Erin Bowman had always dreamed of writing her own western novel, spending her youth curled up in front of cowboy movies and writing vignettes about young heroines experiencing ranch life. But it wasn’t until her husband regaled her with the legend of the Lost Dutchman mine in the aptly named Superstition Mountains that Bowman found her story’s spark and a setting for Kate, the spunky muse disguised as a man on a quest for revenge after her father is killed by outlaws in the Arizona Territory. We recently spoke with the author of the Taken trilogy from her home in New Hampshire, as she prepared for the release of her latest book, and discussed her writing process combining history, myth and fiction, her pilgrimage in Kate’s shoes, and the next incarnation of her Wild West world.
Your latest novel is a departure from your previous work, trading in the dystopian sci-fi genre for historical fiction in a western setting. For the author’s note in Vengeance Road, you talk about the research that went into the historical elements of the setting. How did you go about choosing which real figures to include and which characters to create?
The inspiration for this book came to me one night when my husband, who has family in Arizona, started telling me about the Lost Dutchman, this mine that supposedly exists... maybe it’s there, maybe it’s not. As he was telling me about this legend, I was struck by the image of a girl who was out for revenge and somehow gets entangled in someone else’s quest for the lost gold. Once I had a plot in mind and I started doing research, I knew I wanted the backdrop of her story to be real and the places she goes through to be real. But if I work with too many people who are real then I’m tied to facts. So the many characters – Kate and the brothers she teams up with as well as others – are fictional, but I thought leaving in small details like Jacob Waltz, a real man and a central figure in the legend, would really support the time period. In pretty much every take on the myth, he is the person who found the gold and on his deathbed left a map for his caretaker. A lot of it was picking and choosing again what matched up well with Kate’s story and arc.
You live in New Hampshire with your family. Did this project require taking a lot of trips to Arizona to gather that information and do the research?
A lot of it I did from the comfort of my office! There are a lot of archives available online, so I looked at old maps, I bought a historical atlas, I bought a lot of books. Then I did go out to Arizona as well at one point. The trip that I took for this book was, in part, for fact-checking, but there’s nothing quite like standing in the environment, the sights and the sounds and the smells. I needed to experience it so I could weave those details back in. Ironically, I made the trip at almost the exact same time that Kate’s story was set. I was also five months pregnant. I just kept thinking the people who settled the West were so tough. How did they do this?
There are a lot of influences at play in the novel: the folklore of the old West, and themes from western genres, traditional YA concerns like coming of age, striking out on one’s own, and also the historical fact and fiction of the setting of the book. How did you balance these things while writing?
If it was “a plus b equals c” writing would be so easy! I usually discover the themes toward the end of a draft, but it’s not something I ever actively go after. I knew I wanted to intertwine historical facts with myth and legend, but in terms of the themes, especially the coming of age, the revenge versus forgiveness, those kind of happened naturally and over the course of revision I noticed them. Maybe it’s subconscious. I never sit down and say, “I want to make sure it’s really clear this is Kate’s coming of age journey.”
Even though Vengeance Road has a lot of those stereotypical spaghetti western elements – like the big shootout scene – the story transcends that genre. Why do you think it’s resonating with readers who might otherwise forgo the entire western genre?
I’ve heard that from a couple people. ‘I know I don’t like westerns but I really enjoyed this.’ I think there’s a lot of themes in western stories in general that are sort of universal, and being in Kate’s eyes and seeing the world as a female living in the West, I think you can see part of your world in it. Just like with dystopias, they’re gritty dark worlds where people are trying to carve out their own, but there’s a lot of hope behind them. With the West, it’s a bloody, lawless place and a very complicated world.
You’ve been a fan of westerns since you were a child. Were there any books or movies that especially inspired you to write this?
One of the obvious ones, and it’s really just in terms of the premise of the book, was True Grit, because it is that classic revenge story. In elementary school, I was always writing about a girl on a ranch and I watched a lot of westerns with my dad growing up. It’s kind of sad when you boil all of these genres down to these specific facets.
