Western Travel Writing Life

Mara Purl Interview – Segment #2

How did it come about that your book series was picked up by a large publishing house, and in what ways has that changed your work and your outlook?

The new publishing contract came about as a direct result of developing a following for my books. I write a novel series, the first four of which were published over the last five years with a small independent press. Like most small indie presses, it had no major distribution. But this period of time was tremendously useful because they gave me a lot of focus, and we all learned so much about my readers and how to connect with them. And of course, my writing kept improving.

The larger New York publishers are looking now not only for good writers, but for authors who know their audience, know how to connect with them, and are willing and able to market their own books. Some authors resent this, and feel they should be focusing only their writing. I feel, however, that the publishers today are acknowledging that we authors are the experts when it comes to our books and our readers. So now, working with this fantastic team of very experienced publishers, who do have major distribution, is a grand experience. I feel I’m with the publishers of my dreams. They “get” me, and they appreciate that I “get” how important it is for me to do effective marketing. Though much of what I’m doing now is along the same lines as what I’d been doing, there are two major differences. First, my books are entering the main stream of publishing, and everything about the books is in compliance with the many layers of industry standards. I love that sense of quality control. Second, it’s as though I’ve switched from piloting a tiny rowboat and rowing hard mostly on my own, to being on board a sleek, spacious sailing vessel with an experienced crew and plenty of wind in my sails.

What is your philosophy about research? Tell us about some of your research experiences, and how they have panned out and added new dimension to your stories. What surprises and serendipitous moments have you experienced?

For me, research is foundational to all my story-telling. I’ve often said that non-fiction is about facts, while fiction is about truth. By that I mean that fiction is a lens we can place over life’s issues to look more deeply into the layers and influences that make up human behavior. The situations in which characters find themselves and their particular personalities come from imagination. But the background against which they’re moving—world events, geography, topography, discovery, transportation, communication—the more accurately portrayed these elements are, the more “truth” we can actually see about how people respond.

As journalist, probably sixty or seventy percent of one’s work is research, before you get around to structuring and writing a piece. I was trained by experienced journalists and editors, especially when I worked for the Financial Times and the A.P. Then later, Louis L’Amour became one of my mentors, and I still love his stories and novels. If Louis says there’s a water hole twenty-two miles west of Sonora, either he saw it himself, or he spoke to the man who did. He was a voracious readers and a great lover of history. So he certainly encouraged my interest in research, and encourage me to use it in my fiction.

Quite often when I’m plotting a story segment, I read extensively about the region, or the type of situation I’ll be including. I did several months of research on seismology before writing about a fictitious earthquake. But my “fictitious” earthquake turned out to be prophetic, as a short time later the exact magnitude and location I’d written about did happen. Why? Because my research was detailed and gave me an accurate foundation.