lnside the Literary Mind of Julia Robb
May 16, 2017
“Robb is masterful in her depiction of each character, bringing to life an intriguing tale of the Old West…the author clearly has researched the time period, setting, people, and era so the reader is placed right in the action…Robb has a love for history, for story, and for her characters. Readers will be eager to see her next work!” –Writer’s Digest
I’m a former journalist and editor-I spent twenty years in the newspaper business-and I’m now a free-lance writer/editor in Marshall, Texas. For fun, I drive across Texas, to the deserted corners, the wide spaces, heading west past Waco, watching the mesas float in the distance.
I began writing Scalp Mountain in 2009, when I saw images in my mind; a man kicking his horse into a gallop, racing away from a crime, two men fighting in a Texas valley, a woman hugging an Indian baby, refusing to let him go.
Buddies in the Saddle said about Scalp Mountain, “This is a fine novel. If you drew a line between Lonesome Dove and All the Pretty Horses, you would find Scalp Mountain somewhere along the way…..there were times when this one had me and refused to let go. For anyone who likes their westerns well grounded in history, this is one you don’t want to miss.”
I published Saint of the Burning Heart in February, 2013. Saint is about a half-Hispanic child who is left homeless and alone in small-town Texas. A powerful rancher, Frank Kendall, and his family, adopt Nicki and give her a life of comfort and position.
But family intimacy leads to a obsessive, violent love affair between Nicki and Frank. Nicki is forced to leave town and when she returns finds the town at war with itself, with Anglos pitted against Hispanics. And two of the people she loves best are struggling against each other. Frank leads the Anglos and Nicki’s best friend, David Rodriguez, leads the Hispanics.
I published Del Norte this month, in December, 2013. Del Norte is a novella about San Angela, Texas, which is a rough place in 1870, and Magdalena Chapas knows all about it; from the men who shoot holes in each other while drinking in her saloon, the Del Norte, to the man who loved her, married her and left her without a word.
For more information, visit my website at juliarobb.com.
Question: Tell me about your newest book and what inspired you to write it?
Julia: In The Captive Boy, Col. Mac McKenna’s Fourth Cavalry recaptures August Shiltz from the Comanches and brings him back to Fort Richards, Texas. August was captured by a Comanche war party when he was nine and he’s now fifteen. They also murdered his family.
But August doesn’t remember his white family and wants to return to the Comanches.
Mac attempts to civilize August, but a tragedy occurs and August escapes: Only to become Mac McKenna’s greatest enemy.
I was inspired to write Boy due to my admiration for Col. (later General) Ranald Mackenzie, probably the best Indian Wars general this country possessed, and to my interest in child Indian captives.
In real life, after the captives were returned to their Texas families (although not all were returned), they were never able to live “normal” lives; they couldn’t sustain relationships, they couldn’t settle down in one place, they couldn’t take care of themselves financially. One of them ended up living in a cave.
Many of the former captives longed to return to the Indians, but by the time the children were returned, the Comanches were being settled on the reservation.
So the wild, free life was gone forever.
For anyone interested in pursuing this subject further, I suggest reading The Captured, by Scott Zesch. It’s a terrific non-fiction account of the captive children.
Question: When and why did you decide to become a writer?
Julia: I never decided to become a writer. I was a writer. It was just who I am. I’m always thinking about plot. So sitting down to write was like breathing. I began my first novel in the last 1970’s, but that was a learning experience and I burned the manuscript (and a good thing too).
Then I wrote a non-fiction book and didn’t have time for novels.
But in the mid-80’s, I was driving back and forth to Shreveport, La. every day for a newspaper job (35 miles). While I drove, I constructed Saint of the Burning Heart, the entire plot.
At a certain point in a writer’s life, that writer has to have a project. It’s what keeps us balanced. So I then wrote Scalp Mountain (2012), Del Norte (Aug. 2015) and The Captive Boy (Dec. 2015).
Question: What book has been the greatest influence on you and your writing and why?
Julia: Three books: The Wonderful Country, by Tom Lea, Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad and All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy.
The Wonderful Country taught me you can write about the West (Texas, in this case), and write a classic. Any genre can be a vehicle for classic writing.
