Author, columnist, and editor, Chilton Williamson, Jr. has published works of fiction, narrative nonfiction, and books on politics and history. He was formerly history editor for St. Martin’s Press and literary editor for National Review. For 26 years, he served as senior editor for books for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture before being named editor in 2015.
Born in New York City, he was raised in Manhattan and on the family farm in South Windham, Vermont. Since 1979, he has lived in Wyoming, except for two years spend in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Besides Jerusalem, Jerusalem!, his fourth Chronicles Press book, Williamson is the author of four published novels and six works of nonfiction. With his wife, Maureen McCaffrey Williamson, he lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
CHILTON WILLIAMSON talks with SV’s Bob Shuman, about his new novel, set in the contemporary West: Jerusalem, Jerusalem! The final part, of this two-part interview, will appear, 9/6.
View ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem!’ on Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/yb7o4x5c
Jerusalem, Jerusalem! is not only a novel that can be read on its own, it’s also related to other books. Could you tell us about it—and also give a background for the Fontenelle trilogy?
The Fontenelle Trilogy began with my first novel, Desert Light (St. Martin’s, 1987, https://tinyurl.com/ycuutqjt), the story of a wealthy and successful New York City attorney who defended a murderer whom he got released from prison only to kill again. Disgusted with “civilization,” Caleb Richardson moves to southwestern Wyoming and becomes a breeder of Arabian horses near the coal, oil, and gas town of Fontenelle in the Green River Basin country. Following a gruesome murder along the I-80 corridor, he agrees to help prosecute the three people charged with the crime, one of them a young Mormon woman. After visiting her in jail, he becomes convinced of her innocence and withdraws from the prosecution team, led by a famous Jackson attorney, to defend her against it.
The middle novel, The Homestead (Grove Weidenfeld, 1990, https://tinyurl.com/ybr4fjap), continues to track Desert Light’s principals, while introducing new ones: Houston Walker, scion of a local rancher who moved to Africa to become a professional big-game hunter, who is summoned home to Wyoming to help his family after his brother is arrested on a charge of murdering an oilfield roughneck, and his incestuously inclined sister.
Was it always your intention to write a Fontenelle series?
After finishing the first book, I had no intention of beginning a second connected novel, much less envisioning a third. I discovered, however, that I couldn’t let the characters and the story drop, so I went ahead with a second installment. The same thing occurred after The Homestead was finished. In this final volume, Jerusalem, Jerusalem!, set in 1992, the Richardsons and the Walkers remain part of the story, while being joined by two other major characters, a Catholic priest who is involved in a minor car crash–when he is called out late one night after inadvertently drinking too much wine–and a parishioner of his, a quadriplegic woman kept alive in an iron lung. She, nevertheless, coordinates people and events from her bedroom to resolve several conflicting situations, in a more or less satisfactory way, at the end of the book.
One of your characters, in Jerusalem, Jerusalem!, Father Hillary, a Catholic priest, says, “For an Easterner, Wyoming does take some getting used to, but I find myself feeling more at home here all the time.” What takes getting used to in the West—and what starts to make the priest feel at home?
The American West, in many ways, is still the frontier. It has, of course, been considerably urbanized in the past several decades, and the numerical majority of “Westerners” live in cities. But the cities are very far between, and separated by vast stretches of nearly empty country, much of which is, indeed, wilderness.
In addition to the physical isolation are the extremely harsh weather (60-75 mph winds that subside but never quit, often stalling at a constant 20 mph or so, which will still carry your Stetson away), temperatures as low as 50-75 degrees below zero, and heavy snows and ground blizzards that make travel impossible for days at a time. Take all this into account and you will begin to understand what Father Hillary had in mind when he spoke of the need to accustom oneself to the West, after life in Paris and New York.
The priest in Jerusalem, Jerusalem! also encounters the desert, a Biblical image in the New Testament that represents a healing, cleansing, inspiring, and mystical withdrawal from the distractions of the “real” world, although by the end of the novel Hillary is only beginning to come to terms with it, with the help of a native priest, Fr. Bonney.
