Yesterday, I reviewed Impatient with Desire and shared that I had talked with the author, Gabrielle Burton. I asked her how she first learned of the Donner Party, what was it about Tamsen Donner that intrigued her, about the intense research she did had to do, and about how hard it was to get published.

Her very gracious response was a story in itself and rather than get all crazy and edit it, I have decided to let her story do all of the talking. (I am going to split it up into two posts though)

Take it away Gabrielle Burton….

In 1972, I went to Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference with a small sheaf of poems–the first time I had been away from home alone since I married ten years before; I weaned the baby from breastfeeding in order to go.  One day a writer, William Lederer, said, “Last night, I dreamt you were going to write a book about people eating each other to survive.” “What does that mean?” I asked.  “Most people eat each other to survive,” he said.  “You’re going to write a book that shows a different way.”  “How do I do that?” I asked.  “How would I know?” he said. “It’s your book, not mine”.  I didn’t tell anyone that story.

Months later, I was writing a short story about a cross-country trip, and my husband was helping me with the geography. “You’d have to go over Donner Pass,” he said.  “What’s that?” I asked. “You know,” he said, “where they ate each other to survive.”

This was the first time I had ever heard of the Donner Party and, when I got out books on them, Tamsen Donner leapt off the page.   I was drawn to her initially because she had five daughters and so did I.  She was a remarkable woman and I was looking for heroines for myself and for my daughters.  I’d always been interested in survival stories, wondering how I would fare in a similar situation.

I wove a little bit about Tamsen and her lost journal into the story I was writing, which became a 550 page novel and consumed the next seven years.  During those years, I went–with my husband and five daughters–to all the places Tamsen had been: her birthplace in Newburyport, MA, North Carolina where she taught school, her farm in Illinois, as well as retracing the Oregon Trail. She was still a small fraction of the novel, but I wanted the research to be accurate, and I was so drawn to her.  She practically became a member of our family.  Even our dog was named Tamsen.  The novel, however, was the occasion of so many raised and dashed hopes that I put it away and started another (Heartbreak Hotel, which took another seven years and twenty eight rejections to be published.)

In 1987, Heartbreak Hotel just out, we were living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I transcribed all the tapes I’d recorded nine years earlier the summer we retraced the CA/Oregon Trail, and wrote a first draft of our trip.  My editor wanted more family in it, but I didn’t want to write about my family in depth, because I’m private, and I secretly feared that if I wrote about how extraordinary my family was, something terrible might happen. I tried a couple more drafts, then turned to other things.

In 1997, because my family badgered me, I went to the Donner Party Sesquicentennial and everything I knew about the Donners came flooding back.  I realized that over the years, without any intention, I had become an expert on the Donner Party.  Through luck and persistence, I gained access to some of Tamsen Donner’s letters that the family had just given to the Huntington Museum, seen by few outside her descendants.  Those letters filled in many missing parts of my research and I felt, without getting woo-woo about it, that Tamsen Donner was speaking to me.

I was in film school at the time and I wrote my 2nd screenplay on the Donner Party.  Now there are 87 characters in the D.P. and it took countless drafts and some years for me to realize that I didn’t want to write about the Donner Party, but about Tamsen Donner, and not in a historical way but to be true to her spirit.

Part II tomorrow and we get to learn about she got herself back on track and not only got the book finished, but published!

Part II

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