“This was the first time I was interviewed about a new book by somebody who hated writing and didn’t read books until recently,” Paulette Jiles wrote me via email on January 30. She was responding to my request to ask her a few follow-up questions, and this was her characteristically caustic way of saying no. Before she signed off—“Sorry about that but it just isn’t working for me”—she also let me know she’d read some of my work online and had come away less than impressed.
This was not my first experience being insulted by the best-selling author of western novels. Two weeks earlier, when we spent almost three hours together on her 31-acre spread in the unincorporated Hill Country town of Utopia, she’d sneaked in a few barbs. There was one “Shame on you” when I admitted to not being as well versed in the work of Charles Dickens as I probably ought to be. Then there was the way she asked me, sharply, if I was capable of understanding the “big difference” between those who “listen to music” and those who “make music.” (“It was not a consumer culture,” she said of her childhood in the Missouri Ozarks. “It was a culture that produced.”)
But Jiles had also been hospitable and welcoming. The 76-year-old novelist, who stands no taller than five foot two and walks with quick steps and a forward slant, as if she’ll save time by getting the top half of her body to its destination sooner, met me on the steps of Utopia’s Lost Maples Cafe so I wouldn’t get lost winding my way up the dirt road leading to her house at the top of a limestone ridge. She made me a cup of coffee as soon as we arrived at her home, using a plastic pour-over and an old Stanley thermos like some makeshift country Chemex. Toward the end of our interview, she insisted on feeding me lunch—crackers, cheese, and cold cuts—and when I finished all the ham on my plate, she got up and sliced more without even asking if I wanted some.
I’d been warned by more than one person that Jiles was “prickly.” There were reports of her castigating fans at book readings when they asked questions she didn’t think were intelligent enough.
I knew she hadn’t liked it when I asked if I could interview the friends she rides horses with and the members of her bluegrass band, Pickin’ on the Porch. (“You’re free to do whatever you like, but I find that very disturbing,” she said.) And I knew I full-on ticked her off with a question about her romantic life in the years before she met the man she eventually married. (“Why is that any of your business?” she asked. “Ha! I guess it isn’t,” I replied, choosing not to remind her that she’d already published two memoirs that mentioned that very subject.) It was that second offending inquiry that prompted her, soon after, to cut off all further contact with me.
At least, in having been spurned by Paulette Jiles, I found myself in good company. I’d been warned by more than one person that she was “prickly.” There were reports of her castigating fans at book readings when they asked questions she didn’t think were intelligent enough. Her blog, where she frequently posts personal and professional updates, makes clear that she disapproves of all kinds of things—“young people,” Kindles, political correctness, Europe’s decision to admit large numbers of Middle Eastern refugees, the best-selling thriller Gone Girl, cancel culture and other manifestations of modern liberalism, the graphics for the video game Minecraft, the best-selling thriller The Girl on the Train, and an acquaintance who once sent her an email that made fun of Melania Trump’s shoes while Jiles was helping out with Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. And there was her tendency to publicly disparage the work of her peers, including that of other Texas writers who set novels in the nineteenth-century American West, such as Philipp Meyer’s celebrated novel The Son, which she scoffed at on her blog, and Elizabeth Crook’s The Which Way Tree, which she panned in the pages of the New York Times Book Review. She had nearly identical complaints about both books, claiming that they featured protagonists who didn’t possess “agency.”
Over the course of our time together, Jiles took potshots at all sorts of things. She condemned the writing professors who are teaching the next generation to value self-expression over plot structure. She pooh-poohed the many contemporary authors who, like Meyer and Crook, center books around characters “to whom things happen,” and not assertive protagonists with “inner drive.” She complained multiple times about television, an appliance she does not own, telling me, “The lighted screen is a narcotic.”
The tension in the air was all the more pronounced set against the peacefulness of our surroundings. Jiles lives alone in a Hill Country dreamscape, a light-filled cabin perched on a ridge near the Sabinal River, a cypress-lined waterway that the nature writer John Graves once referred to as “possibly the purest [Texas river] of all.” The town is named Utopia for a reason.
