What if you faced the choice between losing your inheritance or saddling up for a journey of hundreds of miles on horseback – and you’re in your sixties? That’s the premise for As All My Fathers Were, the latest novel by my friend Jim Misko. We sat down recently to talk about the book and the writing life.
As All My Fathers Were is about two brothers trekking hundreds of miles up and down the Platte River, first by horseback and then canoe, to fulfill the demands of their mother’s will and inherit their family farm. The brothers could have been almost any age, but you wrote them as men in their 60s. Why?
I wanted it to be tough on them. For them to experience discomfort every night when they got off the horses or out of the canoe and when they got up in the morning from sleeping on the ground. It would have been a lark for a young person, camping out and riding horses. No–it had to be tough and something they didn’t expect to have to do.
How did you research the horseback part of the trip? I mean what to bring, how to manage the horses, how to deal with bad weather on horseback, etc.
I have been on many a horseback trip in all weather and all seasons. They are lovely creatures but big and strong and simple minded. I’ve bred and raised horses, used them for pleasure and work, and been thrown in some tough places.
You’ve said you enjoy asking authors why they wrote a particular book, so I’ll ask you the same question. Why did you write this book?
I have six to 10 books laid out with an idea about each of them and generally, a title for them. Then the itch starts and since I am a writer, I have to write. I pick the one that pushes on me the most, the one that will best tell a story that entertains, educates, and inspires a reader. This one reached that point and got to first place in the line.
This book’s plot centers around the environment, and suggests that modern-day farmers will need to make changes toward sustainable practices. What motivated the issue of environment?
While I was writing the story, an Indiana author, James Alexander Thom, suggested that they meet an environmental activist along the way, so I added the character of Martha. However, the 90-year-old man, Filoh, came along with the original characters. What was good for one farmer (the chemicals) has now gotten good for almost all of them and the river can’t handle all of them.
I really enjoyed the repartee between the brothers. They’re both kind of smart-alecky, but there’s a groundedness about them. Kind of like you, Jim. Who was the toughest character in the book to write, and why?
I believe it was the sheriff. His mixed motives were an anathema to me. I could understand the lawyer and the wealthy rancher, but the sheriff was tough for me to get into my head. I don’t like people in authority who choose to ride roughshod over citizens. I apologized before the book came out to the sheriff of the county the book is sited in; sent him an advance readers copy and apologized again but I never heard from him. The local editor said he was a neat guy and would not take it personally. Hope he didn’t because it sure wasn’t him.
You recently went on a long book tour in Nebraska, which is not only the locale for the book, but also the state of your birth. It must have been good to go home. What do you miss about it?
I miss the plainness and the slowness and the we-get-by attitude of many of the people outside the metropolitan areas like Lincoln and Omaha. I don’t miss the wind. But I do miss jumping on the back of a horse and riding across those forever hills with little ponds every so often. I would have loved to see it when Buffalo Bill was there. A person generally has a warm feeling for their home place unless it was pure agony and it was not for me. I miss the personal relationships that you can establish in those small town of 200 to 3,000 people where the people in the stores and banks and professions are there for their entire working lives.
Writers are urged to “write what you know.” What was the weirdest or least-known thing you had to learn in order to write this book?
I didn’t know much about the use of herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers or how the farmers were using things like Round-Up and not plowing the land deep anymore. And how the river reacted to what was put in it. I got ahold of a wonderful author, Lisa Knopp, who had written a book entitled, What the River Carries, that spelled out how the river moved the pollutants along. I talked with an organic farmer who led me through the trials and tribulations of adjusting to sustainable agriculture vs. industrial farming.
Most of us writers wish we were more disciplined. You’ve written four novels and three non-fiction books. Have you mastered a writing routine, and if so, please share it with us.
A writer, to be called a writer, has to write. I like to write from nine or ten in the morning to about 2:00 pm. Then I break for lunch, read a little, and try to get some exercise in every other day. When I’m nearing the end of the first draft I often stick to it longer just to get it finished. Pretty soon I know I’ll come to hate the manuscript, am convinced no one will like it and neither will I. Then I can do other stuff until it starts to talk to me again–two weeks to a month–and I get the feeling that it just might make a decent read, then I can tackle it again. That’s when I copy each paragraph and paste it on a blank page and work it over until it says exactly what I want it to say. Then I copy it and paste it back into the novel, removing the old paragraph. After that is done for the entire novel I read it aloud to myself making corrections as I go. then read it aloud again. After that it goes to at least two editors, sometimes three.
Do you have any words of encouragement for other writers?
Persistence is the main quality. You can be a talented writer but without persistence you won’t get far. I can quote numerous writers who have had manuscript after manuscript rejected, or self-published a book and it ended there. There are five necessary steps to getting a book out to readers. (1) Write a good novel (2) Hire a good editor. (3) Hire a good agent. (4) Associate with a good publisher. (5) Gear up to do a lot of marketing. Books don’t sell books; authors sell books. The author can’t butt out on any of these steps. After all, it isn’t a hobby, it’s a career.
What writers inspire you and why?
James Alexander Thom, Kent Haruf, Howard Frank Mosher, Pat Conroy, John Graves, Nick Jans, Lynn Schooler, Herman Wouk, Richard Russo, Dick Couch, Andrew Neiderman, Alan Russell. Two passed away this last year before I got to know them well. They all love to write and they write hard and well, and they write what they like. What more can you ask of an inspirer?
I’ve just about chosen my next novel. I was waiting for one of the titles to jump up and smack me in the face and I do believe it is bending to the task this very day.
Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
Writing is such a personal thing. Every author I know approaches it from his own angle. Some outline, some don’t. Some know the story before they start to write, some don’t. Some work ten to twelve hours a day, some work three or four. The thing is to write, edit, revise, and keep presenting it to an agent or publisher or self-publish, but don’t leave your unborn child sitting in a drawer. Make it work.
Thanks, Jim. I read As All My Fathers Were and I loved it. I particularly enjoyed the can-do attitudes of the two brothers and their sister, who manages the farm in their absence. The story awakens the wanderlust in all of us, but more than that, it is a true midlife journey in which the characters consider where they are in life and where they want to be. I highly recommend it.