An Interview with Obsidian Prize Winner Roz Spafford
Author of “The Season”
Roz & Roy Spafford
Photo by David Bishow – by permission of Roz Spafford
Roz Spafford grew up on a cattle ranch in northwestern Arizona, the landscape where several of her stories, including “The Season” and “Drought”www.rozspafford.org/stories/drought/ , and her first novel, Telling Time, are set. The scrub sage and junipers and pumice in Roz’s writing are familiar sites to high-desert dwellers. Her father, born in Canada, chose the “cowboy life” and eventually found his way to the high desert.
Roz tells us:
At 16, my father left his home in Toronto to become a cowboy, knowing no more about it than what he had learned from books. He did know something about horses from having worked with them on his grandparents’ farm, but as for the life of a working cowboy, he drew from Will James and from William MacLeod Barnes, who documented some elements of the west.
Somehow, he was hired by some big ranches (he would have called them “outfits”) in Alberta and B.C. and found his way into that demanding life. I believe that he must have returned to Toronto two years later, in 1938, when the pages from his notebook are dated. The notebook is about a hundred and fifty pages drawn partly from the book Barnes wrote with Will C. Raine, Cattle, Cowboys and Rangers, each page illustrated as seen rigth.
I think he took Will James as a model (in this and perhaps some other things). Though some of the drawings are awkward, the life he had lived and artist he would become are visible. After going to art school on the GI bill, he enlisted several partners with whom he bought a ranch in Arizona, the place where I spent my childhood. That landscape is where “The Season” is set; Nikki’s story is not my story, but her land is mine.
In talking with Roz, we asked her what she had read during her sophomore summer in high school (a question that had led to some interesting discussion in our OSU MFA group), and she replied, “The summer after sophomore year of high school was not a very good one for reading; however, the prior summer I was reading the Bible and the summer following I was reading J.R.R. Tolkien and Robinson Jeffers. Probably there’s information there!”
As writers, we trace our ancestry through what we’ve read. Like ancestors, books create us, often in unpredictable ways. Of course, other things shape us as well—landscape, language, history, events, people. And books themselves live in the context of these other things.
My childhood—and my childhood reading—ended when we left the ranch where I grew up. It is a complex story I have written about elsewhere, involving drought, fallout, financial catastrophe and a financial lifeline—but the short version is that we moved to the coast of California when I was between sixth and seventh grade. In response to that profound dislocation, I followed a friend into a fundamentalist Christian church and began reading the Bible. Reading is an understatement: we memorized thousands of verses. If I could not be at home on the high desert where I belonged, I could at least be at home in language. Those cadences and that context are audible in “The Gospel According to Mary,” the poems at the center of my book, Requiem.
When the church stopped making sense to me at the end of ninth grade, for a year or so I read very little that was not assigned. The only thing I remember reading is Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, and I would have to reread it again to see how it affected me. Not to be reading was out of character; for most of my childhood, I had staggered out of our small library in Arizona with all the books I could carry—and they were never enough to get me through the week. I must have been in a hiatus between whom I had been and whom I would become.
Thanks to a boyfriend whose inner life was organized by these books, I began reading The Lord of the Rings in eleventh grade. I am not sure how Tolkien shaped my writing; I know he gave me a world to inhabit and a sense that even invented worlds had a history, a language, a truth. I read the books again when my son did, and I think they offer a vision of unlikely heroism, perseverance, the power of symbols and the danger of industrial evil that is important for readers of any age, as well as a compelling demonstration of how and how much language matters.
Another friend, the late and much-mourned Jeff Norman, persuaded me that year to read Robinson Jeffers, whose poems about the central California coast let me see the land I was actually in, instead of the land I was grieving for. Together we walked the cliffs and ridges, and Jeff told me the real names of the landmarks Jeffers used in his work, the names of the early flowers and persistent shrubs on the hillsides, the surf echoing below. My early poems were hopelessly derivative (a toxic mashup of Jeffers, Lorca and Leonard Cohen), finally freed when I began reading Adrienne Rich in my twenties.
What remains of Jeffers in my work is the centrality of land. Otherwise, my novels are influenced by Doris Lessing, if anyone, my short stories by Raymond Carver and Grace Paley, certainly. This passage from the Bible into silence and then out, into Tolkein and Jeffers and then out, speaks to the years when I became myself/selves, borne of loss, landscape and books.
To find out more about Roz and her work, visit: http://www.rozspafford.org/
Roz’s handwritten notes for “The Season”
Photo by Will Isbister – by permission of Roz Spafford
Roy Spafford’s Notebook circa 1938
- by permission of Roz Spafford
Photo by David Bishow – by permission of Roz Spafford