I met poet and novelist Janice Gilbertson in 2014, at the Western Writers of America conference in Sacramento, CA. We were both new to the group, there to pitch our first western novels. We immediately became friends and formed a two-woman support system. We’ve been cheering each other on ever since. Her new novel, The Canyon House, is coming soon from Pen-L Publishing.
Janice Gilbertson-poet, novelist, westerner
Tell us about yourself. Do the three words following your name, above, reflect who you are? If not, what three words would you use instead?
I was born and raised here in the Salinas Valley in California. It is an area rich in agriculture, from row crops (and now wine grapes) to the cattle ranching in the foothills of the ranges on both sides of the valley. I grew up horseback. My father had cattle but never owned his own land. He loved his cows and I know he was frustrated because he always leased property and it was such a losing financial battle. BUT, his passion for the cowboy life gave me the opportunity to learn about all aspects of animals and the land. I am not a rancher, but the lifestyle is definitely in my blood.
I was a cowboy/western poet long before I wrote my first novel. After attending Elko’s Cowboy Poetry Gathering nearly twenty years ago, and hearing the heartfelt and honest words from people who I had much in common with, well, I knew I had found my niche. It was a short story and poem I had written that eventually led to my first novel, Summer Of ’58. My second novel, The Canyon House, will be out soon, so now I feel like a novelist.
Tell us about your poetry: your style(s), your subject(s), how you share your work with the public.
Once in a while I go back and read one of my first poems and think, oh my gosh, that is just terrible! It took some time to learn to write my poetry in a natural manner. I had to learn to leave out the descriptions that didn’t ring true. You can’t fool cowboy poetry fans. They want honesty. They want to BE with you in that poem. So, with practice and my amazing poet friend Virginia Bennett guiding me and being such an inspiration, I eventually became what I call a “real” poet. I have a book of poetry titled Sometimes, in the Lucias (which is taken from the Santa Lucia mountains, where I live). I also have a chapbook of short stories and poems, Riding In. Before I started novel writing I shared poetry at many gatherings and events. I have been an invited performer in Elko (National Cowboy Poetry Gathering) three times and often read in their open mic sessions. I miss writing poetry. I can’t seem to master writing poems and novels at the same time.
What circumstances led you from writing poetry to writing novels?
Yeah . . . that is that short story and poem I mentioned above. I had this stuff I had written and I planned to take it to Elko with me for a session where we would read prose. My dear friend and editor, Betty Rogers, said we could have it all in a chapbook by Elko time, so she did just that and it turned out great. In it is a short story simply called Angela and following it is my poem The rough Stock Rider’s Daughter. They are both about a young girl whose father is a bronc rider and travels the rodeo circuit. After my reading in that Elko session a couple of people said it sounded like it should be a book. They wanted to know what became of that young girl. They planted the seed for my first novel!
Your first novel, Summer of ’58, came out last year. What is the story about and who is your audience?
Well, Angela travels a summer rodeo circuit with her father who is divorced from her mother. She is crazy happy and pretty nervous in the beginning, but she and her father become closer and she settles into traveling and the rodeo way of life. There are some mean-spirited characters along the way and something tragic happens that changes Angela forever.
This book is a story for just about anyone who reads. I know that sounds like bragging, but it is true and I have reader feedback that says the same thing. From mature teens to baby-boomers, folks have said wonderful things about it being written in a way that tells a good story without being offensive. I am very proud of that! A good story without sex and (too much) violence.
What process did you go through, getting your first novel under contract and in to print?
Long before my manuscript was ready, I began sending queries off to agents. I have a drawer full of rejection letters. I put it away for a while and began the next novel, but friends- -people who knew a whole lot more than I did about writing books- -convinced me to get that manuscript out of that drawer and make some changes to it. I did just that and, not long after, my friend, fine poet and author, Rod Miller, introduced me to Duke Pennell of Pen-L Publishing http://pen-l.com/ at the Western Writers of America conference. Duke agreed to read my story and accepted it for publishing! I cannot begin to tell how excited I was and how thankful I felt to Duke and Kimberly!
Your new novel, The Canyon House, is due out this month. Tell us about the book and when/where it will be available.
