Q.    Upon reading these original writings, what conclusions did you draw about how the pioneer experience differed between men and women?  

A.    What I found as I read these collections of letters and diaries is that while men were primarily interested in discovering and claiming a new land, women wanted to experience that land and become part of it.  Women were often the ones who communicated with the Indians and established trades with them. The details women used to describe the western landscape mostly dealt with color and shape and what made the land seem beautiful as opposed to men who typically characterized new territory by marking rivers or boundaries.  And on wagon trains, while men were in charge of driving the wagons and herds, women were responsible for the children.  Women often recorded their fears of losing their children to illness or accidents, a reality incorporated in Between Earth and Sky .  In one such diary a woman simply listed day after day the names and dates on the grave markers they passed.  This became her accounting, a kind of toll, of the passage they endured.

Q.    Why did you chose New Mexico as the setting for Between Earth and Sky , and how were you able to make the New Mexican landscape come to life and assume such a striking presence?

A.    I've always been drawn to the southwestern region of the country.  It's amazing how startlingly different this landscape is from the east.  My sister lived in New Mexico for several years, and so the two of us went out there while I was writing the book, rented a car and spent a lot of time driving around the state, particularly the areas north of Albuquerque and Santa Fe.  We camped out at night and hiked during the day so that we could completely immerse ourselves in the landscape.  

My writing career began with poetry.  Yet even now that I am writing novels, I still obsess over language and imagery as a way of making the invented world tangible.   Abigail is an artist, an amateur painter, who loves the visual world.  This gave me a little more poetic license to stretch the language and paint the world as Abigail sees it.   In one of Abigail's letters to her sister Maggie in 1915, Abigail describes the desert surrounding her:

"The sky pulsed with light, and when I looked across the sand I seemed to see small pools of water everywhere reflecting it.  A dry, hot wind blew as I sat on my horse before the mesa, its shape cut against the sky, that mesa as familiar as any house to me.  My eyes touched every part of it--the small, pinions that grow at the base and the dark cedars that push themselves between the crevices, and the purple rock, everywhere rock.   I leaned back in the saddle Clayton had ridden in and turned my face up to the sky.  Its light poured through me, the dry heat."

Q.   What historical details from this time period helped shape the narrative of Between Earth and Sky ?

A.    Issues such as the struggle for statehood and the opposition of the Catholic Church to Protestant mission schools helped give the novel a time line and a greater sense of reality. For instance, in my research I discovered that Indians and settlers on the wagon trains were constantly playing pranks on one another and that because they misunderstood each other's cultures, sometimes those pranks escalated and led to violence.  This fact helps explain the reasons behind many of the skirmishes between the Indians and American settlers, and paints a more realistic and dramatic picture of this fragile relationship.

Similarly, when I read the history of the struggle for control of water in the New Mexican desert, I could understand why so many of the pioneers who tried to settle in this region failed, because as newcomers, they didn't understand the complex irrigation system needed to tend the land.  

Q.    Why did you decide to write Between Earth and Sky as an epistolary novel, and how is the course of Abigail's life revealed through the letters?

A.   Since my research entailed reading many original letters, it seemed like the natural voice for the narrative.  The epistolary form allows for a kind of intimacy, especially when the narrator is writing to a close friend or relative.  In this case, the protagonist, Abigail Conklin, corresponds with her sister, Maggie, who remains in their native Virginia.  This form allows for a transparency of language so that as Abigail gets older, the language changes to directly reflect how she herself has changed, and as a result, how her relationship to her sister is changing. By the end of the novel, it's as if Abigail's very soul speaks directly through the letters.

Q.   Between Earth and Sky showcases the tremendous role women played during the pioneer days.   How would you describe the relationships between the three generations of women characterized in the novel?  

A.    Abigail is the sister who leaves the safety and domesticity of Virginia to travel to a distant and foreign place, while Maggie stays at home. This separation inevitably shapes the differences that develop between them over the years.   Maggie's moral and social expectations become much more rigid than Abigail's, and thus, it is difficult for Maggie to understand Abigail's growing attachment for such an untamed place.  

