How do you pronounce your name?
tuh-MARE-uh LIN-zee. Don’t worry—hardly anyone gets it right the first time.
What does the name of your blog, “writer, cogitator, recovering ranch girl,” mean?
The real reason I tagged myself “writer, cogitator, recovering ranch girl” was that I needed a
tagline for my blog, something that helped me to stand out. “Writer” was obvious. I love
old-timey words, and I had been finishing up Earth’s Imagined Corners at the time, and so
“cogitator” popped into my mind. I have friends who are “recovering alcoholics” (and
“recovering Catholics”) and I thought that that fit me well—the idea that my childhood was
something I needed to recover from. As Maile Meloy wrote in her story “Ranch Girl,” you
can’t have much worse luck than being born a girl on a ranch.
Earth’s Imagined Corners is based on the life of your great grandparents. Who were they?
They were just regular folks. Frank and Ellen weren’t caught up in big events like the Civil
War or the Stock Market Crash or anything. But that’s what makes them so fascinating. The
Ellen I heard about growing up ~ I never got to know her because she died years before I was
born ~ was nicknamed Ma Strong. She was known for taking in strays and children. She
was strong, as her name suggests ~ the story goes that she gave birth in the morning and then
went back to cooking for the men in the afternoon. And she would have had to be, with
Frank as her husband. The story goes that they met at the town pump in Anamosa, and she
actually knew that he was in prison. Of course she did ~ he would have been wearing the
black and white stripes. But then when he got out they married. Over the course of their
marriage, he chased her with an ax while drunk, she fended off an angry mob of his
employees when he couldn’t pay them, and she stuck with him. But he had had a rough life.
His mother, an elusive woman I would love to know more about, was rumored to have had
five husbands as she moved across the country. She started in a large family in upstate New
York, moved through Illinois where Frank was born and Iowa where he was incarcerated, and
died in Red Willow County, Nebraska. Her name was Elizabeth Zenana Robinson Matteson
Wood Howard Staats. She was rumored to have danced at Tom Thumb’s wedding. And so it
had to have been tough for him growing up. I have a lot of empathy for them both ~
obviously, having so fully imagined their lives.
How do you know so much about your ancestors?
I’ve been a genealogy nut for a long time, and Ancestry.com has made our lives so
wonderfully easy. But it all started with my mom. She also was fascinated with family stories
and collected the family histories of both her side and my dad’s side. She had this huge piece
of butcher paper on which she had outlined generations and generations of ancestors. And
she loved to tell family stories and embellish them. We were related to everyone from
Alexander Graham Bell to Robert the Bruce to King Tut. I haven’t verified all that ~ hehe ~
but a lot of those stories turned out to be true. And then I had a cousin one generation up
named Gene Hetland who did an amazing amount of research back when you had to write a
letter or visit the place. And then I got into it, and I inherited my mom’s and Gene’s research
and added significantly to it. The real stories are so much more than you can ever imagine.
And it’s like a huge treasure hunt that never gets fully resolved.
Could you talk about the process of converting a family story to fiction?
Earth’s Imagined Corners was inspired by Frank and Ellen, but it has since gone very far
afield. Think about it. Think about what you know about your own ancestors. Very little. A
fact here and there. A place they lived. A family story that may or may not be true. Those
facts are like the nails along the eaves where you hang the Christmas light. The story ~ now
that’s the Christmas lights. You need to imagine and embellish and change things up whole
cloth. What began as an inspiration has to fit within the logic of the story and the motivations
of the characters and have to seem plausible. Life itself doesn’t always seem plausible, so
sometimes you have to “storify” it quite a bit. And there’s a lot of mixed bits in the making
of the sausage. I did a whole bunch of historical reseach ~ not only because I needed to learn
about the time period. I also over-researched because I lacked confidence in my writing, and
it was much easier to research than actually face the terrifying blank page. So I take other
historical facts out of newspapers and other things and mash them in there too. Above all
else, creating fiction from “fact” involves taking the story into you and living it within
yourself, and so I’ve inhabited these characters in a way that many descendants never get to.
Granted, they bear little relation to the originals, more than likely.
Did you do much research to write Earth’s Imagined Corners?
