Launch: Dianna Rostad’s You Belong Here Now
INTERVIEW BY REBEKAH SIMMERS
How would you describe this book?
In 1925 Montana, a brusque, spinster rancher begrudgingly takes in three mysterious orphans. When the oldest is jailed for freeing wild horses rounded up for slaughter, she discovers he is a dangerous fugitive from Hell’s Kitchen.
The excerpts on your website showcase your descriptions, the immediacy of your writing, and introduce strong characters. Was there a particular character that you connected with?
I connect with Nara on so many levels. She is modeled on my eldest daughter who was a natural leader and would happily confront people she didn’t agree with. My daughter was all about the rules and very brave in her lifetime. Nara is pretty outspoken for a woman of her time. She believes rules and laws are paramount and keep people safe. In the end, she realizes that rules and law don’t always mete out justice and makes her own kind of justice, surprising readers greatly.
What attracted you to writing historical fiction?
I love reading historical fiction; I’m fascinated by history in general. I couldn’t imagine writing anything else. My favorite part is traveling to my settings or libraries and museums to find information. I spent nine years researching Lord Byron throughout the United Kingdom and enjoyed every moment of that. You have to love research and history to write stories in historical settings. Ideas have come to me in other genres, and though I write them down, ultimately, they’ve stayed in the proverbial drawer.
What inspired your novel?
While reading an online CNN article, the pictures of orphans hanging out of trains and standing on platforms during the 1920s looked familiar to my eye. I had worked with youthful offenders after the riots of the 1990s in South Central Los Angeles, finding them employment when they paroled. Like the kids rounded up by The Children’s Aid Society and put in orphanages and onto trains to the heartland and West, the kids on my caseload didn’t have significant adults. I rarely met a parent. It was always the same story, one parent missing and the other in jail. Some raised by a grandmother or an auntie. Like the orphans riding the train, the kids on my caseload had to make their own way and got into gangs like the Crips and the Bloods. They’d done terrible things to survive, much like my Charles—a young man living on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen—in You Belong Here Now. Though the gangs wanted him, Charles wanted a better life. When I wrote my orphans, I was prepared. I understood their mindset and their backgrounds. Most importantly, from working with them, I knew they still had hope.
Is there an item placed within your story that holds special meaning?
The boots have a special place for me. In the pictures of my grandfather in Montana, everyone wore them. I imagined them in all sizes, lining the porch as you’ll read in my book. Montana itself was the big draw. One Christmas, my father drove to Texas, bringing old photos of the family ranches and their stories about living in Montana’s beautiful, but unforgiving land. One picture I always remember is of my grandfather’s ranch house with a small windmill on top. My grandfather’s note said he’d put that windmill there as a boy, hoping it would power just one light bulb—and it did for a time. Those photos broke open a whole big world where my characters fell into place. I decided then to set my book in Montana. My father recommended books, written by writers from Montana or set in the Big Sky state, which helped me frame the mindset and everyday lives of people in this quiet, rural place.
What kind of research did you complete?
There were many facets to this book. The research into the “what, where, and when”—all major chunks for historical novelists—spanned many years. I read several books on the orphan train and scoured the internet. I dove deep into the early twentieth century to discover the macro issues, as well as the wider movements: WWI, The Spanish Flu, Prohibition, and Women’s Rights.
For my orphans’ backstory, I researched 1920s Hell’s Kitchen: its inhabitants, tenements, and specifically the gangs and their activity. I traveled to Montana to study the landscape. Visiting museums and historical societies, I talked to historians and recovered oral histories from Cheyenne and other inhabitants. I researched indigenous cultures and the Battle of the Little Bighorn to understand the attitudes between people then. It was important to me to place everyone and everything in this book that existed there in that time. Who wrote the literature? What was popular? What did people wear in 1925 Montana? The funny thing about research is that it usually leads to more research, which I don’t mind.
My family’s history was an important part of framing the life of 1920s Montana. My aunts helped me greatly by finding the songs, stories, and pictures. The songs in the book, commonly sung at the time, came from my grandfather’s repertoire. My father and uncle helped me with cars, shotguns, and rifles—how they were loaded, cocked, and shot. The other two important aspects to research were cattle ranching and wild horses.
Share something that you learned while writing this book.
For me, the eye-opening part of my research was discovering that we’ve made no progress on how we manage the West’s wild horse population. In 1925, they were rounded up and canned into chicken feed. Today, they are rounded up into tiny holding pens, and if they aren’t adopted, they are sent across the borders to be destroyed and likely used for animal feed. The government and ranchers treat them like invasive species, when it’s really beef cattle that destroy our land. As the cattle graze on native grasses, their stomachs destroy the seeds, whereas wild horses and bison don’t. I’ve read research by Yvette Running Horse Collin proving they are indigenous creatures, although the popular Eurocentric myth is they were brought here by the Spanish Conquistadors.
What is the last great book you read?
This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger.