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Dust Bowl Days: Inside Rae Meadows’ ‘I Will Send Rain’

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Courtesy Photo
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Rae Meadows’ new novel I Will Send Rain follows a family struggling for survival during the Dust Bowl. Meadows spoke with KMUW via phone at the start of her current tour to promote the book.

What was the genesis of this novel?

I happened to be reading the biography of Dorthea Lange. I’m interested in photography. I came across a photo that I hadn’t seen before of a woman nursing her child. She was Dust Bowl refugee on the side of the road in California. There was something about the photo that I found totally arresting. She has a very defiant look on her face, and she’s angry.

I kept thinking about it, so I started researching the Dust Bowl. I knew so little about the Dust Bowl. Anything I knew was probably from high school history, and that was pretty limited. Then it became my obsession. I just immersed myself in anything I could read and, particularly, the photographs of that period which were essential to me in writing this book. In my head, it just became a place I kept returning to again and again. It was almost easier for me to set a novel in a place I hadn’t been. I could create a fictional world around it.

I think there’s a certain segment of people who might say, ‘Well, if you’ve never been there, how can you?’

How can you write about it? I know. I read so much about the Panhandle during this period, and there was this specific town, Boise City, that I used as my fictional base. I have now been to Boise City; I went after I finished the manuscript. But I didn’t want to go before, partly because I didn’t want to be too constrained by how it looks today and the feeling I got. I wanted to create this fictional landscape in my head and stay true to that. Luckily, it wasn’t too far off when I went.

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Credit Courtesy Photo

You’re talking about a novel that has to require some research and immersing yourself in the time. Where does it go from being research to being integrated into your creativity?

Research is, for me, incredibly fun and I love it. I think there is a point where research can become a hindrance if you’ve learned so much and you’re trying to cram details into what you’re writing. I think that’s when it can be problematic. So, what I like to do, and what I did for this book, is read all that I could, look at all I could, do all this stuff, and then put that aside and not consult that while I was writing. I had a place in my head after reading all this stuff and seeing all the photos, and then just base it off that.

At one point—and that’s why I was reading the Lange biography—I thought I wanted to fictionalize Dorthea Lange herself. But I found myself too constrained by her actual life. That, to me, is much more difficult to do than actually create someone from scratch.

A question I often ask authors is, ‘Why this book now?’ In this case, I look at the story and think, ‘We’re at a time when we’re beginning to get away from the generation that remembers the Dust Bowl.’ I had a father who was born in 1925 and have a mother who was born in 1935. Their generation is slowly slipping away. Was that part of the book for you as well? That this was a kind of a remembrance?

Definitely. I’m with you. My parents were born in 1930. I am definitely feeling that kind of loss as I see their peers dying and the loss of those stories. That was most definitely a part of it. There're certain environmental issues that felt timely to me. Not just the drought in California, but just, in general, the effects of global warming and the more catastrophic weather events that will happen. And the way that people deal in these situations.

Certainly what I found last summer in Boise City is that it’s easy to see the climate of this election in the feelings of anger and loss and feeling like you’ve been left out. I think it happened in the ‘30s, and I think it happens now. During the Dust Bowl, they felt totally forgotten. I think that feeling still persists because they are a town that has lost most of their industry. Most people aren’t staying. The population is dwindling. It’s easier to see why there’s the current anger and fear in this election cycle.

There have been some really positive words written about I Will Send Rain. There are certain writers who don’t want to know anything about what’s being said.

[Laughs.] I’m not one of them!

You’re not one of them.

It is a strange thing to read and to hear the reactions. You never know what it’s going to be. I feel very good about this book. People I know have read it, and then I’ve had some very nice reviews. If they were not so nice, I would probably stop reading them. But right now I’m still doing it. I’m still encouraged and reading them. It’s an effort that people put in. It’s an effort to read a book, and I feel very grateful that I can a.) be a writer, and b.) that people actually read what I write.

Rae Meadows will be at Watermark Books on Wednesday night for a talk and signing.