Shelley Read, GO AS A RIVER

Shelley Read, GO AS A RIVER

Zibby interviews debut author and fifth-generation Coloradoan Shelley Read about Go as a River, a spellbinding and devastatingly beautiful coming-of-age story of a young woman who is broken by tragedy but perseveres, set against the forests and rivers of Colorado from 1948 to 1971. Shelley describes her strong ties to the Colorado Rockies, her love of the wilderness, and her journey to publishing this book after more than a decade of chipping away at it while raising her kids (moms don’t have time to write!!). She also talks about her next book, her favorite books and genres, and the plans for a film adaptation of Go as a River!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Shelley. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your novel, Go as a River.

Shelley Read: Hi, Zibby. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: You’re welcome. Can you please tell everybody what your book is about?

Shelley: My book is a novel. It focuses on a young woman named Victoria Nash. When the book opens, it’s 1948. She’s a seventeen-year-old growing up along the banks of the wild Gunnison River on the Western Slope of the Colorado Rockies. The novel follows Victoria through her life, a variety of difficult decisions and challenges and just a lot of really tragic moments in her life that leads her toward digging into herself more deeply and finally understanding the depth of her strength and her resilience. By the time we end the book, it’s in 1971. Victoria has learned to live her life. She’s learned to go as a river. That’s where the title of the book comes from.

Zibby: That’s amazing. You are a fifth-generation Coloradoan. Did I get that right?

Shelley: I am a fifth-generation Coloradoan and super proud of that, really very rooted in place as a fundamental aspect of my being. I’ve always loved that, but I’ve come to realize over time how rare and special that actually is.

Zibby: I feel like place is one of the key things in your book that differentiates it, is how absolutely beautiful and gorgeous and environmentally evocative it is, alongside the development of your characters and everything. It’s just so beautiful to traverse.

Shelley: Thank you very much. Place and displacement become the primary theme of the book. Also, home and family, where we turn when those are lost, and female friendship, motherhood, it touches on a lot of those really fundamental human experiences. I think because I’m so rooted in place, the novel and Victoria’s journey became so rooted in place as well.

Zibby: I love that. Tell me your whole story. Let’s back up for a minute. I know you come from a long line of Coloradoans. Then what? You were born in Colorado.

Shelley: I had the great fortune to live in a family that loved camping and mountain climbing and being out in the wilderness. It’s really defined my entire life. I’ve lived my entire adult life at nine thousand feet, the Western Slope of Colorado Rockies in Gunnison Valley, the same valley where the novel is set. People who have read the book have a pretty good sense of what my landscape is all around. I’m so grateful for that. I lived here high in the mountains starting in college. I grew up on the Front Range of Colorado, primarily in Colorado Springs, where generations of my family, my great-grandparents, my grandparents, my mom and dad, my uncles and aunts, cousins, we all lived there all nearby each other, which was of great value to me. As soon as I could choose where I wanted to live — I had family here in the Gunnison Valley. In 1985 as a sophomore in college at the University of Denver, I started living here in the summers all through college and graduate school. Then I was fortunate enough to get a job teaching at Western Colorado University fresh out of grad school in 1991. It’s in Gunnison. I’ve just stayed ever since. Over those thirty-some years, this landscape and this place has really become my homeland. I was a teacher for all of those years, and so the writing journey for me — set out to be a writer as a young woman. Taught for almost thirty years while I was being a mom and focusing on all those things. I’ve now come back around to my writing life by finishing this novel. It’s been a full-circle journey for me in that way.

Zibby: That’s so amazing. When did you start this novel?

Shelley: Oh, my gosh, it’s funny. People keep asking me, how long did it take you to write? I’ve really had to go back because it was quite a long process of just chipping away at it. You know how it is. Being a busy mom, you find time for your creativity. You find time for what matters most to your own soul. Unfortunately, it can be at the bottom of the list. You sort of just find time for it here and there. I think I chipped away on this novel for at least twelve years or more until I really knew that I needed to clear the space, honor my creative process, honor this book and Victoria’s story that I loved so much and clear some of the other things out of my life and really focus on finishing it. I finally did that. I took early retirement from my university in 2018. Ever since then, it’s just been a journey of completing the final draft and getting it out into the world.

