PLAIN LANGUAGE  Q & A


By Mark Luce


	If the economic difficulties of the Great Depression aren't bad enough, eastern Colorado ranchers Alfred Bowen and Virginia Mendenhall must also wrestle with drought and impenetrable dust storms.
	But as the protagonists in Barbara Wright's novel Plain Language grapple with Mother Nature, they must also get to know and trust each other.
	Before they were wed, the pair had met only twice.  After a few months of passionate letters, Alfred broaches the question, Virginia leaves her relief work with Quakers in Mexico, and the pair decides to brave the unforgiving eastern Colorado prairie and craft a life together.
	While stuffed with solid period details and deftly handled flashbacks, Plain Language is underpinned by the complex, evolving relationship of two obstinate individuals in the most trying of circumstances.
	Written with heart, toughness and clean, crisp prose, Plain Language, the current selection of the FYI Book Club, delves into the interior emotions and growth of Virginia and Alfred as they navigate an emotional landscape fraught with risks every bit as perilous as the arid farm on which they live.  Wright sat down in her Kansas City home to discuss her book and other things literary.

Q.  When did you first start thinking about Plain Language?

A.  Probably when I was doing the rewrites on my first novel, Easy Money (Algonquin, 1995).  I met a woman who was a friend of my mother's.  They were both on Friends Committee for National Legislation.  She was a rancher who had started a ranch on the Colorado plains during the Dust Bowl.  She had a fascinating life that was much more wide-ranging than my novel.  She was such an active, strong, interesting woman.  Originally, I though I would do her whole life.
	Once I got started, though, I got stuck on the Colorado plains and I became interested in that era.  I knew a lot about what happened during her life.  But I knew nothing about her interior life except the general impression that she had tremendous integrity, her faith was important to her, and she was a strong woman.  I didn't know how she reacted to things, what went on inside of her, or anything about how she would approach daily life.  So in inventing a character, the events started to change around this character.  Quickly I dropped the idea of doing her life and it became its own story.

Q.  What was it about eastern Colorado during the Great Depression—both of which are so inhospitable—that spoke to you?

A.  I have always been interested in how people react in adversity, and that seemed to be the ultimate—no water, huge dust storms.  If you are in a new, struggling marriage and you are up against all these obstacles, I wanted to know how that would play out.
	There was one detail that Elizabeth Jensen, the original model for the character, told me that captured my imagination.  She used to get letters from her husband that had a line of grit in the bottom of the envelope.  I couldn't imagine a situation where the dust is so pervasive it would even penetrate an envelope.

Q.  How was the actual writing of the book?

A.  It took forever.  It was a very long process.  Originally I wrote it chronologically, starting out in North Carolina and moving on to Kentucky, so that I got to the ranch in the middle of the book.  Then I chopped it off at the middle and started out on the ranch and wove in the background throughout the novel.
	To keep the pacing and put in the background where it is needed was a very difficult thing for me to do.  But in doing that, I sharpened the characters, added some things, took some out.  It takes constant fiddling to find the right balance.  So at the end, the book seemed it was exactly how it was before—after all those years of work—but in fact, it wasn't.
	
Q.  As you were writing, what types of things were you concerned about or wary of?

A.  There were several things.  One, the language.  If you are going to call something Plain Language, you need to deliver on that or else it is going to be very embarrassing.  I was very conscious of tone and the plainness of the language, but I wanted a kind of lyrical quality as well.
	The balance of Quakerism was also very difficult.  In earlier drafts I had much more in there, and there was too much of me trying to educate the world about Quakerism.  So I tried to cut that way back and make everything that came out about Quakerism to be relevant to the theme or come from the character rather than general education purposes.
	I love research, and I could do it forever.  But there were times when I felt I was showing off.  "Hey, I know this, look at me."  I cut many of those details out and tried to keep only the ones I felt were relevant to the book.

Q.  You've said that it is important for the writing to be unexpected for you.  How does that help and/or hurt you as a novelist?

A.  It hurts me because it is a very slow process, groping in the dark and trying to find out what is happening.  It helps me because it makes the writing more lively.  When I have a plan and I try to execute it, the writing seems limp and just there on the page.  But when something unexpected happens, it starts to get lively and more interesting.
	That process makes the action more integral and related.  It happens more like life.  You do one thing, and something is built on that.  That opens up other opportunities, so there is an interior logic that results.

Q.  Virginia is a tough woman—a bit prone to depression—but she has a spirit of adventure and purpose.  How did she come about as a character?

A.  It was a slow process.  You get to know characters as you get to know people in life.  Each time they are put in a new situation they react in a different way.  It is often a symbiotic relationship.  You think, "Ok, if they were like this and in this situation, what would they do?"  Then you create the situation, and that situation informs who they become.  The character then unfolds as the novel progresses.
	
Q.  One of the more unique themes running through Plain Language is Virginia's Quakerism and the difficulties it creates—for her, for Alfred and certainly for her brother Jonathan.  How do you think the religions serves her as a character and the book as a whole?
	
A.  There were several things I wanted to look at.  I am an eleventh generation Quaker, so I grew up in that tradition, and I always wanted to write a book that used it in some way.  One of the things that interested me is what happens when two Quaker values collide.  For example, Alfred and guns.  He needs a gun on the ranch.  Virginia is a pacifist and doesn't approve of the use of guns.  They have an argument.  At the same time another underpinning of Quakerism is the ability to look at someone else's situation and see things from their shoes.

Q.  At heart the novel appears to be about relationships and communication, or lack of it—whether husband and wife, father and son, mother and child, brother and sister, or neighbor to neighbor.  Was your emphasis on this thread conscious from the beginning of writing or did it develop out of the complex relationship of Alfred and Virginia?

A.  I didn't think I was going to write a novel about relationships and communication.  But as I got into it, that's what happened.  To me, novels are about relationships—at least the ones I am attracted to.  Also an integral part of any relationship is communication, as we are not telepathic.

Q.  Their initial communication is mostly written, which ratchets up the tension.  Even when Virginia arrives at the ranch, she and Alfred don't really know each other.

A.  Right.  I made the point that she felt more free in the letters because there was nothing at stake.  It's much the same way that a stranger might talk to somebody on the bus.  You are free with your thoughts.  And the distance as well, as there is not as much at stake if someone is not right there.

Q.  Were there any writers in particular that you looked to as models or influences when writing Plain Language?

A.  In this book Willa Cather was obviously an influence.  There was also a book by Molly Gloss called The Jump-Off Creek about a pioneer woman in the Oregon mountains in the late 19th century.  It was so beautifully written and matter-of-fact.  She didn't make a big deal about the hardship;  it was just, "This is the way it is.  This happens."  There was something about such an approach that was very influential.
	
Q.  What's next?

A.  It's a novel about three friends—a painter, a journalist and a therapist—who meet during the war in El Salvador.
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