Jayme H. Mansfield is an author, artist, and educator. Her award-winning novel, “Chasing the Butterfly,” is a book club favorite and Amazon bestseller. She lives in Lakewood, where she teaches art to children and adults at her studio, Piggy Toes.
What inspired you to write this book?
I grew up hearing the tales of “Oklahoma Grandma,” Mary Louisa Johnston Roberts, my larger-than-life great-great-grandmother who beat the odds by racing as a lone woman in the 1893 Cherokee Strip Land Run. Abandoned by her husband and left alone with a 6-year-old son, she made her way from Missouri to the starting line, rode a borrowed horse (straddled the saddle — most “unladylike”) against 100,000 other registrants, all vying for 42,000 lots. She thrust her stake in the ground and claimed her 160 acres of land. That was just the race!
After that, she established a home which consisted of a sod house, survived the elements, lack of food, water, and provision. She taught school from her home and eventually went on to become a founding educator for the Oklahoma school system. Needless to say, this tough and determined woman was my inspiration to be as true as possible to her story, fictionalize portions as needed, and provide a compelling story with accurate historical elements.
All that said, the other, more heart-level inspiration was my own determination to persevere, welcome life’s new direction and challenges, and ultimately follow the passions, perhaps callings, in my own life. Mary Louisa became the perfect character to share that journey – ah, why fiction writing is so exciting and deeply moving.
Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?
Annie Dillard, Madeleine L’Engle, and C.S. Lewis are some of my favorite authors. Buck from Jack London’s “Call of the Wild” for his unsurmountable will to survive, Lucy Honeychurch and Mr. Emerson from E.M. Forrester’s “A Room with a View” for their independent and passionate spirits. I love characters who wrestle with life, and then wrestle some more … and ultimately triumph.
Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?
This scene is exhilarating — determination, perseverance, and finally freedom. The scene is sensory and intimate, vivid in its description. Most importantly, it’s a “ride” we should all be so lucky to take in life. After I wrote the book, I experienced a life-changing, full-on horse run across the top of a butte in Wyoming. For that moment, I became Mary, the main protagonist in “Rush.” I wonder if, like me, she wept from the sheer joy of feeling utterly free?
The scene is not only historically fascinating but the turning point for Mary’s future. As part of westward expansion, the land races were complete mayhem as thousands of people risked life and limb for a chance to start anew and then face the hardships of the open and unsettled prairie. This particular race was not only the largest, but the last of the great land rushes. Just imagine people in buckboards, covered wagons, buggies, on horses and mules, on foot, and even riding bicycles lined up and waiting for a canon to sound before racing into clouds of dust and the unknown outcome of the race.
What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?
The research was fascinating and my learning curve steep — everything from reading old family letters and studying photographs, reading mounds of recorded accounts of the land runs and prairie life, to traveling to Oklahoma to visit sites and museums. Through it all, I realized how much each of us is a part of our history.
Since all of my books incorporate an art theme, I loved creating the main protagonist as an illustrative journalist and allowing the reader to experience the action, setting, and emotion from the eyes of an artist. One of the best compliments I receive as an author is that readers say they “were there” – melding description and deep and intimate point-of-view makes the writing process thrilling.
Since the book was published, I appreciate the opportunities to speak at book clubs, interest groups, interviews – I’ve met so many wonderful people and have been honored to hear their family histories.
What was the most difficult section to write in this book?
A tremendous amount of the story is actually true—even many of the twists and surprises. The biggest surprise in the story happened to my great-great-grandmother in real life. I’m dancing around this question a bit because I don’t want to give away the story. Let me just say that it was difficult to weave in truth and still make if believable. I can attest, “Truth is often stranger than fiction.” From the research end, I spent a great deal of time checking details and timelines — everything from the environment, transportation, food, plants, clothing, animals … to the precise history of the land run and all that it entailed.
What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?
I learned so much but was struck by the dichotomy in the country at the time period – civilized and somewhat comfortable standards of living on the coasts (particularly the East Coast), and the open, wild, desolate, and difficult conditions in what would become the state of Oklahoma — all in the name of westward expansion and the drive for land, independence, and a chance for a better life. In the big picture of time, 1893 wasn’t that long ago but the country was dramatically different from now.
What project are you working on next?
I’m working on my next release, “Seasoned,” a beautiful, contemporary love story about two 80-year olds who meet through online dating. The story is poignant and hopeful — the reminder there are second chances for love and love knows no age.
At the same time, I am neck deep in a fascinating contemporary manuscript about art forgery and the deeper, more personal question of half-truths, half-lies, and deception. This novel is the first of a proposed series – a great excuse to hang out in art museums.
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