Gaydell Collier lives on a ranch in the Wyoming's Black Hills where the family moved after leaving the Harmony Community in 1977. Inspired by the beauty of the land and wildlife, she writes, walks the hills with her dog Maxie, and looks forward to visits from children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Collier co-authored three books on horses and horsemanship for Doubleday and co-edited three collections of women's writing for Houghton-Mifflin (including Leaning into the Wind). Her essays, articles, and poetry have appeared in a variety of publications and anthologies, and she has given numerous workshops and presentations on journaling, memoirs, and women's writing in the West. In 2004, she received the Wyoming Governor's Arts Award for Literature. Read more here & on the publisher's website.
Read Susan J. Tweit's review of Just Beyond Harmony for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 03/21/2012
You open Just Beyond Harmony by saying that you began the book more than three decades ago, and then "life got in the way." Then you found your diaries from that time, and also the letters you had written to your mother, which she had saved. "Both sources," you write, "recorded events I'd long forgotten and included details and dialog..." Do you think if you'd finished the book back when it was all fresh in your mind, the story would have been different? If so, how?
The chapters of settling into the cabin were written back then, as were the Vermont chapters and the cross-country move. Not much change there, although a lot (lots and lots) was cut, condensed, and of course rewritten. But the stories were there. It was when I got beyond those that things began to bog down, because, yes, life got in the way, but also, I think, because I needed perspective. I was just too close. If I'd forced myself to continue then, it would have been just that—forced—and I might have had just a funny story. I had no real purpose or intent. This came with time. After reading a number of memoirs and realizing how much they seemed to cater to the current passion for voyeurism (give me as many sordid details as possible), at least so it seemed to me, the wallowing in angst or the oh-poor-me-see-how-hard-my-life-is type of tale that apparently amounts to "edgy" and is therefore desirable to agents and publishers, I knew I had to do something different, even if it was unpublishable. It got so I just quit reading some of those books because I was saying to myself, oh come off it and get your rear in gear. Maybe I lack compassion or something, but they just didn't appeal. I wanted to write a story of a not-so-easy life that could still appreciate humor and beauty, at least most of the time—a story that would entertain and uplift, rather than leaving the reader "drug out" at the end, if not bored in the middle.
Also, my early chapters had people with names, but no really differentiating characteristics—the kids, Roy, and myself included. I had to think about it quite a bit to deepen the characters and to reveal even my own feelings more fully to myself. I had to linger a bit on meaning, to draw out my feelings, think more deeply about them. Nancy [High Plains Press publisher Nancy Curtis] certainly helped/pushed me with this. I'm so grateful that she saw the potential in the book and accepted the ms! It would not have been the same published by anyone else (if it ever got published at all). And of course she helped with focus—what's really important to the story, what should be cut (or added to)—as well as emphasizing the goal (teaching the kids responsibility) and achieving an overall story arc, none of which was there at the beginning. I did so much rewriting, cutting and pasting, reorganizing, and so on, that I finally began printing out drafts on different color paper (blue, buff, pink, green, ivory, gray) to keep them straight.
You've been writing for most of your life and published since you began this memoir the first time, including the very successful horsemanship series with Eleanor F. Prince, and Leaning Into the Wind and the other anthologies co-edited with Linda Hasselstrom and Nancy Curtis. Is this your first memoir? What did writing your own life teach you about writing that you didn't already know?
First memoir? Yes and no. I have another ms (Shadows on the Grass, or possibly Pebbles in the Stream) that collects many of my published and some unpublished essays, and uses new material to tie them together. The essays come from my childhood, some from the Laramie years, most from life here on the ranch, especially incorporating all our animals and exploring the land itself. There's some humor, but overall the tone is more serious, maybe more "literary." As a whole, it's not publishable now—again, maybe it needs more time and perspective to set it right. I might get back to it.
What did writing my own life teach me about writing, etc.? I don't really know how to answer that, as I've always been writing my own life. Learning about writing is such a cumulative thing. I've learned tremendous amounts through twice-monthly sessions with the Bearlodge Writers, working with Linda and Nancy on the anthologies, as well as refining and rewriting ad infinitum. I've had tremendous help and feedback also from early readers, including Linda. With the BLW, the critiques on the works of other writers are as valuable as critiques on my own—we all improve each others' writing to the point where most of us now are published and many winning awards. I'd hate to send something out without it passing by the eagle eyes of BLW first.
