Inspired in childhood by the standout figures of American history, author Nancy Plain has focused her own career on writing biographies geared to young readers. Her subjects range from men and women of the French Renaissance to some of the most celebrated characters of the American West, including Chief Joseph, Charles M. Russell and Solomon D. Butcher. Recently elected vice president of Western Writers of America, Plain has already garnered her share of recognition, including four Spur Awards for juvenile nonfiction books. She recently co-edited a forthcoming cookbook anthology for WWA, and her next project is a book about the Underground Railroad. Plain recently spoke with Wild West about her books and the writing process.
What inspired your writing?
For as far back as I can remember, I’ve loved to read biographies. I’m dating myself, but does anyone remember the Landmark series of books, those great children’s biographies? Of course, in those olden days biographers did things we avoid like the plague now, such as inventing dialogue between historical characters. But those books got me hooked on reading about the lives of extraordinary people. I just ate up that whole series, and in my adult life, too, I always browse the biography section in the bookstore first. As far as young adult readers go, I enjoy the challenge of introducing them to characters from the past. With young readers you can assume your subject is new, and I like starting from scratch.
What do you look for in a subject?
I look for a character who accomplished great things during interesting times. Describing a subject in the context of his or her historical period is great fun. So, for instance, when writing about Eleanor of Aquitaine, I delved into the beginnings of Gothic architecture and wrote about the creation of the code of courtly love. With Charlie Russell not only did I get to write about his fabulous paintings, but also I tried to give the reader a feeling for those last days of the open range. There’s no such thing as just straight biography; the writer is always immersed in the time period as well.
How do you develop the “voice” of a biography subject?
Well, the voice of the subject is just that: his or her own voice. I always choose a subject who has left us great primary material—letters, diaries, journals, etc.—so the person can speak for himself. In the case of pioneer photographer Solomon D. Butcher I had his very amusing autobiography, as well as countless memoirs and letters by his fellow Nebraska sodbusters. Those memoirs were really poignant. And of course John James Audubon was a prolific and emotional writer. One of my hardest jobs in writing his biography was deciding what to put in and what to leave out. So many delicious quotes to choose from.
Do you have a favorite story about Charlie Russell?
One memorable thing about the cowboy artist was his sheer kindness. He was beloved by so many. He would dash off sketches for his friends at the drop of a hat (he literally made one drawing in the lining of someone’s hat). He loved to have a good time, too, and his tall tales had his friends constantly in stitches. I love that his horse Monty was probably his best friend, and that when he found a family of skunks nesting under his porch, he couldn’t bear to kill them. “They seem to like it there,” Charlie wrote to a friend.
Your thoughts on Chief Joseph?
When I think of Chief Joseph, and by extension the Nez Perce people, I think of their courage and ability to endure. That’s what sticks most in my mind. It’s almost unimaginable to me what they went through in being kicked out of their ancestral home in the beautiful Wallowa Valley, and what they went through in their harrowing flight for freedom. This kind of courage can be an example to us. Everybody needs courage in life.
What about Solomon Butcher?
Solomon thought of himself as a regular guy. He didn’t consider himself an artist, never set out to be “great.” But he had a dogged persistence. True, he took to photography partly because he hated breaking sod. His neighbors thought he was just lazy. But he had a kind of courage, too—the courage to follow the promptings of his heart. And look what he accomplished: the most complete photographic record in existence of the sodbuster era. The more you look at those wonderful pictures, the more you see in them.
How about John James Audubon?
Audubon’s ramblings on the American frontier fascinate me. He hiked and rode horseback through the wilderness, floated down rivers on flatboats, journeyed up the Missouri on a steamboat and much more, all in search of birds and quadrupeds.
And Elizabeth “Libbie” Bacon Custer?
Oh, the tragedy of her life. I can’t understand why, after Custer died, this beautiful woman never remarried and made the rest of her long life a monument to her dead hero.
Why should young readers learn about these individuals?
Because, as historian Patricia Nelson Limerick says, “It is beautiful to bring back history.” I want young people to see history as an infinite number of stories, not as a series of columns in a textbook. If you like stories, you’ll like history—if it’s presented the right way. Also, we are better off as a nation if citizens know some American history. How can we understand the present if we don’t? How can we value what we have?
In addition to your Western biographies, you’ve written about Marie Antoinette, Louis VXI and Mary Cassatt. What attracts you to those subjects?
What attracts me to any subject is the drama of the life and times. It doesn’t get any more dramatic than the French Revolution. I always try to present a story in an evenhanded way, but I am still horrified thinking about those lines of people—bakers, street cleaners, aristocrats, even the old and confused—waiting for the guillotine. By the way, Marie Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake.” I have it on good authority.
How important are the visuals in your books?
I do love to write about artists and photographers, because no matter how well I try to tell their story, their own work always tells it better.
Do you have a favorite?
My favorite topic is always the one I’m working on at the moment. It has to be, otherwise I’d lose interest. As far as a story unearthed during research, there are so many that stay with me. But I do like one story told by a pioneer schoolteacher: She describes dismissing her little students after school one day and watching them head toward home, holding hands and singing. She hears them singing long after she’s lost sight of them in the tall prairie grass.
What can writers do to inspire young readers?
Writers for young readers should just try to tell a good story, and tell it, as much as possible, as if they are talking to a friend. Tell it simply and clearly, with colorful details and plenty of primary-source quotes.
Do the young people you speak to have a real interest in the American West and its stories?
Kids love to hear about the West. In the case of Charlie Russell they are fascinated by the fact he essentially ran away from his home in St. Louis at the age of 16 to become a Montana cowboy. He didn’t actually run away—his trip West was a birthday present from his parents—but he never came back, except for short visits. Kids can relate to characters from the past if they are presented as the real people they were.
Any other comments?
Only that I feel incredibly lucky to have become a writer. I started out as a freelance copy editor and began my first book, on Mary Cassatt, as a kind of dare to myself. The funny thing is that a lot of the books I read for research are books I would’ve read for pleasure anyway. And just to give a shout-out to Western Writers of America: I was reading many of the members’ books long before I’d ever heard of the organization itself. This has been an unexpected journey in many ways. WW
BOOKS BY PLAIN: Among her titles are four WWA Spur Award winners—This Strange Wilderness: The Life and Art of John James Audubon; Light on the Prairie: Solomon D. Butcher, Photographer of Nebraska’s Pioneer Days; Sagebrush and Paintbrush: The Story of Charlie Russell, the Cowboy Artist; and With One Sky Above Us: The Story of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Indians.