Zibby: Where is your favorite place to write?

Shelley: In the wilderness, absolutely. I go camping alone a lot. I love to camp with my husband and my kids, of course, but I love to camp alone. It’s where I can clear everything out. I always have a journal with me. I have, over years and years, written volumes of observations of the natural world. Also, we have a generational family cabin that sits on a lake west of here. I love to write there so much. You know how you have this body memory for places that you do certain things in certain places? The minute I walk into our cabin, I want to write. Between those two places, those are my favorite places and my most productive places to write.

Zibby: I love that, that sense memory, like you’re a rat with the pellets or something.

Shelley: It’s exactly that fundamental, yes.

Zibby: I love it. That’s great. When you’re writing your journals, I’m assuming by hand, do you type your work? Do you write everything by hand? How do you do it?

Shelley: Because the process of writing Go as a River was so whacky, really — people often ask me, what’s your writing process? I was like, as a full-time teacher and a mom of young children, my writing process was snippets anywhere I possibly could, so write post-it notes, jotting down in a notebook, recorded in my phone, whatever. I’m hoping that’s not my real writing process now that my kids are older and out of the house and that I’m actually able to sit down and write this second novel. I’m hoping my process is a lot more sane. What I find is that I do a combination of handwriting — I have stacks of spiral notebooks that have both notes and sections of what became Go as a River as well as many files on my computer. Honestly, for this novel, for Go as a River, my answer is I wrote just whenever and however I could. I think it’s important to capture ideas when they come to you. Otherwise, I think they can get lost. Hours later, you think, what was that wonderful idea that I had? It’s gone. I find that so tragic, so painful. I’m a jotter. I jot down everywhere, and then I piece things together. That’s my process.

Zibby: That’s amazing. How old are your kids now?

Shelley: Twenty-five, and my youngest just turned twenty, which is shocking to me, my baby. It’s a beautiful thing and also kind of wound up with a sense of loss as well. I don’t like that they’re out of the house. Sure, I can write now. That’s wonderful, but I’d rather have them screaming through the living room. That whole journey of being a mother, it really ended up playing more powerfully in my novel than I think I initially anticipated. I think that it had something to do with being in that space of watching my children get older and knowing that this moment was coming and feeling that connection with them so deeply. You know. The journey of motherhood is a new experience every day.

Zibby: It’s interesting how you phrase that. Sometimes I’m like, when they’re all out of the house, I’ll be able to, blah, blah, blah. Then you forget that other things might not — that is not necessarily the goal. It’s going to be so sad. When they’re not here for extended periods of time, I’m like, okay, it’s been a week, time for them to come back from my ex-husband’s.

Shelley: I tried to really dig into some of that in the novel. This novel, for me, started as a spark of wanting to explore, what does it mean to be a woman in the world? There are so many of those complexities of wanting to reclaim and hold tight to who you feel like you are outside of motherhood. At the same time, the various characters in my book, they’re sort of defined by whether they are or are not a mother. I have one character, Inga, who never wanted to be a mother. There are many layers of where we find family, how we’re defined as women, what our possibilities are. Certainly for Victoria in 1948 when we first meet her, her opportunities, her sense of self, her abilities are incredibly limited by societal constraints and the expectations of the men in her life. I wanted to explore that, how women have to fight a little harder to find and assert themselves in the world outside of the context, outside of the definitions that are created for them. That becomes an underlying theme throughout the book. As we follow Victoria and as she develops a sense of self and as she becomes herself through the novel, it really is about her figuring out her own identity and her own power for herself as opposed to it being defined externally.

Zibby: What do your kids think of your book?