Describing your husband Roy, who you met at the University of Wyoming, you write,
"Roy was tall, lean, and handsome. His 1929 Ford Model A Tudor, 26 years at the time, was a chariot of the gods. The little car responded to his touch like a willing horse. Winter storms drew us out from Laramie east to Vedavoo or west into the Medicine Bows, defying wind-blown drifts and whiteouts... I was enraptured by his sense of adventure. But more than that, he was soft-spoken, gentlemanly, and kind, though sometimes thoughtless. We both enjoyed Beethoven and big bands, the same movies, good conversation... We both loved the land and the Western mystique. I found he had a stunning intellect, which I never ceased to admire, though I cam to mourn his lack of practicality. Just as much, I admired his honesty and integrity. Best of all, I loved his sense of humor."
That passage brings him vividly alive, and is quite frank about some traits that must have been worrying—thoughtlessness, lack of practicality, and, as you mention later, taking his time to the point of always being late, often very late. If Roy were still alive when you finished Just Beyond Harmony [he died in 2006] would you have been as candid?
Roy read the early chapters years ago and was okay with them. He encouraged my writing in many ways, although he never quite "got it," when it came to why a writer might need time to think—no different than most non-writers. We'd agree that I'd need some time undisturbed, and then he'd say not long afterwards, "Let me know when you come to a stopping point," which of course always stopped me cold. Oh well. He was a great critic and could pinpoint problems, especially my tendency toward purple prose. His critique was in the details—he would have made a great copyeditor—but not the overall arc of a piece. He just couldn't get beyond a line-by-line reading of the details. But that was fine, and often a great help. I don't know how much would have been different were he still alive. I sent the ms to an old friend who had known us all back then and asked if I'd done Roy a disservice in the way I wrote about him—she said, certainly not. He came through as she remembered him and thought it was fine. I would have had him read it, of course, if he'd been around—would have been interesting to see how he felt about it. I don't think I would have been able to include his little notes [the book includes some of the hundreds of notes Roy wrote to Gaydell over the years]. In fact, I don't think I'd even have thought of doing so. I sent the ms to both Sam and Fred [her sons] to see if it was okay with them, and they had no problem with it.
You write that you came West for college with dreams of marrying a rancher, or at least a cowboy. You write with a lovely, bemused sense of humor of the years of moving around from Wyoming to upstate New York to Illinois to Vermont and finally to back to Wyoming (by which time you were moving four kids and two cats in addition to the stuff Roy collected, from the broken cream separator to the buggy without a top). Yet buying a ranch remained stubbornly out of reach for many more years, through the "grand experiment" of life in the cabin with no running water, a privy, the place heated by the recalcitrant wood cookstove in the kitchen and the potbelly in the living room. It's clear that your sense of humor was critical to your ability to not only survive, but thrive during those years. Still, I have to ask: Did you ever lose hope?
Lose hope? No. Become discouraged? Oh yes. I could certainly become discouraged over the years. But there was humor, as you mention, and beauty—the beauty of the land, the skies, the river, the animals; the beauty of family art (my walls are covered with paintings and portraits by my grandfather and Roy's mother, by Jenny, woodblock prints by my granddaughter Katy); the beauty of music (Beethoven, Verdi, Gounod, Tchaikovsky, Segovia, Rachmaninoff), and so on and on. Who can lose hope when surrounded by these things? And most of all... I mentioned my daily spiritual reading. Here's the story in brief, and I hope this doesn't sound preachy, or something. When I was 12, I realized that the popular mainstream church, well, Sunday school, I was attending did little for me, though it was meaningful for many others (my brother became a minister of that religion). To me it seemed shallow—we read Bible stories and colored pictures of Jesus and raced through rote prayers. What was Jesus really teaching? I wanted to try to find out. For weeks, my mother patiently (or perhaps resignedly) drove me each Sunday to a different church and I went to Sunday school or listened to sermons and wondered and wondered—until I went to the Christian Science church, and then went back, and then settled into the Sunday school there. At last I'd found what I was looking for—a religion deep with meaning, one that honored all of Jesus' teachings, rather than just selected ones. Ever since then, I've studied the Bible and Mary Baker Eddy's writings every morning, and often during the day. I've learned how thought determines experience, how we don't have to be victims unless we choose to be, how God is a present help, and love is the vital ingredient that fuels our lives. How to be thankful for what we have—the dandelions that provided food (p. 36), for instance—in order to be ready to receive more. How to climb out of or see beyond discouragement (p.116). I'm forever grateful for these teachings, in my writing, my relationships, my life. And again, this is my experience. As my brother always said, different strokes for different folks.
