March 31, 2020

Elizabeth Wetmore

Writing honestly about the ‘poison’ in a Texas hometown
Interview by
Elizabeth Wetmore’s debut, Valentine, explores the aftermath of a violent sexual assault on a young Mexican American girl by a white man in the 1970s.
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Elizabeth Wetmore’s debut, Valentine, explores the aftermath of a violent sexual assault on a young Mexican American girl by a white man in the 1970s. West Texas may be overrun by oil men, but the women are the heartbeat of this brutal and beautiful story. Wetmore answered our questions about this heartfelt novel and its explorations of racism, morality, justice, abandonment, oppression and, ultimately, hope.

What was the first spark of an idea that led you to write this brave and vulnerable novel?
I promise I’m not being coy, but I honestly can’t remember a single spark. In some ways, I feel like I’ve been listening to these stories my whole life. Don’t get me wrong: The characters and the story are fiction, but the place and the voices are real—or at least I hope they are. I guess the rhythm of the story, both the beat and the lyrics, those are the sparks. That’s a vague answer, I know. I would also add that, because I grew up in the area, I was aware of the change in the city’s demeanor when an oil boom began. I read newspapers, eavesdropped on my parents, heard rumors and stories about terrible things that happened—accidents, murders, rapes, as well as the usual bar fights and rough living that seems to thrive in oil towns.

How was the landscape of West Texas, with its glaring sun, big sky, dust and tumbleweeds, an inspiration to you, and how did it play into the novel?
I was born and raised in Odessa, the small city that provides the setting for Valentine. When I left at 18, I could not wait to get away from my hometown. I was away for many years before I began to write about it. In some ways, I think, I was waiting for the moment when I was able to see West Texas differently, and maybe even begin to long for it again, if that makes any sense. I needed to miss it, to fall in love with my hometown enough to be able to write about it. That took a long time—many years—and when I did, it was by first falling in love with land and that epic sky.

“While I hope I did justice to Glory and her family, I am also hopeful that the book shines a light on the town in ways that are complex, and nuanced, and true.”

One theme of the novel is the oil business moving to town and its toll on both the land and the people. Did you see this in your childhood?
Yes, Odessa is an oil town at the southern end of the Permian Basin. Oil, natural gas and some cattle (although those are dwindling all the time, it seems), maybe a little cotton or sorghum—those are the underpinnings of the economy. In recent years, they’ve started to see more wind farms. And of course, both the oil boom and climate change are having an impact on the little bit of agriculture there is. Fracking and horizontal drilling are changing my hometown in ways that will have long-term consequences for the people who live and work out there.

My father worked for 30 years at the petrochemical plant on the outskirts of Odessa. When I was a kid, most of the men in my family—on both sides—worked in the oil patch, at least for a few years. It was then, as it is now, terribly hard work—dangerous and poorly regulated. And I had a summer job after high school where I painted silos and cooling towers out at that same plant where my father worked. It was hot, terrifying, hard work. I’ve never forgotten it.

I loved the depth of each character in Valentine. Which character was hardest to write? The most exciting?
I have to look at things for a long time, and my first instincts are usually not my best. I thought (foolishly) that these characters would come pretty easily to me. Their voices were those of people I had spent my entire childhood listening to, especially the women’s voices. I think I believed that, because the voices were so clear to me, I would understand the women and girls behind them—and build characters and, to some degree, a story from there. But I didn’t understand them, not in ways that were meaningful enough to write fiction. It took me a long time to see each character—years. And also: I’m a terribly slow writer, so I can be loath to give something up, after I’ve worked so hard for it—even when it’s in the best interest of the book. And that can slow me down.

But if I had to choose, I’d say Glory was the hardest character to write. I was second-guessing myself the whole way with her, for all kinds of reasons and from the get-go. Her voice was the least familiar voice to me, and so I really had to question why she was my character, why I had chosen a 14-year-old girl of Mexican American heritage to be my character. What did it mean to observe her suffering? Or to ask a reader to? And most importantly, having seen that suffering, as Mary Rose does early in the book, what was my response to that? What’s my responsibility to her as a character? I’ll be honest with you: Of all my characters, she’s the one I most worry that I didn’t quite get it right.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Valentine.

Racism and white supremacy appear in Valentine, and readers will likely wonder if justice would be served differently if Glory were a white girl. I recall this passage: “To speak up would require courage that we cannot even begin to imagine. Are we guilty? We are guilty as sin, guilty as the day is long.” Did you know from the beginning that white supremacy and racism were a central theme, or did that work its way in as the novel evolved?
I knew almost from the beginning that I could not write a novel about my hometown without reckoning—or at least trying to reckon—with the racism and xenophobia that I had witnessed growing up, and that lingers to this day. And that’s a complicated thing to write about, because the temptation sometimes, I think, is to believe that people who say and do racist things, who are racist, are wholly defined by that terrible, terrible sin. When, in fact, those of us who grew up in such places also know these people as neighbors, friends, co-workers, we also know them as mothers and fathers, as beloved brothers, as teachers and coaches. We know them as people who are doing their best to pay the bills and keep a roof over their heads, as hardworking and decent people.