How have you acclimated to Laramie, as an Easterner yourself? You note that Teddy Roosevelt thought that Wyoming was “the strenuous life, and he had Oyster Bay to go home to.” Tell us about the most strenuous thing you’ve done in the last week—and when do you find time to write novels?
I moved first to Kemmerer, Wyoming, population about 3000, and arrived 20 years later in Laramie for a number of reasons, the chief one being that property here is both affordable and holds its value on account of the presence of the University of Wyoming. (Kemmerer, founded in 1897 by a New York family with interests in the coal business, is a classic Western boom-or-bust town that fell into the bust pit 20 years ago and has never climbed out of it–it’s the model for Fontenelle in the books.) As for Wyoming, I saw the place first in 1977, came out here two years later, and never looked back. (I did continue to commute every couple of months to Manhattan, where I worked as the literary editor for National Review.)
Out here, people drive 120 miles roundtrip to see a movie (it won’t be something you’d see at Cannes) and think nothing of it. If comfort, convenience, availability, cosmopolitan culture, and lots of people are what you crave, the West is not for you. You have to like to hunt and fish, ride horses, and camp in the outback, 50 or 60 miles from the nearest small town. If you want “activities,” dislike solitude, and self-sufficiency; if hundred-mile vistas with “nothing” in sight but sagebrush and antelope desert buttes, rugged mountains, and lonely plains make you “want to cry” (as a woman from New York once told me it did her), then drive as fast as you can across I-10, I-40, I-70, I-80, and I-90 until your reach the comfort and safety of the West Coast.
Life on the frontier is always strenuous, whether you’re a rancher, an outfitter, a lumberman, a miner, an oilfield roughneck (as I was for a year), and so on. Just now it is summer, and life is relatively easy here. I explore on foot and on horseback, camp in the outback, climb in the mountains to fish. Fall is the really vigorous time, when I go into winter camp and slog through a foot of new snow in wilderness country to track, shoot, field dress, dismember, and pack 700-pound elk out of the mountains with horses.
How did you decide on the title, Jerusalem, Jerusalem!?
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem” are Christ’s words, as He stands gazing down upon the city before His Passion:
“still murdering the prophets, and stoning the messengers that are sent to thee, how often have I been ready to gather thy children together, as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings; and thou didst refuse it! Behold, your house is left to you, a house uninhabited. Believe me, you shall see nothing of me henceforward, until the time when you will be saying, Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord.”
In this novel, some of the characters refuse to be gathered, and others–the fewer of them—accept the invitation. This is pretty much the theme, in fact, of the trilogy, each volume of which commences with an epigraph taken from Dante’s Commedia Divina: the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso.
The novel seems to have a mosaic-like structure, perhaps comparable to a film like Nashville by Robert Altman. Did you realize you were dealing with a complex structure, while you were writing—and how do you keep so many intersecting characters in perspective, while still telling the story?
Evelyn Waugh once urged a young novelist, “Go to the cinema. It’s the modern way to write a story.” Also, it’s a flexible way of handling many characters and subplots in an orderly and comprehensible fashion.
What are optimal conditions for your work?
When I had stepchildren I wrote in the mornings when they were at school. Since then I’ve written between three and seven in the afternoon. That way, when I knock off work, I have no responsibility beyond shaking and drinking two stiff martinis for myself and my wife. Once I begin a book I almost never abandon it. I agree with Raymond Chandler that if you start on a writing job, it was always for a good reason, and your job is to rediscover that reason.
Thank you so much. We’ll look forward to the second part of your interview.
View Jerusalem, Jerusalem! on Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/yb7o4x5c
Visit Chronicles Web site: https://www.chroniclesmagazine.org/
Read Part 1 of this interview at: https://tinyurl.com/ybpzyos4
(c) 2017 by Chilton Williamson, Jr. (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved.