Photo by Anastasia Pottinger
On a crisp fall weekend, Susan Salzer cycled toward Rocheport on a path that curved with the Missouri River. She looked to the banks and saw the notorious Civil War bushwhackers quietly creeping through the mud and hiding from Federal soldiers. The dried blood-red leaves and 100-year-old stones crunched and crumbled under her bike tires as she continued toward the town that Bloody Bill Anderson once called his capital. And off in the distance, through the glaring late afternoon sunlight, Salzer could barely make out the silhouette of a lone horseman who stood in the distance against the sage-colored limestone bluffs. It had to be Jesse James.
Salzer wasn’t seeing things; she simply loves the West and loves writing about the characters who roamed and ruled Missouri. So when Cave Hollow Press called later that evening to tell Salzer that her first novel would be published, she took her imaginings from the trail as a good sign.
Salzer writes award-winning historical fiction based in the West, and her novel, Up From Thunder, is now available. It tells the story of Hattie Rood, a 16-year-old girl growing up in the Missouri tumult of the Civil War. Just as her family has been torn apart by the war, a group of bushwhackers asks the Roods to take in a wounded Jesse James. Initially, Hattie is reluctant to help, but as she nurses James back to health, she begins to understand the cruelty of war and accepts the undying love that grows for the wounded rebel before her.
The book is based on “Cornflower Blue,” a short story that earned Salzer the prestigious 2009 Spur Award for Best Western Short Fiction. In light of the story’s success, she realized she had the seed to create something bigger. “I so enjoyed the writing process with the story,” Salzer says. “It came very easily. I could see myself on the farm. Sometimes I just close my eyes and see it.”
Salzer, who holds a master’s degree from the Missouri School of Journalism and has worked under tight deadlines as a newspaper reporter and in public relations, has been writing for most of her life. In 1995, the married mother of four gave up her job as an editor for University of Missouri publications to dedicate herself to writing historical fiction. At first, life without deadlines was difficult.
“It’s a miracle that I kept on writing,” she says. “In the beginning, my stories were execrable.”
But a few well-written paragraphs or an occasional “nice turn-of-phrase” kept her going. She also started writing to her favorite Western authors.
“I even sent them my stories,” Salzer says, in a disbelieving tone. To her surprise, she received letters back from all of them, including Dale Walker, who later published another short story of Salzer’s called “Miss Libbie Tells All.”
Salzer has been published in an anthology of Western fiction and is the recipient of several awards (she is a judge for this year’s Spur Awards). She goes to writing workshops across the country, including a yearly pilgrimage to the Ozark Creative Writers Conference in Eureka Springs, where she won first prize and $300 for “Cornflower Blue.” She used the prize money to buy a delicate, three-string turquoise necklace.
“I say it’s the necklace Jesse James bought me,” she says.
Because some of what she writes is based on true events, Salzer already knows how many of her stories will end. She stays true to the facts and historical figures, but what she doesn’t initially know is how she will choose to develop her characters and how they will meet their ends. She spends years researching ideas and stories. Her writing has taken her to Wyoming and on the Bozeman Trail through Nebraska. Still, Salzer has a difficult time calling herself a writer. In fact, the business cards she just had printed don’t even note her profession; instead, they simply and unassumingly read in lowercase letters: novels, short stories, nonfiction.
Although, Salzer might have a hard time labeling herself, others do not. “She simultaneously understands the genre and pushes its boundaries,” says Tom Cobb, a long-time friend of Salzer’s and the author of Crazy Heart, which has now been released as a full-length feature film.
“She’s good with her history…Her greatest gift as a writer is her ability to create character, both a fictional character and an actual historical character. Writing a contemporary historical Western is a kind of dance between allegiance to history and the psychological complexity and honesty that readers expect (and should expect) from 21st-century novels. Sue dances that dance very well indeed.”
In just a few pages, Salzer transports her readers to another time and place. These real and fictional characters from history come alive: We sit next to Miss Libbie Custer on an intimate train journey; we can feel the damp cloth Hattie uses to wipe the brow of a feverish Jesse James. Salzer works hard to take us with her on a journey West, and she embodies the genre she writes.
A voracious reader, Salzer not only reads a variety of authors and genres, but she also immerses herself in nonfiction, historical fiction and Western manuscripts to
develop a feel for the language and dialect her characters need. A tattered and practically coverless book on Jesse James was continually used as a resource and for inspiration during the writing of “Cornflower Blue” and Up From Thunder. Framed Remington sketches mix with the Christmas decorations she put up for the holidays. A Navajo wedding basket sits atop a shelf in her living room. Upstairs in her office, maps of historic trails help her track down the characters of another novel she is writing and a new nonfiction project. The coveted Spur Award sits on a large stack of books, and it even jingle-jangles.
“Westerns are like America’s Shakespeare,” Salzer says, quoting Kevin Costner from an episode of National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, which she listens to daily. “There are so many classic themes that can’t be ignored.” She sips her tea and crosses her legs. The hem of her trouser shifts slightly to reveal a beautiful pair of white Minnetonka moccasins. Salzer says that for her and many other contemporary Western writers, the genre is about more than duels and geography.
“A sense of place is imperative to Western literature, and the landscape characterizes the genre,” she says. “It becomes a state of mind, a place where one can retreat when everyday life becomes oppressive. Missouri might not be a classic Western state, but it has a rich and haunted past.”
Just take a ride down the Katy Trail. Perhaps you’ll see Jesse, too.
Originally published in Columbia Home & Lifestyle Magazine, February/March issue