Friday, September 16, 2022

Q&A with Ashley E. Sweeney



Photo by Justin Haugen Photography


Ashley E. Sweeney is the author of the new novel Hardland. Her other books include the novel Answer Creek. A former journalist and educator, she lives in Tucson and in the Pacific Northwest.


Q: What inspired you to write Hardland, and how did you create your character Ruby?


A: Thanks so much for having me, Deborah. I’m thrilled to be featured again on your blog, this time for Hardland.


Inspiration for Hardland? An interesting story. In the spring of 2020, when I was two years (and 85,000 words!) into what I thought would be my third novel based in Scotland and Astoria, Oregon, at the height of the fur trading empire, the nation was plunged into the Covid-19 lockdown.


I took that time to reassess what my next move would be, seeing as I’d be unable to travel for research in the foreseeable future, something I needed to do to finish the current manuscript.


Instead, I used that time of quiet introspection to uncover a long-buried trauma that had lain dormant for many decades and created the character Ruby Fortune to help me through the process of healing.


The backstory: When I was a young woman, I was brutally assaulted by a man I loved. The physical scars of that time have long since healed, but the emotional scars have lingered. In the spring of 2020, I unpacked all of the emotions surrounding that long-ago trauma and worked through my own grief as I wrote Ruby’s story.


Ruby is as tough as they come, and weathers domestic abuse, misogyny, and economic challenges, a product of a hard life in a hard land at a hard time. While her story differs from mine in specifics, in general, it mirrors mine, and millions of other women’s, experience.


According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), one out of every three women in the U.S. has been a victim of intimate partner violence in her life. That represents 50 million women—a staggering number.


My hope is that Ruby’s story of survival will speak to women everywhere that there is a life after bruises. I’ve said before that if even one woman changes her life path as a result of reading Hardland, it will have been worth it coming forward with my own story and writing the novel.


Q: I'm so sorry to learn about your experience...


So what made you decide to focus on Arizona in this novel, and how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: My husband and I live in Tucson in the winter and spring, and were in Tucson at the onset of Covid-19 in March 2020. When I shelved the novel I was working on, I looked out the window over the vast Sonoran Desert and created a fictional town not 10 miles from where I sit at my writing desk to house Ruby’s story.


Setting is always a character in my novels, and Hardland is no different. Booklist says “In Hardland, Sweeney makes Arizona a character.”


Here is a short excerpt:


The mare’s deft hooves crunch on hardpan and clatter up loose gravel as Ruby winds her way around cactus thickets, thorny ironwood, and sun-whitened bones of the dead: big horn sheep, mule deer, bobcat, desert hare. Millions of years ago, the earth heaved up so quickly that there wasn’t time to smooth the edges, so chain after chain of mountains rise from the cracked desert floor like islands in the sea, here at the rough edge of the world.


Crossing a dry riverbed, ocotillo lines the snaky pathway, its spindly stalks casting oblong shadows across the trail. Stark white billows back up against the jagged Santa Catalinas as Ruby gains altitude. It’s August now, February’s moody twin. It won’t be long before lightning rips the sky and thunder gallops behind, rumbling savagely the length of the mountains. Ruby trains one eye on the sky and the other on the trail. Monsoons can make a body nervous.


Q: The writer Shelley Blanton-Stroud said of Ruby: “Ruby is a difficult woman, in the best way possible. She shoots, she kills, she enjoys lustful sex. She survives. She protects her children and the people she loves. Literature is filled with men like this. But there are very few Rubies.” What do you think of that description?


A: Absolutely! And Blanton-Stroud is not the only reviewer who commented on that. Several male author readers have expressed the same.


In typical Westerns, women are portrayed as tropes: madam, damsel in distress, schoolmarm, etc. In Hardland, Ruby is a lusty, gutsy woman who, despite her diminutive size, stands up to any man who dares get in her way. And while there is a madam and a schoolteacher in the novel, (as well as other minor female characters), they don’t follow “typical” storylines; all of them evolve as fully fleshed characters.


In the past year, I’ve read a couple of other literary Westerns that have portrayed strong women: Nora in Tea Obreht’s Inland and Jesse in John Larison’s Whiskey When We’re Dry. It’s high time westerns feature strong female protagonists. Just because we haven’t read about more “Rubies” doesn’t mean they didn’t populate the American West.


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: Because of the Covid-19 lockdown limitations, research for Hardland differed from my earlier novels as I was limited to internet, Zoom and phone interviews, email exchanges, and copious reading.


The one in-person interview I did with Chuck Sternberg at Oracle Historical Society resulted in my most profound experience while researching.


As Chuck and I sat six feet apart at a large table in a cavernous room at the historical society housed at the former Acadia Ranch in Oracle, discussing the history of Oracle (eight miles from my fictional Jericho, another boom and bust Arizona mining town), he had just finished telling me that women like Ruby existed in Oracle at the turn of the 20th century when all of a sudden, a closed door flew open to let in a draft. We looked at each other and he said, “Ruby is here.” I kid you not.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Following Ruby Fortune, I’m creating another strong female protagonist based loosely on my great-grandmother’s story, coming alone from Ireland at age 13 in 1885 and becoming a cowgirl in Colorado. I still have the 85,000-word manuscript on the back burner, and two more ideas burning holes in my imagination.


My 93-year-old author father is still writing, so I hope to follow in his footsteps and write until I can’t hold a pencil or type anymore.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Hardland is making a splash in Western magazines, with positive reviews in True West, Roundup, and Cowgirl.


I invite readers to follow me at Sign up for a monthly newsletter that features publishing news, reading lists, and more. And there’s usually a contest, too.


And thanks again for having me!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Ashley E. Sweeney.

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