Something beyond good manners is in play when you hand the keys to your King William home to people you only just met. But the homeowners, Naomi and Michael Nye, had good instincts about their long-term guests on that morning in the early ‘90s.
Author and poet Paulette Jiles and her husband, Jim Johnson, arrived at the Nyes’ door one morning in 1991 apologizing for the intrusion and explaining that Edward Hirsch, one of America’s best poets and now president of the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in New York, said they might know of someone needing a house sitter near downtown.
In a terrific coincidence, the Nyes had lamented over breakfast that morning their failure to find a home and pet sitter before their imminent departure for a six-month stay in Hawaii, which involved a writer-in-residence position at the University of Hawaii.
Naomi Nye is a prize-winning, renowned poet, anthologist, and teacher. Michael is a former lawyer and documentarian.
“I said, ‘Welcome home, come on in!'” Nye recalled, laughing. “In retrospect it was nuts, to say to people you don’t know at all, ‘Here are the keys, it’s all yours!’ But they were charming people.”
Jiles, too, remembers that day clearly, though it occurred 25 years ago.
“(Naomi Nye) was as welcoming as two or three people," she said. "She is all heart and a great poet, one of the best now writing, if not the best.”
Jiles’ new novel News of the World, nominated for the 2016 National Book Award, will be released Tuesday, Oct. 4 at a reception in Houston. Jiles will read from the book and sign copies on Oct. 11 at The Twig Book Shop in the Pearl.
Jiles' non-fiction book Cousins served to introduce her to new San Antonio friends in the early ‘90s. The book chronicles her courtship with Johnson as the two traveled the country seeking out her cousins and more information on her family. Jiles worked on the book in Mexico, where she and Johnson lived after their travels.
After living in the Nye home – with diversions to a rental on Wickes Street and all the way to Germany – the couple purchased a historic limestone house, which seemed to have been void of any kind of maintenance since its construction in the 1880s, on a large corner lot on Pereida Street.
“I cooked on a Coleman stove in the garage for about six months before we had something that passed for a kitchen,” Jiles says. “It was a wreck for about seven years.”
Johnson passed away on Sept. 20, 2016 in that very house. The couple had divorced in 2003.
As “long and arduous a task” as redoing the house was, Jiles found writerly relief when Nancy and Bob Shivers, attorneys who lived around the corner on South Alamo Street, offered her their basement to write. There she wrote Enemy Women and North Spirit, about her time living and working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in the Arctic, where she set up one-watt FM radio stations in the native languages, Anishinaabe and Inuktitut – a far cry from studying Romance languages at the University of Missouri–Kansas City. All in all, Jiles worked and lived in Canada for 10 years.
As always, Jiles wrote in what Nye describes as “a voice unlike anyone else’s.”
“She’s an absolute original in all genres, whether poetry, non-fiction, or fiction,” Nye said. “She has a power, a gift with language, and creation of character and scene unlike anything I’ve encountered. She is truly one of the world’s greatest authentic writers.”
Canadians agreed. Jiles was the first American to be awarded the prestigious Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language Poetry in 1984 for Celestial Navigation. A year later, the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood won in the fiction category for her classic The Handmaid’s Tale.
Nye said Jiles’ name has served as a calling card when she's worked in Canada, and claims that Atwood likely wouldn’t have struck up a conversation with her if not for her curiosity about what Jiles was up to.
“We’re so privileged to have her here in our wider circle of writers in Texas,” Nye says. “The fact she’s in Texas at all is kind of a miracle.”
News of the World tells the story of Capt. Jefferson Kidd, a survivor of three wars, including the just-ended Civil War, who makes a living reading East Coast and worldwide newspapers to small town audiences in North Texas. He reluctantly agrees to return 10-year-old Johanna, who had been kidnapped four years earlier by Kiowa Indians after her family was slaughtered, to surviving family members. Johanna, however, is determined to escape back to the tribe.
The dangerous, morally complex events of the journey evoked Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain. In advance of her novel’s publication, Frazier called News of the World "a powerful, richly realized journey" and said that Kidd "belongs in the pantheon of great Western characters along with True Grit’s Rooster Cogburn and Lonesome Dove’s Gus and Call.”
Jiles wrote News of the World at the cabin of her 32-acre ranchito in Utopia, Texas, where she has lived since leaving San Antonio in 2004. There she keeps two horses and a donkey, sings in a church choir, and plays the penny whistle in a band called Picking on the Porch.
Such a rural life, stretching back to her childhood in the Missouri Ozarks, served to equip Jiles with the firsthand knowledge of horse and ranching arcana that make her historical works so real. She also enlisted the help of experts at San Antonio Central Library's Texana Collection for details such as the proper names for parts of the spring wagon Kidd purchases for the trip south.
“It was in fact an excursion wagon,” the book reads, “painted a dark and glossy green and in gold letters on the sides it said ‘Curative Waters Sulphur Springs Texas.’ … There were poles to support a canopy and side curtains. This was but poor protection against hard weather but it was all he had.”
Jiles recalled long, happy hours in the Texana Collection in a recent interview. “Oh, that was such fun! I was doing my research for Enemy Women at the time but I got really distracted – it’s like wool-gathering off on strange trails. They had such a good Texana section, I couldn’t resist.”
Beyond the details of earlier times are the voices of people as they once spoke, gleaned from first person narratives. “True, authentic voices of ordinary people,” Jiles said.
Readers who know the author will find there’s a lot of Jim Johnson in Kidd and a lot of Paulette Jiles in Johanna.
As captivating as it is to be transported to a different time through reading, Jiles says her real intent is to create a setting that conveys the importance of the imagination.
“Whether it’s folktale or legend or fairy tale or myth, we’re hardwired to do this,” Jiles said. “The Captain is in a political situation in Texas at a time when people are fighting each other tooth and nail over two opposite political positions but what he’s trying to do, and I think probably failing to do, is to tell people the life of the imagination is absolutely vital. It’s as vital as oxygen to the human mind.
“… Yet people keep going back to fight each other over politics, over the real world. He’s trying to offer them refreshment of the mind, which is sort of a double entendre because the book itself is a work of the imagination. From time to time they do fall quiet to listen to the incredible stories of the eskimo or the Franco-Prussian War which to them is like a fairy tale, and that's what he’s trying to do under the guise of giving them news. So the whole book is a double entendre.”
The video below offers a glimpse into Jiles' life in Utopia as well as her inspiration for the storyline of and characters in News of the World.
“What a time we had making that video," Jiles wrote on her blog. "... I think it’s interesting, it has horses, running river, green trees, and so on. Not so much pontificating from me, but when people turn a camera on you and ask for your words of wisdom it is really tempting to blather away and get onto your favorite themes and inform the world of things the world ought to know. Temptation must be rigorously banged on the head.”
There's no need to resist your temptation to meet Jiles: the author will sign copies and read excerpts from News of the World at her book launch at The Twig Book Shop on Tuesday Oct. 11 starting at 6 p.m.
Editor's Note: Since the story was published on Oct. 4, Jiles' novel, News of the World, has been officially nominated for the National Book Award. This story has been updated with that information.
Top image: Paulette Jiles' novel "News of the World" will be released on Tuesday, Oct. 4. Photo on right by Jill Gann.