feet from those coke ovens, a quiet little haven, under a cottonwood tree. (This picture was taken in October, when the stream had dwindled almost to nothing.)
After visiting these places, they stayed with me, but as feelings and impressions as much as visual experiences. So of course, that's what I set about trying to capture in my writing. It is an illusive thing, and I feel like I never quite capture it, which keeps me striving to do better next time. But, one early reader of my ARC told me, "I had to put your book down for a little while. I was so overwhelmed by a sense of homesickness from my childhood when you described that tree and pond, that I couldn't keep reading." So I guess I got something right.
KTE: Ummm...yeah. You got a lot of somethings right. Thank you thank you thank you, Jeannie, for all of this.
Jeannie Mobley is a third generation native of Colorado on her mother’s side, while her father comes from a long line of yarn-spinners out of Arkansas. So really, it was inevitable that she would turn the histories of her home state into stories. In addition to letting her imagination run wild, Jeannie teaches anthropology in northern Colorado, enjoys as much sunshine as she possibly can, and talks in baby talk to her kids and animals, even though they are all grown up. Katerina’s Wish is her first novel. You can learn more about her here.