Shelley: They’re super proud of me. They’re really excited for me. Kids have a way of just going about their life. Mom’s doing whatever Mom’s doing. Hey Mom, that’s really cool. Can you fix me a sandwich? You know what? For any writers who are listening and anyone out there who really needs to be inspired to stick with something, I hope that I’ve been an inspiration and a model for my kids chipping away at this book that I really believed in for all those years and actually finishing it and actually getting it into the world. I know that they are proud of me for that, but what I hope more than anything is that that has become part of them and their own journey in some way, that they can believe in themselves and their own dreams and say, Mom made hers happen, I can make mine happen to. I really hope that’s one of the legacies for my children of this novel getting out into the world.

Zibby: That’s so beautiful. You seem like such a nurturer. Do you cook a lot? Do you love to cook? Do you love to bake? I don’t even know why I’m asking this.

Shelley: No, not really. Now that the kids are out of the house, I love salad, so I literally just don’t cook at all. I’m like, I’ve done it for twenty-five years. If you want food, you can just make it yourself. I am a nurturer in the land. I think I carry on some of my ancestors’ love of the land. I come from ranchers and farmers and people who worked the land and loved the land. I live at nine thousand feet elevation, but I have a huge vegetable garden that we eat out of for a portion of the year. I nurture, but I nurture in different ways.

Zibby: Amazing. What is your next novel?

Shelley: I’m trying to work on that now. Although, the publicity side of releasing a book, it’s a very different part of my brain, helping Go as a River get into the world. I’m on a book tour. I’m kind of midway through it. I’ve already done fourteen stops or something. I’m on my way to a European tour because my novel is being translated into thirty languages and published countries, which I’m so, so, so honored by. I’m so honored. There’s clearly something in the various thematic concerns that’s resonating broadly. I’m so grateful for that. I’m really trying to just love this moment of getting this book out in the world. At the same time, yes, I have these new characters and a new story and a new novel that I’m just itching to really dig into. I’m sitting with it. It’s percolating. I’m learning. I’m figuring out who these characters are. I’ve definitely learned that character and place are what drive my interest in a narrative, and so I want to really get to know those aspects of this new book. Then hopefully, it’ll all really unfold for me.

Zibby: I love it. Awesome. When you read, what are some of your go-to novels or genres or all of that?

Shelley: I love poetry. I read a lot of poetry, actually. I read poetry while I’m writing. It’s the thing that kind of bumps me out of writer’s block. I really don’t read other people’s fiction while I’m trying to write my own because the stories can get muddled, but I’m such a reader. I need to be reading all the time. When I’m writing, I read a lot of poetry. I read nonfiction. Some of my favorite novelists, I love the quiet novels of Marilynne Robinson. She’s always been a bit of a hero to me. My undergraduate degree and my master’s and my PhD work all was in literary studies and philosophy. I feel like I carry this huge backpack of all of these classic works of literature that I’ve studied really carefully. They’ve all taught me so much about narrative. I love Virginia Woolf. I love some of the classic nineteenth-century American storytellers. I love such a breadth of literature. They’re so different. I love environmental writing. I taught that for many years. I can’t even begin to tell you everyone who sort of sits on my shoulders and whispers in my ear as I’m doing my own writing, but then to try to make my own as authentic and honest and true to me as I possibly can. I recently bought a new collection of Lucille Clifton’s poetry. I’ve been loving that and an N. Scott Momaday collection — he’s from the Kiowa indigenous tribe — called The Death of Sitting Bear. I’ve been reading that poetry lately. I read so broadly that it’s hard to sum up. That, in a nutshell, is what I’ve been reading lately.

Zibby: Excellent. Amazing. If somebody doesn’t know you and there was something that was really surprising about you that they might not pick up on right away, what would that be?

Shelley: What would that be? That is a good question. It might be this kind of push and pull that I’m feeling that I was just mentioning around being out in the world and being a very public self and being my very quiet self as well. I’ve been a professor for all of these years. I can walk into a classroom, and I can smile and teach and engage the class. I love my students. I love encouraging their ideas. I’m perfectly comfortable out on this book tour stepping onto a stage and talking to people. You might not know that what I really love is to actually be left totally alone. I love solitude. I love time in the wilderness. I love time in my own mind. I’m actually far more of an introvert, maybe, than I come across. What I find is being a very public self is really exhausting. It’s really tiring. I can do it, but it’s very tiring. When I’m at my happiest is when I’m alone in the wilderness with good hiking shoes and a pen and a notebook. I might not come across as that’s where I’d really rather be, but that is always where I’d rather be.

