(Photo 2008 by Jerry Ellerman, PE)
Linda Hasselstrom writes, ranches, and conducts writing retreats for women on the South Dakota ranch homesteaded by her grandfather. She has edited several important women's anthologies, including Leaning Into the Wind, a collection of writings by western women, and the author of several memoirs, notably Between Grass and Sky: Where I Live and Work and Going Over East: Reflections of a Rancher Woman. Visit her website.
This interview was conducted via email, with questions by reviewer Susan Wittig Albert, on November 15, 2009. It focuses on the book No Place Like Home: Notes from a Western Life, which was recently published by the University of Nevada Press. The book is a collection of personal essays written over a number of years and extensively revised for publication. The essays range over Linda's experiences at her ranch and in Cheyenne, where she has also lived. Now, she spends most of her time at the ranch, where she regularly hosts writing workshops for women. She is currently at work on a collection of poems.
Read Susan's review of No Place Like Home for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 11/16/2009
Many of the essays in No Place Like Home have been published elsewhere: for example, "Selling the Ranch," which appeared in High Country News and elsewhere. In this essay, you describe the sale of a neighbor's large ranch and the impact of the sale on the surrounding ranching community. Tell us a little about the process of writing a personal essay like this one, then syndicating it—and then revising it for inclusion in a collection.
I attended the ranch auction in 2000, making a special trip home from Cheyenne, WY, where I was then living, because I knew it would be important to our community, and knowing I would write about it. As is clear from the longer version of the essay, I took detailed notes throughout the many hours of the sale. Writing the first version of the essay, 810 words, was difficult because I had so much more to say, and I didn't want to just rant at the readers. Syndication was fairly unsatisfactory, since I don't recall getting any responses.
Writing the second version, 83,000 words, took months. I worked through my notes, but also kept putting the essay aside to work on other pieces. Years passed, while I worked on essays that would become this book. Meanwhile, when I'd go home to the ranch, I'd see what buyers had done with pieces of the land, and began to conceive of the idea of telling what happened after the sale. As I worked on the book I intended to submit to the University of Nevada, I thought of the essay as the end of the book most of the time: the doom that our ranch land faces. Only at the very end of the process, after the book had been sent back to me by U of Nevada for further revision, did I get a suggestion from a writer friend that I BEGIN the book with that essay.
With that essay anchoring the book, I was able to delete a dozen other pieces, and focus more sharply on essays that seemed more directly relevant to the idea of community in the West.
Once I've written an essay for Writers on the Range, the syndicated arm of High Country News, I find it very difficult to lengthen that essay and use it in some other form. Paring an idea down to 800 words or fewer is always difficult; and no matter how tightly I think I write it, Betsy Marston, who edits WOTR, can always tighten it a little more! By the time I've polished and revised and nipped and tucked, I have a hard time taking a different, broader look at the subject. Also, many of the essays I write for WOTR have been humorous, because I believe it's better to make people laugh and think about a problem than to scream at them, so it's difficult then to take a more serious approach.
You are clearly a private person, and yet you seem to be able to reveal yourself (or at least to create the illusion of revelation) in your writing about your life. Many of us, as memoirists, often have difficulty negotiating the private/public issue. How has this worked for you? How do you choose what to reveal? Are there places in the self that you refuse to go?
I don't write specifically about my preferences or memberships in religion or political parties; I don't write about sex. I don't set out to hurt people, or intentionally hold them up to ridicule, and I'm try not to invade the privacy of close friends and relatives. I ask myself if what I'm writing might help someone else face the same problem or question.
Writing about the reasons I chose to carry a pistol for self-defense taught me a lot: the shrillest critics were those who had never been in the situations where I thought a weapon might be appropriate; they were arguing theoretically, but not realistically. In Land Circle, I wrote about being harassed for miles on the highway by a driver who kept edging closer to my car at 70 miles an hour. After failing to elude or stop him, I rolled my window down, and placed my pistol across my left arm.
