By Dan Sheehan
Paulette Jiles’ News of the World is the kind of utterly transporting historical narrative whose brevity seems both perfectly judged and cruelly unfair. Set in 1870, it’s the story of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, an elderly widower and veteran of three wars who traverses the towns of Northern Texas giving public readings to audiences hungry for stories from far-flung places. His solitary existence is upended when he is tasked with delivering a young orphan girl across 400 miles of unsettled territory to her relatives in San Antonio. This, however, is no ordinary child.
Adopted by the same band of Kiowa Indians who killed her parents and sister in a raid four years earlier, tiny-but-fierce Johanna had been wrenched from the only home she knows and is understandably somewhat less than enthused by the prospect of a settled life in household of austere strangers. Initially wary of one another, as the miles pass and the dangers mount, the Captain and Johanna reach an understanding that develops into one of the most endearing and affecting relationships of its kind that I have ever come across in fiction.
Jiles and I corresponded by email earlier this month, discussing the inspiration behind Captain Kidd, the power of feeding the imagination, and her time spent with the indigenous people of Northern Canada.
Dan Sheehan: Firstly, congratulations on your nomination for this truly wonderful book. I can think of few professions more romantic than Captain Kidd’s—travelling from town to town, reading the news of far flung places to halls full of enraptured people, many of whom may have never left their small corner of the world. How did you come across, or come up with, this idea?
Paulette Jiles: Well I came across Captain Kidd because he was the great-great-grandfather of the husband of one of the women I ride horses with. The couple’s name is June and Wayne Chism. We were talking once and he mentioned his great-great-grandfather going around North Texas in the 1870’s and reading from newspapers. I knew right away this was a great character.
DS: You detail Texas life so beautifully, and have now written three books set in the Lone Star State. What is it about Texas at this period that fascinates you?
PJ: Novels are always about individuals, and with very little social structure or government presence of any kind, much falls on the shoulders of individuals. Not ruling out community efforts at all, but it’s more plausible that the individual stands out in this sort of situation. Also, in the traditional sort of narrative, which is the only one I am interested in, exterior events move the story, and there were indeed a great many exterior events [affecting Texas] at this time.
DS: The emotional bond that develops between Captain Kidd and Johanna on their journey to San Antonio is the heart of the book. Combined, they form around each other a sort of protective force field that inures them to the cruelties of their world. Can you talk a little bit about how you approached this relationship?
PJ: I love that phrase, that Captain Kidd and Johanna ‘form a protective force field around each other’ as indeed they do. They are both remarkable individuals, or I have tried to make them so. They work perfectly together as a pair, and choosing an elderly man and a young girl made their quality of courage stand out more strongly.
DS: Captain Kidd is on a one-man mission to feed the imaginations of his audiences at an historical moment when the rancor of political division is all anyone can talk about. You’ve spoken about how the world of the imagination is as necessary as any other, as vital to our existence as the more prosaic issues of the real world. The American political climate of the last 8-10 years is arguably as bitterly polarized as any time since the period you’re writing about. In your focusing on the America of the past, and on traditional narrative storytelling, do you see any similarities between yourself and Captain Kidd?
PJ: Yes, Captain Kidd is on a mission to feed the imaginations of his audiences, and yes we need that more today, more than ever. At any rate, let me speak for myself. I am surrounded by admonition, imperative sentences, loud electronic voices lecturing and this involves only a very shallow part of my mind. We can’t do without the world of the imagination and it will come back somehow. I am straightforwardly engaged with the traditional narrative story, with all the timeless narrative tools, and don’t intend to do anything else. It’s not that I am uninformed about experimental literature, but that I find the traditional approach both very pleasing to me and challenging. It’s not easy.
DS: You lived for ten years with indigenous peoples in northern Canada. You even learned the Cree and Ojibwa languages. How did this experience influence you as a storyteller?
PJ: I heard Ojibwe storytellers recite long complex legends and myths, and I sat and listened through a translator as an elder would choose a direct scene, or narrative summary to get through a certain part, and was amazed. I knew from this that it is instinctive, it is hard-wired in our brains to leap out of the present world and into another, and those were the tools, or perhaps the controls, on the flight deck of a starship. The protagonists were armed with air, fire, water, flint, deceptive intelligences; sometimes they traveled at terrific speed and other times they floated. They caught the sun with a net or dived to the bottom of the ocean and returned with world-stuff in their hands. It was a very long time before I could shake myself free of contemporary fashions and get down to the business of writing a good story, a tale, you see, but I finally managed.
DS: Finally, I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t share with readers the best response to an interview request I think I’ve ever received from a publicist: “Paulette is out of technology range this week, riding the Ozark trail on horseback.”
PJ: Yes, I was right out of contact, but so often in the remote north of Canada I was in the same situation and I liked it. Of course that was back in the 70’s. But there is something very nice about electronic silence.
Dan Sheehan is an Irish fiction writer, journalist, and editor. His writing has appeared in The Irish Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, TriQuarterly, Words Without Borders, Electric Literature, among other. He lives in New York, where he is currently working for LitHub and Guernica magazine and is a recipient of the 2016 Center for Fiction Emerging Writers Fellowship. His debut novel, Restless Souls, will be published in 2018 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.