Would you like to see Vengeance Road translated for the big screen?
Any adaptation would be really, really cool. I think that’s the dream of every author to have their book adapted, but adapted well. But like any adaptation so much would come down to casting, directing, etc. So yeah, fingers crossed, who knows! And there was one reviewer who said ‘this would make an awesome graphic novel.’ I never thought of that.
Talk a little bit about your writing process when you’re laying out the story arcs and trying to keep your plotline, as well as keeping the historical and legendary elements in sync.
I’m not a very big outliner. Some people sit down and write very detailed outlines. I’ve tried and I end up with the vaguest most awful outlines and they do not help me. I know the major milestones, so I know beginning, middle, end, and some turning points along the way. I like to let the characters steer the story. That’s a lot of fun. Sometimes they surprise me. I find when I outline really heavily it takes the fun out of the writing. One thing that was a little different for this book was that I had a huge outline of everything that happened prior to the story – her father’s timeline – because those are the dates and details that I needed to line up.
You started out as a web designer before becoming a published novelist. Tell us about your transition from the 9-to-5 grind to full-time writer.
I minored in writing when I was in college, but I was doing it since probably I could hold a pencil. It had always been like a dream but I wasn’t actively pursuing getting published and I always quit a couple chapters in. I ended up in Boston with a web design job and then back in 2009 when the economy sort of tanked I was laid off from one of my jobs a month before my wedding. I decided with all of these things that were new in my life, I made myself a promise to sit down and finish a novel and I’m not going to quit this time. So I finished this novel and it’s sitting in a drawer and it’s never going to see the light of day.
So that wasn’t your big debut. Do you think you might revisit that story at some point?
The reason it went in a drawer was it was a huge learning experience. There were a lot of flaws in that book. I think it was a very confused story. I didn’t even know how to write a query letter for it, that’s how confused I was! But it taught me I could reach the end.
Kate has a very specific way of speaking, using phrases like “I says” and “it weren’t.” Was her diction something that naturally came about as the character took shape? Did you ever worry that some young readers might get hung up on it because it varies from contemporary speech?
Her dialect was not something I specifically set out to write, but when I heard her in my head, that’s how she spoke. It just felt so powerful that way and it was even more pronounced in some of my earlier drafts. Sometimes when I would write an email to my agent after working on the book I would find I was still writing in this western slang! We pulled back because we knew it could be jarring... and I did know it was a risk and it could turn off some readers. I hope people give themselves at least a chapter to warm up to it.
Moment of truth: do you think the Lost Dutchman gold mine exists?
Oh gosh, you know, I am a believer, I think it’s out there. Whether it will ever be found at this point is hard to say – it could be caved in completely. In a lot of the research I did there are just too many overlapping consistencies for me to think that it’s not there. This could just be the dreamer in me thinking it’s such a cool story and wanting it to be real, but having hiked out there a little bit during my most recent trip, I can see why it would be impossible to find if it is there. It’s so rugged and wild and there are so many little crannies. But, yeah, I’m going to say it’s there.
Have you considered continuing Kate’s tale with a sequel or do you feel like you’ve told her full story here?
I feel like Kate’s story is pretty much complete. I have all sorts of ideas of what she might be up to, little moments that wouldn’t amount to a novel. But I am playing with the idea of a companion novel... 10 years later, with new main characters. Not a true sequel, but for people who love the world there’s potential for maybe reading more like it. The West changed so quickly once the trains reached different towns and cities. Technology brings civilization and it changes a lot. I think it would be a fascinating look. If I had my way maybe Kate would make a cameo. That’s really all I could say right now. Nothing’s official.
What’s next for you?
I’m juggling a lot of stuff: promotion and marketing for the book, making contact with local libraries and bookstores, playing around with that companion novel. I have a bunch of story ideas I hop around between. So I guess the short answer is I don’t really know. Seeing how this book does will dictate a lot of that. It would be fun to stay in this western genre if I can, but writing is a business at the end of the day and we’ll see what my publisher thinks when the time comes.
Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman. HMH, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-544-46638-8