To say that Jo-Ann Mapson writes about love and loss is an understatement, sort of like saying a priest deals with life and death. For Mapson, author of five novels and a book of short stories, writing about the subject of adult love and its accompanying hazards and rewards is as natural as breathing, and the results are funny, touching, wry and wise.
As novelist Ron Carlson said in his praise for Mapson's book, Hank & Chloe: "Mapson knows men and women ... and I am grateful to find in this novel a new world so richly and honestly delivered."
Creating a fictional mini-universe is something else Mapson does exceedingly well, and in her newest novel, Bad Girl Creek, we become familiar with the toney California coastal communities Sierra Grove and Bayborough-by-the-Sea, and the neighboring farming valley inhabited by the book's four heroines -- Phoebe, Nance, Beryl Ann and Ness. Phoebe, a life-long invalid stuck in a wheelchair at 38, has inherited a flower farm from her beloved Aunt Sadie, a colorful, free-form woman who explains in her gardening journal why she buried her red cowboy boots in the garden.
When Phoebe decides she will keep the farm alive by soliciting roommates to work in exchange for housing, she hooks up with three distinctly fascinating women, each bearing a load of residual damage from her past life, and each accompanied by a pet. Together, these women and their animals inhabit Sadie's farm, bringing to it a complicated and wholly fascinating new life beyond the annual raising of the poinsettia and tulip crops.
Mapson visited the Chinook Bookshop in Colorado Springs last Tuesday, and the Independent talked to her about Bad Girl Creek and her life as a novelist.
Indy: Each of the women in Bad Girl Creek has a guy in her past that she keeps secret initially, but can't quite let go of even though she knows he's wrong for her. In your experience, is this a secret many women carry?
Mapson: You know, I took this women's studies class last year and we were asked to make a list of the things that women are still silent about. At the top of that list was this silence -- keeping a bad relationship under wraps because of shame or embarrassment. Women still don't talk, even to each other, about this very important, private experience that they share with so many others.
Indy: Why do your characters always have pets that are fleshed out as characters in the book?
Mapson: I just believe, and in my personal experience, animals bring so much to a human life -- their instincts, their natural knowledge, their beauty, their sense of trust.
[Ness has a horse.] I had a horse for more that 20 years, and he died at almost 35. I learned a lot about writing in 1985 when I took a year off writing and just rode that horse.
[Beryl comes to the farm with Verde, a filthy-talking parrot she brought home from the bird rehab clinic where she works.] I have a friend, I call her my sister, who is a bird-rehabber in Idaho and I just think it's fascinating. I plan to volunteer in a bird rehab clinic in Anchorage, where I live. I'd be happy just to push a broom around to see what goes on there.
Indy: Are these characters based on women you've known?
Mapson: Their stories are all filtered through my experiences. I had a student five or six years ago, confined to a wheelchair, who wanted to be a writer. She died suddenly, and Phoebe was created in homage to her.
I've never killed my husband [as one of the characters has], but I've wanted to.
I was most nervous about writing in the voice of a black woman, but black women readers who've read the book have given me really good initial feedback.
Indy: Alaska, or the dream of Alaska, has a strong presence in the book as well.
Mapson: Yes, I moved there a year ago. I went there when I was 17, then again in '97 on a book tour and I just fell in love with the place. It's a great place to be a strong woman; nobody gives you crap about it. I love the weather. I love to cross-country ski.
In California, I saw five incidents of road rage every day. In Alaska, I see six bald eagles. What's not to like?
Indy: Was there an Aunt Sadie in your life?
Mapson: Yes. She was a wonderful woman who dedicated herself to giving me culture. She gave me books instead of Barbie dolls. She married five different men, some of them very rich, and eventually she became a collector of fine American art.
I wish she had lived long enough to see one of my books published. Gosh, it makes me almost cry to say that. She would have been very proud, I think.
Indy: What do you mean exactly when you say you learned a lot about writing while spending a year riding your horse?
Mapson: Well, it's a really hard profession to break into. And I didn't trust the process. I had this horse who was tired, old and barn sour. I had all these ideas about training him, but he was already trained. He trained me.
I like to jump and in learning to jump, in horsemanship terminology there's a term called "the moment of suspension." That's what was missing in my writing -- trust in the form, going wherever it took me.
Also, paying attention to how my horse reacted to the natural world, I learned to notice things in a deep way.
Indy: What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a writer?
Mapson: The true education of a writer comes from living a rich life and being someone on whom nothing is lost. Forget the MFA degree; spend the money on books; buy a horse.
Hank & Chloe was written as my master's thesis, and the people in my MFA program hated books about agriculture, about horses, love and sex. So I put as much of that in it as I could.
Indy: Where did the title of the book, and the creek, come from?
Mapson: I was walking in California one day with my good friend the mystery writer, Earlene Fowler, and I was in a really bad mood, just griping and being testy. She looked at me and said, "What happened to you? Did you go wading in Bad Girl Creek today?" a saying from her grandmother, and I just grabbed on to it.
There's something in the legend of the creek, in the book, that says tragedies don't have to defeat you. And in the relationships of the women, owning your bad-girlness is something to be proud of. There's a defeated feeling women get for their bad-girlness and I want to dispel that.
I hope this doesn't sound psycho.
Indy: Not a bit. In the acknowledgements, you thank your agent for giving you the best line in the book. What's the line?
Mapson: "When you love someone, they become part of your atomic structure." Those words really helped me through a brokenhearted time.