Interview with Paulette Jiles

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SLR: When did you first start writing stories?  When did you know you wanted to spend you life writing?

PJ: I think I was eleven. I wrote an adventure story. Wrote it out by hand and drew illustrations for it. Writing was all I ever wanted to do other than live in the country and have horses.  I have been able to support myself by writing only recently.

SLR: What writers influenced you the most when you were young?

PJ: Whoever wrote Highwayman.  My mother used to read it to us aloud. It was dark and thrilling and it rhymed and there were galloping horses and gibbous moons and Bess, the landlord’s black-eyed daughter.  Then whoever wroteAltair Four.  Riveting.  I read it when I was twelve. It had four different points of view.  Later found that it was made into a film called Forbidden Planet which I never saw but the book was based on the The Tempest with a Prospero type person who created things that went remarkably bad and ate or rent the characters.  Food for thought.

Then  a science-fiction short story called “fast Tuesday night”.  My mother also read Tom Sawyer to us. I was so surprised to find out that Mark Twain was from Missouri. I thought that to be a full-time writer you had to be from someplace like Mars or Boston.

SLR: What inspired you to switch from poetry to novel and where did you come up with the idea of your first novel Enemy Women?

PJ: My poems just kept getting longer and longer. I tried to write a novel twice and threw both away.  Didn’t understand anything about plot.  Finally understood I was interested in writing an adventure novel rather than a novel of psychological exploration.  Adventure novels have a whole different set of tools, different aims, etc.  I always admired Hemingway but thought girls weren’t suppose to write like that.  The idea for Enemy Women came after I found that a large number of women in Missouri were imprisoned during the Civil War.

SLR: When you write do you have the story outlined completely in your head or does it unfold as you write?

PJ: No it usually unfolds on its own but hat can be torturous and evenmore boring to explain.  I general have a main idea.

SLR: In your research about the Ozarks, and the War, were there any surprises?  Did you learn something about your native region that really struck you?

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PJ: Yes. I learned a great many things about the Ozarks during the War that were very alarming and upsetting and not generally known.  The fighting was far more savage and cold-blooded than I had ever heard about. There is a lot of first-person testimony that still has not been published except in ring binders.  Very little of this was passed down in family stories.  However, considering the Balkans, I suppose a little historical amnesia is not altogether a bad thing.

SLR: What has been your experience when talking with people from across the country about the Ozark Mountains? Does it seem to you that Americans, beyond the mid-south region, know very much about the Ozarks—the hills and hill people?  Did you come across stereotyping—a misunderstanding about the region? Or perhaps a very clear understanding and an interest?

PJ: For a while in the 60’s and 70’s there was some interest among urban hippies in the hill people. They were the Salt of the Earth who knew ancient versions of Elizabethan ballads and had Martin D-38’s in the hall closet that you could buy for $50 and made corn whiskey but that was a passing fad.

According to Albion’s Seed, the hills people (Scots-Irish) are direct descendents of the very large wave of immigration from the north of England/Lowland Scotland/Ulster that came to Colonial American in the 120’s to about 1780. The other three main waves of immigration to populate Colonial America were the Puritans, from East Anglia (1600’s) who went to New England, the rich plantation-owners for the south of England (1600’s) who went to Virginia and Maryland and the Quakers who landed in Delaware and Pennsylvania.

The Scots-Irish were the last group and the poorest an they had been stereotyped and derided as rednecks before they ever got on a ship.  The Puritans, the Virginia Cavaliers and the Quakers were more affluent and came earlier and had things like forks and carpets and pet cats and ideologies.  I guess those groups thought they’d got clean away from the Scots-Irish, who were barbarous and feral, but here they came, shiploads of them, in grimy plaids and shoeless as usual. They had great survival skills, being accustomed to staying alive on clabber and oatcakes.  They took to the hills because that was all that was left to settle and besides there were free turkeys wandering around everywhere. They sang deeply mournful ballads. Made their own whiskey, pulled their own teeth. A distinct culture, formed out of the old British Kingdoms of Strathclyde and Rhedge.

Of course, things have changed, I too have a pet cat, Sam (mackerel tabby with green eyes) and I have obtained a good deal on silver forks on e-Bay.

SLR: The Ozarks have had a strong musical tradition to their culture.  Did music have a strong presence in your family?  Did it contribute to your poetic skills? If not, what do you attribute to your poetic nature?

PJ: Yes, there was a lot of music in my family.  My grandfather and my mother and her two sisters loved to sing.  They could all play guitar and also they could shoot guns. They sang traditional songs and Depression-era songs. I learned things like Barbara Allen, All Around a Water Tank, I’ll Fly Away, Freight Train Blues from them. I wanted to be able to sing with my mother and aunts because they were beautiful and glamorous and could harmonize and drive trucks and shoot off guns.

SLR: Vance Randolph researched the language and culture of the hill people.  What do you think of his research, if anything? And what are your thoughts on the dialect of the region?

PJ: I have serious doubts about Vance Randolph. He seemed to have traveled many miles to record a simple-minded dirty story but never found out what happened to Alf Bowlin’s head.

There are many variations of hills dialects. I always wondered how the north-of –England /Lowland Scots speech came to change into what we hear today.

SLR: How would you describe the Ozark Mountains in the present day for someone who has never been to this part of the country?

PJ: Well, writers are not experts on anything except writing. But! I will say television has in the main fairly drugged the population. Speech patterns are now standardized Valley Girl, with the little breathiness and ainty stresses.  Lots of jaw action and head tossing…of course this is happening in Norway, and Texas and Brazil. But once in a while you can come upon somebody who speaks with the pure and lovely old accent, but they are rare.

Other than that, there are wonderful lakes, springs, and rivers that offer recreational opportunities unbounded.  Go in October. The leaves are colorful and the ticks are gone and the marijuana harvest is over.

SLR: I read in a previous interview someone asked you about the writers that influenced you the most and your response was Cormac MacCarthy.  Are there others?  As a reader, what do you look for in a novel?

PJ: Well, what I look for in a novel is a main character who is worthy of sustained attention, who is not stupid, vain and shallow or, if a country person, a moron.  I look for a writer, who in the main eschews irony and derisions as a quick and dirty way of appearing intelligent, but instead tackles the challenge of creating a character who is sincere and honest but not sentimentalized.

SLR: Are you reading anything now? Any recommendations?

PJ: I’m reading a Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides by Samuel Johnson/James Boswell. I just finished all of Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey-Maturin series. I recommend all of the above.

SLR: Thank you so much Ms. Jiles for taking time from your busy schedule to talk with us.


  1. I just finished reading Stormy Weather and was captivated by the character of Jeanine and her determination to make a home for her family and herself. I was particularly interested in the Texas background and the depression era. Having lived in San Antonio for a decade, I enjoy reading books that take place in Texas.. My mother grew up during the depression and I loved being able to read a story set in that time. I plan on reading other novels by the same author.

  2. I recently read your new book, News of the World, an absolutely charming book. Those characters are delightful and memorable. I think this is a book I’ll read again and again. Your mention in this interview of The Highwayman caught my attention. My mother read this poem to my sister and me when we were children, and it has been an inspiration for my writing.

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