Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I thought Texas was a foreign country and never dreamed I’d live there. But I knew I would be a writer. I wrote short stories about a spinster lady and her dog, a blond cocker spaniel (I desperately wanted a blond cocker spaniel). In high school, I submitted a story to Seventeen Magazine. It came back so fast I thought there was as rubber band in the mailbox.
My route to both Texas and a writing career was circuitous by way of graduate school in Missouri. I came to Texas because my then-husband was taking a surgical residency. I studied for my Ph.D. in English at TCU and learned to analyze, criticize, defend, support–anything but give in to my imagination. Fiction was over there on another shelf. But I did specialize in western literature, because we used to go to the Carter Museum—it was free and we were broke—and study the work of Remington and Russell.
Then a friend gave me the memoir of a woman born in a small East Texas town at the turn of the century. Her father, a deputy sheriff, jailed a man for drunkenness. Released, the man shot the father. Exciting stuff, but what could I do with it? Annotate? Rob it of every bit of life? I put it aside. Reading two or three young-adult novels inspired me, and I sat down to write a novel, making the daughter/narrator fourteen instead of four. After Pa Was Shot was published in 1978 as a young-adult novel, which was a complete surprise to me. It earned me the only New York Times book review I’ve ever gotten.
Since then I’ve written fiction for adults and young adults both, as well as lots of nonfiction for young readers. Since After Pa Was Shot, I’ve been characterized as a young-adult author, but that’s not quite accurate. I think the high point of my fiction career was a series of adult novels based on the lives of actual women—Elizabeth Armstrong Custer, Jessie Benton Frémont, Lucille Mulhall (the Wild West Show roper), and Etta Place, published in the nineties and just after by Bantam. I know they’re adult novels—one of my daughter was embarrassed by some of the passion and said, “You’re my mom. You’re not supposed to know that!”
I’ve probably written at least 40 nonfiction titles. Almost all are for young readers, and the majority of them are about women of the American West—I consider that the strongest focus of my career. One title, Extraordinary Women of the American West, profiled 65 women, everyone from Sacajawea to Barbara Jordan. After I’d written the first three historical novels, one friend joked I should tell Bantam I had 62 novels about women to go!
I think I write about women of the West because I admire them—they are women of courage and adventure, often fearless on horseback and as good as most men at survival on the frontier. They are the tomboys I never was. To this day, I’m leery of horses—I’ve ridden, but I was never happy about it. And I’ve never climbed trees. So maybe I’m balancing who I am (not that I’m unhappy with it) with who I’m not. But the American West, particularly in the 19th Century, offered women all kinds of opportunities that their sisters back East didn’t have. And the eternal optimism—women always said, “Come Spring . . . .” Come Spring, crops will grow, children will be healthy and strong, challenges will be met, and all will be well.
I’ve earned my fair share of awards—the Spur from Western Writers of America, the Wrangler from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, and a couple of years ago, to my complete surprise, the Owen Wister from WWA for lifetime achievement. But have I become rich and famous? No. I never did really break into New York publishing with any success, and I’ve come to peace with that. Do I have another novel in me? Maybe, maybe not. I’m still working ¾ time as director of TCU Press. But there’s that mystery I’m working on . . . . and a hundred small projects that keep me busy.
These days I mostly write young adult nonfiction on assignment from publishers. I joke that I write whatever will earn me a check, so I’ve written about everything from state histories to the history of surgery and the history of passenger boats. With every book, I learn a lot. But the women are still there—Henrietta King, Ma Ferguson, and others. I also spend more and more time writing about food. My cookbook, Cooking My Way through Life: Kids and Books in the Kitchen, will come out next year sometime.
Since most of my novels are out of print, I don’t have many copies, but I think there’s a box of Jessie in the attic. I’d be glad to give one copy to each of two readers (after I get my son-in-law to go up in the attic!). And do come visit me at my blog, Judy’s Stew, at http://www.judys-stew.blogspot.com. The stew? Kids, books and cooking, of course.
Oh yes, I’m the mother of four grown children and the grandmother of seven. I live in Fort Worth, Texas, and share my home with a wild Australian shepherd and a fluffy gray cat—and grandkids when they come to visit.