My Favorite “Child”
Volume XXIII, Issue Two | June 2022
At a signing for Little Souls last month, a woman asked me to name my favorite of my books.
That’s a hard one. It’s like asking you to name your favorite child. Your latest book is always your favorite, of course. After all, that’s the one you’re promoting. And it’s the one you’re closest to. You haven’t had time to sit back and view it objectively. The characters are still on your heart. You’ve lived with them for at least the past two years. In the case of Little Souls—seven or eight years. I’d feel disloyal if I said this wasn’t my favorite book.
But the time comes when you can view your work more dispassionately. I love my books for different reasons. The Persian Pickle Club was the first to become a best seller. Prayers For Sale was the first to make the New York Times best-seller list. The Chili Queen was the first to win the Western Writers of America Spur Award and New Mercies the first to win the Women Writing the West Willa Award. In many ways, I think Whiter Than Snow was the best written, although it was not the most popular of my books.
So how can I have a favorite? But I do, of course. My favorite is The Diary of Mattie Spenser.
Long before I wrote the book, I began reading diaries and narratives of western women. In fact, I have an entire bookcase of such books. Women living on the prairie faced loneliness and hard work as they met the challenge of building homes in the wilderness. Mining camp women had to deal with filthy living conditions and the brutality of crazed gold seekers. But western women were up to the challenges, and came to love the opportunities their new lives brought them. The independence and the equality.
The Diary of Mattie Spenser was one of those wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night ideas. I’d lost my job when Business Week closed its Denver bureau and wasn’t sure how I was going to earn my living. (I free-lanced for the magazine for another 10 years, but I didn’t know that then.) I woke up with the idea I’d write a woman’s journal. In the morning, I thought, swell, who’s going to read it when there are so many real journals out there? Then I realized most journals are just a record of daily happenings. A novelist could bring a complete story with a climax and an ending to the journal form.
At first, I thought I’d write about a descendent finding the journal and discovering parallels in her great-grandmother’s story and her own life. But the dual story didn’t work, so I wrote what I really wanted to write—a journal.
There was a lot riding on that book. I’d published one novel, Buster Midnight’s Café, which had sold only moderately well. The Persian Pickle Club was making the rounds of publishers, and nobody seemed to want it. If I didn’t sell Mattie Spenser, I’d go back to writing nonfiction.
But it did sell. By the time I finished it, I’d signed a contract with St. Martin’s for Persian Pickle, and SMP agreed to publish Mattie Spenser, too. It’s been one of my best-selling books, and many readers told me it was their favorite, too.
So I replied The Diary of Mattie Spenser to the woman who had asked my favorite book. She laughed and said this was the third time she’d asked that question at a signing and that I’d always given her the same answer.
Old Colorado Revisited
The first book I wrote was about old houses in Colorado, Gaslights and Gingerbread. At the time (1965), I considered myself as much a photographer as a writer. In fact, before I stopped writing nonfiction, I’d illustrated several books with my photography. I later gave my negatives to the Western History Dept. of the Denver Public Library. Recently, I came across the following article, which brought back memories of the days I’d driven through Colorado in an old Volkswagen, looking for interesting buildings. The photographs, from Gaslights and Gingerbread, are nearly 60 years old, which makes them historic—and me, too, I guess.