In a sense, these differences are mirrored in Abigail's own daughters.   Amy, the child she is ironically closest to, ends up returning to Virginia to live, while Margaret, named after Abigail's sister, ends up possessing very little of Maggie's "common sense" and becomes as wild as the landscape around her.  It is true that siblings often attempt to compensate for each other's deficits, and unconsciously become what the other is not.  

Abigail's mother cannot forgive her for leaving Virginia and taking the grandchildren to such a dangerous place. In turn, Abigail has difficulty accepting her own daughter's wild nature.  Finally, Abbey, Abigail's great, great granddaughter who inherits the letters and makes the same trip westward, is in many ways like her ancestor, so there is a kind of pull or connection felt through the generations.  

Q.    Abigail has strong, complex feelings towards the people of New Mexico, and her feelings change as the book progresses.  How would you explain those feelings and her reactions to the different cultures she encounters?  

A.    My research uncovered that most of the new settlers' first impressions of the native New Mexicans were quite negative--they were often compared to "blacks" and thought to make "poor servants."  Many early Protestant settlers were appalled by some of the Catholic ceremonies, such as self-flagellation of the penitents, and the churches, which they considered gaudy and idolatrous.  

In Between Earth and Sky, Abigail confronts a people very different from anyone she has ever known.  Gradually, through repeated contacts with her neighbors, she comes to understand more about their lives. At times she fears these inhabitants, but she also learns to love them.  In the end, Abigail alienates herself from her own white kinsfolk when she bravely decides to raise her half-Mexican granddaughter amidst local prejudice.  Abigail's Hispanic neighbor becomes her one true friend as she learns to embrace this new culture, practicing some of the rituals she once condemned. 
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Readers' Guide

An Interview with the Author
Q.    Between Earth and Sky tells the story of Abigail Conklin, a woman who leaves her native homeland of Virginia soon after the Civil War, treks across the continent in a covered wagon, and settles in the raw southwest just before the turn of the century. Why did you choose to write about the pioneer experience, and what special historical research did you conduct while writing this novel?  

A.    I've always been interested in history and fascinated with the experience of the American pioneers discovering a new land that must have seemed overwhelmingly beautiful, strange and dangerous.  When I was in college, I read the more well known accounts of exploration--among them, the Lewis and Clark Expeditions and Audubon's Papers. While I lived and taught in Kentucky, I found many original writings by women from that time period in a special collections library, and discovered captive narratives which specifically detail the pioneer experience of being captured by Indians.  Through these early documents, I learned how different the westward experience was for most women. 

Q.    Upon reading these original writings, what conclusions did you draw about how the pioneer experience differed between men and women?  

A.    What I found as I read these collections of letters and diaries is that while men were primarily interested in discovering and claiming a new land, women wanted to experience that land and become part of it.  Women were often the ones who communicated with the Indians and established trades with them. The details women used to describe the western landscape mostly dealt with color and shape and what made the land seem beautiful as opposed to men who typically characterized new territory by marking rivers or boundaries.  And on wagon trains, while men were in charge of driving the wagons and herds, women were responsible for the children.  Women often recorded their fears of losing their children to illness or accidents, a reality incorporated in Between Earth and Sky .  In one such diary a woman simply listed day after day the names and dates on the grave markers they passed.  This became her accounting, a kind of toll, of the passage they endured.

Q.    Why did you chose New Mexico as the setting for Between Earth and Sky , and how were you able to make the New Mexican landscape come to life and assume such a striking presence?

A.    I've always been drawn to the southwestern region of the country.  It's amazing how startlingly different this landscape is from the east.  My sister lived in New Mexico for several years, and so the two of us went out there while I was writing the book, rented a car and spent a lot of time driving around the state, particularly the areas north of Albuquerque and Santa Fe.  We camped out at night and hiked during the day so that we could completely immerse ourselves in the landscape.  

