Sweet Betsy from Pike is a historical novel about the California gold rush, based on the old folksong of the same name.
Betsy is 18, a minister’s daughter, and pregnant. She and her lover, Ike, leave Louisiana, Missouri, to escape the shame and join a wagon train headed for the mining camp of Hangtown. It’s a long, tough trip. When they get there, Ike goes off mining, leaving Betsy by herself. She runs a restaurant and makes a success of it.
Tell us something about yourself.
I’m originally from California. I’m 83 years old and have a Ph.D. in English from UCLA. I burned out on university teaching after 23 years and went into newspaper work, then advertising, and then public relations. By that time I was an expert on career change, so I went into career management and spent 15 years at that before I retired. I retired in Thailand for six years, and now I’m back in the US.
What inspired you to write this book?
I was at an American Folklore Society meeting in Los Angeles, and my friend Ed Cray sang the song. As I listened to it, I realized that there was a lot of meaning to it. It warned girls not to trust sweet-talking men, because they might not be much use in a crisis. And it said that women could take care of themselves and didn’t need to depend on men. That seemed like a pretty modern message for 1851, when the song was written. I started to write an article about my interpretation, and it started to grow into a novel. Then I found I needed to do a lot of research, so I put it aside for several years until I had the time. Then I read a couple of dozen gold rush diaries and finished it.
What obstacles did you overcome in getting the book published?
Nobody wanted to publish it, so I had to publish it myself. I picked iUniverse, and I thought they did an excellent production job.
How did you get started as a writer?
My mother used to read to me, and I taught myself to read out of the books she read me. I loved books, so I wanted to write them. I can’t remember when I didn’t want to be a writer.
What did you learn from writing and publishing this book?
I learned that the hard part is marketing. I happen to live now out in northwestern Oklahoma, where there aren’t any bookstores and very few libraries. So I don’t have the kind of opportunities for sales and signings and so on that many writers have. And I don’t have access to television stations — and the radio stations don’t do anything but play country-Western music. So I’ve had to work hard at getting the word out.
What types of books do you like to read?
I read just about anything. But I’ve found that the kind of novels that are popular these days bore me, because a writer finds a formula that works for him or her and then writes the same book over and over. Obviously a lot of people like to read the same book over and over, because these people are successful. But I’m not that kind of reader.
Who are your favorite authors?
The three writers in English I like best are Chaucer, Fielding, and Mark Twain. They all looked at life much the same way I do. For authors in other languages, I’ll take Cervantes, Dostoyevsky, and Kazantzakis. I did my doctoral dissertation on Fielding, and I consider Sweet Betsy from Pike a comic epic poem in prose, which is what Fielding called his novels.
What will your next book be?
The next one is already written. It’s called The Robin Hood Chronicles. It’s a half-serious attempt to re-create in a novel what might actually be the factual basis of the Robin Hood legend.
What is the best advice you could give other writers?
Keep at it. Don’t give up. Have faith in yourself. Nobody will believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself.
Who is the perfect reader for your book?
Somebody who isn’t a professional historian but likes to read about what things were really like in years gone by. My wife thinks it’s a woman’s book, because it has a heroine who starts out as a typical girl of the 19th century and grows into a strong, independent woman. But I didn’t write it with women in mind; I was thinking of a man who wants to experience imaginatively what being on the gold rush must have been like.
Where can readers learn more about you and your book?