I loved reading about the Big Laramie River, which flows quite near the cabin, and the times you'd sneak away by yourself to get time by the river. Your descriptions of it are so full of loving familiarity:
"Upstream and down, we could see only a few hundred yards until the river curved out of sight, leaving us our own private place, our own spot within the woods, with not a single evidence of mankind, nothing but the wind in the trees and the slapping water, the early smell of exposed soil, and a few trails of parted grass on the far bank where I supposed deer and coons and coyotes made their way down to drink. For all its tranquility, there was an expectation to it, like an indrawn breath or a quick glance over the shoulder, for who could say what the river would bring us, suddenly rounding the bend into our lives?"
That very first day you brought the kids to help clean out the cabin, you went to river first, almost as if you knew you would need it. Did that sudden bond with a watercourse surprise you? Is there a river or a stream on the ranch where you live now in the Black Hills?
I'm not sure "surprise" is the right word, though it might be. The river was part of the land, of nature itself, and that seems to be what I was bonding with. I grew up on Long Island and was less familiar with rivers or streams than with the ocean (also bays, L.I. Sound, etc.). We went often to Jones Beach, but I was put off by all the people, the sand that even then was dirty, the junk. I never learned to swim (didn't like being in the water that much), though both my parents were great swimmers and tried to teach me. I liked the parts of the beach that were lonely, where there were dunes and beach grass, or where waves crashed against the rocks, or the north shore with its cliffs. And I liked the sky, especially when it was stormy or the wind blew (not often). So the Big Laramie, in all its pristine beauty, was a revelation and a delight. It gradually replaced the wind as a metaphor for movement and "aliveness" in my life (p. 219).
Yes, North Redwater Creek runs through Backpocket Ranch (feeding into Redwater Creek, then into the Belle Fourche River) where I now live. Not as large as the Laramie River, of course, but even in dry spells it hasn't run dry (although some years it can go underground for a short distance upstream a ways). When swollen in springtime, I can't cross it. Most of the year, I can cross on stepping stones or wade. Maxie and I walk out there every day, and cross the creek to walk through the hills. I have favorite Think Rocks—by the creek, or in the pines, or on a hilltop—where I can sit and write or just contemplate. And just above the creek on the other side is our little "cemetery," where the ashes of Frank, Jenny, and Roy are buried. This opens out onto a hay meadow and the surrounding hills, and you can see the house across the creek. Sam built a beautiful wooden bench there in Frank's [her middle son's] memory, after he died in 2001—a lovely place to rest.
You tell some hair-raising stories of the times in the cabin: the chimney fire, the water that ran thick and black and ucky for months, meaning you had to draw buckets from the river and boil them on the stove for drinking, cooking or any other potable uses; the blizzard that caught you and Roy coming home over the mountains from Cheyenne, leaving the kids alone to fend for themselves; Sam falling through the ice in the river... How do the kids feel about the time in the cabin? Did it shape who they have become?
Oh yes, I think so. Fred [the youngest] articulated it best in the last pages of the book (from the bottom of p. 249). He also told me at one point, after reading an earlier draft, that he was surprised about our "poverty," which he'd never realized at the time. Both Fred and Sam were surprised, I think—or at least interested—to see the experience from my perspective. Jenny enjoyed it when I read her some of the earlier chapters—her sense of humor never waned, although she was bound by wheelchair and nursing home, and she reminded me of some things I'd forgotten (her long-term memory was good). The paragraph beginning at the bottom of p. 155 says a lot. I think Frank would have loved the book—his sense of humor really jibed with mine.
What surprised you about writing Just Beyond Harmony? What is your favorite part of the story?
The most surprising—and the best—thing for me was that it gave me back my husband. It reminded me of the man he was, the man I'd fallen in love with, the man who loved the kids so much and tried so hard to raise them right. He'd had a heart attack while we lived in the cabin, and recovered, but ill health plagued him beginning around 1984 after we'd moved to the Black Hills. Even then he suffered a lot of pain, which increased over the years until he had a leg amputated in 1999 and became pretty much housebound. He did not suffer pain in silence. Those years were increasingly difficult for him and for me—I guess that's a story in itself, and not a pretty one. For instance, he resented my traveling 80 miles three times a week to visit Jenny in the nursing home in Rapid City (and later in Spearfish), which necessitated leaving him alone, etc. etc. 'Nough said.
Will you continue the story with a memoir about the move to the Black Hills and your ranch there?
A number of people have said they were looking forward to the next installment. From my present perspective, there is and will be no "next installment" as such. Oh sure, there are plenty of stories, both when we were living in the big house, and when we moved (the process of moving, itself, might be worth a book), but I can't see fitting them together the way JBH worked. Sam and Jenny had both left home before we moved, and Roy's illness and deteriorating temperament changed the whole tenor of things anyway. So, as I mentioned in an earlier answer, any further "memoir" will have to be entirely different in scope, atmosphere, etc. Which isn't to say I might not write more stories from the past, as time goes by...