Jiles’s professional life seems equally charmed. She has sold more than 800,000 books in North America, and her novels aren’t popular just with the public—critics love her too, placing Jiles alongside Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry as a modern master of the western. She’s been lauded for the poetic efficiency of her prose and for her captivating characters, who are inspiring in their steadfastness. Her previous book, 2016’s News of the World, was a finalist for the National Book Award and is currently being made into a movie starring the Tom Hanks. Her latest novel, Simon the Fiddler, which came out April 14, has already received starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist. It’s the sort of life countless MFA students take out massive loans in the vain hopes of someday attaining.
So why is Paulette Jiles so cranky?
Jiles has on occasion been a woman of confrontation, but the targets of her rancor have changed over the years. In fact, Jiles—current castigator of political correctness and cancel culture—used to be an anti-war protester. But she had an eccentric take on the fight for peace, putting perhaps more emphasis on the fighting than on the peace. At one demonstration at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, where she was studying Romance languages, she threw a rock at a police officer with every ounce of strength she could muster—and instead hit a fellow protester in the head. She then pretended that the projectile had been lobbed by one of the nearby “rednecks.”
This earlier version of Jiles seems to embarrass her latter-day successor. When she described this incident in her 1992 memoir Cousins, she appeared mortified by her attitude at the time. “It was pure D arrogance,” she wrote of her belief that her creativity and intelligence somehow made her better than her peers who were being sent overseas to fight.
Jiles, who was born in 1943 in the small town of Salem, Missouri, dismissively categorizes the first few decades of her adult life as that of “a hippie-dippy poet.” In 1968, following a trail taken at the time by many counterculture types, she accompanied her pacifist artist boyfriend to Canada, where he moved to avoid the draft. By the time they broke up, a few years later, she was producing radio documentaries for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation while working on her poetry, so she stayed in her new adopted nation.
In 1973, soon after Jiles published her first poetry collection, the CBC relocated her from Toronto to a tribal reservation in far Northern Ontario, a remote area where she helped the Cree and Ojibway communities set up local stations that would broadcast in their native tongues. It was a transformational adventure for Jiles, who says the experience of living on a reservation made her feel stronger and more confident than she ever had before. It also changed her as a poet and a storyteller; the tribes’ myths and oral traditions inspired her to think more deeply about humanity’s ancient need for narrative. In North Spirit, her 1995 memoir about this period, Jiles described this—perhaps a bit opaquely—as “our perilous, dangerous gift of image hypnosis,” which “takes us into strange territory.” The storyteller, she wrote, was “the guide,” tasked with leading the listener (and presumably the reader) through an imagined land of peril and adventure.
In the early eighties, after a decade with the tribes, she moved back to southern Canada and published her second poetry collection, which in 1985 earned her the country’s prestigious Governor General’s Award. More poems followed, and with them came additional acclaim.
And then, in 1989, Jiles met the man who would become her husband and never published another new poem.
In 1989 Jiles was camping with a cousin in southern Missouri when the two women happened to pitch their tent next to that of a retired Army colonel named Jim Johnson. The conservative Texan, who was trapped in an unhappy second marriage, came over one night to help them light a fire. Jiles would later write that Johnson, surrounded by woodsmoke, looked like “a cowboy demon.” Once they got to talking, it wasn’t long before they got to flirting, and they stayed up until dawn arguing about the Vietnam War, sharing stories from their lives, and making each other laugh. Jiles was attracted to Johnson’s “amiable kind of courtesy” and the fact that he had taken big risks in his life. “He has been involved in large events, from Brownsville to Germany to Saigon and cattle ranching in Oklahoma,” she would later write of the South Texas native, who had spent several decades in the Army. Just before the sun rose, Johnson told Jiles he’d “been waiting for a long time for somebody to talk to.”
In many ways, meeting Johnson initiated a dramatic transformation in Jiles’s life, both personally and professionally. She was already “fed up with my life just being poems,” she later wrote, “poems and a sort of mild bohemian poverty that comes from not working much and not going anywhere outside of books.” So she turned her attention to a different genre: the memoir.
