Aspen Words writer-in-residence Tatjana Soli’s last stand
If You Go …
Who: Novelist Tatjana Soli
Where: Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar
When: Tuesday, Sept. 19, 5:30 p.m.
How much: Free
More info: www.aspenwords.org
Novelist Tatjana Soli is a week away from her publisher’s deadline on the final draft of her fourth novel. As Aspen Words’ writer-in-residence for September, Soli is finishing the book here and spending the month working at the Catto Shaw family’s Mojo Garden Farm in Woody Creek.
It’s her last push on the novel — the moment when a book becomes a book and not a document on a computer and a stack of notes. In other words, it’s an ideal time for Soli to spend a month in solitude with her manuscript.
“The timing is perfect,” Soli said last week over coffee at Victoria’s Espresso.
Soli, the James Tait Black Prize-winning author of “The Lotus Eaters,” will read and discuss her work at a free public talk at Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar on Tuesday.
Her new novel, to be published by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux in June, is a work of historical fiction titled “The Removes.” Set on the western plains during the Indian Wars, it weaves together the experiences of General George Armstrong Custer and Libby Custer with a narrative of a girl taken captive by a Sioux war party.
“The idea was, what was it really like back then?” she said. “It wasn’t like the westerns, it wasn’t like ‘Dances with Wolves.’ It was brutal and lonely and nothing was here. Basically, you were all on your own.”
It follows the Custers after the Civil War service, through the general’s time stationed in Kansas and the Dakotas. It ends just before Custer’s death at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Given the historical aspects of the novel, this final round of editing includes fact-checking and input from historians. Soli spent a morning last week talking over the manuscript with historian Peter Cozzens, author of “The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West,” reviewing the accuracy of the language that characters use in the book and the timeline of events.
As a fiction writer, Soli’s allegiance is to the story and, of course, it’s a work of imagination. But she had to do her research.
“I’m loose with the facts,” she said. “I just care about the story. But I should get it right.”
Soli burst onto the global literary scene with her 2010 debut, “The Lotus Eaters,” about American War photographers in Vietnam during the war. She hasn’t returned to historical fiction in the two books she’s written since then — “The Last Good Paradise,” about expats in Polynesia, and “The Forgetting Tree,” about an aging California matriarch struggling with her Caribbean caregiver. Her experience researching “The Lotus Eaters” helped guide her approach to “The Removes.” She spent years learning about Vietnam before writing her first book.
“This time, I thought, ‘I’ll write it while I do the research,’ which ended up being hard and taking almost as long,” she said.
Soli went to a war reenactment on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana, read George and Libby Custer’s diaries and dug deeply into the bloody history of the Indian Wars.
“Custer is so fascinating,” she said. “I had the same idea everyone has about him — that he’s this crazy man. It was interesting just to find that he was a person, a human being.”
Equally important, she found, was learning about day-to-day life on the frontier and imagining her way into the harsh realities of western expansion to portray it with tactile detail.
“I want people to say, ‘Wow, I never thought of what it would have been like to be there,’” she explained.
And though Soli has been busy finishing her book during the residency, there is one bit of sightseeing on her agenda. Spending a month just down the road from Hunter S. Thompson’s Owl Farm in Woody Creek is a dream for the writer. During her high school years in Oklahoma and Dallas, Soli said, she read Thompson voraciously. His portraits of the California counterculture, she said, inspired her to move to Berkeley after high school.
“He is my hero of all time,” she said. “I definitely need to go over there.”
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