Janice Graham never dreamed she'd settle in Kansas, let alone set a novel there. Yet in 1991, almost 20 years after the Wichita native ditched the sunflower state for the pleasures of Paris, she returned to her hometown. A single mother, Graham wanted to raise her daughter in proximity to Graham's parents. It was a drastic change for the self-described gypsy, who for the last ten years had lived alternately in Paris and Los Angeles, where she worked as a screenwriter. And it was a move that could have meant the end of her writing career: she stopped writing for five years after her daughter was born and began teaching French and English in the Wichita public schools. Instead, it may well have been the smartest, albeit unintentional, career move of her life. I am convinced that if I were still writing about Paris, no one would buy it, the author laughs.
Unlike her two unpublished novels, set in Paris, Greece, Los Angeles, and Israel, she has set her new novel, a love story entitled Firebird, in the Flint Hills of Kansas, the largest unbroken expanse of tallgrass prairie in North America. Graham was familiar with the Flint Hills from her student days at the University of Kansas: she drove past the seemingly endless rangeland on her visits to and from her parents in Wichita. But she had no interest in it.
"I was doing my degree in French, and I was very attracted to older civilizations," she explains. Not to barrenness." It was only after her return to Kansas that the Flint Hills took hold of the author's imagination. "After living in two very big cosmopolitan areas, the wide open spaces looked very very appealing. And I became very attached to them."
It is an attachment she shares to a degree with Ethan Brown, the 43-year-old hero of Firebird, for whom the Flint Hills are his greatest devotion. "Ethan Brown was in love with the Flint Hills," the novel begins. "His father had been a railroad man, not a rancher, but you would have thought he had been born into a dynasty of men connected to this land, the way he loved it. He loved it the way certain peoples love their homeland, with a spiritual dimension . . . He had never loved a woman quite like this, but that was about to change."
Ethan is in fact practically engaged to Katie Anne, a rancher's daughter who shares his dream of raising cattle on the land they both love. "Ethan wanted very much to like Katie Anne," Graham writes. "There was so much about her he did like." For although Ethan is compassionate and intelligent, a lawyer with a Ph.D. in English and a passion for the romantic poets that has earned him the nickname Wordsworth, this man of conscience is about to do the unconscionable: marry a woman he does not love.
"I think people can have a conscience in every part of their life except in their personal relationships with the opposite sex," Graham explains. "I don't think finding a soulmate was ever anything that he thought would happen to him or that he felt would ever be a goal in his life. I think he was so focused on a way of living." Indeed, he barely seems cognizant that it is wrong to marry a woman he does not love; he views marriage to Katie Anne as part and parcel of his dream of cattle and his own piece of land. But just as he is within grasp of his long-held dream, he meets Annette Zeldin, a Kansas-born concert violinist in town from Paris to settle her mother's estate, and they fall in love.
"I really wanted to do a love triangle where everybody won," Graham says. That inherently difficult task was compounded by the obstacles Graham placed in her characters way: Annette's aversion to the land Ethan loves; Katie Anne's resolve to hold onto Ethan though she knows he loves Annette; and Ethan's realization that if he abandons Katie Anne, whose father holds enormous sway in Cottonwood Falls, he will be made a virtual outcast. Whether all three characters win is debatable, but Graham's resolution of their dilemma, which involves elements of the spiritual and supernatural and earned the novel comparisons to The Horse Whisperer, will surprise even the most prescient of readers.
The 50-year-old author says the life of the spirit and the soul is an important component of her existence, "though you don't see me walking around . . . under a veil," she chuckles. With her open manner and hearty laugh, she seems more earthy than otherworldly, and in spite of receiving one million dollars for the sale of Firebird and her next two novels, she plans to eventually resume teaching French part-time because she "like[s] having one foot in the real world." (She is currently on a leave of absence.) Graham came to writing later than most, at the age of 30, after taking a screenwriting course at the University of Southern California film school. "I thought this is it. This is what I want to do." And, she adds, "I had stories to tell by then." She arrived at film school fresh from Israel, where she had worked on a kibbutz for six months, prior to which she'd lived in Paris for four years, and briefly Greece and Turkey. Though Firebird is not set in those far-off places, Graham feels that her travels have enhanced her ability to write about her homeland.
"It creates a backdrop and a foundation that is . . ." she pauses, "I keep coming back to the word ambivalent. You don't see things as flat. You see them as multi-meaning, multi-texture, multi-faceted . . . I particularly see this area like that because I have lived away and come back to it."
The young woman who once disdained the Flint Hills now rhapsodizes about them as a mythical place of amazing variety, and writes of the dangers that lurk there, obscured by the deceptive harmony of waving grasses. And her ambivalence for that place enhances her depictions of the wide-ranging emotions it inspires in her characters, from Annette's wish to distance herself from this terrifying space where there was nothing but prairie forever and ever, to her later insistence that she wants to remain under that wide expanse of sky filledwith armies of clouds hanging so low Annette felt she could reach up and touch them, because that is where Ethan is.
Though Firebird is unmistakably a love story, Graham corrects me when I refer to it as a romance novel. "I'm sure that it will appeal to romance readers, but I don't see it in that genre at all . . . I would not like to see my books categorized in any particular category . . . I think what I'm writing will have a broad appeal to women." Of course, she hopes that her novel will appeal to men, too. But after writing action-adventures and thrillers "to satisfy the dictates of the film market," she explains, she relishes writing what is meaningful to her. "This is mine," says the onetime screenwriter, literally having the last laugh. "You know, whether people like it or not, this is my work. It's all my work. Nobody else came in and told me what to write here."
Laura Reynolds Adler lives in New York City and regularly interviews authors.