For Cousins, her first foray into long-form nonfiction prose, Jiles and Johnson, who was now separated from his wife, spent seven months traveling by trailer through the southern and midwestern United States, tracking down and interviewing some of her 24 first cousins. Jiles was motivated, in part, by the desire to fill in some blanks about her late father, a man she remembers as being in an almost “perpetual rage” during her childhood. Jiles’s father had made appearances in her writing before—an early poem of hers opens with the lines “My father was an alcoholic when / All he said he wanted to be was / A member of the Elks Club.”
But a memoirist must be even more forthcoming about her life than a poet; she can’t hide behind ambiguity. And though Jiles doesn’t actually spend that many pages on her father, Cousins offered a clear picture of her own personality.
It’s a forthrightly blemished self-portrait, though in its pages Jiles often steps away before doing the crucial work of trying to find out why she is the way she is. She vividly describes herself as quarrelsome and insecure and then waves her hand at the subject. “I don’t know what makes me rocket off sometimes,” she writes in an early chapter, and she leaves it at that. She admits that she can be dishonest; not long after she and Johnson met, she sent him another writer’s poetry and passed it off as her own because she was self-conscious about her work. She is full of contradictions too, and she doesn’t always acknowledge them. “I am not ready to meet all your family,” she shouts at the man she’d invited on a monthslong expedition to meet hers.
By the time Cousins came out, in 1992, Jiles and Johnson were married and living in San Antonio, where Johnson had spent time as a young Army lieutenant. Jiles was soon smitten with the town. The couple bought an 1890s home in the King William Historic District, which they restored themselves. They spent time in Germany, where one of Johnson’s sons lived, to care for Johnson’s grandchildren when his son and daughter-in-law, who were both in the Army, were sent on tours of duty. “I was fifty years old, I’d never had children, and all of a sudden I’ve got a one-year-old and a two-year-old in diapers,” she told me. “It was wonderful.” Later, when the children visited the San Antonio house, Jiles would turn off all the lights and lead them around by candlelight, making up tales about the historic home’s previous inhabitants. “The storyteller is deeply part of who she is,” says Faith Johnson Lowry, Jiles’s now-grown granddaughter, who still calls her Grantie.
Johnson was financially independent, which gave Jiles enough slack to devote herself to her creative pursuits. Separated from the Canadian literary community she had been a part of for years, she became friends with local writers, like the poet Naomi Shihab Nye. “She was terrific,” remembers Nye. “It was so fun to walk through the streets with her because she always knew more than anyone else did—about the history, the essences.”
Around this time, Jiles began a process that would usher in the next big transformation of her career. She was researching a novel.
Jiles, who has always been captivated by her family’s history, had grown obsessed with the mystery surrounding her great-great-grandfather Marquis Giles, a justice of the peace in southeastern Missouri who disappeared from the public record during the Civil War. While digging into her family’s genealogy during a visit back home in the mid-nineties, Jiles came across a historical detail she was shocked she hadn’t learned in school. Missouri, she knew, was a slave state that never officially seceded. What she hadn’t known was that the Union militia often imprisoned Missouri women who were suspected of aiding rebels. She seized on this detail, recognizing that it could be the foundation for a “big, fat, full-length novel.” That she’d never written a novel before hardly seemed relevant. “I’m going to try it,” she told herself.
And try she did, though it took her seven years to finish the project. “A novel is a two-year commitment,” Jiles says, “but Enemy Women took longer because my life wasn’t entirely my own then.” There was a historic house to remodel, grandkids to care for, and a husband whose plans, wants, and needs she had to consider.
She also had to teach herself how to construct a plot. As a poet, she hadn’t been required to hold a reader’s attention for hundreds of pages at a time. As a memoirist, she took her narrative cues from actual events. Now she had to create an entire narrative from the ground up, and that wasn’t a problem any research trip to Missouri could solve. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, if I throw in more historical details, it’ll make this book work.’ And it doesn’t,” says Jiles. “If you don’t have a character with inner drive, then you’re going to have serious plot problems.”
Adair Colley, the protagonist of Enemy Women, has no shortage of inner drive. She’s a tomboyish spitfire who has a seemingly constitutional inability to suffer fools. The novel’s entire narrative is propelled by Adair’s unwavering desire to escape from a Union prison and reunite her war-torn family and save their Ozark Mountain home. There are external forces at play, sure, like the bloodiest war in American history and the inherent untrustworthiness of other people, but Adair never sees herself as a victim. She talks back, she fights, and she takes what’s hers.
