For her riveting first novel, Valentine (HarperCollins/Harper), Elizabeth Wetmore returned to her West Texas hometown of Odessa. The book, which debuted at number two on the New York Times hardcover fiction best-seller list in April, follows the repercussions of an especially brutal sexual assault on a teenage girl on Valentine’s Day in 1976. Set against the oil country’s unsparing landscape, the story is told from the perspectives of seven girls and women, many of whom live near one another on a street called Larkspur Lane. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Wetmore has had short stories published in literary journals such as Epoch, the Kenyon Review, and the Colorado Review. The 52-year-old writer lives in Chicago with her husband and teenage son.
Texas Monthly: You’re from Texas, but it’s been a long time since you lived here. Why did you set your first book here?
Elizabeth Wetmore: I was born and raised in Odessa. One of the reasons I set it in 1976 was because that’s when I was about the same age as the little girls on Larkspur Lane. While the stories and the characters are fiction, the place and a lot of the voices—the rhythms of speech—were very much real to me. I’m first-generation college; most of the men in my family have worked in the oil patch in some shape, form, or fashion.
TM: It sounds like when you moved, you thought you were leaving Texas for good.
EW: When I left, at eighteen, I had almost no money in my pocket and almost no plan and no skills for surviving in the world. I just wanted out of West Texas, and I didn’t ever expect to come back. But one thing that happened over the years was that I fell back in love with Texas. And part of that was that I fell back in love with the land. I come as often as I can—I still have family in Midland—and I spend a lot of time driving around the oil patch. So now I want to come home. People ask, “Why did it take you so long to write this book?” And I tell them that it took me that long to fall back in love with my hometown and to be able to write about it with the sort of nuance that would give these characters the story that they deserve. This book had to be a love letter to my hometown. It had to be a love letter to Texas. And it took me a really long time to be able to write that love letter.
TM: The novel is told through the voices of a fourteen-year-old girl named Glory Ramírez, who is the victim of the sexual assault that sets the book’s plot in motion, and six other women and girls. Did you always intend to have so many perspectives, or did that structure develop as you were writing?
EW: This book started out as a short story that I couldn’t leave alone. For a couple of early drafts, I really imagined this as a collection of short stories. The short story form is the form I’m most comfortable with, but I also saw this book having an overarching story. In an early draft there were chapters told from the points of view of three men, but it became really unwieldy, and I came to feel strongly that these women and girls deserved to have this book be theirs and theirs alone. As a little girl growing up in Odessa, I was really, really in love with westerns. I loved Larry McMurtry and Elmer Kelton, and then when I was a bit older, I fell in love with Cormac McCarthy. But I kept finding again and again that the roles and voices of women and girls in those books were often kind of an afterthought.
TM: When did you start writing the short story that turned into Valentine?
EW: In the spring of 2004, I was four months pregnant with my son and had been recently laid off from my job teaching composition to college freshmen. I started writing a short story about a young woman, a wife and mother named Mary Rose Whitehead, who must deal with an injured stranger, Glory, who knocks on her front door. Her voice was clear to me from the beginning. I had spent my entire childhood eavesdropping on my mother and her girlfriends as they sat on the back porch with cigarettes and mixed drinks, rehashing their days and bitching about bosses, husbands, in-laws, the price of oil, and us kids. The voices of those women were, more than any other single thing, the inspiration for Valentine.
As a little girl I was really, really in love with westerns. But I kept finding again and again that the roles of women and girls were often kind of an afterthought.
So I had finished the story, sent it off, and seen it published in the Colorado Review when I found myself coming back to it, mucking around with it. It sounds cheesy to say this, but that story haunted me. I couldn’t let it go. There seemed to me to be so much more to say about Glory and Mary Rose—especially Glory. And then, draft by draft, all these other wonderful voices began to take on lives of their own. Corrine Shepard, a recently widowed schoolteacher, was one of the great surprises of the book. Initially, I had imagined her as a very minor character who occasionally stopped by Mary Rose’s house to dispense advice or deliver some news. But once I understood who she was and what her sorrows were, she really just rose up off the page and took off running.
TM: The story of Karla, a waitress, is actually told from the perspective of her fellow female waitstaff, using first person plural. Did that give you freedom to explore bigger issues?
EW: I think it probably did, but I think I was also unaware of that. These decisions are decisions made at kind of a gut level and a sound level. I’m one of those writers whom you will never, ever see writing in the corner of a coffee shop, because I constantly stop and read aloud. So voices and point of view are really important to me. But, yeah, I loved the waitstaff. I waited tables for twelve years, so I have a lot of waitressing experience. I waited tables when I was a young woman in Odessa, when I moved to Los Angeles, and when I was going to college in Arizona. I really wanted to explore the way that women, especially women who maybe don’t have a lot of resources or a lot of money or a lot of options or a lot of education, how they find ways to look after each other.
TM: What finally got you out of waitressing and into writing?
EW: Maybe because I admired writers so deeply, I didn’t think of myself as one for a very long time. I don’t think I ever really imagined that sort of life for myself. There was also probably a class element to my resistance—telling stories was something you did at the bar, on the back porch after supper, around the campfire, and no one is more beloved than a good storyteller. But in the world where I grew up, writing fiction wasn’t seen as something one did as a vocation, and certainly not to pay the bills or put food on the table.
There were other complications as well. I had been a mediocre student, and I was, in many ways, a pretty troubled young woman. It took me quite a few years to sort myself out, and I didn’t write my first “real” short story until I was in my late twenties. So my writing life has been winding, convoluted, and filled with detours, all of which appear to have been a necessary part of the life I had to live to be able to write Valentine.
TM: Besides McMurtry and McCarthy, are there other writers who have influenced you?
EW: The novels and essays of Marilynne Robinson, whom I had the good fortune to work with at Iowa, are some of the smartest and most humane works I have ever encountered. Gilead, Lila, and Home all deeply influenced my writing. Paulette Jiles’s novels changed my writing life, and the way I saw Texas, and all for the better. Mary Karr’s work has meant a lot to me, as has Molly Ivins’s, and Stephen Harrigan’s The Gates of the Alamo was really helpful. I’ve got his new one—Big Wonderful Thing—on my bedside table right now, and it’s so dense and rich and filled with good information, I expect to be reading that book for the rest of my life. Recently, I read a great Texas book: Oscar Cásares’s Where We Come From. And I’ve just ordered several books written by Attica Locke.
TM: What’s next for you?
EW: I sometimes think that one of the benefits of a misspent youth—apart from gathering a ton of material for fiction writing—is that when you decide to settle down, you really settle down. Here in Chicago, my little family of three stays busy with the usual demands of living—schoolwork, teaching, friends, and going on occasional adventures: camping, fishing, travel. My husband writes poetry and teaches high school English, my son is in high school, and I am, for the first time, writing fiction full-time. During the writing of Valentine, I managed to write enough short stories for a couple of collections. And I’m already eyeing my next book, which will be set in Odessa during the great oil bust of the eighties.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Where She’s From.” Subscribe today.