See above. Yes, I did a heck of a lot of research. I had not been to either Anamosa nor
Kansas City when I wrote the first draft, and so I went on the wonderful Library of Congress
American Memory Site. I found so many amazing things there. Plus online research in
newspapers and websites and family history sites. There’s nothing like reading newspapers
of the time. They give you reality in a way nothing else can, and they were the origin of a lot
of the subplots. The past is another country, as they say, and so I wanted to get the details
Earth’s Imagined Corners is part of a series. Tell us about the series. Where do Sara and
James go from here?
Oh, they have all kinds of adventures, and these plots are loosely based on Frank’s and
Ellen’s lives. In the next book, Numberless Infinities, Sara and James head out across Kansas
and Nebraska. James heads up a crew who are working on railroads. Thomas, James’s friend
who’s Native American, comes with them. James is so busy, Sara feels ignored and taken for
granted, and Thomas is such a nice guy, well, things may or may not happen. And then Sara
is pregnant. She gives birth to a boy, Jake, and they take on two Japanese sisters to help,
Sharp Crane and Plum. Meanwhile, James’s men start giving him trouble, and the railroad
quits paying, and so James is caught in the middle. All around them the Native community is
getting swept up in the Ghost Dance religion, in which they think a man named Wovoca is
the second coming of Jesus. The book ends near Wounded Knee Creek, where the 7th
Cavalry come in with guns blazing. The final book in the series, This Lowly Ground, takes
place in northern Wyoming. Sara and James settle down and build a town after their son Jake
has his arm taken off in a gun accident. James comes together with the other men of the area
and they build an irrigation system. But then a group of Mormons come straggling in in a
storm and decide to settle. Tensions rise as the town goes in together on a brick and tile
factory. Sara’s little sister Maisie comes to live with them, and falls in love with the leader of
the Mormons, Mahonri, but then his rascally brother Levi comes to town and she chooses
Levi over Mahonri. Jake idolizes Levi, who leads Jake astray. And then, when the brick and
tile factory burns, people are looking for someone to blame. I’m in the beginning stages of
writing these, and I can’t wait to spend more time with these great characters.
Race plays a part in Earth’s Imagined Corners. Were you nervous about this subject,
which is fraught with danger for a writer?
In a word, yes. Growing up on a ranch, I knew a lot about ranch life and horses and
cowboys. When I was a teenager, I read The Horse Whisperer. It’s a good book in many
ways, but I couldn’t get past the idea that a cowboy would be a vegetarian. A cowboy makes
his livelihood from cows ~ cows that people eat, that they make their clothing from. What
cowboy in his right mind would be a vegetarian? I know now that it was the author
projecting his own values on this icon of manliness. He took it and made it his own. But as a
Westerner, it made no sense to me. Writing someone from a background very different from
you is challenging, but I also think it’s a challenge worth accepting. Writing and reading is
the ultimate act of empathy. It’s the only technology in which you enter another person’s
consciousness. In that way, it’s about connection and love. And you should connect with
everyone, not just people who are just like you. Now, the writer has a responsibility not to
stereotype, to try to make everyone as fully fledged as they can. I do this not by thinking of
someone as African American or as Native American or as European American. I do this by
thinking of them first as a full person with all the wide ranging emotions and experiences as
anyone can have, and then I overlay their life experiences and their heritage. But I overlay
someone whose great grandparents are from Czechoslovakia in the same way I would if
someone’s great grandparents are from Africa ~ it’s one of many factors that contribute to
who they are, and it’s our common experience and humanity that actually is the overriding
factor. I think long and hard about the implications of all my character choices.
Earth’s Imagined Corners is self-published. Why did you choose that route?
I have to admit that I crave the legitimization that comes from traditional publishing, and
that’s why I resisted self-publishing for so long. It took me 11 years and almost 200 queries to
get an agent. (Read more about m y journe y to get an agent he re. ) I’ve written and rewritten
two novels that have gone out to publishers ~ one of which is Earth’s Imagined Corners.