The Canyon House is also a coming-of-age novel, but has a very different story line from Summer of ‘58. Poppy moves into a dreary little house up a long dirt road with her mother and father who live an unsettled life. Poppy explores her new surroundings: a cave, an old barn and a seasonal creek that is slowly drying up beneath the summer sun. She makes friends with a family who lives down the canyon road. The mother is a pretty free spirited lady and the children are friendly, but the father is a cruel man and Poppy has a bad feeling about him. One day, a tragic event takes place and changes the lives of everyone in both of these families.
The Canyon House is a story of friendship, loyalty and honesty, but also addresses an evilness that lives within some people. Like Summer Of ’58 it will be available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble online, http://www.pen-l.com/TheCanyonHouse.html and at my website http://janicegilbertsonwriter.com/store/ .
There is a strong sense of place in your books and poetry. How does the place where you live influence your writing?
I have lived in this area (yes, a canyon) since I was six years old. I am deeply connected to my surroundings and have clear memories to visit for writing ideas. Even though my first novel is set in New Mexico (and on the roads of the west), there is no avoiding the fact that my own memories greatly influenced the story.
What is an average work day for you?
This question makes me writhe with guilt. I have yet to acquire the discipline to achieve an average work day. I write when I have something going on in my head that seems worthy of putting on paper. Now, that could mean hours a day, every other day, or during the midnight hour.
I think I know what happened to my self-discipline. I worked for thirty-some years, usually punching in on a time clock. When the time came that I didn’t need to do that anymore, I rebelled. I vowed I wouldn’t live by the clock anymore. Well, obviously, unless one is a hermit, that isn’t possible, but I sure gave it a go. That attitude spoiled me. Now it affects my writing time. But, hey! I have managed to write dozens of poems and two novels and several short stories.
By your own confession, you’re an avid reader. What do you read for enjoyment?
I read mostly fiction. I also read a lot about writing. When I began writing Summer Of ’58 I spent more time reading about writing than doing it. I finally got over that so I could get down to business, but it is still fun and sometimes helpful to learn how other authors get it done.
There are so many good writers out there. I like to read books that maybe aren’t on the top of the list. Good stories are being missed by readers who only buy the top ten.
Who are your favorite writers?
This is a hard question for me to answer. I can tell you that my favorite book ever is still To Kill a Mockingbird. Having said that I will confess that I have never read Harper Lee’s second book. I’m not sure why. Maybe because of all the hype, I fear being disappointed. I will probably read it one day.
Favorite contemporary writers: Donna Tartt, Jodi Picoult, Alice Munro, Louise Erdrich, Ivan Doig, John Hart, and on and on. I enjoy Jane Kirkpatrick’s historical fiction. Oh, and many years ago I read that thousand page novel, Sacagawea by Anna Lee Waldo, TWICE! Recently a Facebook post reminded me how much I enjoyed Harold Robbin’s books many years ago.
Do you prefer print books or e-books?
I don’t have an e-reader. I might get one someday, but for now I want to hold a book in my hands. I like the feel, the heft, of a book. These days books are printed on quality paper that feels smooth and substantial. I like that, and a font that reads smooth and quick across the page. Yep. It is books for me.
What do you like most/least about writing?
I don’t think there is anything I really don’t like about writing. It is hard sometimes, but other than it tires me out, I don’t mind that it is hard. If my writing all came easy, I don’t think it would be very good. I need to go elsewhere into my imagination to find my story. That means hours of looking out there into imagination-land, and then getting it down on paper in a way that is interesting to my readers. Thank goodness for great editors who can catch mistakes in time sequences and places. It is very important for those kinds of things to be correct. You can’t fool readers. THEY will find your mistakes.
Any advice for aspiring writers?
YES. Every time I get to speak publicly about my writing, I add a message. I didn’t start writing poetry until I was fifty years old and didn’t publish my first novel until I was sixty-five. So, this is what I say; if there is something you want to do, something you think you want to try, do it now! Don’t wait for a better time and don’t use the excuse of being too old. We are never too old. Grab onto your ideas and go for it! Don’t be afraid. What is the worst that can happen?
What question were you hoping I’d ask that I haven’t, and what is the answer?
You got this covered!! I hear often that we must write for ourselves and not an audience. That doesn’t make sense to me unless we are just going to store our manuscripts under the bed. I would love to develop an audience who looks forward to my next novel. A thrilling idea, don’t you think?
I am hoping to get the next Angela story out there in a timely manner. Readers have asked if they will get to know more of her story. I am working on that now!
Thank you, Janice, and best wishes for a successful launch of The Canyon House!
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