Jiles was similarly goal-focused once she had the completed manuscript in hand. She was certain about the quality of her work. (“I never lose confidence in my books,” she says. “I don’t have to ask anybody for their approval.”) Not everyone agreed. Jiles says that Enemy Women was rejected by as many as fifteen publishers. “I knew the book was good,” she said, “but the rejection was depressing.” Jiles wanted to stop sending it out, but her agent decided to try one more house—the HarperCollins imprint William Morrow, which bought the book and paid Jiles what she refers to as a “big advance.”
The investment was wise. Enemy Women was published in 2002, on a wave of critical endorsement. Publishers Weekly said it “was sure to be touted as a new Cold Mountain,” another best-selling Civil War odyssey. The New York Times published not one but two favorable reviews. Book clubs across the country were drawn to Jiles’s debut, including a group of women in New Jersey who recommended the novel on Good Morning America’s “Read This!” segment. Readers were charmed by the book’s spirited protagonist, a rare heroine in a genre that usually prioritizes the stories of white-hatted men. One fan described Adair as “a vast relief” who exhibited “no sentiment, no whining, no mawkish plucking of our heartstrings . . . yes!”
In a San Antonio Express-News article, Jiles suggested she wouldn’t let the book’s success go to her head. “I just hope my life continues to be dull and plodding,” she said. “It’s the best thing for me.” But her life did change—profoundly. By 2003 her and Johnson’s different approaches to life had caught up with them. Johnson was a city person, outgoing and highly social. Jiles wanted a quieter life, more isolation, more time that she could spend alone with her imagination and a notebook. So they divorced, amicably; Johnson kept the King William house, and Jiles used some of her newfound wealth to buy the Utopia property. Jiles would speak favorably of Johnson for years after their split. “Marrying this person was probably the best thing that ever happened to me other than writing Enemy Women,” she wrote in a 2015 blog post. “The fact that he is now an ex is beside the point.” (Johnson died a year later.)
The 31 acres on that limestone ridge came with an old hunters’ cabin, which Jiles fixed up to her liking, replacing the previous owner’s beer signs and mounted deer heads with family photos and full bookcases. She turned the attic into a small office, complete with a desktop computer for writing and accessing the internet. She bought a couple of horses and cleared cedar and mountain laurel from a pasture to give them space to run. She made friends with some locals, including a group of women she rode horses and traveled with, and she sang in the choir at a nearby church. She taught herself to play the Irish tin whistle and joined up with a local bluegrass band.
“I never lose confidence in my books,” Jiles says. “I don’t have to ask anybody for their approval.”
But mostly, she wrote, and now that her life was her own again, the books were quicker to finish than Enemy Women had been. The same intensity that had long driven her to “rocket off” seemed to have found its ideal release. Her second novel, Stormy Weather, about a young woman struggling to keep her family afloat in Depression-era Texas, came out in 2007 and earned her another spot on the New York Times best-seller list. Her third novel, the thrilling and heartrending The Color of Lightning, based on the true story of freedman Britt Johnson, who rescued his wife and children after they were captured by a band of Kiowa and Comanche raiders, followed two years later.
A few years after that Jiles tried her hand at dystopian science fiction, releasing Lighthouse Island in 2013. “I like a challenge,” she says. “With science fiction you have to invent everything—coinage, transportation, communication, social levels—without falling into clichés.” But the book’s protagonist was a by now familiar figure in Jiles’s work: a plucky, no-nonsense young woman—in this case, one who would stop at nothing to reach a utopian community she’d seen in an advertisement.
