Do the four of you independently decide how to approach each theme?
Yes, we do. We share a few details, like the very general idea of the plot and our character names in order to make sure we’re not telling stories that are too similar. Otherwise, each of us lets the respective muse have her say. In this collection, I was especially impressed with Julia Watts’ originality. Julia chose to tell a story of the movie industry when the Western was king at the box office, and the stars were icons like The Sweetheart and the Spitfire. The tale is told with Julia’s usual wit and unique voice. I’d have never thought of presenting that time and place as the “wild west” but it is the imagery of the wild west that most Americans have seen. With few exceptions, the national collective mythos of the wild west is from television and movies and about as real as a Hollywood sound stage. True devotees got more realistic pictures from western genre fiction, perhaps.
The wild west is full of larger-than-life figures, and Therese Szymanski chose to approach the gunslinger outlaw with tongue firmly in cheek with “The Life and Times of (Onery, Crazy, Mean) Bad Bill.” Her present day heroines are equally on the lam from the law. On a much quieter, introspective note, Barbara Johnson chose the story of a frontier shopkeeper who discovers that the life she loves is not the love of her life in “Desert Spring.”
Why did you choose to tell a story that is beautiful, but so very sad?
Perspective is interesting — because of what the character realizes in the course of her life, I don’t find the story sad at all. Heart-breaking, maybe, but uplifting as she finds a spiritual solution to the desperate circumstances of her life.
In direct contrast to Julia’s story, I jumped back in time to frontier North Dakota. Ms. Muse wasn’t going to be argued with — I wanted to tell a realistic story about the world women really faced. The survival challenges made women strong. It created opportunities to live outside the traditional roles of women, too. But for many, the traditional roles were as inescapable as ever; a woman’s survival was tied directly to her ability to make money or not need the assistance of anyone to survive.
My heroine, Darlin’, was sent west by her family when they discovered her with another girl. The age of twelve was in that era nearly adult, and she finds herself on the edge of the frontier with no money, too young by a year to marry, not educated enough to be a schoolteacher, and never trained for any of the trade skills that might have provided a living, like sewing, baking, weaving and so forth. With a literal choice of live or die, she turned to the only profession that would have her: prostitution. The story opens five years later, when the fall cattle drive reaches the little town and the evening wind blows in a cowboy like no other she’s ever seen.
What set up could be more appropriate for an erotic story of the wild west, after all? It’s cliche: a bordello, a fallen girl with a heart of gold and a cross-dressing cowboy eager for a romp. As a Hollywood story, it usually has a happy ending. Of course, in the iconic movie Destry Rides Again, the saloon girl takes a bullet for her lover and that’s a “happy” ending because she’s redeemed from her wicked ways.
I couldn’t bring myself to betray Darlin’, who felt so real to me, to either of those predictable ends. For quite a while I wanted to tell two endings, one happy and one realistic, but the suggestion of a friend (thank you, you know who you are) had me consider interweaving both the happy and the sad. It makes me cry every time to reread it. But I promise — should the idea of a sad ending seem daunting to some readers — that the erotic content is quite high, and Darlin’ truly finds moments of happiness far beyond any she ever expected with her Cowboy. It is precisely because of those moments of kindness and pleasure that she is able to face her future with the fearless belief that it will be a better one.
Like my novella “Unbeliever” in Bell, Book and Dyke: New Exploits of Magical Lesbians, I’m very proud of how this story turned out because of unusual content for genre fiction. Both stories contain my continuing exploration of themes of reincarnation and personal spirituality, and I don’t expect “Cowboys and Kisses” to be the last time I look at those themes in my fiction.