Paulette Jiles is interested in action. Growing up in the Ozarks, “people always told the most wonderful stories—stories of action and stories of tragedy,” she says. She tells me about reading 1984 as a kid. “I was 12 or 13, and it was way too advanced for me,” she says. “But I remember getting very aggravated at the main character, thinking, Why don’t you get a boat and just paddle away from that horrible society? Do something!”
This is still more or less Jiles’ philosophy: in her novels, people do something. News of the World is no exception.
Recently longlisted for the National Book Award, Jiles’ latest book, set just after the Civil War, tells the story of a retired soldier’s unlikely kinship with a 10-year-old girl. A veteran of three wars, aging widower Jefferson Kyle Kidd spends his days traveling through Texas, reading far-away newspapers to rapt audiences hungry for the news of the world. Johanna Leonberger has spent the last four years living amongst the Kiowa after raiders killed the rest of her family, raised as one of their own until, under pressure, they sold her back to an Indian agent. Now she needs to get home. And because he is honorable, and because there is no other choice, it has become the Captain’s job to drive the 400 miles across Texas to take her there. It is about as far away from the contemporary genre she calls “urban upper middle class people having psychological confrontations” as you can get. (“Those novels can be very interesting—I’m not making fun of them!” she clarifies, laughing. “I’m not, I’m really not!”)
Though she devoured adventure novels as a kid—she’d been a particular science fiction fan—Jiles began her own literary career as a poet, winning (among other prizes), Canada’s top literary honor, The Governor General’s Award. “I wanted to write a novel,” she tells me by phone from her home outside San Antonio—you can hear birds chirping in the background—“but I didn’t see anyone around me, especially women, writing the kind of novel I wanted to write, which is about action, about people’s inner selves being revealed through the choices they’ve made under adversity.”
But the people writing those books were mostly men, she says, and mostly men writing genre fiction, which wasn’t what she wanted, either. She wanted her characters to be driven by external events, rather than internal turmoil. She wanted to bring her characters to life through their actions, not their thoughts (“I hate interior monologue, I just despise it,” Jiles says). It was a slow process. “I had a hard time with it,” she recalls. “I pretty well had to teach myself.” Her debut, Enemy Women, took her 10 years to write.
To read Jiles now, you can see her sense of poetry; the novels are steeped in it. Her background, she says, has made her hyper-aware of balance, in sentences and in structure. “There has to be a balance between moments of calm and moments of action,” Jiles says, a balance between what she calls “narrative summary and direct scenes.”
Lately, she says, she’s been interested in male hero figures, like the Captain, who require their own sort of balance to come to life. “How do you do this,” she asks, “without having your hero figure be a thoughtless, unthinking brute, on one hand, or sappy and sentimental on the other?” To give the Captain an interior life, he needed a history, threaded through the present action. But history is delicate. “It’s got to be salted, scattered carefully and judiciously through the scenes of action,” says Jiles, emphatically. “You’ve got to choose exactly the right time to back off from the present moment to moments of memory.” And then she backs off a little. “That’s for me,” she adds. “Other people can do as they like.”
Rachel Sugar is a writer in New York.