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Interview With Paulette Jiles
Paulette Jiles was born and raised in the Missouri Ozarks, and now has dual citizenship with Canada. A critically acclaimed poet, she is a past winner the Canadian Governor General Award, Canada's highest literary honor. Her previous books are North Spirit (1995) and Cousins (1992). She lives with her husband in San Antonio, Texas. Enemy Women is her first novel. Enemy Women tells the survival story of eighteen-year-old Adair Colley who is caged with the criminal and the deranged in a filthy women's prison in St. Louis during the Civil War.
I love writing, I love history, and I wanted to write a novel. It’s almost as simple as that. While researching my family history, I found an unknown or “lost” piece of the history of the Civil War in southeastern Missouri – the unjust incarceration of women – and made it a dramatic background to a love story. Once I stumbled upon that lost history, everything just fell into place. Is Adair, the heroine of Enemy Women, based on a real person? One of your ancestors, perhaps?
No. Her sisters Mary And Savannah were named for my great-great-aunts who lived through the Civil War in southeastern Missouri, but Adair is entirely made up, including her name. Who or what inspired the character of Adair?
An old photo. While I was researching the Civil War era, I came across a photo of a young woman. She just seemed so alive and so strong, as if her life and personality were entirely in her face. How did you find out about women being sent to prison during the Civil War?
I came across several instances mentioned in a book called Inside Warby Michael Fellman, and I was intrigued because it wasn’t generally known and also because it would make a terrific plot device. Running into the picture of the young woman who became, for me, Adair Colley, and finding out about women being sent to prison in St. Louis during the war happened at the same time, and these two things really made the book. Were your ancestors in the Civil War? Which side?
I don’t know about the Jiles family; that great-great-grandfather (a justice of the peace just like Marquis Colley in the book) went missing and I can’t find any information on what happened to him. Two other great-great-grandfathers fought for the Union in Missouri – one of them in the hated Union Militia. Two others fought for the Confederacy in Tennessee units. Adair seems very bossy with her father in the early scene at the Colley home, yet she is desperate to find him when he is taken away by the Militia. Is this kind of a contradiction?
I suppose I could have included a scene in which Adair was being tender and affectionate with her father, but in general, Adair is simply being a teenager – smarting off to her father and being demanding. And then, of course, when he is seized she regrets every impertinent thing she ever said. When Adair is first thrown into prison and meets the bully, her fellow prisoner Chloris, she chooses to fight her instead of appease her. Later, she adopts a somewhat humble demeanor around another bully, the prison matron. This seems rather inconsistent with her character.
Well, I don’t think so. Adair is smart enough to choose her fights and she will take on one that she can win. She can win against another prisoner, or at least let the other prisoner know that she will pay a high price for any more bullying. But the matron is backed up by the entire prison system and its guards and authority. Adair is brave but she isn’t foolish. The Major is an interesting character. He’s a real “by-the-rulebook” kind of guy, and yet he takes an incredible risk at arranging Adair’s escape.
People just thought differently in those times. The concepts of “honor” and “manliness” now seem old-fashioned but it really drove people in those days, and I didn’t want to write a novel set in the 1860s peopled with characters from the 1990s. I wanted to be true to the times. The Major genuinely wanted to meet the tests of combat, and after all he was a professional soldier. Besides, his requesting a transfer to a combat unit and being sent there really helped the plot! There aren’t any sex scenes in the book at all, and yet the relationship between Adair and the Major feels really sexy. How did you achieve this effect?
I worked from the old principle that less is more. The restraint and the buttoned- down tone of their relationship heighten the sexual tension much more than if I had just thrown in a graphic sex scene. Besides, I wanted to be different. Graphic sex scenes are so common these days -- in magazines, movies, television, books, video games, etc. I wanted to do something that people wouldn’t expect, something challenging and new. Depicting strong sexual attraction between Adair and the Major without their taking off their clothes required some skill. When he presents her with a hairbrush and the use of his mirror, and she brushes out her long hair, the sexual tension is very high. Also, again, I wanted to be true to my chosen historical period and not pretend they were 1990s people who could count on privacy andbirth control. Adair’s escape from the prison and flight through St. Louis seems so real. How did you come up with the details of the city in the 1860s?
As a writer, I first imagine things visually, and then “translate” these visual sequences into the English language. I love to create an alternative world, almost like world-building in science fiction. The Missouri Historical Society published a book of daguerrotypes of St. Louis scenes taken in the 1840s and ‘50s, and then I dug up an old map of St. Louis from 1857, and put the two together. If I calculated that Adair would have gone past the corner of Fourth and Olive, for instance, I could actually find a daguerrotype of that corner. My dad used to have an office at Seventh and Olive, but the city has changed so much that the modern look is useless for historical purposes. Much of the novel takes place in the Ozark Mountains. Were you raised there? The descriptions are so vivid.
I was born in Salem, Missouri, in the Ozarks, but we actually lived in various small towns in central Missouri. However, we frequently visited my dad’s people down in southeastern Missouri. I always preferred the beautiful mountains of the Ozarks to central Missouri, which is generally flat. My cousin Susan and I rode the Ozark trails for many years and, of course, still do. (Actually, it was on one of our rides that we discovered a desolate Civil War graveyard in the middle of an oak forest.) I live in Texas now, but I’m headed back home to ride the mountain trails for two weeks this October. It’s in the blood. The horses show up almost as characters in the book, and the reader starts to look for them and wonder about them. Their behavior is described in wonderful detail. It’s obvious that you know and love horses. What function do they serve in the plot?
The horses are like angels, in that they are messengers. Angels aren’t just cherubic chubby babies; in both the Bible and the Koran angels act as messengers between heaven and earth. They are asexual, and have an almost magic ability to negotiate the dangerous distances between one world and another, without being really committed to either. They are helpful to human beings in that they carry our prayers, or messages, or cries for help, to the higher regions. It is also said that angels watch over us (I suppose to be ready to carry an appeal at any moment). So these horses are, in this sense, angels. They provide an almost magic-carpet means of transport, they watch over Adair at night, and come to her in the morning. I meant them to be neutral and angelic. And, remember, they at one time abandon her – like angels, ultimately they belong to themselves and their purposes are not always our purposes. Do Adair and the Major ever make it to the West?
Gee, I don’t know; I haven’t written that book yet. But I do think they got to Texas . . .
Posted with permission of the publisher.