Today I’d like to welcome Donna Baier Stein to Ascroft, eh? to chat about her new novel, The Silver Baron’s Wife.
This is how the publisher, Serving House Books, describes the book: “The Silver Baron’s Wife traces the rags-to-riches-to-rags life of Colorado’s Baby Doe Tabor (Lizzie). This fascinating heroine worked in the silver mines and had two scandalous marriages, one to a philandering opium addict and one to a Senator and silver baron worth $24 million in the late 19th century. A divorcee shunned by Denver society, Lizzie raised two daughters in a villa where 100 peacocks roamed the lawns, entertained Sarah Bernhardt when the actress performed at Tabor’s Opera House, and after her second husband’s death, moved to a one-room shack at the Matchless Mine in Leadville. She lived the last 35 years of her life there, writing down thousands of her dreams and noting visitations of spirits on her calendar. Hers is the tale of a fiercely independent woman who bucked all social expectations by working where 19th century women didn’t work, becoming the key figure in one of the West’s most scandalous love triangles, and, after a devastating stock market crash destroyed Tabor’s vast fortune, living in eccentric isolation at the Matchless Mine. An earlier version of this novel won the PEN/New England Discovery Award in Fiction.”
Welcome Donna. Let’s get down to a few questions, shall we?
Tell us about your novel.
DBS: My novel is based on a historical figure, Baby Doe Tabor, who lived in Colorado in the late 19th, early 20th centuries. She was in many ways a woman ahead of her time. She worked in the silver mines despite the prevalent superstition that women brought bad luck to miners… was part of one of the West’s most scandalous love triangles… and wrote down thousands of her dreams at a time when, though psychoanalysis was becoming popular in Europe, people were not regularly keeping dream journals. She noted spirit visitations on her wall calendars.
Some people have considered her a female American mystic; others thought she was simply eccentric. She was also married to one of America’s wealthiest men, silver baron Horace Tabor. There is an American opera written by Douglas Moore called The Ballad of Baby Doe. I wanted to write her story, in first person, to reveal her as someone other than just a mistress and later wife of a wealthy man.
What prompted you to write about this historical figure?
DBS: I first learned about Baby Doe (Lizzie) when I travelled with my parents to Colorado on one of many family vacations. I still own the post cards from that long ago trip. Even as a child I recognized something very special in her life – the contradictions between materialism and spirituality, family ties and loneliness, wealth and poverty.
How closely did you stick to the historical facts? If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?
DBS: I followed the historical facts fairly closely, though there was such a wealth of material that I had to omit certain events in order to accommodate the narrative arc I’d set for the novel. Originally, and very naively, I assumed that since Lizzie lived such a fascinating life, with so many colorful events, her story would provide an automatic plot structure. The novel begins when she is 12 years old and ends when she is 81. I wanted to follow certain threads – specifically her spiritual search and her accommodation to loss – and so focused on scenes that would best reveal those.
What research did you do for this book?
DBS: I did a lot of research for this book, travelling several times to Leadville, Denver, and the Willard Hotel in Washington DC where Lizzie and Horace Tabor were married. I was irresistibly drawn to the shack where Lizzie spent her last years at the Matchless Mine in Leadville. I photocopied many of her original dream writings, which are now housed in the Colorado Historical Society. I read nonfiction books about her and one novel, which I did not like at all because it so obviously was a male, almost misogynistic, approach to her life. One of my favorite nonfiction books was Madwoman in the Cabin by Judy Nolte-Temple. I also read many books about the early days of Leadville, silver mining, and the political fight between those who backed silver versus gold as the money standard in the U.S.
Do you use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters in the novel. Which is more difficult to write?
DBS: Yes, there is a mixture. Lizzie and her two husbands are historic figures who appear in the novel, as do President Chester Arthur, William Jennings Bryan, and Sarah Bernhardt. There’s even a conversation about Nikola Tesla and Swami Vivekananda. But several important minor characters were imagined. These include Arvilla Bunn, an older woman who befriends Lizzie in her early days at the Dogwood mining camp; Joseph Mooney, an assayer and his family; and Tommy Birdsall, who manages the Matchless Mine. In some ways the made-up characters were easier to write because I had more leeway in writing them.
Which to you prefer to write and why?
DBS: This is hard for me to answer. I loved re-creating a real woman’s life, especially a woman as fascinating as Baby Doe Tabor. It was the real facts of her life that first compelled me to write her story, of course. And I love doing historical research. I love the synchronicities that occur during research—the way stumbling on a small detail can lead to a new direction for the story. I’m finding this to be true again now as I complete a collection of short stories based on lithographs by Thomas Hart Benton, all set in 1920s and 1930s Arkansas and Missouri.
On the other hand, there are constraints you face writing about a historical figure. I couldn’t change the basic structure of Lizzie’s life. I knew that there are enough people out there who are familiar with her story and would object if I veered too far from the facts.
In an historical novel you must vividly re-create a place and people in a bygone era. How did you bring the place and people you are writing about to life?
DBS: It may sound a little mystical, but every time I have visited Leadville and the Matchless Mine I have felt a very special, almost magical, resonance with the place. Lizzie felt alive to me throughout the writing of the book. I almost felt as though I were channeling the story she wanted to tell about her life rather than the story men had earlier told. Doing obsessive research about clothing and food and visiting the actual places that were significant in Lizzie’s story helped me bring those settings to life.
There often seems to be more scope in historical novels for male characters rather than female characters. Do you prefer to write one sex or the other. And, if so, why?
DBS: I LOVED writing from the point of view of a historical female character. I think we need many more books about the women who preceded us. History is by no means constrained to the way men view it or lived it. History includes more than wars and battles. This doesn’t mean that women don’t fight their own wars and battles. But I do believe women experience the world and move through the world in a way that is different from the way men do. It’s important that those experiences and actions be granted equal weight, in fiction and in life.
Thank you for answering my questions, Donna. Lizzie sounds like a fascinating person and character. Good luck with your novel.
About Donna Baier Stein: She is the author of The Silver Baron’s Wife (PEN/New England Discovery Award), Sympathetic People (Iowa Fiction Award Finalist and 2015 IndieBook Awards Finalist), and Sometimes You Sense the Difference. She founded and publishes Tiferet Journal. She has received a Scholarship from Bread Loaf, a Fellowship from the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars, three Pushcart nominations, and prizes from the Allen Ginsberg Awards and elsewhere. Her writing has appeared in Ascent, Beloit Poetry Journal, Poet Lore, Prairie Schooner, Virginia Quarterly Review, Puerto del Sol, Writer’s Digest, as well as in anthologies from Simon & Schuster and The Spirit That Moves Us Press. She is currently completing a new collection of stories based on Thomas Hart Benton lithographs.
Donna was also an award-winning copywriter whose clients include Smithsonian, World Wildlife Fund, Citrix, and other non-profit and for-profit organizations.