Wonderful Country is set in the1880’s. It begins when Martin Brady returns to the United States after spending most of his life in Mexico. The novel is about a man’s search for home. Beautiful.
Lord Jim is a classic about redemption. A man who imagined himself a hero does something cowardly and is pursued by the courts. Everyone knows. How can he come to terms with his world and himself?
God bless Joseph Conrad. He did something wonderful. He showed us what being human is all about.
Finally, McCarthy’s novel is just beautiful, the writing is classic and moving and perfect. The scenes where the protagonist returns to Texas from Mexico, and stops at a famous border radio station, are so poignant.
All three of these novels are poignant, and I believe that’s important. Lives lived without emotion, without redemption, without a search of some kind, are empty lives.
Question: Where do you find the ideas for your books?
Julia: I don’t know. Something resonates. I knew I wanted to write about Mackenzie (McKenna in the novel) and show his heart. He was a lonely man searching for love, which he never found. And I also wanted to write about child captives; thus The Captive Boy.
In a way, I was trying to comfort Mackenzie/McKenna, although I don’t expect anyone to understand that. I don’t even understand that. It has something to do with my need to bleed for him.
In Saint of the Burning Heart, Nicki comes home to Santa Del Corazon Encendido, Saint of the Burning Heart in English, after being exiled for five years. She then finds her former lover and her best friend leading opposite sides in a race war, expressed through an election campaign.
I wrote Saint because for many years I lived in places like Encendido, and I had those places on my mind. I also lived in Texas when the Hispanics were struggling for dignity and their fair share of political power and I wanted to write about that. And I wanted to write about Nicki and Frank because I wanted to explore the costs of refusing to love.
Frank loves Nicki but refuses to acknowledge it because he’s scared.
I also wanted to write about how racial prejudice affects the victims.
Question: Where do you find the ideas for your characters?
Julia: I believe all our characters are us, the writers; our unconscious conflicts, our ideas, our needs, our struggles, what and who we love and hate; but then we throw in everything else we’ve ever observed or heard about.
Question: How would you describe your writing style.
Julia: I worked as a reporter for many years, so I tend not to ramble and I pare down my sentences to their shortest length. But I’m a poet at heart and I love the world. So I want you to see the beauty, and be able to smell and feel it.
When the troopers drag August Shiltz into Mac McKenna’s office at Fort Richards, I want you to smell him. August has been on a journey, riding in the sun, he’s a young man, he hasn’t had a bath for years, his hair is crawling with lice.
How can you, the reader, understand August unless you smell his desperate sweat, the cold iron scent of it?
Question: What do you consider the most difficult part of writing a book?
Julia: Pacing. For instance, in Scalp Mountain, getting Colum McNeal from Mexico to Texas. Colum’s father has sent gunmen after him, so Colum has run fast and far.
When the book begins, Colum is working on a hacienda. When he’s told there’s a hidden valley in Texas he decides to go home (or at least return to the state where he grew up). I suspect Colum knew there was no place to hide, but like all of us, he closed his eyes to what he didn’t want to see.
So I had to write Colum’s journey and give him things to do before life catches up to him.
Pacing is extremely important in a novel. Everything can’t happen at once.
Question: What are your current projects?
Julia: I’m working on two novels. One about Lucille Van der Waal, a young woman who marries a Texas rancher and leaves him ten months later. That has disastrous results for her family and her world.
Pat Garrett (who killed Billy the Kid) is one of my characters. This novel is not titled, but here’s the first few paragraphs:
It was raining the night Lucille left Robert Hennessey.
Lucille married Hennessey ten months earlier, but after the first night she wouldn’t sleep with him, curling up instead on the pink velvet chaise lounge pushed against the bedroom wall.
She wouldn’t explain to Hennessey why she didn’t sleep with him. She couldn’t make herself say, “I hate your smell.”
Her husband did not smell bad in the classic sense. He took baths.
But Hennessey’s natural smell, the smell of his skin, made her nauseous, as did his plump stomach, and she hadn’t known that would happen until she was laying in bed beside him on their wedding night, January 15, 1880.
I’m also working on a novel about a Buffalo Soldier who is serving in the 10th Cavalry, and his commanding officers, one of whom is his former owner. Isaiah Washington is stationed in Texas in the 1870’s.
Please click HERE to purchase Captive Boy.