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SunLit

SunLit Interview: A mystery on the family ranch led author David M. Jessup to a trilogy

Oral history provided the basis for "Mariano's Woman." Then the author began crafting the fictional account that explores human motivation.

David M. Jessup grew up at Sylvan Dale Ranch in Loveland, Colorado, owned and run by his family. He is passionate about preserving open space and telling stories about the American West.  He is a popular speaker on topics such as cattle ranching, sustainable agriculture, land conservation, flood recovery (he’s been through two floods on the Big Thompson River in Colorado), fiction writing and the history behind his novels. He and his wife, Linda, now live in Maryland.


Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?

A mystery inspired it.  The Indian wife of a prosperous Mexican trader stole their 15-year-old daughter’s body and buried it in a secret grave on a sandstone ridge.  According to a Colorado pioneer’s oral history, this really happened. The year: 1872.  The location:  my family’s ranch on the Big Thompson River west of Loveland, Colorado.

Intrigued, I wanted to know why. The bare-bones history didn’t provide an answer.  So I began writing a fictional account by imagining the motivations and personalities of the real-life characters in the story. This resulted in three books—a trilogy—of which “Mariano’s Woman” is the third. 

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?

I chose the first two chapters, when Takánsy, the dead girl’s mother, is near death.  She desperately wants to unite with her daughter’s spirit-being in the afterlife, but fears her past sins will prevent this unless she can find atonement by telling the story of her early life among her Salish tribe on the Bitterroot River in Montana.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book? 

I’ve always been a sucker for historical fiction. Wallace Stegner’s “Angle of Repose,” Mary Doria Russel’s “Epitaph,” Paulette Jiles’ “The Color of Lightning,” Conrad Richter’s “The Awakening Land” trilogy — these and other such books cause me to miss supper and sleep.

Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?

The story’s framework and plot, some of which was based on historical events, didn’t change much.  But I loved filling in the blanks and inventing plot twists to propel the narrative forward.

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book? 

Creating authentic and believable voices for the characters required a lot of experimentation.  What with three different cultures to deal with—Salish Native American, Hispanic and Scots-Irish, it took a lot of research and re-writes to create characters that sounded and acted as authentic individuals, not stereotypes. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?

A current in the literary world objects to old white guys trying to walk in the moccasins of other ethnic people. Cultural appropriation, they accuse. I reject his notion. To me, the whole purpose of fiction writing is to empathize and understand people who are different from you. Luckily, I have a friend named Gray Wolf who helped me penetrate this barrier.

Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write? 

I’m a coffee-shop regular, 6:30 to 8:00 a.m. every day, with a cappuccino steaming beside my laptop.  Weirdly, the noise helps me concentrate better than sitting alone at home.

Tell us about your next project.

Maybe a memoir about growing up on our family’s dude ranch.  Or my adventures in helping Central American trade unionists in their struggle for democracy.


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