Award-winning debut novelist Jamie Lisa Forbes is my special guest today.
Unbroken focuses on a family of ranchers, living “a life of extremes” on the high plains near Laramie, Wyoming. Gwen Swan is a former rodeo queen who works her husband Will’s ranch alongside him and his father, John, as she struggles to raise their two children, difficult son Rory and McKenna, their younger daughter.
Meg Braeburn also grew up on a ranch, the daughter of a veterinarian, but has not seen or spoken to her family in years. With her young son, Jim, she takes a job as a ranch hand on a neighboring property owned by the cantankerous, alcoholic Charles Mather. Meg is trying to be a good mother to Jim and distance herself from her troubled six-year marriage that dissolved when she learned the truth about her husband’s activities and he was incarcerated.
A veteran ranch wife, Gwen understands the frustrations and challenges of living in such an isolated area with its relentless climate. Gwen embraces Meg and Jim, treating them like members of her family. When Will’s brother Nick returns after living away for many years and wants to work the ranch with Will, old resentments resurface as friendships are tested as the characters fight both the elements and each other to maintain the way of life to which they are committed.
The Emergence of a Literary Heroine
In the course of writing my first novel, I learned that writing is two processes operating in tandem: the evolution of character and plot, and the evolution of the writer as she molds her story. In my case, I got the idea for Unbroken in 1990 when I was still living and working on a family ranch. I had imagined that my heroine would be the young woman who, like me, wanted to run a ranch for herself. Like the character I eventually created -— Meg Braeburn — I too struggled for acceptance in a male-dominated profession. Those circumstances and the dearth of women in literature about the West lead to my initial concept of the novel.
When I started writing the novel some ten years later, I still had the same concept. My intention, when starting out, was that Meg would develop a friendship with the traditional ranch wife next door, but it was Meg’s trials as she struggled to establish herself that I wanted to focus on.
Yet as I started to write about the neighboring ranch wife, Gwen, and to imagine her life, which was based on countless ranch women I knew, I began to realize that I myself had overlooked the traditional ranch wife role. Many ranch mothers and wives balance the books, cook all the meals, conduct the ranch business in the local town, clean their houses, volunteer at their local schools, help with homework and are still up at midnight helping to deliver calves. All of this is performed in areas far from a highway, far from the world’s notice. What makes them unique is their self-sufficiency and independence. They make do with less and are not troubled by it. Often, they meet the twists and turns of their lives more with a sense of dark humor rather than complaint or self-pity.
Gwen Swan evoked all these women to me and the more I wrote about her, the more she came to dominate my story. When I reached the last ten pages of the novel, six years after I had begun it, I finally acknowledged to myself that she had become my heroine. Looking back, I do not believe my novel’s success, in terms of winning the WILLA Literary Award, is about me. It is about the honor due to the women who live these quiet courageous lives out of the world’s eye.
Jamie Lisa Forbes was raised on a family ranch in southeastern Wyoming. In 1977. she graduated with honors from the University of Colorado, Boulder, earning degrees in both Philosophy and English. Following college, Jamie spent a year studying and working on a kibbutz in Israel, returning to Wyoming in 1979 to begin a fifteen-year run of ranching and raising a family.
Jamie resumed her studies, graduating in 2001 from the University of North Carolina School of Law. Today she practices law in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Named for author Willa Cather, the WILLA Awards are bestowed annually for outstanding literature featuring women’s stories set in the West. Unbroken, her first novel, earned Jamie the prestigious award in 2011 in the category of Contemporary Fiction.
Jamie enjoys spending time with her three grandsons, as well as her Arabian horse, Cody, and Reb, a cattle. In her spare time, she also plays old-time Appalachian fiddle.
Connect with Jamie at her website.