As a longtime fan of your Carol Matas I’m so pleased to share our interview on my blog. I loved her new book, Tucson Jo, a middle grade novel about a young Jewish girl growing up in Tucson, Arizona in 1882. The setting is near and dear to me – I lived in Tucson for several years. I was delighted when Tucson Jo was published. Readers will love reading about Jo’s experiences about her life in the Southwest.
Josephine (Tucson Jo) is a strong-willed girl. Was she inspired by a real person?That’s an interesting question Barbara because it takes me to a different answer than you might expect. When I come up with an idea for a book it is firstly the story and then it is also about a question I want to pose, both to myself and my readers. My characters are conceived as part of that question, and as part of the plot and story. Some writers start with characters, I start with story. Jo had to be a strong character to help explore this tug of war we have in our democracies between freedom and the rule of law. I think another good example would be my character from In My Enemy’s House where Marisa is quite timid but has a huge heart and is a scholar- which makes her dilemma of loving the Nazi children she cares for all the more difficult.
How much research was involved in writing Tucson Jo?
There was a lot of research!! So much so that the Arizona Historical Society was getting ready to charge my editor and me for our ingoing inquiries. The research began with the inspiration for the book an exhibit at the Gene Autry Museum in Los Angeles called Jewish Life in the American West. It was a wide ranging exhibit which centered on Jewish pioneers and migrations, but one photo caught both my eye and my imagination – a Jewish man and his son posing for the camera in full cowboy gear. I thought Jewish cowboys! What could be more cool! The man turned out to be the first Jewish Mayor of Tucson, Charles Strauss. From that moment, way back in 2002, I decided that I would write a book based on his life. Since I write for young people I chose his eldest daughter as my main character. Other projects were in the works, though and it wasn’t until 2006 we were able to go to Tucson to really start the research. First stop was the Arizona Historical Society where we were given access to the Charles Strauss Collection as well as other relevant materials. We also viewed an exhibit of a grocery store from the era – I used that for my grocery lists in the book- and many artifacts. We toured a restored house from the time and I used that template for Jo’s new home. We visited a map store and were able to view and purchase maps from 1882/83.We also got memoirs and copies of materials to take home with us. We went to local bookstores where we were able to find local histories – especially the University book store. We returned home with lots of material and I devoured it all. But in some ways that was only the beginning. Once the book was in its last stages my editor started to query every little fact and that’s when we discovered so many surprising things – some of which changed the story I had already written.
One other thing- I actually became too attached to my research and at some pount the story stalled. With help from Morri I realized I needed to revise the book as “inspired by” not “based on” the life of Charles Strauss. Once I had done that my characters were free to become who they needed to be and wanted to be and the actual story was freed from the constraints of the actual timeline.
What was unique about the Jewish Community in Tucson in 1882?
I’m afraid that as a writer, not an historian, I’m really not equipped to answer that question. That’s an odd thing about being a writer of historical fiction. You learn a lot about a small part of history but to answer that question I would need to know what the other small Jewish communities were like at that time. Of course I’ve read a bit about other communities as part of my research but I can’t think of anything that makes Tucson unique- although there might be something! There were even other Jewish mayors at that time too in other cities.
What was the most unusual thing you discovered while writing Tucson Jo?
The most amazing thing we discovered was that the picture that inspired the book was actually a photo shoot Charles Strauss arranged so he could send postcards back East to his friends and family. He thought it would be funny to pose as a cowboy! He was the furthest thing from a cowboy- he was a dandy who wanted to bring culture and propriety to Tucson- the heart of his battle with his daughter Jo who actually wanted the freedom of a cowboy and the freedoms of the wild west! Then there was the issue of the trousers! That became weeks of research and weeks of revisions as we tried to pin down if there really was an ordinance against wearing trousers and when it took effect etc. It helped me clarify the fight between Jo and her father and bring it into a more central role in the story.
What are you hoping your readers will take-away from Tucson Jo?
Firstly, as with all my books I hope they will have enjoyed the story and that they just had a great time reading the book. Secondly, I have raised some issues that I think are really important in the here and now. To me, historical fiction is only interesting because of its relevance to today. I found it fascinating that in the “wild west” only outlaws carried guns because law abiding citizens were prohibited from doing so. The sheriff and his deputies were allowed to carry guns. How did the idea of Freedom get tied to the right to carry a gun? It certainly wasn’t the case historically. I also think that the entire concept of freedom vs law and order is one we all have to think about in these days of terrorism and very real threats – how do we find a balance? I also don’t think women are really equal yet – we still have a lot of work to do there so it is no accident that Jo faces a lot of setbacks just because she is female. And then her father faces a setback just because he is Jewish. So all these issues are tied together in some way as a larger issue of human rights.