Julie Whitesel Weston
Julie Weston grew up in Idaho and practiced law for many years in Seattle, Washington. Her prose has been published in IDAHO Magazine, The Threepenny Review, River Styx, and Rocky Mountain Game & Fish, among other places. Her book The Good Times Are All Gone Now: Life, Death and Rebirth in an Idaho Mining Town (Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2009) received an honorable mention in the 2009 Idaho Book Awards. Both an essay and a short story were nominated for Pushcart Awards. She and her husband, Gerry Morrison, now live in Central Idaho where they ski, write, photograph, and enjoy the outdoors. Visit her website.
Read Susan J. Tweit's review of Moonshadows for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 12/15/2015
We talked six years ago after your first book, The Good Times Are All Gone Now, came out. That book was creative nonfiction, an intimate portrait of a place, Kellogg, Idaho, where you grew up. Now you've written a mystery, Moonshadows, set in the 1920s, also in Idaho. What prompted you to turn to writing mysteries?
When I first began writing, I started with a mystery. That was when I first realized I needed to rid myself of writing like a lawyer. I took a number of writing courses offered by the University of Washington Certificate program and attended workshops and read books about writing. I only returned to mysteries with Moonshadows. I have also read hundreds of mysteries, so I decided to try my hand at one.
Moonshadows revolves around Nellie Burns, a determined young woman who leaves Chicago to find fame and fortune—or at least artistic fulfillment—in the West. Instead of gold or land though, Nellie is chasing shadows and light as a photographer. How did Nellie come to you? And was she always a photographer?
My great-uncle began a photography studio in Boise. His daughter worked there but had to give it up during WWII for lack of silver supplies. She even worked as an assistant for Ansel Adams for a short period. I used her last name for Nellie. In North Idaho, a young woman photographer named Nellie Stockbridge arrived from Chicago and associated with C.N. Barnard in his photography studio in Wallace. They both took many photographs of the mining area, the mining towns and their inhabitants. My husband, Gerry Morrison, is a photographer. I took these three sources and combined them into Nellie Burns. It was always my focus to write about a woman photographer, in a way to carry on an Idaho tradition. Gerry's photograph graces the cover of Moonshadows, which won Best Cover in the Idaho Author Awards.
Why set the story in the 1920s? What did you enjoy most about researching that period and Nellie's choice of professions?
I have another story set in the period 1900-1920 about a madam in Idaho. I liked working with that period and wanted to go back to it. My thought was that not many people wrote about the 1920s and certainly not about Idaho during that time. It was a time of transition for women—from long dresses and being limited in their ability to work outside the home and being considered chattels of their husbands or prostitutes. The first wave of what I think of as feminism—being treated as equal human beings—began then. I thought Idaho needed a good dose of an independent woman. I have an in-house expert in photography, so I was able to get his assistance and learn from him about photography and how Nellie might go about being a photographer.
The book opens with a taut and chilling scene where a man we know only as Rosy labors to bury something—we guess it is a body—in drifting snow with only his hands, panting as he gulps in "shards of icy air," while the "stalking wind flung pellets at his face, across his shoulders." The scene is a bit of foreshadowing of what Nellie will find on her first nighttime photo outing. Was this the original beginning of the story, or did it come to you later in the process as you ratcheted up the dramatic tension of the narrative?
Clever of you to ask! This was not the original beginning—the first chapter was. One agent suggested moving some of this "action" from later in the book to the beginning. At first, I didn't use Rosy's voice in the book, but decided to do so after consultation with a freelance editor. Rosy is one of my favorite characters. He is so much like miners I knew in North Idaho.
Moonshadows is as much a portrait of place as The Good Times Are All Gone Now, but in a very different way. The landscapes of central Idaho are very much a character in this book, shaping the story from that eerie beginning where Rosy is scrabbling to bury a body in the snow and howling wind, to the end. Did you know the landscape would play such a large part in the story when you conceived it?
Yes, I did. The landscape and places in Idaho inspire my writing. All the scenes in this book are similar to my own experiences in the snow, although I have never buried a body in snow or fallen into a creek (but almost!). Winter is my favorite time of year and I wanted to write about it and see if I could convey in this story my feelings about the Wood River Valley, where I now live. I have traveled to this area of Idaho since I was a child. It has always stayed with me.
Another thing that makes Moonshadows so compelling is the startlingly contemporary issues woven through the story: a woman struggling to be accepted in a man's profession, hatred and fear based on race and culture, and drug abuse. How did you decide on those themes? Did you realize how contemporary they were as you explored them in the 1920s?
I spoke of Nellie being an independent woman earlier. While feminism has made huge strides since the 1920s, it is falling back in many parts of our country and in many channels of business and life. Because Nellie is the way she is, this theme arose from her personality. I was also aware of how Chinese were treated, not only in Idaho but throughout the West, so it was necessary to talk about this if I wanted Chinese characters in my story, and I did. Sheepherders from the Basque country were allowed into the country for the sole purpose of herding sheep. Their culture was different, their language was different, and they looked a little different from run-of-the-mill westerners. Naturally, certain prejudices arose around them. Times have not changed, unfortunately.
Then there's Moonshine, the dog who adopts Nellie during that freezing night in the deserted cabin far from town. He becomes her protector and companion, and helps her solve the mystery (not that he actually talks). Did you know you would be writing about a dog, and that he would figure so large in the story?
I was reading the "Cat Who" mysteries when I decided to try a mystery again. We used to have a black Lab (a female), named Moonshine, and that seemed a good idea for a companion to Nellie in such a small community. This dog needed to be a little bigger than our dog was, so this Lab is male, but just as sweet and intelligent.
What surprised you most in writing Moonshadows?
How much fun it is to write a mystery. I had written short stories that have been published, as well as essays, and my memoir of place. I have written other novels that languish. This one kept my interest and I love living with the people in 1920's Idaho.
Can you tell us a little about the next Nellie and Moonie mystery?
Thanks for asking. The next Nellie and Moonie mystery is set in the Stanley Basin in Idaho, perhaps the most beautiful part of the state, if not the country. Its title is Basque Moon. The Basin is surrounded by the Sawtooth and White Cloud Mountains, and it is lush in summer along the Salmon River and attracts many people. Some work there, like sheepherders and cowboys, and tourists visit, even as they did in the 1920s. It also attracted moonshiners because it is so isolated and there are lots of streams and hidden places to set up stills. Nellie and Moonshine meet all three. So do the sheriff and Gwynn Campbell. Rosy is not in this story, but will be in the next mystery.