Do you miss living on the Big Laramie River? Would you go back if you could?
No, to both questions. I love the memories, but now the Black Hills are my home. I know this ranch intimately, have walked (or ridden) over just about every inch of it many times, have memories of events and special happenings everywhere, mostly involving our dogs, cats, Jerseys, Herefords, Morgans, and Rambouillets. Oh yes, and geese, ducks, banties, guineas. Again, I'm surrounded by wonderful neighbors. But I'll add an addendum to this under the nostalgia question.
Did nostalgia color your view of the cabin?
Oh sure. But perhaps not as much as some people have suggested, or as JBH itself suggests. I tend to see the glass as half full rather that half empty, tend to emphasize the good, no matter what the circumstance, even while in the midst of it. Then and now. Don't think I could operate otherwise. So I think that my view of the cabin years—especially considering the letters and diaries written at the time—is fairly clear-eyed. But the story I wanted to tell had to present the up-beat, the positive rather than the negative. It had to say, yes, you can write about hard times without gloom and doom. You can give more to the reader than simply angst and endurance. You can give beauty and hope and love and laughter—all those good things. I hope it did that.
Last October, just before Pat Frolander [a friend of Collier's and a fellow member of Bearlodge Writers] was appointed Poet Laureate, we went down to Harmony (had signings in Laramie and at UW for JBH and Married Into It), the main reason for the trip being to visit Harmony School. The sixth grade teacher, Molly, was reading JBH to her class! We made arrangements to visit the class to talk about writing (Molly wanted to let her kids see that writing involved a lot of editing and rewriting). Ellie Prince joined us, and we three sat in front of the class. Molly asked if it would be okay for the little kids to sit in until they got restless, and not to be offended if they left early (of course, no problem). Along with living in the community, Ellie had taught at the school there years ago. Then the room filled up with neighbors—folks we'd known back in the '60s, now with gray hair, some with oxygen or canes. (And they'd brought pot luck, like in the old days, so we could all sit and visit in the dining room after the program.) I talked about JBH, Ellie about the horse books, Pat about poetry—all of us about editing (I had a show-and-tell with different-colored pages from the various drafts). The little kids stayed and were attentive throughout the program. Then we answered questions from kids and adults both.
Wow—what a time! I'd been concerned. After all, here were the people I'd been writing about—how would they feel about the book? Would anyone be offended? Of course some had passed away, including Chuck (the janitor/bus driver). Emma, his wife and school cook, was now in a nursing home in Laramie and couldn't come (Ellie and I visited her later). But as it turned out, they were thrilled (or at least if someone wasn't, we didn't hear about it). Some said it sounded just like Chuck, or they remembered this or that happening, or they recognized each one of us as written about. There were some wonderful questions, great discussion, many reminiscences. My favorite question, addressed to all three of us, came from one of the sixth graders: "Just how old are you?" The adults laughed or rolled their eyes or groaned. Pat said 69, I said 76, and Ellie said 84 (she's still riding, training horses, teaching horsemanship classes to university students, and running the ranch herself, now that her husband is in a nursing home). The kids were awe-struck at such great age—such antiquity!—still being operable.
We rode by the old Sodergreen ranch afterward. The big house had burned down a few years after we'd left, and the cabin was no longer there, although the huge old barn still graced the property. But we'd been told that the cabin had been moved to another ranch—the owners were at the program—and was remodeled (of course modernized) and lived in by their grand-children. We drove by, and I could still recognize it, even with its new addition. And of all things, we could see a cat in the window, just like the old days.
No, I wouldn't want to go back—too many changes. The beautiful old wooden bridge replaced by concrete, a trailer home where the big house stood, the cabin site bare, etc. Life doesn't really involve "going back." Going forward is what counts.
What are you reading right now?
Cozy and Victorian mysteries are my "in thing" at the moment, punctuated with occasional forays into more serious stuff—The Time Traveler's Wife, Lucia St. Clair Robson, Temple Grandin, Alison Weir, etc., whatever catches my eye. All my friends and fellow writers, of course, including poetry. I love Dickens, Dumas, Dostoyevsky, and have to reread my favorites occasionally, even favorites such as Douglas' The Robe. So I guess you might say I'm reading "any old thing," although explosion-thrillers and science fiction don't beckon me. But the mysteries are the ones I read for total relaxation (including Susan Albert), the ones that don't haul my emotions around too much—maybe because I've had enough emotion-hauling for a while. You'll understand that. And I like writing cozy mysteries. I've written four or five, two that might be publishable some day—in fact, one is out making the rounds right now (wish me luck!).