Traveling With Jo-Ann Mapson: A 21st Century Western Writer

by Marie Loggia-Kee

Writer Marie Loggia-Kee shares with the readers of Literary Traveler her inspiring phone interview with Western writer, Jo-Ann Mapson. (Photo Credit: Stewart Allison)

Filled with lush, literary landscapes, crisp climates and attention to the minute details, author Jo-Ann Mapson captures the heart of the West. Readers travel through the Southwest locales of New Mexico and Arizona, journeying varied regions of California, and finally delving into the wild frontier of Alaska.

Classified as mainstream women’s fiction, Mapson, 55, has published nine novels and a book of short stories. Her first novel, Hank & Chloe (1994), spins a rich romantic tapestry against the backdrop of a burgeoning Orange County, CA. As the middle child in a family of five, Mapson learned to watch the events around her and write them down. Growing up with one dresser drawer to keep her personal belongings, Mapson stresses the importance of creating one’s own sense of space. This philosophy crosses over into her literature.

In addition to this train of thought, the author also believes in extensive research.  In order to depict the scenery of New Mexico for her novel Blue Rodeo, Mapson read no less than 200 books. She poured through books on raising sheep, weaving, and about Native Americans. In this interview from her home in Alaska, Mapson said she wanted to get the information correct. Along with reading, she utilizes a variety of techniques to place her characters, and the reader, into a realistic location. The author spends time in the area, takes photographs of landmarks and main streets, draws pictures and maps, and swears by Auto Club travel books, which provide sweet insights into locales.

As a special source of inspiration, while writing, Mapson also keeps a treasury of talismans close by on the desk. The keepsakes and found objects provide a connection to the place she is describing. Currently, her desk has three little cubbies at the top. Within eyesight rests a cookie press of an owl and moon that her friend, fellow writer, Judi Hendricks bought her; a little Navaho storyteller doll; a statue of St. Francis, which is from The Wilder Sisters; the bones of a bird that she found in Half Moon Bay; and a film canister filled with dirt from the Chimayo Santuario in New Mexico, which is known as the Church of Miracles. Whenever Mapson begins a new book, she cleans out the old mementos and replaces them with new ones. As she continues the writing process, Mapson is able to pick up a rock from the place which she describes, and feel more of a connection.

The Southwest

Reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road imbues a sense of Colorado history. Kerouac’s descriptions of Larimer Square and the Old Opera House make readers feel like they are trekking through the pages and literally visiting those places. Likewise, Mapson evokes the strength of the Southwest in Blue Rodeo(1994), which was made into television film starring Kris Kristofferson and Ann Margaret.

The protagonist, Margaret, moves to “Blue Dog,” New Mexico, which Mapson says was based upon the city of Aztec. The town lies close to the legendary Shiprock Mountain. Remember that canister of sacred dirt that rests above Mapson’s desk? Margaret’s deaf son Peter makes a breakthrough while visiting the church:

They drove to the santuario from Espanola on 64, passing the small farming community with its glut of weavers and artists who helped stock Santa Fe with the art they sold to tourists, but who couldn’t afford to live there. The way to Chimayo was down a winding two-lane road, made narrower by banked snowfall lining its edge.

Although Santa Fe has changed over the years, Mapson says that its rich history cannot be denied. In fact, “there’s a bar there that some Spanish soldier rode his horse in and shot the place up,” Mapson said. “It’s still there. The history is just so close to the dirt. It’s right there if you scratch it.”

One travel spot that Mapson said everyone should visit is the Four Corners area. The natural landscape of Shiprock makes her more of a believer in that history. Historically, the Navaho believe that is where they came from–the rock which is shaped like a ship. The “art of the landscape” makes her think it could be true.