My writing career began with poetry.  Yet even now that I am writing novels, I still obsess over language and imagery as a way of making the invented world tangible.   Abigail is an artist, an amateur painter, who loves the visual world.  This gave me a little more poetic license to stretch the language and paint the world as Abigail sees it.   In one of Abigail's letters to her sister Maggie in 1915, Abigail describes the desert surrounding her:

"The sky pulsed with light, and when I looked across the sand I seemed to see small pools of water everywhere reflecting it.  A dry, hot wind blew as I sat on my horse before the mesa, its shape cut against the sky, that mesa as familiar as any house to me.  My eyes touched every part of it--the small, pinions that grow at the base and the dark cedars that push themselves between the crevices, and the purple rock, everywhere rock.   I leaned back in the saddle Clayton had ridden in and turned my face up to the sky.  Its light poured through me, the dry heat."

Q.   What historical details from this time period helped shape the narrative of Between Earth and Sky ?

A.    Issues such as the struggle for statehood and the opposition of the Catholic Church to Protestant mission schools helped give the novel a time line and a greater sense of reality. For instance, in my research I discovered that Indians and settlers on the wagon trains were constantly playing pranks on one another and that because they misunderstood each other's cultures, sometimes those pranks escalated and led to violence.  This fact helps explain the reasons behind many of the skirmishes between the Indians and American settlers, and paints a more realistic and dramatic picture of this fragile relationship.

Similarly, when I read the history of the struggle for control of water in the New Mexican desert, I could understand why so many of the pioneers who tried to settle in this region failed, because as newcomers, they didn't understand the complex irrigation system needed to tend the land.  

Q.    Why did you decide to write Between Earth and Sky as an epistolary novel, and how is the course of Abigail's life revealed through the letters?

A.   Since my research entailed reading many original letters, it seemed like the natural voice for the narrative.  The epistolary form allows for a kind of intimacy, especially when the narrator is writing to a close friend or relative.  In this case, the protagonist, Abigail Conklin, corresponds with her sister, Maggie, who remains in their native Virginia.  This form allows for a transparency of language so that as Abigail gets older, the language changes to directly reflect how she herself has changed, and as a result, how her relationship to her sister is changing. By the end of the novel, it's as if Abigail's very soul speaks directly through the letters.

Q.   Between Earth and Sky showcases the tremendous role women played during the pioneer days.   How would you describe the relationships between the three generations of women characterized in the novel?  

A.    Abigail is the sister who leaves the safety and domesticity of Virginia to travel to a distant and foreign place, while Maggie stays at home. This separation inevitably shapes the differences that develop between them over the years.   Maggie's moral and social expectations become much more rigid than Abigail's, and thus, it is difficult for Maggie to understand Abigail's growing attachment for such an untamed place.  

In a sense, these differences are mirrored in Abigail's own daughters.   Amy, the child she is ironically closest to, ends up returning to Virginia to live, while Margaret, named after Abigail's sister, ends up possessing very little of Maggie's "common sense" and becomes as wild as the landscape around her.  It is true that siblings often attempt to compensate for each other's deficits, and unconsciously become what the other is not.  

Abigail's mother cannot forgive her for leaving Virginia and taking the grandchildren to such a dangerous place. In turn, Abigail has difficulty accepting her own daughter's wild nature.  Finally, Abbey, Abigail's great, great granddaughter who inherits the letters and makes the same trip westward, is in many ways like her ancestor, so there is a kind of pull or connection felt through the generations.  

Q.    Abigail has strong, complex feelings towards the people of New Mexico, and her feelings change as the book progresses.  How would you explain those feelings and her reactions to the different cultures she encounters?  

A.    My research uncovered that most of the new settlers' first impressions of the native New Mexicans were quite negative--they were often compared to "blacks" and thought to make "poor servants."  Many early Protestant settlers were appalled by some of the Catholic ceremonies, such as self-flagellation of the penitents, and the churches, which they considered gaudy and idolatrous.  

In Between Earth and Sky, Abigail confronts a people very different from anyone she has ever known.  Gradually, through repeated contacts with her neighbors, she comes to understand more about their lives. At times she fears these inhabitants, but she also learns to love them.  In the end, Abigail alienates herself from her own white kinsfolk when she bravely decides to raise her half-Mexican granddaughter amidst local prejudice.  Abigail's Hispanic neighbor becomes her one true friend as she learns to embrace this new culture, practicing some of the rituals she once condemned. 
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