Poet, memoirist, and novelist Paulette Jiles was born and raised in the Missouri Ozarks and moved to Canada in 1969 after graduating with a degree in Romance languages from the University of Missouri at Kansas City. She spent eight years as a journalist in Canada, before turning to writing poetry. In 1984, she won the Governor General's Award (Canada's highest literary honor) for Celestial Navigation, a collection of poems lauded by the Toronto Star as "...fiercely interior and ironic, with images that can mow the reader down."
In 1992, Jiles published Cousins, a beguiling memoir that interweaves adventure and romance into a search for her family roots. Ten years later, she made her fiction debut with Enemy Women (2002), the survival story of an 18-year-old woman caged with the criminally insane in a St. Louis prison during the Civil War. Janet Maslin raved in The New York Times, "This is a book with backbone, written with tough, haunting eloquence by an author determined to capture the immediacy of he heroine's wartime odyssey." The book won the Willa Literary Award for Historical Fiction (U.S.) and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize (Canada).
In her second novel, 2007's Stormy Weather, Jiles mined another rich trove of American history. Set in Texas oil country during the Great Depression, the story traces the lives of four women, a widow and her three daughters, as they struggle to hold farm and family together in a hardscrabble world of dust storms, despair, and deprivation. In its review, The Washington Post praised the author's lyrical prose, citing descriptions that "crackle with excitement." Stormy Weather became the fourth selection in the Barnes & Noble Recommends program.
A dual citizen of the United States and Canada, Jiles currently lives on a ranch near San Antonio, Texas.
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Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Jiles:
"When I lived in Nelson, British Columbia, there were three or four of us women who were struggling writers; we were very poor and we had a great deal of fun. We shared writing and money and wine. Woody (Caroline Woodward) had a great, huge Volkswagen bus -- green -- named Greena Garbo. When any of us managed to publish something there were celebrations. It was a wonderful time. They always managed to show up at my place just when I'd baked bread. One time Meagan and Joanie arrived to share with me a horrible dinner they had made of cracked wheat and onions -- we were actually all short of food. I had just made lasagna -- and they ate all of my lasagna and left me with that vile dish of groats and onions. And then we all got married and went in different directions."
"I have a small ranch that keeps me busy -- two horses, a donkey, a cat, a dog, fences, a pasture -- I and spend lots of time preventing erosion, clearing cedar, etc."
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In the spring of 2007, Paulette Jiles took some time to answer some of our questions about her favorite books and authors, and a writer's life.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays by Northrop Frye gives a clear and cogent analysis of the various sorts of imaginative narratives, among them the quest story. It does not assign value to any one type of story. I came upon Frye's The Well-Tempered Critic in college and loved it. It has the same sort of descriptive brilliance as Anatomy. It was a relief from the contemporary insistence that only the novel of psychological exploration was of literary value.
[Other influential books: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway; All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy]
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
Here are twelve (because ten is not enough):
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett
The Great Code: The Bible and Literature by Northrop Frye
Grimms' Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
Peru by Gordon Lish
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Call It Sleep by Henry Roth
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
The above are my favorites because they are so beautifully written, because of the intelligence that shines from the stories, because of the urgency behind their presentation, and because of the authors' conviction that the story being told matters deeply. Grimms' Fairy Tales, of course, are not by any one author. They are like an open window into an ancient and probably ageless part of our minds that lusts for stories.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?Cold Mountain
Lord of the Rings: Parts I, II, and III
Pride and Prejudice
Saving Private Ryan
I love the above films because each is unforgettable and totally emotionally engaging.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when
Georges Bizet's L'Arlessiene, John Fahey, Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A Major, mountain hymns.
I love these pieces of music because they are, to me, very moving. I never listen to music when I am working. I have enough going on in my head without dividing my attention to music that deserves one's full consideration. I also play guitar, or at least practice most days, and so it is hard to regard music as background.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I have several small figurines on my desk.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I always wrote what I wanted. Enemy Women had fourteen rejections -- all of them replete with praise.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
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