For 2016’s News of the World, Jiles returned to the nineteenth century, picking up the thread of Army veteran Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a minor character from The Color of Lightning, as he escorts a young orphan recovered from Kiowa captivity back to her relatives near San Antonio. It was short, clocking in at just over two hundred pages, but it packed a big punch, earning spots on several “Best of 2016” lists. The novel was a simple but poignant journey narrative, with vivid descriptions of landscape and community that transported readers to an 1870s Texas that felt real and alive. It was, deservedly, named a finalist for the National Book Award. It also caught the eye of Tom Hanks, who snatched up the movie rights, with an eye toward playing Jefferson. When that book tour was over, Jiles went back to two minor characters from News of the World, Simon Boudlin and Doris Dillon, for her new novel Simon the Fiddler, yet another Jiles western filled with rich attention to historical detail, gripping action, luscious prose, and a determined protagonist who doesn’t really care what anyone thinks of him.
And that’s been Jiles’s life for almost seventeen years. She wakes up, makes her coffee, walks down the hill to feed the horses, practices the tin whistle, reads, and writes. If she has her main character nailed down, Jiles says, the writing comes easily enough. “If the character is not so solidified, then I have to do a lot of walking around and thinking.”
Her literary friends in San Antonio had been sad to see her go, but they understood. “To live in such a solitary circumstance is a very brave act,” poet Naomi Shihab Nye told me. “It’s not something that most writers would be able to do. I just think the way she has chosen to live serves her art. And she knew that. She had that instinct—that’s what she needed to do.”
“You have to love solitude, or you’re not going to be a writer,” Jiles told me not long before she replenished my ham. Indeed, the hermetic genius is a stereotype not unfamiliar in the literary world. The most celebrated ones seem to be men—J. D. Salinger, Cormac McCarthy, and Thomas Pynchon, to name a few—though Emily Dickinson and Harper Lee are also on the list.
But Lee didn’t have a blog, and Jiles does. This has its upsides and its downsides. On the one hand, Jiles keeps her many fans informed about her day-to-day. She writes about the horseback riding trips she takes with her group of girlfriends. She posts updates on the books she’s working on and the literary events she attends. She dwells on the things she loves—her horses, her cats, her bluegrass band, science fiction novels, and the works of Charles Dickens, whom she admires for the assertiveness of his characters. These posts are often charming, even sweet.
On the other hand, there are parts of her blog that read like the comments section of a USA Today article about how young people don’t frequent state fairs anymore. She makes broad generalizations about large swaths of people, like millennials, who apparently spent too much time in their youth watching TV and thus weren’t properly “socialized.” She contradicts herself on occasion, as when she disdains people who consume music but don’t produce it—and then writes an entry that mentions how much she appreciates her bluegrass band’s audience. And despite her stated disapproval of the narcotic “lighted screen,” she seems happy to pass the time watching films and videos on her computer, such as her favorite science fiction shorts on YouTube. Last year Jiles was so entertained by the trailer for the 2017 film The Death of Stalin that she felt compelled to write a blog post recommending that her readers stream the movie, which she hadn’t actually seen. And she turned even that recommendation into a fight of sorts, making a point of saying that The Death of Stalin had “bombed” at the box office, which it hadn’t. It was as if she could speak favorably about a work of art only if she was expressing disagreement with a larger group of people who supposedly didn’t like it.
After receiving the email in which she announced that she would no longer speak to me, I had expected to show up on her blog eventually, and on February 25, I did. The post, which was titled “3000 book plates to sign and an intrusive interviewer,” covered a number of subjects and referred to me as someone “with whom I never should have spoken.”
It’s odd to have the woman you’re profiling write about you before you’ve had a chance to publish your story. But that’s the risk you run when you write about a writer. And of course anyone who values their privacy as much as Jiles does (that is, when she’s not writing memoirs or blog posts) is going to be wary of media attention. Still, though the blog post itself was relatively anodyne, the cruel tone of the email she had sent me seemed excessive.
Jiles, in her memoirs and in her blog posts, has long seemed uninterested in probing her own motivations and self-contradictions.
But if Jiles’s acid comments about me were momentarily wounding, they were also revealing. Her characterization of me as “somebody who hated writing and didn’t read books until recently” was a gross caricature of two things that I had told her: that I, like countless writers, often lack confidence in my own work, and that, under the influence of Netflix and HBO Go, I had all but stopped reading books for a couple of years before Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels reignited my love of literature. In order to justify her decision to ghost me, Paulette Jiles had weaponized my own vulnerability in a blatantly false manner.