Though I’ve gotten some very nice notes from editors, neither was picked up. Some might
call me a slow study ~ I call myself pig-headed, and that’s a good thing. I don’t know if
you’ve been reading much about this, but the squeeze that is being put on traditional
publishing by disintermediation has brought about the rise of a new type of author: the hybrid
author. (The great Chuck Wendig has be en talking a lot about this .) There’s no longer just two
tracks ~ traditional publishing and self-publishing. The tracks are becoming melded and
diversified, and much more of the power is back in the hands of the author. Also much more
of the responsibility for getting a book out and connecting with readers. That’s where the
hybrid author comes in. She or he is someone who, with the help of her agent, chooses the
best route for the work at hand and then has to make it so. This is wonderful and terrifying ~
for everyone involved. Also, traditional publishers now consider the success of a self-
published title in their decision to take book on. In other words, they will take on a book
that’s doing well under self-publishing (and I suspect that this will become the norm, rather
than the exception). I’m also made for it. It’s like all my various backgrounds come together
in this one endeavor. Of course the writing part ~ I’ve been writing and improving my craft
my whole life. But then also editing ~ I’ve been an editor in all different capacities. I’ve also
been an artist and taken art classes for years, not to mention jobs as a document designer. I
took classes in electrical engineering and computers for a number of years, and all that
experience goes into making a website and working with digital publishing. And I’m in
marketing and have done freelance marketing for years, which prepares me to be a promo-
sapiens. And I love social media and tend to be a bit of an early adopter. Not to mention I’m a
Who did you read as a child?
I loved all things British—Pooh and The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden. I also
loved Joan Aiken and Frank L. Baum. I was glad to go from grade school to middle school
because I’d exhausted the library. In middle school, I discovered the Newberry Award books.
Later, I read a lot of westerns and loved them, particularly Louis L’Amour. He doesn’t stand
the test of time well, though. I went through a scifi/specfic phase as a teenager and still have a
fondness for it. I haven’t read much romance or mystery, and I’m not quite sure why. Literary
fiction is and always has been my greatest love.
Who are your favorite writers?
My favorite writers. Well, it often feels like the writer of the last book I read because I fall in
love almost every time. I fall in love with minds. But I’ll take a run at it.
My all-time favorites are Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf.
For novels, Douglas Adams, Julian Barnes, Michael Cunningham, E. L. Doctorow,
William Faulkner, Charles Frasier, James Galvin, Kent Haruf, John Irving, Stephen
King, Barbara Kingsolver, Cormac McCarthy, Ann Patchett, Jodi Picoult, Terry
Pratchett, Anne Rice, J. K. Rowling, Anita Shreve, and Alexander McCall Smith.
For short stories, Sherman Alexie, T. C. Boyle, Raymond Carver, Charles
D’Ambrosio, Anthony Doerr, Aryn Kyle, Dennis Lehane, Maile Meloy, Alice Munro,
Antonia Nelson, Tim O’Brien, Benjamin Percy, Donald Ray Pollock, Annie Proulx,
Karen Russell, Jim Shepard, and Tobias Wolff.
For nonfiction, Steve Almond, Judy Blunt, Augusten Burroughs, John D’Agata, James
Herriot, and Mary Roach.
There are lots of writers that I really want to like and I have their books but I haven’t
gotten around to reading them.
See what I mean? And this isn’t all of them by a long stretch.
What’s the earliest memory you have of writing a story? When did you first call yourself a
I’ve always written. The first story I wrote a beginning, middle, and end to was called “The
Silver Locket” and was the story of a girl who goes back in time to become her own great
grandmother. It was inspired by a friend named Cami who was into a British YA mystery
writer named Joan Aiken. Together we read everything of hers. Cami wrote a story that ended
with a head rolling in a gutter. Prior to that, I had read all the time, but I hadn’t realized that a
person could actually BE a writer. When I actually called myself a writer is a different story.
I think I was 30. I wrote all of my life, but no one I knew was a writer, and I thought of
writers as someone who published a novel, and so when I began to imagine I might just be
published is when I tentatively played around with the idea of calling myself one.
Why do you write?
That’s a complicated question. Because it’s my passion. Because as a child I felt I had no
voice. Because I love to read, and writing is like reading only better. Because I have to to stay
sane—just ask my husband. Because I’m fascinated by people, and writing and reading is the
closest you can get to another person’s consciousness. But a deeper reason is that writing is
all about desire. All people everywhere live in a constant state of desire. It is truly a human
condition. Whether it’s something as small as a snack or something materialistic or
something as large as a mate for life, people want. People need. One reason that we are such
good consumers and why advertising works so well is because we by our very nature have
this endless hole within us that needs to be filled. Every religion is built on this. So, this is my
deeper answer to why I write: Because I’m human. Because I desire. It’s a way to take the
world into myself and to make it part of me. It’s a way to place myself into the world. It’s a
way to connect with the world and with other people and to imagine for one small moment
that we are not alone and that we have the capacity to be full and content and meaningful.
