Book reviewers are a contentious bunch, but they do agree that “News of the World” by Paulette Jiles is one of the best books of the year (William Morrow, $23, 224 pages). Beyond that, it has been long-listed in the fiction category for a National Book Award. That means Jiles and nine other authors are anxiously waiting for Thursday, Oct. 13, when the judges announce the NBA short list, which will narrow the field to five finalists. The winner will be announced Nov. 16. For any writer, the literary prize is career-changing.
“World” looks deceptively simple. Set in 1870 Texas, it tells the tale of retired Civil War veteran Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd, who, at age 70, travels from town to town, rents space for a night in a church or community center, and reads carefully selected stories from East Coast newspapers to townsfolk who are starved for entertainment. Admission is 10 cents.
After a reading one rainy night in Wichita Falls, he warily agrees to the urgings of an acquaintance, Britt Johnson, a freed slave with a business of his own, to transport 10-year-old orphan Johanna to her aunt and uncle, who live 400 miles away. Johnson has helped rescue her from the Kiowa, who have held her captive for four years. Johanna has forgotten how to speak English, and in her heart is a lost Kiowa warrior who longs for her people. Somewhere deep inside her, though, is the frightened child whose parents were killed.
So begins a remarkable journey, one that involves the elements of a Western – danger and adventure on the trail – with the finer points of a story crafted by an award-winning poet. It brims with pathos, humor and compassion translated into wonderful language and transcends into literary historic fiction with a soul.
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Jiles, 73, is the author of the novels “Enemy Women,” “Stormy Weather,” “The Color of Lightning” and “Lighthouse Island,” four poetry collections and a memoir. “I live with two horses and a cat on a small ranch on a ridge in hill country, three miles outside of San Antonio,” she said. “The views are great.” Visit her at www.paulettejiles.com.
Q: Captain Kidd is a remarkably wise and reflective character.
A: (He was modeled) after Caesar Adolphus Kidd, my riding partner’s husband’s great-great-grandfather who was a news reader, the only one I’ve ever heard of. He went around north Texas in the 1870s and read newspapers from far-away places like England, India and the British colonies. People would not have heard those stories, which were fascinating.
Q: The Captain makes an appearance in your previous novel “The Color of Lightning,” the fictionalized exploits of another real-life Texas character, Britt Johnson.
A: I was writing “Lightning” and needed a way to tell readers that that the 15th amendment had just been passed (allowing African American men to vote) and I brought in Captain Kidd to read it from a newspaper. He was too good a character to let go, so I decided to give him his own book (“World”).
Q: Britt Johnson was a legend in his day.
A: John Wayne’s character in “The Searchers” was based on him. He was a freed black man whose wife, Mary, and their children were carried off by a group of Kiowa and Comanche in the Elm Creek Raid of 1864 (along with other captives). Britt Johnson went into Indian territory alone and got them back. Nobody knows how he did it because there’s no documentation. I did an immense amount of research on captives, so (Captain Kidd, Britt Johnson and the freed captive, Johanna) came together in “News of the World” because I had already plowed those fields.
Q: There’s a tense scene in “News of the World” involving dimes and a 20-gauge shotgun.
A: At one point I stopped writing when (the bad guys have the Captain and Johanna cornered) and thought, “How am I going to get them out of this?” Captain Kidd would have carried a 20-gauge shotgun, because that was the tool everybody had. You could chase away varmints with it or bring down ducks or geese for supper.
I wondered what an 1870 20-gauge shotgun looked like, so I went to YouTube and saw a video of a bunch of guys shooting up a garbage dump with a 20-gauge loaded with stuff like frozen Gummy Bears and frozen Vienna sausages. They were pouring dimes in some of the shells, and said a dime is the only U.S. coin that will fit in a 20-gauge hole. Something clicked in my head – “Oh, the Captain charges a dime a person to hear his readings, so he has a load of dimes with him.” It all fell into place.
Q: Throughout your novels, your characters are resilient and persistent survivors who are compassionate at heart. They’re on missions and their struggles are epic. Which says a lot about you.
A: Put a check mark in front of every one of those. Writers can’t help but reveal themselves, and why would they try? I don’t write about characters I don’t like, because I have to spend hours with them in my study upstairs, when I could be out in the beautiful sunshine. Why write about unlikeable people who do really stupid things?
Q: One of your techniques is to omit quote marks and embed dialogue in the middle of descriptive paragraphs.
A: Using quote marks is like surrounding human speech with barbed wire. I figured if I was careful enough about how I placed sentences, readers would be able to do without quote marks and I would be freed up. It’s an aesthetic thing, I guess, but I like the effect.
Q: Publisher Weekly magazine says you “write like you own the frontier.” You’re an equestrian who rides the Ozark Trail, which is hundreds of miles, and you’ve explored Texas Big Bend Country, which takes in two mountain ranges and a million acres of public land. You’re a frontier woman yourself.
A: I never did like living in the city. There’s a whole subculture of people who do trail-riding, and I have women friends (with whom) I go on long riding trips. I ride segments of the Ozark Tail with my cousin and some friends every year in the last week of October. We pack up the horse trailer (with living space inside), find a good camping spot to park it and day-ride from there.
Q: The same scenario in Big Bend National Park?
A: No, we cheat. (Years ago) we camped out and slept by the fire and covered up with old tarps. But we’ve graduated from the young days and now we rent a luxurious house that has a Jacuzzi. Three trailers of us take turns making delicious suppers with a lot of wine, and ride from there.
Those horse trials can be challenging and dangerous. The Blue Creek Canyon Trail is dicey, and we’ve had to turn around and go back the way we came. Once, we were trying to get over the saddle of a mountain and could not make another foot. Big Bend Ranch State Park is flatter and goes right along the Rio Grande. We can look across the river at Mexico, it’s so cool.
Q: Has “News of the World” been optioned for film?
A: They’re working on it, but it’s very slow. Larry McMurtry optioned “The Color of Lightning” and did a script, but there were no takers.
Q: You must be excited over the prospect of winning a National Book Award.
A: I’m nervous, and I’ve got my fingers crossed. If I win I hope I’ll still have the peace and quiet I had before. There are a lot of requests right now, so I’m packing today for a book tour. Which is hard because I’m single and I have to find people to take care of the animals.
Q: Is there one thing about you that your fans would find surprising?
A: I play the Irish tin whistle with a local bluegrass group. It’s one of the joys of my life.
News of the World
Paulette Jiles will appear at a free event at Book Passage.
When: 1 p.m. Nov. 19
Where: Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd, Corte Madera
Information: 415-927-0960, www.bookpassage.com