California Coastal

In her ninth novel, The Owl & Moon Cafe(2006), Mapson delves into the California coastal towns of Monterey and Pacific Grove, where she chronicles two local landmark activities, the Tomato Festival and the Butterfly Festival:

October featured Pacific Groves Tomato Festival. Silly people dressed up like the plump red globes for old-fashioned, corny fun that warmed residents up for the crown jewel, November’s Butterfly Festival. There was a parade and a butterfly queen, but the magic was in the monarchs themselves. During clustering season, a tree trunk could turn black and orange, covered with hundreds of wings. The Grove Path was deliberately unmarked. Only a few visitors were allowed each day. The sight of a thousand butterflies was humbling. Scientists could calculate their life cycles, but they hadn’t a clue as to why they returned to Pacific Grove instead of someplace else.

While the bakery in The Owl & Moon Cafeexists, Mapson admits that it is located in Carmel. Instead, she placed it in a Pacific Grove location, where another bakery exists. In order to make the setting authentic, she studied all of the street locations. One character, Ferguson, moors his boat near the Wharf. During her scouting expedition, although the gate was locked, Mapson stood at the docks and counted the slips to determine what size boat would fit.

After taking the Carmel Gate onto Seventeen Mile Drive, they rounded the Spanish Bay golf course, and Fergus exited at the Lighthouse Gate, turning toward the wharf.

And, for the reader who grows hungry while visiting the pages of Mapson’s Pacific Grove, it is imperative to stop by Fifi’s Cafe, which the writer describes as being “shabby-chic.”

Final Frontier

After living in California and spending extended periods in New Mexico and Arizona, Mapson now lives in Alaska. She visited the state during a book tour, and fell in love with the environment. She likens her experience with the natural setting to being star-struck in Hollywood. During her trip, every animal –moose, raven, eagle–made a guest appearance. When she moved, so did the character Beryl from the Bad Girl Creekseries.

In Zakiya Latha’s review of Goodbye, Earl(2004) in the Anchorage Press, the descriptions of the environment ring so true that Latha easily identified Mapson as a resident:

Beryl studied the Alaskan landscape, the names of the mountains and glaciers–Sleeping Lady, Denali, the Knik, and Matanuska. She memorized the names of flowers like the periwinkle blue forget-me-not, assorted columbines, and the frankly yellow butter-and-eggs.

Human’s control of nature, or lack of, resonates through Goodbye, Earl, in which Beryl either faces her companion’s abandonment or Earl’s succumbing to the elements. Because of the great force of nature in Alaska, Mapson said that it is often a battle to keep the landscape as a background. As a fiction writing professor at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, Mapson said that students often struggle with the balance of not allowing the setting to overpower the storyline. She describes the Turnagain Arm, which is in Cook Inlet, as a breathtakingly beautiful part of the coastline. At the same time, it can be deadly. “If you fell in it, you’d die,” Mapson said. “And people do die up here, a lot, from the elements.”

The Art of Fiction

Although Mapson works to preserve the truth of a place, there are times when she needs to alter reality. Part of the storyline in Along Came Mary(2002) focuses on the aftermath of the Murrah Building bombing in Oklahoma. From visiting the memorial site, Mapson knew one element that she wanted to use in the novel, but ultimately, her editor made her change it. One display case was filled with rubble from the tragic day, including a shoe from a victim.

Mapson wanted her character to recognize her sister’s shoe. Instead, the editor made the writer change the detail to a photograph of a news clipping. Sometimes, reality can be too true to believe.

It is a wonder to hear how Mapson’s descriptions can affect others. There are those who read her work knowing an area. The scenes of the Monterey peninsula evoke memories of salty sea air and fried calamari on the wharf. Other readers may have never had the pleasure of digging through the literary treasures of Bookworks, an authentic bookstore mentioned in The Owl & Moon Cafe. The author even provides the street location, Lighthouse.

Finally, Mapson explains one compliment that left a lasting impression.

While visiting the Braille Institute, a blind woman told Mapson that the author had written the settings so vividly, that even she  could “see” them.

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