I was prepared to shoot because I believed I might have to do so to save my life. I watched the tires; if his right front tire had gotten any closer to my left front tire, I would have pulled the trigger. The car sped away and vanished. In Land Circle, I tell this story in considerably more detail, explaining all the choices I made, step by step, to reach the decision to point the pistol at these men; that decision was not was not lightly taken.
"You could have shot out his tires!" the critics shrieked, completely failing to understand speed, momentum, trajectory, or other relevant factors. Now I always try to anticipate what the opposition might say, and counter those comments reasonably and politely.
I began writing Land Circle before my husband died. The book took a sharp turn, because after his death, I naturally (being a reader) began reading books about widowhood. Every one of them drove me wild with their impersonal attitude; none of them seemed to describe the pain I felt, the complete disorientation. I thought, if it's this bad for an independent, liberated woman, what must it be like for people who devote their whole lives to their spouses? So I wrote about his death for myself, to help myself begin to survive, and begin to understand what I had lost and how I was going to go on living. I didn't write those pieces to be published: but after awhile, I thought perhaps some of them might be useful to other widows.
While I was pulling myself together, I wrote a poem called "Windbreak Now."
The second stanza begins:
I stand on the deck in starlit dark
and talk to you, feel you close—
but ghosts don't break real wind.
When the poem was accepted for publication in Life magazine as part of a photo essay on my life on the ranch, the editor called and said, "Er, are you aware that there's a — er— ah— sort of pun in that second stanza? You know, about — er—ah— breaking wind?"
I said, "Well, I'm the writer, and writers pay pretty close attention to what they write. Yes. I used that deliberately. It's an inside joke."
"Well OK, as long as you know about it."
So the poem was published, and the first time I read it in public, a little lady with blue hair came up to me and said, "You know, my husband used to, er, ah, do that, and I got so mad at him. And you know, I kind of miss it now."
And I started to cry and she did too, and we stood there with our arms around each other sobbing while the rest of the audience filed respectfully out.
After that, I thought that maybe violating my own privacy sometimes might be a good idea if it helped other people survive.
The first book I read of yours was Windbreak. Now, 22 years on, comes No Place Like Home, and while the land is still a steadfast center in your life, your work, and your writing, your relationship to it has changed—or so it seems to this reader. Do you see it that way? If you do, how/why has it changed?
I'm not doing the physical work anymore, so I'm not seeing what you see when you pitch the hay, saddle the horses, fix the flat, pull the heifer's calf; I'm able to stay inside when it snows instead of gritting my teeth and chopping ice. And it's my contention, repeated in several books, that the only people who know the land well enough to make decisions about its future are those who do the work required to get a living from it.
But I had to sell my cows to buy the land, since my father didn't leave it to me. With no cows, I had to either assume more debt to buy cows, and start building a herd again, or lease the land to a neighbor, which I did.
So now, all these years later, I am 66 years old and my full-time job is writing. I work hard at my writing, hoping it will help keep the prairie grasslands, the savanna of the Great Plains, from being de-watered, subdivided and paved until it can no longer provide its rich resources for us. The fact that I don't have to do the work means I have time to write—and do all the busy-ness required by supporting myself as a writer. But it also means that I am not as intimate with the land as I once was. I probably am no longer physically capable of doing all the work I would have to do to run cows, but no one will ever have quite the relationship with this land that I had with it at the time I wrote Windbreak—and remember, that book was a diary, events taken from my life. I did not "write" it; I lived it, and then copied the entries and turned them into a book more or less out of desperation.
The current collection of essays takes up the theme of community, its place in your personal experience and in the experience of Westerners. While this is not a new theme in your work (the three wonderful Wind anthologies you have helped to compile and edit are clearly communal efforts), it is certainly most focused in No Place. Is this because community has become more important to you? Or because you think we should become more conscious of our own places in community? Both?
Short answer: both. Having to move to a city made me more conscious of the mechanics of community. I began looking back at the ranch community, as well as other communities of which I've been a member (buckskinners, liberated women, divorcees, widows, writers), as well as outward to the city community where I was living. I read books on community, worked to try to create a community in the city, and generally made a study of the subject for the 17 years I lived in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
During that time, I was fortunate to be part of the community of three editors of the Wind anthologies; of course, the editing process taught us a lot about community, but so did reading what the women had written. And then when we would visit towns to do readings, and we would meet the women who had written for the books, we always were astounded at the connections that we discovered, or that sprang up as the women talked. We have an archive filled with stories about that experience.
Sadly, I grew up with a mother who viewed other women as "competition" for the available men. Learning about the community of women, how we help and cherish and encourage each other, has incredibly enriched my life.
One of the things I like most about No Place is the way the essays are braided together. They stand separate and whole, and yet each takes on a larger significance because of its relationship to the others in the collection. How do you go about assembling such a collection? Is its ordering apparent to you from the beginning, or does it reveal itself to you as you revise and work through each essay?
I wish I could show you the dozens of different configurations the book took, as well as the many essays—I just did a quick count and there are at least 20—that were in the book at some point but are not now. I tried every conceivable arrangement: chronological, chronological with flashbacks. At one point I separated longer essays with tiny ones I called "snapshots."
This quotation from Annie Dillard (The Writing Life, New York: Harper & Row, 1989) describes much of my editing process:
How fondly I recall thinking, in the old days, that to write you needed paper, pen, and a lap. How appalled I was to discover that, in order to write so much as a sonnet, you need a warehouse. You can easily get so confused writing a thirty-page chapter that in order to make an outline for the second draft, you have to rent a hall. I have often "written" with the mechanical aid of a twenty-foot conference table. You lay your pages along the table's edge and pace out the work. You walk along the rows; you weed bits, move bits, and dig out bits, bent over the rows with full hands like a gardener. After a couple of hours, you have taken an exceedingly dull nine-mile hike. You go home and soak your feet.
I used my 5-foot dining room table, but the process was the same. As I drove back and forth between the ranch and Cheyenne, I thought about the essays, the stories, the communities, and considered ways to improve the book.
Finally, I got good advice from several writing and reading friends, and from three readers the University of Nevada asked to review the manuscript. All made very useful suggestions that forced me to look at what I was doing. I first submitted the book in 2007, and then revised it over and over. Gradually, I learned from the essays. Each time I grew discouraged and thought, "this thing is never going to hang together," I would see a connection I hadn't seen before.
And if I had to revise it again tomorrow, I'd do it differently.
One of the last images in "Overlooking Antelope Ridge" (the final essay in the collection) is of the Heartland Expressway—"the Great Plains International Trade Corridor"—slicing through your ranch. This is a painful image, or so it seems to me, and yet this "corridor" is meant to bind together the "trading communities" of the Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. To me, the image suggests that we always have to give up something—privacy, individuality, personal freedom—to belong to a community. Is that how you meant it?
In the book's introduction, I keep using the word "Contradictions," and images of opposition: "Humans are so full of contradictions it's amazing we can talk to one another at all, let alone be politically correct. A writer friend reminds me that even the factor that distinguishes us from animals, our ability to walk upright, is an intricate balancing act by muscles in complete opposition to one another."
So, yes, that final image is contradictory and ironic: when I read the governor's comments during the very last phase of editing the book, I was appalled at his failure to consider the welfare of the local grassland community. And yet, of course, he feels as if he is doing a good thing, as you say—linking trading communities, bringing money and jobs to the region. And once again, as I said when I was an environmental activist, we should be considering the consequences of our actions more thoroughly before we take irrevocable action. I have written several times that I wish sometimes that the members of the local community didn't know quite as much about my business as they do, and yet when my husband died, they all—every religion, every political party—came together to mourn, to provide food, to recognize the loss. That's what community means to me: the contradictions of closeness. We may have to give up some things to acquire others—but we need to continually discuss what we are giving up, and what we are gaining.