Zibby: It’s so funny. We can love the same literature and have all of that in common and connect on some levels, but I would not be my happiest in hiking shoes in the woods. I would be very happy on the couch behind me reading a book or something, also alone. I’m okay with alone, but maybe somewhere I feel a little safer.

Shelley: Just not necessarily with a bear aspen trees.

Zibby: Although, I guess if I knew it as well as you — I don’t know. Part of mine is anxiety in the wilderness of all the things that can go wrong and all the fear. Whereas if I’m at home, I have no fear.

Shelley: That’s true. I tried to pull some of that in at the point in the novel when Victoria flees into the wilderness. I didn’t want to romanticize being in the wilderness. It’s scary for me sometimes as well. It’s incredibly humbling. It’s very vulnerable. In that way, it’s also very instructive. For me, I’ve learned probably more about life and about life and death and about being my best self and about perspective probably more than anything by being in wild landscapes. That is not always because I’ve been entirely comfortable. I’ve had, certainly, my fair share of near-death experiences on various mountaintops and whatnot. The lessons for me — I channeled some of those lessons into my character Victoria, a lot of those lessons. There’s that sense of humility and that sense of something so much grander and more eternal than myself. Really, a lot of powerful lessons to be learned there. Because it’s been so much a part of my own journey, I wanted it to be part of Victoria’s journey as well in the novel.

Zibby: I wish you were my teacher. I would love to take a class from you. We offer Zibby Classes. If you ever have any interest in teaching it, I would take it.

Shelley: That’s so kind. Thank you very much. Like I said, I left the university to focus on writing. I do miss it. I miss teaching.

Zibby: You should do a class. You could even do it just once, like a workshop on writing about place. I don’t know. Whatever you want to do.

Shelley: Thank you. I’ll up on that.

Zibby: You have such a wonderful energy about you. I just love listening to you talk. You’re a very special woman. You can tell. It just radiates off of you.

Shelley: Thank you, Zibby. I appreciate that very, very much. Thank you. That’s super kind.

Zibby: It’s true. Thank you for all of your time. Thank you for Go as a River. Congratulations. Good luck with the rest of your amazing tour. Congrats on all of your success. Oh, I didn’t even mention that it’s also in development, as you said, as a film. Is that right?

Shelley: Yeah, it is. “In development” is the phrase that I’ve been taught to use at this point. It’s all an alien world to me. I’ve had a huge learning curve about the publishing world. Now I’m on that same learning curve about the film world. Yes, currently, there are plans to turn Go as a River into a film. It’s in the very early stages. I am so excited about that. I’ve had people say that some of the writing and some of the images, that it is rather cinematic and that it might translate to film in a rather beautiful way. I’m really excited to see how that’s all going to play out and how that will happen. Stay tuned for that. We’ll see.

Zibby: I’m staying tuned.

Shelley: I feel like I’m on a wild ride on this whole thing. It all has far surpassed my expectations. My goal with writing this book was to just tell Victoria’s story as best as I possibly could out of respect for her. The fact that all of this is happening with the book, I’m so grateful. I think I’ll never stop being so shocked and surprised and very grateful.

Zibby: Victoria is a fictious character.

Shelley: I have to remind myself of that sometimes.

Zibby: I was just confirming that for anybody else who might be getting confused at this point in the conversation.

Shelley: She is highly fictious. Her setting is a real setting. The history of Iola, Colorado, is a real history. Yes, Victoria is an entirely fictitious character. Simply because I’ve lived with her for so long and love her so much, I sometimes forget that myself.

Zibby: Who knows? All these characters everybody makes up who dance around, I don’t know, maybe they’re all living somewhere together happily hanging out in their fictious world, alternate universe or something. Bye, Shelley. Thank you so much.

Shelley: Bye, Zibby. Thank you so much. Have a great day. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Shelley Read, GO AS A RIVER

GO AS A RIVER by Shelley Read

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