The Bookshelf is NHPR's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves.
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This week, The Bookshelf features Erin Bowman. In Bowman's new young adult novel, Vengeance Road, Kate Thompson is 18 years old. She lives with her father on the western frontier. And one day her father is murdered by a band of outlaws. As Kate sets out to seek revenge on her father’s killers, she learns surprising things about her father’s past. Take a listen to Bowman's conversation with All Things Considered host Peter Biello, or scroll down to read the Q&A below her book picks.
Erin's Top 5 Book Recommendations:
1. The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly. "This is a dark fairytale, featuring twisted, fractured versions of the ones you read as a kid. But it's also a story about grief and guilt and growing up. In many ways, it's timeless, and it's utterly enchanting. One of the few books I've reread multiple times. (A note for parents: TBOLT was originally marketed as adult fiction and now has a middle-grade friendly cover. However, the content is on the dark side, so I advise reading before your children!)"
2. Holes by Louis Sachar. "My favorite middle-grade novel. Fun, smart, magical, epic. This is an unforgettable tale about friendship and underdogs and triumphing against the odds. If you haven't read it (yes, even you, adults), you're missing out."
3. Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson. "A reimagining of Peter Pan told from Tiger Lily's perspective, this young adult novel features a more brutal and savage Neverland, without magic or flying. But Barrie's original themes can be found too (first love, loss of innocence, time and the uncertain future), along with some complex commentary on colonization and identity. This is a beautifully tragic, bittersweet book."
4. Through the Woods by Emily Carroll. "This collection of graphic stories by writer/illustrator Emily Carroll is haunting and eerie, with evocative artwork throughout. If you like dark tales and endings that are as ambiguous as they are spine-tingling, you need to pick this up."
5. The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey. "One of my favorite recent reads, The Girl With All the Gifts is an incredibly compelling zombie story with heart—and the science to back up those undead beings! (Zombie stories have always been a hard sell for me, but this one clicked). Add a sympathetic zombie protagonist and a nuanced supporting cast, and this action-packed thriller is a winner."
This novel is written from Kate's perspective. How did you find Kate's voice?
This voice actually came to me in the shower as all good decisions and ideas as a writer, right? Well, I had wanted to write a western novel for a very long time and I just didn’t have the right story idea, and I did stumble upon a rough plot for this. I didn’t get started on it until I heard Kate’s voice and she came to me. I was just showering, I don’t know why she popped into my head, but I heard the opening line of the book. It didn’t change from first draft all the way to publication. That was the first line I heard, and I was leaning out of the shower while wet, trying to type it into my phone, you know, because it was so stark and clear. And then it was just a matter that she was in my head, and she kind of just poured out like that, which is really nice because it’s a very distinct voice and not how I typically write.
Now I'm curious about the plot. Tell me about that.
I grew up watching westerns with my dad and reading like some of my favorite books as a kid were Little House on the Prairie, and Sarah Plain and Tall, and books on the frontier. And that’s what I wrote a lot when I was little, too, so I had always wanted to write a story set in this time period, but I didn’t have anything substantial enough. So, one night my husband—he has family out in Arizona, so he grew up visiting there and hearing tales about the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine, which is supposedly a mine set in the Superstition Mountains that houses a ton of gold and has never been found, people still search for it to this day.
So he’s telling me about this mine and all the various threads surrounding the legend, and I just had this muse explosion of, oh my gosh, this mine is out there and this girls going to lose her father, and while she goes out for revenge, she’s going to get entangled in this quest. This gang is going to be after the gold that’s supposedly in these mountains. So that’s sort of where the idea just blossomed from and I started to do a lot of research into that legend. Because, like I said, it is a real legend and people search for that gold until this day. And I just started playing with fiction and fact, and just kind of blurring and weaving that all together.
We should mention for our listeners that the big secret in Kate’s father’s past is that years before the action of the novel starts, he found an enormous amount of gold in a mine.
And he has this secret map where when they come to kill him they steal the journal in which the map is found and everything sort of unravels from there.
Yeah and Kate doesn’t know about any of this. This is her father’s sort of dark secret and gold brought more trouble into his life than good things, because everyone back then had gold fever, so he’s kind of kept this all secret, and as she goes out on that quest for revenge she starts to learn, oh that’s why he was killed, he had this journal full of maps that supposedly lead to this gold.
And Kate is a fascinating hero for a western, because in the course of this journey she is a ruthless killer at times when she feels like that person deserves to die. Anybody she thinks had a hand in killing her father, she has no remorse at all. But if someone dies and she thinks maybe they didn’t deserve to, maybe they were caught in the crossfire in a bar fight or something like that, she feels really guilty.
That’s not what I normally expect from a western, which may typically feature Clint Eastwood types.
Yeah, so there’s two things I wanted to play with when I wrote the novel: First, putting a female at the center. Like I said, I grew up watching westerns. Besides reading things like Little House on the Prairie, I didn’t see females at the front and center of these stories, so I did want to put a girl in that hero role, but I’ve always been fascinated with grey characters, people have sort of an ambiguous moral code of what they will do and what they won’t do. And a lot of the characters in this book are that way, too, it’s not just Kate. In her eyes, anyone who played hand, as you said, in her father’s death is guilty, and she’s set on revenge, nothing is going to change her mind.
But to balance that, you know, we don’t like to read books (at least I don’t, I don’t know maybe some of your listeners do), but when a character is too dark and too crazy and I can’t relate to them at all, then I can’t empathize with them, and I don’t want to cheer them on in their story. So I wanted to balance her with showing that sympathetic side. So, I didn’t want her to be totally dark, but in terms of avenging her father’s death she’s like, yeah if you did it, you’re going.
So which writers would you say are your biggest influences?
I never have a go-to list because I’ read very widely as a kid and even now and even now I read across genres, I read across age ranges. But influentially for me it’s a lot of the books I loved as a kid. I feel like everyone from my generation says this, but Harry Potter was like my life growing up, and I loved a lot of books that combined a contemporary, very realistic tale with a little bit of magic and adventure, so growing up I really liked Tuck Everlasting, and Bridge to Terabithia, and books like that. But I don’t have any, I know a lot of authors say these are my big inspirations, but I think it’s everyone, everything I read has channeled in to who I am now as a writer.
Because you don’t write primarily westerns. You write other stuff, too.
Right, yeah this is my first western. And my trilogy which is also for young adults that I wrote before Vengeance Road is sort of a science fiction futuristic dystopian type thing. So very different and this is my first foray into historical fiction, western literature.
Will you be taking more such forays?
I hope so. I’ve been playing around with the idea of a companion novel for this book, so it would be set, at least right now as it is in my computer with just a couple chapters written, it’s set ten years in the future and it’s a new plot and new characters, but there might be some cameos from certain characters from Vengeance Road. But it depends, I need to write more of it and see if there’s a full story there and see what my publisher thinks. I have so many book ideas, I hope to write more westerns and I hope to write more things in other genres, too.
There’s just not enough time in the day.
There’s not enough time in the day.