Go as a River
by Shelley Read
(Spiegel and Grau)
Interview by Diane Slocum
A chance meeting on a street corner changes the course of 17-year-old Victoria Nash’s life. Wilson Moon, a young Native American, has just drifted into the small Colorado farming town of Iola near where Victoria’s family grows their famous Nash peaches. The two quickly develop a secret friendship. The Nash family has already been living under the shadow of the death of family members several years before, but now a new tragedy sends Victoria into a solitary existence in the wilderness. Looming over all the personal struggles in and around Iola, is the impending dam on the Gunnison River which will inundate the town and surrounding farms, including the beloved peach orchard.
AUTHORLINK: What gave you the idea for this story? What was the first scene or line that came to you?
READ: This story began with a scene that ended up being 120+ pages into the novel—when the mother doe emerges from the forest, followed by one fawn and then another. I witnessed this exact scene one evening when I was out camping alone in a high mountain meadow. I looked into those big brown eyes and connected with the doe—mother to mother—with a feeling of deep empathy. I wondered, how was she going to keep both of those vulnerable babies alive? After the deer moved on, I grabbed my journal and wrote it all down. Soon the character of Victoria began forming in my mind, and I linked her to that scene, knowing somehow that family, motherhood, and loss would be part of her story.
AUTHORLINK: I read that you started this novel many years before you returned to it. How did you pick it back up? Had your ideas about it changed much? Tell me anything you can about how that worked.
“I kept at it in small ways, writing the novel in little snippets…”
READ: I never really abandoned this”s novel, but I certainly didn’t give it the time and attention it deserved for many years. I was a busy professor and mom, and I had some tough health and personal challenges come my way in those years…so even though I often thought about Victoria and her story, clearing the time and space to write usually fell to the bottom of my priority list. But I kept at it in small ways, writing the novel in little snippets whenever time allowed. The narrative eventually demanded more of my attention, as if it was a story that insisted on being told and I finally had to commit to telling it. I grew a lot as both a writer and a human being during the decade or so that I worked on this book. The novel ended up being much richer for the journey. In the end, I wouldn’t change a thing about the process.
AUTHORLINK: How much influence did your family’s history in Colorado have on your story?
“I think it’s because of my strong sense of place that I was drawn to the unique sadness…”
READ: Being a fifth-generation Coloradoan influenced Go as a River a great deal. The concepts of home and homeland are integral to who I am, and I feel a connection to the land way down deep in my being. Inevitably, this informed the novel’s themes of place, displacement, home, family, and loss. It’s because I value these things that the reality of a town at the bottom of Blue Mesa Reservoir had long made me wonder—what was it like for those families to be forced off their generational farms and ranches? And what about the layers of displacement on that same land that began with the tragic forced removal of the Ute people well before Iola existed? What can and cannot be reclaimed after homeland is lost? I think it’s because of my strong sense of place that I was drawn to the unique sadness of displacement and wanted to tell that story.
AUTHORLINK: How did you handle writing about Wil?
READ: I took tremendous care in developing the character of Wilson Moon. I knew that I could not write a story about displacement in the American West without including the indigenous experience, but I was also aware of my limitations to accurately and respectfully represent that story. Wil is a lovely character, and I adore him, but I felt that his full story was not my story to tell. I chose to see Wil through Victoria’s lens, with deep affection but from a certain cultural distance, and I also chose not to shy away from the horrors of prejudice. I love that Wil and Victoria can so honestly connect in the shared depth of their hearts, transcendent of the inherited biases that might otherwise have kept them apart. I hope Wil’s character encourages readers to educate themselves on the horrors of “Indian boarding schools” and the lasting effect that “westward expansion” has had on indigenous people. I also hope Wil helps readers think more deeply about how prejudice is learned and perpetuated, and how we can all do better.
AUTHORLINK: Did you have a character who took on a life of its own that wasn’t your original plan?
READ: Yes, Zelda. I originally wrote Zelda’s character as an entirely different woman. It was only after I decided to remove that character all together that Zelda sort of rose up and claimed her rightful place in the novel. Once I got to know her, I was so grateful she came along! Zelda is an important catalyst and friend—really a first friend for Victoria, other than the peach trees. Zelda’s ability to carry her past without guilt or fear and her desire to step into the future as a more modern woman combine to make her the right friend at the right time in Victoria’s journey. I love her spirit.
AUTHORLINK: We have a peach farmer and writer here in the San Joaquin Valley who I think would be instant friends with Victoria. David Mas Masumoto’s first book was Epitaph for a Peach. How are your peach trees, and other trees, important to you and your story?
“Her trees become a metaphor for several of the novel’s central theme…”
READ: Oh, I’ll put Epitaph for a Peach on my TBR list! I adore trees. I have the deepest respect for their intrinsic value, as well as for everything they give us. Victoria’s orchard—”the one last beautiful thing,” as she calls it— anchors her to purpose and belonging when all else is lost. Her trees become a metaphor for several of the novel’s central themes, especially those of family and motherhood; of roots, displacement, growing against the odds; and the hope of resilience in new soil. Wild trees also play a role in the novel. Ecosystems differ greatly by elevation in Colorado; thus, tree species change as Victoria flees higher and higher—from the peach trees, cottonwoods, and scrub oak of Iola to the pine and aspen forests of the Big Blue. Trees symbolize how far Victoria has fled from home, and, later, trees help to guide her return. I love the lone ponderosa pine that marks the fateful clearing for both Victoria and Inga, as if a sentinel is watching over that sacred place.
AUTHORLINK: “Go as a river” came from one of Wil’s lines. How did that come to you and then become the title of the book?
READ: I had several different “working titles” for this novel. When I decided on Go as a River, I knew I had it just right. The sheer will of a wild river—moving forward against obstacles; running over, around, under, and carving new banks to keep moving forward; gathering, nurturing, and releasing as it goes—is a primary metaphor throughout the novel. The phrase comes from indigenous, Buddhist, and other ancient wisdom traditions that draw great inspiration from a river’s eternal flow and strength. Victoria’s primary quest is to learn what it means to “go as a river.”
AUTHORLINK: What do you hope readers gain from your book besides just enjoying a good story?
“…I hope Victoria’s story touches my readers’ hearts and deepens their faith in love and personal resilience.”
READ: I hope my novel will encourage readers to consider the role the natural world plays in their lives. Wild places can be so instructive and a much-needed salve for our troubled souls, and these landscapes deserve our love and respect. I also hope readers will examine the complex notions of progress, prejudice, kinship, and grief and come away from the novel with more generosity and empathy for one another. More than anything, I hope Victoria’s story touches my readers’ hearts and deepens their faith in love and personal resilience.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?
READ: I am working on a second novel whenever I can, even though I’m still in the thick of Go as a River book tours and publicity (which I’m loving, by the way!). My next novel is also set in Colorado, but in a very different area of the state—the southeastern plains where my ancestors homesteaded, as well as in the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range. As with Go as a River, character and place are really defining this story for me. I’m currently doing historical research and getting to know the characters and the setting, and then I hope the story will begin to unfold. I’m excited to dig in!
About the Author: Shelley Read’s home is in the Elk Mountains of the Western Slope in Colorado. She taught classes from writing to environmental studies as a Senior Lecturer at Western Colorado University. Her degrees in writing and literary studies are from the University of Denver and Temple University. She has written for the Crested Butte Magazine, Gunnison Valley Journal and the Denver Post. Her first novel, Go as a River