Where do you get your ideas?
That’s the wrong question. It should be: How do you recognize an idea when you see one?
Ideas are all around you. Everything and anything can spark a story. Say, someone told you to
write about walls. Thomas King, who’s Native American, was given 24 hours’ notice to write
about walls, and he came up with a humdinger. (Sorry—I don’t remember the name of it!)
It’s about a man wanting his walls painted white but the history of walls bleeds through,
and then finally, when he has them torn out and new walls put in, the stark white walls makes
him look brown. Virginia Woolf wrote a story about a blob on her bedroom wall, which turns
out to be a snail or a slug, I think, but it’s a great story. I’m sure there are more stories about
walls. It’s about what you put into the idea, what lights you up and interests you, and it can be
as specific as something that happened to you as a child or as general as wanting to write
about the color green. I also find that when my head is in my writing—in other words, I’m
not blocked and avoiding—ideas come so fast and thick I can’t keep up. Everything sparks an
idea for a story. Then it’s a problem of way too many ideas and feeling guilty about lost
What is your writing process? What is your least favorite part? Your most favorite part?
I avoid. I feel awful. I inevitably read things and feel inspired, but still I avoid. Then I make
myself sit at the computer and start. It’s hard, really really hard. But then something magical
happens. The real world goes away and the world I’m creating becomes more real than the
real world. It’s like the real world is in black and white, and the world I’m creating is in
technicolor. Sure, sometimes it still comes slowly and painfully, but sometimes it comes like
lightning from my brain. And then I’m in love. When I finish a story, revised and all, I’m in
love with it. I can’t see its flaws. I want to take it to dinner and then make out with it in the
back seat. Then, like all affairs, after a while I start to see the story’s strengths and
weaknesses. Then I either revise some more or I write a new story or both. My least favorite
part is the avoiding stage, and my most favorite part is when the writing is going well and the
world I’m writing is more real than the real world.
What are you reading?
Boy, you ask difficult questions. The thing is, I could honestly say that I’m reading hundreds
of books at one time. That’s because I tend to “taste” books before I read them from
beginning to end. I’ll buy a new book and then read it for a half hour or hour before bed.
Then I’ll put the book aside and not pick it up again for years. Lately, I’ve been reading the
books of my fellow Wyoming writers who are also great friends ~ Pembroke Sinclair, Nina
McConigley, and Mary Beth Baptiste. I’ve also been reading a great biography called The
Brontes by Juliet Barker. It’s been very inspirational for me.
Do you have an MFA?
No—my master’s is in literary studies and my thesis was on 1852–54 pioneer diaries. I’ve
taken a lot of workshops, however, in the classroom and online and at writers conferences. I
highly recommend them. Be it an MFA or a local writers group, any time you can get others
to look at your work and give you solid feedback is helpful. Solid feedback does not mean
only “oh, you are so wonderful”—but you do need some of this for your ego or you won’t
have the strength to go on. Neither does it mean brutal comments like “This isn’t working”
with no further explanation or direction. It means detailed criticism of one reader’s reaction to
what’s working and what’s not working—the more detailed and specific and articulate, the
better. Still more important, volunteer to read your writer friends’ work. You’ll learn more from
commenting on theirs than you will reading comments on your own. I am thinking
about getting a low residency MFA, however, as I’m always trying to improve my writing.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Read a lot. Write a lot. Give yourself permission, which is another way of saying don’t
undermine your own success. Write in the style of what you like to read. The best writing
often comes from what obsesses you and makes you uncomfortable. Be brave. Persevere.
Make a lot of writer friends.
What’s next for you?
To keep writing, always writing! I’m working on a young adult series called the Wyoming
Chronicles, which are re-imaginings of classics set in contemporary Wyoming. The first, called
Pride, is Austen’s Pride and Prejudice set in present-day Jackson Hole, and I’m having a lot of
fun with that. That’s on the girls’ side. On the boys’ side, my first part of that series will be
Moreau, based on The Island of Dr. Moreau, which will be about genetic manipulation. And of
course I have the two Round Earth Series books to finish too! I even have a children’s book or
two in the works. I’ll be busy.