In Elizabeth Wetmore’s debut, Valentine (Harper, Apr.), the women of a West Texas oil town respond to the rape of a 14-year-old Hispanic girl in 1976.
You live in Chicago now. Did you need to get some distance from home in order to set a book in Odessa, Tex.?
I was born and raised in West Texas, so I was familiar with the terrain. And a couple of the characters’ voices were clear to me from the beginning. I have been hearing those voices my whole life. But it turns out that growing up in a place, and a childhood spent eavesdropping, doesn’t necessarily correspond to creating complicated characters or telling those characters’ stories. It took me a lot of years, and a lot of miles, to see my hometown in ways that were nuanced enough to write about it.
What made you decide to set the story in the ’70s?
In 1976, I was about the same age as one of the central characters, 10-year-old Debra Ann Pierce, so I felt I could draw on some memories of the time and place from the perspective of a child. But setting the book in 1976 was also useful from a narrative standpoint. To write a piece set in an era with no cellphones, in a place where phone service regularly went out in the middle of dust storms, gave me a great deal of freedom.
Valentine features women and girls at the forefront. Was this a deliberate attempt to course-correct for traditionally male-dominated Texas fiction?
In early drafts, I had nearly a dozen point of view characters, which began to feel somewhat unwieldy. So I murdered some of my darlings, the male darlings, at least in terms of point of view. That being said, at some point I became aware that I was making a conscious choice to tell the stories of women and girls from West Texas, that their stories were strikingly absent from the sparse literature of the oil patch.
Does your book deliberately speak to the current political moment and the crisis at the border?
I hope it does. I also hope it speaks to past political moments because, honestly, while anyone with half an intact soul should be horrified by what’s going on at the border right now, the truth is it’s nothing new. Racism and xenophobia are stitched into the fabric of Texas. It doesn’t mean it’s not a beautiful state with plenty of decent people living their lives and trying to do the right thing, but the history of West Texas is one of violence and graft, wholesale thievery and shocking environmental devastation. Valentine is my attempt to participate in a larger conversation about who we are, and who we were, and where we go from here.