The Story Behind The Ordinary Truth: A Conversation with Jana Richman
What events or people inspired you to write The Ordinary Truth?
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 to writing about 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 when I was writing plays during grad school at the University of Arizona in the early 90s, and 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 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 about 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 explore that.
An event from my mother’s past found its way into the book. She lost her father to an accident when she was 13 years old, and I believe that single event changed the trajectory of her life in a drastic way and contributed to her overall state of sadness. I was interested in exploring in this book how life gets shot off into another direction when something like that happens.
As I started to develop the characters that were forming in my mind, 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. Basically, the precedent that is being set is “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 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 vs. good, it is not black and white, there are no clear lines of good people vs. bad people, and there are no easy answers. In fact, there may be no answers at all.
In what ways do you identify with the characters in The Ordinary Truth?
On one hand, I don’t identify with them at all. The story is not autobiographical, and my job as a writer is to—as best as I can—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.
Would you please write a few paragraphs on how you came to write this book including any interesting experiences on researching it, writing it, getting it published, etc.
The book is a coalescence of many disparate elements I’ve been carrying with me for many years, along with a depiction of what’s currently happening in the West.
Because the pipeline issue was being closely followed and broadly reported by many different news agencies at the time I was writing the novel, I had great resources for that part of the book.
A transpersonal therapist with more than 30 years of experience helped me with the psychological aspects of the characters. He helped me understand what happens when a child loses the parent with which she has a close bond at a young age, what happens when a child is part of a traumatic incident, what can happen in a marriage when a child is born, and so forth.
I made many trips to north Spring Valley, Nevada, and spent quite a few nights camping in the Schell Creeks—the settings of the book. Although the Baxter Ranch, the town of Omer Springs, and Hamlin Flat are fictional, they are based on what I observed and the people I talked to on those trips.
The Torrey House Press mission is to publish great western literature that increases public awareness and appreciation for western land management, cultures, history, conservation, and environmental issues so that in the end we all end up with, simply put, more grass on the mountains and water in the streams. What western issues concern you most?
Every western issue is of interest and concern to me. I was born and raised here, and I have determined, after a brief stint in New York City, that I am incapable of living anywhere else. It is my place, the only place I am at home. Yet, it breaks my heart every damn day.
Much of the West—at least the parts not already covered by concrete and buildings—is an extremely fragile ecosystem due to the arid nature of the place. And there’s one overriding problem in the West: too many people. We can say the problem is water, we can say the problem is mining and extraction, we can say the problem is ranching, industrial air pollution, ATVs, multiple-home ownership, car exhaust—take your pick. Yes, all of those things are problems, and God knows, no one can live larger, take up more space, consume more resources and be more sure of his/her right to those resources than a red-blooded American. But the problem comes with critical mass. The West has reached critical mass. The West has significantly bypassed critical mass. The entire earth has reached critical mass, but I don’t have the carrying capacity to go beyond the West. And the West is one of the least capable ecosystems to handle critical mass.
It used to be that all of those people with conflicting interests had enough space and resources to stay out of one another’s way. That’s no longer the case, which is why our conversations about open public lands vs. the “use” of public lands have become so nasty and so radically antagonistic. We’re stepping all over the top of one another and literally crushing every other species in our path. We don’t have room to breathe much less maneuver.
We’ve built cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix, Denver, and Salt Lake City in the middle of deserts. They are cities that never should have been built—or at the very least should have been kept small—because the natural resources were never available to support them. We’ve established agriculture in the West—an industry that is decidedly illsuited for the West’s ecosystem. Humans are amazing in their ability to delude themselves right up until they reach the edge of the cliff with the enemy rushing up behind them.
The reality is that those cities are established. Agriculture is established. It is damn difficult to close down a city and disperse its residents. It is difficult to “close off” or “shrink” a city. It is difficult to ask people to stop moving to the West, to stop having children, to stop ranching, to stop living the lives they have lived for generations—the only lives they know how to live. If it were easy to change the way people live, if it were easy to supplant one set of skills with another, we’d all be picking our vegetables out of our backyard gardens instead of off the supermarket shelf. Few of us are.
Those are the difficult collisions found in The Ordinary Truth. What happens when we reach this point of critical mass, of conflicting interests, and, without a doubt, a point of unconscious knowledge that our very survival is at stake?
How does your book express the Torrey House Press mission?
As a writer, I aim to present the human struggle—individually and universally—as genuinely as possible. Because I’m a Westerner and my characters are Westerners, the human struggle I present will necessarily intersect issues deemed “western issues.” But I’m writing about basic human issues—how we choose to live our lives, how our lives interact and conflict with the lives of others, how we interact with the places we reside, what we do when our lives, as we know them, feel threatened in some way, and how our choices come back to haunt us. My goal is not to answer questions for the reader but rather to raise questions for the reader. I don’t want to tell readers how to think about any of the issues in my books, but I do want to beg them to please think about all of the issues in my books.
How does the West shape your characters?
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 comes around to haunt them.
Are any characters based on real people, and if so, who and why?
No, all characters in this novel are entirely fictional.
The Ordinary Truth incorporates some controversial topics, including prostitution. Why did you choose to include The Wild Filly Stables, yet keep Cassie from becoming a prostitute?
Is prostitution controversial? I didn’t include the Wild Filly Stables to make any sort of social commentary on prostitution. I just thought it would be fun. I thought about putting Cassie to work—and in fact tried to put Cassie to work in several scenes—but she just wasn’t suited for the job.
A lot of therapy occurs in your novel. What kind of therapy do you believe is the most effective?
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.
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?
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.
What were some of the challenges that came up when writing about such a contemporary issue as the proposed pipeline?
I think the danger in writing about an issue such as this one—one that I feel strongly about—is oversimplifying it. The truth is that the water issues in Las Vegas are serious, and Las Vegas is only a preview to 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 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.
How has the West shaped you?
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.
What do you hope readers will receive or learn from reading your book?
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 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.