Meet An Extraordinary Woman Who Writes About Extraordinary Women: Judy Alter

judy_alter_2.jpgHi! I’m glad to be guest blogging and I look forward to hearing from some of you. Cheryl asked me to tell a little about myself and how I became a western writer, so here goes: 

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. 

Msacagawea.jpgy 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. 

libbie.jpgThen 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. 

Sinlaura_ingalls_wilder.jpgce 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!” 

unbridled_spirits.jpgI’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! 

john_barclay_armstrong.jpgI 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. 

sundance_butch_and-me.jpgI’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. 

great-women-of-the-american-west.jpgThese 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. 

cherokee_rose.jpgSince 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  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.

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18 thoughts on “Meet An Extraordinary Woman Who Writes About Extraordinary Women: Judy Alter”

  1. As a young girl, I would have eaten up your books about women, Judy. Very, very impressive. I plan to check them out. With so much material in your background you should write more novels, or whatever is closest to your heart. Thanks so much for being our guest today.

  2. I absolutely love history. Sorry to say I have not read any of your books. I just checked out your book listing on Fantastic Fiction. I must say I would have read all I seen there.

    We owe alot to the women of the west. Strong willed and strong minds that forged a way for us all who followed.

  3. I also admire the women of the west. There is no way as a woman of the 21st century I could have suvived back then. We are way to pampered. I often thank what would we do if we lost very convience that today offers. We would be lost. I hate that alot of how people survived back then is lost to us, a simple art of survival gone. The research that you do and the things that you have uncover in that research has to be amazingly interesting. Thank you for such an interesting post.

  4. I was fascinated by your post today. Congratulations on all of your books, awards and knowledge. What an enjoyable and interesting writing career. I love reading about the West, the trials and tribulations and the successes as well. History is the ultimate subject which is always appealing.

  5. I was so happy to read your post today. When I was in high school I could not get enough of the west. I have been a Nebraskan all my life, that might have a little something to do with it. I Find your writing career fascinating just as Diane does. I am an avid reader, and have been ever since high school, and am having a hard time with my 13 year old who does not like to read at all!!! I think I remember that time in my life as well, but that was a LONG time ago…LOL Any suggestions on how to get her started on the right path?

  6. I love historicals in what ever formate they come in. I can’t say for sure if I have ever read any of your books because I have read so much over the years I have forgotten what I have read. I have been a reader for about 40 years now.

    Kids today don’t read like we did because they have to much to intertain them. When we were growing sometimes books was all we had. Oh to go back to those times! Life was harder back then but in ways it was a better life.

  7. Judy, welcome to Petticoats and Pistols! I’m so glad you’re here. My gosh, your writing resume is really impressive! I’m overwhelmed by your list of works. I think it’s great that you focus on extraordinary women of the West. So often they get overlooked and pushed into the background. Seems most readers want stories about the larger-than-life men who settled the West. Women equally played an important part of history. I’m very fascinated by Sacajawea. And the ordinary women who like you said always said “When spring comes.” As if that was something magical that would fix everything. I think most women are eternal optimists though. We have to be to keep our sanity.

    Do you have anything in the works right now? I’d like to know what you’re doing.

    Thanks for blogging today. I wish you lots of success! 🙂

  8. I will definitely be looking for some of your books! Although fortune might be nice, who cares about fame? 🙂

    I’m so impressed with all the writing you’ve done and the fact that you have written about real women who are little known. I can only imagine the research you must have done to dig out their stories.

  9. Welcome!

    Your books sound wonderful!!! I grew up reading western books aimed at kids and YA, but I am not sure I read any of yours.

    Oh, and “Extraordinary Women of the American West” sounds like a great book! I have always been fascinated by women of the west.

  10. Judy, your list of books is highly impressive, and the western titles and covers delight me. I definitely plan to find a couple!

    Thanks so much for being our guest today in Wildflower Junction. We’re delighted you came to visit.

    Howdy, Mildred! Good to see you.

  11. Hi, Judy! I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t think I’ve read any of your work before–congratulations on all your successes, personally and professionally! I’ll definitely be looking for your books now–I really enjoy historical writing as you’ve described! What a pleasure to know there’s a bunch about these extraordinary women that I can go read!

  12. Wow! Thanks for all your comments. You’ll give me the big head. To answer your questions–no, I don’t know how to get a 13-year-old to read. (It would be quick and easy to say give her my books, but I dont think that’s the answer.) She may have to discover it herself from seeing how much pleasure you get from it. Have you tried sharing with her?
    In the works now? No big project except that mystery. I need to read it one more time and find an agent–any suggestions? You all have encouraged me so I may try another historical sest in the West. Hummm–what woman should I choose? I have an interest in Scottish women in the 19th century West (I’m Scottish by heritage).
    Thanks again for all your comments.

  13. Thanks for sharing the story of yourself with us!
    Historical writings are so necessary in our lives
    and those of our young people. They need to know
    more about those persons who helped build our
    country, especially the women. Perhaps a publisher
    might be interested in re-publishing some of your works!! Good luck!!

    Pat Cochran

  14. I think it’s fantastic that there are so many more books out there for young adults now. It’s a wonderful stepping stone until they’re ready for more complicated works.

  15. Hi, Amy. YAY for Nebraskans. 😀

    Judy, great post. I love writing about women in the historical west. They were just a different breed. Just like you said about Spring is coming, they had a way of accepting life and going forward, sometimes in the face of incredible odds.
    I don’t think we can even quite imagine the inner strength and outer, too. OF the people who settled the west.

  16. I am so impressed by the activity of this web site. Cheryl tells me there were 2,000 hits when I posted my guest blog, and of those 300 were new readers. I have noticed that the number of visits to my blog ( shot up over the weekend. All very flattering and interesting. I hope more of you will leave comments on my personal blog.
    I’m also looking forward to reading some of your books–Cheryl has promised to send me some. Good reading for my upcoming Scotland trip!
    Thanks again for letting me be guest blogger. You’re a great bunch of women, and I’ll be reading Petticoats and Pistols daily from now on. Glad I discovered you–or you discovered me, whichever way it works!

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