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SunLit Interview: Pat Jurgens began with her grandmother’s story. It grew into a novel.

“Falling Forward: A Woman’s Journey West” tells the story of a young widowed mother who strikes out on her own in the early 20th century

Pat Jurgens, writer and retired librarian, has published numerous articles in local and regional magazines. She also dabbles in memoir and poetry, has contributed to several anthologies, and won awards from Denver Women’s Press Club, Poetry Society of Colorado, and Jefferson County Historical Commission. She lives in an old mountain cabin in Colorado and walks the trails with her husband, Carl. “Falling Forward: A Woman’s Journey West” is her first novel. Visit the author at:  https://patjurgens.com.


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

I was inspired by my paternal grandmother, who grew up in the confines of a strict Mennonite community in Ohio in the late 1890’s.  Her mother died, leaving her the responsibility of the entire farm household and her two younger siblings. To top it off, my grandmother married outside the faith and was shunned by the entire community. She was a spirited young filly!

This is the nugget of truth at the beginning of the novel – a dramatic jumping off place for this author. I felt connected to this story, to the limitations imposed on this young woman through no fault of her own. I felt her frustration and pain at a time when she wanted more than anything else to explore life in the “outside world.”  I remember how I felt at age 17, ready to thrust myself into life and go beyond the known and what I had been taught.  Perhaps my grandmother gifted me with her desire to explore, including the desire to go West.

In the book the main character is Louisa, and yes she goes West.  And she meets the many challenges of life in the early 1900’s West with uncommon courage, strength, and resilience.   

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?

When Louisa’s husband Thomas dies in California in a well shaft accident, his passing leaves her vulnerable to the advances of the unscrupulous Uncle Buford at their isolated encampment. In addition, she is penniless and has the responsibility of her two young children. With nothing more to lose, she prepares to flee. 

I selected this excerpt because it shows how in an impossible situation, Louisa takes action and follows her heart to find personal freedom. At this moment she is on her own for the first time in the story, and she rises to the challenge facing her, by changing direction and following a new path.

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

I’d taken some writing classes with local teacher, poet, and writer, Carolyn Evans Campbell.  She said to me one day, “Everyone has a story, Pat.  What’s your story?” And I immediately began to tell her about my grandmother. She said, “Write it!”… and so I took a spiral notebook and started writing longhand.  The initial words flowed like a stream. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

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?

Although I had a BA in English Lit and had written essays, poetry, and a memoir, I had no idea how to write a novel, so I just let the words show up on the paper.  What I discovered was if I stayed out of the way and kept my hand moving (like Natalie Goldberg says) the story emerged line by line. Many times it seemed magical…like did I actually write that?  Huh! I didn’t plan the story or outline it.  I let the horse have its head, and it took me to some surprising places. 

The character of Louisa soon evolved into a unique woman of her own, no longer my grandmother. She opened herself to the western landscape as if she were born into it, loving the open spaces and inspiring mountains. Her unbridled independence surprised and amused me. I was not prepared for her to dive into activism in the women’s movement as a suffragist. She suffered indignities that I couldn’t imagine and was not really comfortable writing about.

Much later I went back and cut out at least 12 chapters, of characters that only showed up once, or events that did not add to the storyline.  I revised dozens of times, and changed sequences, added intrigue.  I cut known historical characters because I wanted this story to be about the lives of ordinary, everyday people.  

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

I always knew I would finish the book, because I’m addicted to the feeling of completion.  I just didn’t know it would take many years for me to accomplish this to my satisfaction. I discovered I’m more of a perfectionist than I thought, as I reworked and edited the narrative ad nauseam.

I also discovered that I love doing the research for a historical novel. I started the book pre- any extensive Internet searching capability, so I studied local history archives, newspapers, books, maps of roads and trails, you name it.  I researched flora and fauna and delighted in imagining myself in specific landscapes such as Clear Creek Canyon or Golden, Colorado, where I chose the historic Quaintance Block building at 13th and Washington for Louisa’s bakery.      

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

Many people ask where the inspiration came from to write this story and to keep going to publication.  Most readers and reviewers have been highly enthusiastic about the book, its historical details, and the strong woman theme that fuels the story. Some professional reviewers have lauded the women’s rights element.  A few readers have been disappointed about the ending.  

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

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

Twenty years ago, my husband Carl and I found an old log cabin in the foothills west of Denver and made it our home.  I feel so fortunate to have a view of the wooded hillside thick with Ponderosa pine, deer, rabbits, chipmunks, and a variety of birds. The old writing desk that looks out vintage paned glass windows was built from orange crates by my great grandfather in the 1800s. This quiet room is where inspiration dwells. 

I begin the day with yoga, Qi Gong, and meditation a la my own inclination. Sometimes the blank page calls to me before I get out of bed – I will wake up with a thought I want to get on paper. Often it does not.  I find myself strangely more productive and creative around 3 p.m., after tending to the details of an ordinary day, having a walk in the woods, and consuming two quarts of water.  Go figure.  I’m still learning there’s no right way when it comes to a writing process, there’s only what works. 

How does your historical tale relate to today’s world? 

Louisa is a woman of the people, one who dreams but faces harsh realities. She finds forward-thinking friends amid a patriarchal structure, learns to tolerate what she cannot change and pushes against the status quo where she can make a difference. Her belief and support of other women shows up in the opening of the tearoom for the community and through her suffrage activism. Louisa’s life is like living with COVID; there is much we can learn from her.  

Tell us about your next project.

Readers are showing interest in a possible sequel.  And I’m noodling about several projects I’ve had on hold in my heart for a long time. One is a memoir of my college year in India – an experience I would define as uncannily similar to a pandemic.  I wrote weekly letters home as that was the only contact I had on the other side of the world and still have the daily journals I kept. 

That year abroad at age 19 changed my life perspective. The other idea is a children’s book of “Little Boy Stories” told by my father, a recipient of the oral tradition of family stories about the dog Shep on the farm. As a child I begged him to retell these tales before bed at night; he was a masterful storyteller. They describe a time and place that can no longer be duplicated. 

Right now I’m excited to share the book in a personal way with people in my circle and beyond.  Love it when I hear readers say how they relate to the story. I’m available for virtual book club discussions and presentations and possible in-person gatherings in the metro Denver area. Visit me at www.patjurgens.com.