It was sort of baffling that the pitiless critic of cancel culture had canceled me, that the scold of snowflakes was so unsettled by a single question of mine that she could no longer bear to respond to my emails. But then again, Jiles, in her memoirs and in her blog posts, has long seemed uninterested in probing her own motivations and self-contradictions—a reluctance that shows up in her fiction too.
Witnessing one of those moments when Jiles couldn’t help but “rocket off” made me think about the protagonists of her novels, who often do the same. Simon Boudlin, the titular character of Simon the Fiddler, is perhaps Jiles’s angriest to date. “Simon had a hair-trigger temper and he knew it,” writes Jiles in the first chapter of the book. He’s not always mad—he has a great capacity for kindness (one could easily imagine him serving generous helpings of ham to a guest)—but he’s vulnerable and easily frustrated, and he lashes out at those around him. During the last days of the Civil War, Simon throws “a fist-sized rock” at the head of a Yankee soldier who has stolen his prized fiddle—an echo, perhaps, of Jiles’s experiences as a college protester. When the wounded Yankee sits on the ground, Simon proceeds to kick him in the head.
Reading these passages, you might expect that at some point Jiles would ask and at least tentatively answer the question “What makes Simon so angry?” But she doesn’t. She gives him some backstory—he was born out of wedlock to a woman who died when he was a child—but she seems otherwise incurious about his psychology. The same goes for the love story at the heart of the book. Simon falls hard and fast when he spots the beautiful Irish governess Doris Dillon across the hall at a banquet, and he decides immediately that she should be his wife. He knows it’s love, and Jiles doesn’t question it either. She spends almost no time investigating why Simon’s feelings for Doris are so immediate and so strong, or whether we should regard such love at first sight with skepticism. It matters not why he feels, only that he does.
“Plots need to be surprising, exciting,” Jiles told me; there’s no time for slowing down and peeking behind the curtain. Other authors, she has written, give their characters too much “hesitancy, refusal of the Quest, dithering, wondering, internal monologues, flashbacks to childhood, emotional scenes, etc.,” which Jiles believes is proof that “the writer has not thought out his/her plot.”
Of course, many writers give their characters full-bodied interior lives because they’re trying to offer their readers more than a rollicking good time. At moments, Jiles acknowledges that there’s an entire realm of literature that’s not primarily concerned with narrative events. “[Going] back a thousand years or more,” she told me, there have been two streams of storytelling. There is the heady stuff about the human condition, which tends to fall “on the side of poetry—personal expression, feelings, observations.” In that category Jiles includes the eleventh-century Japanese classic The Tale of Genji. On the other end of the spectrum is the “very ancient” stream, in which Jiles herself feels most comfortable: the plot-driven epic, like Homer’s The Odyssey.
Both streams, Jiles assured me, are valuable. “I think the human mind needs both,” she said. “It’s our nature.” And yet again and again, in interviews and blog entries, she declares her disdain for all but the plot-heavy epics. Characters who hesitate, or who are victims of their circumstances, aren’t as good as the kinds of characters who don’t think but do.
It’s a version of that “inner drive” that Jiles speaks of so often but seems uninterested in examining. Skepticism, introspection, self-doubt—one almost feels Jiles’s eyes narrowing at the mere mention of such words. Instead, she gives all of her protagonists obstacles—external ones, not internal ones—that can only be overcome, not contemplated. Standing between Simon and his desire for a peaceful life of love and music are danger, violence, imprisonment, bad guys, disease. “That’s a great theme, to have a creative artist struggling in the midst of chaos—social chaos—and absolutely determined not to get turned aside, no matter how poor he gets or how hungry,” Jiles told me.
Needless to say, that’s not the world that Paulette Jiles, sitting at her computer on her picturesque 31-acre ranchette, writing novels that are beloved by hundreds of thousands of readers, lives in. But picking fights with fellow authors, college students, and nosy journalists? That’s a pretty good way to create a world for oneself that, for a moment, might feel as exciting as living under the threat of the Comanche. Who has time to hesitate, dither, engage in internal monologues, or refuse the Quest?
This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Crankiest Writer in Utopia.” Subscribe today.