And yet, there’s this poison coursing through the community’s veins. I couldn’t not write about that. People of color sure don’t have that luxury, and neither do immigrants or queer folks, or anyone else who doesn’t fit into this narrow paradigm, really just a sliver of space that everyone’s supposed to squeeze themselves into, if they can. It’s a completely untenable system that can’t die quick enough, but God, what damage it wreaks on those it sees standing in the way, what wrath it rains down on peoples’ heads. So I had to write about it, as best I could, and let the chips fall where they may. And while I hope I did justice to Glory and her family, I am also hopeful that the book shines a light on the town in ways that are complex, and nuanced, and true.

“Stories are everywhere, and absolutely inescapable.”

I’ve breastfed two children and read hundreds of novels. Not many novels portray breastfeeding at all, and if they do, it’s in passing. I was struck by Mary Rose’s storyline, in particular the detail you gave to her breastfeeding a young baby. How important was it for you to include those details? 
It was important to me to be true to the realities of these characters’ lives and days. If I wanted them, and their stories, to be real and to be true, then how could I pass over it? I breastfed my son for about 18 months—and I was one of those lucky, lucky people whose kid took right to it. We didn’t struggle with it at all. (We struggled with other things—like sleep. Oh God, the sleep. My kid’s 15, and sometimes I think I’m still not over those months and years of not sleeping.) And even with all that good luck, it was a major part of my life for a year and a half. During those weeks and months that you’re breastfeeding a baby, you never forget it, or at least that’s how it was for me. I found it to be an absolute pleasure, and a wonder, and also terribly, terribly wearing.

From a narrative standpoint, I was interested in that interdependence between mother and infant: the give and take of breastfeeding, and how something unexpected, like getting thrown in jail for a few hours, would add an extra layer of . . . I don’t know what word I’m looking for here, maybe low-grade trauma? Because when you’re away from a breastfeeding baby, the clock is ticking, always, and I found this to be super useful to telling Mary Rose’s story.

Teachers have a special place in my heart, and one of the characters fights to return to her teaching career at a time when most women choose to stay home with their children. What is your relationship with teaching and teachers? Was there a special teacher in your own life who encouraged your writing from a young age?
I haven’t done a lot of teaching, but when I have, I’ve loved it. It’s an honor to have the opportunity to teach (and learn) from a group of teenagers, or adult learners, or other writers in a community workshop. I guess another way to put it is: I love shooting the breeze about topics that interest me. Valentine

But like you, teachers have a special place in my heart. My husband, Jorge, is both a poet and a high school English teacher, and I witness every day how devoted he is to his students, and how devoted they are to him. And I’m a parent, so teachers are always in my orbit. I’m frequently blown away by their kindness and patience, how much they love what they do, how hard they work.

In a lot of ways, the people who taught me the most—maybe not about writing but certainly about stories—weren’t teachers at all, not in any formal sense. They were other waitresses at my jobs, some of them much older than me, or kind-hearted landlords, or neighbors, or random people I’ve met along the way—a park ranger, a stranger on a trail in the Superstition Mountains, someone I asked directions from in downtown Flagstaff and ended up hanging out with for a few hours. There were the fellow regulars at the neighborhood pub or at the library. Serendipitous encounters, I guess you’d call them.

Stories are everywhere, and absolutely inescapable. And of course, because writing is all about heart, I have also been instructed in my writing by those who held my heart, for a time, or broke it—and those whose hearts I held, or broke.

What’s your writing life like? Do you have a strict routine?
OK, but I warn you: It’s not terribly exciting. Every morning, I give my kid a lift to school. He’s 15 and could totally get himself to school, but I enjoy him (and I’m not a morning person anyway, so coffee and a lift to school is about the best I can do for at least an hour or so). And I suppose that I’ve been starting to feel a little nostalgic and mindful of the passage of time. Fifteen! How is my kid 15?! Plus, the drive to school is where I get my best information about what’s going on in his life.

Once he’s been delivered to school, I spend an hour or so dealing with assorted business—email, other correspondence, domestic whatevers. Then I put on some music and read for a bit before I get to work. I really like to read poetry in the morning. Right now, I’m toggling between Elizabeth Bishop’s Poems, Jericho Brown’s The New Testament and Tarfia Faizullah’s Registers of Illuminated Villages. I almost always have something by Larry Levis close by, too, and that’s been the case for several years now.

I always start out writing longhand, which is kind of new for me. It’s a habit I fell into about five years ago. I like to start by revising a bit. Actually, it’s my favorite strategy for a writing day: revise a bit at the beginning of the day, write something new, revise again at the end. When I’m just slogging it out, I’ll wrap it up at 5:00 or so. But when I feel like I’m starting to catch the rhythm of the story, the music and the lyrics, as I said before, then I’ll pretty much start ignoring everyone and everything. I’ll spend long hours hunched over my desk, working until it’s done—a draft, a story, a chapter or even just odd rambling that might eventually, someday, maybe, become something.

Can you tell us anything about your current writing projects?
I love to write short stories. I’ve been working on a new one, and revising two others. And I’m starting to turn my eye toward the first hundred (rough, rough) pages of the next book, which is going to be set a few years after Valentine takes place in . . . Odessa!

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By Elizabeth Wetmore
ISBN 9780062913265

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