An introduction to Deanne Stillman, author of Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, A Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History. Her previous books include Mustang and Twentynine Palms. Stillman is a member of the core faculty at the UC Riverside-Palm Desert Low Residency MFA Creative Writing Program. When asked how she balances content with form, Stillman shared, “Place drives everything; in my stories, the desert or the land shapes the story and the characters, and often is a character itself.”
Quick Facts on Deanne Stillman
- Website: www.deannestillman.com
- Comfort food: crepes
- Top reads: Herman Melville, Willa Cather, Rick Bass, Jim Harrison, Tennessee Williams
- Current reads: Children of the Days by Eduardo Galeano
What are you working on at the moment?
I don’t generally talk about books in the seedling stage, but I can say this: While I was working on Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, a story came to me. It involves icons of the frontier era and I’ll be writing about them in my next book.
What spurred you to write Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, A Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History?
In general, this story has elements that run through all of my work—the desert and people who have no voice in our culture. There are also elements of myth and the sacred. I’ve written a couple of essays about this: one is about my work in general, and the other is about Desert Reckoning.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
I try not to second-guess readers and I don’t write with that question in mind. But if someone tells me that they responded to the father/son story inside this book, that makes me happy. Or if the material about animals and the role of wilderness in our lives resonates for them, that’s good too. But I’m often surprised by what readers respond to, and when I’m finished with a story, it takes on a life of its own.
“I’m often surprised by what readers respond to,
and when I’m finished with a story,
it takes on a life of its own.”
Where and when do you prefer to write?
Usually I write in the morning, when I wake up. Sometimes I write in public places, like a baseball stadium, even with all of the noise. The crack of the bat is centering, like a shofar’s call.
Do you listen to anything while you write?
I couldn’t have written Twentynine Palms without “Journey in Satchidinanda” by Alice Coltrane. I don’t remember when I listened to it, other than I was listening to it all around the writing of that book. With Mustang, I was listening to a lot of pow-wow music and cowboy songs. But a lot of other stuff as well, including hard rock and heavy metal and surf music too. Sherman Alexie said that wild horses are Jimi Hendrix or vice versa, and he was right. Desert Reckoning opens with the lyrics from “Renegade” by Styx. In a way, that song drives this book—it is about a manhunt, after all—but there are scenes of great solitude and really, it all gets down to being quiet and letting stories come through.
Where would you most want to live and write?
The desert—wide open space—is a big part of my life and work. I do a lot of my writing in it or near it. Beaches are fine too…I brake for sand, as I have often told friends.
Do you have a philosophy why you write?
See the essays linked in my earlier answer. It’s not a philosophy, I’ve been writing since I was a little girl; it’s a calling, not a choice, just like the old blues song says: “I can’t quit you, baby.”
What do you find most challenging about journalism? About writing, in general?
All of it.
How have your goals as a writer changed over time?
“It’s not so much that my goals have changed,
it’s that my writing itself has changed.”
My work has moved from comedy to tragedy over the years, and sometimes it’s a mix of both. It’s not so much that my goals have changed, it’s that my writing itself has changed, as a result of personal, geographic, and spiritual shifts that I experienced. How that happened and why is something I recently wrote about for The Rumpus.
Is there a quote about writing that motivates or inspires you?
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Don’t take polls and always listen to your own voice. And read, read, read.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?
“You know best.” From my mom, referring to everything.
Is there a question you find surprising that people ask you about your work?
I’m of the nothing-surprises-me school, but why people in general seem to think writing is easy is an ongoing puzzlement. “It took ten years to write that?” is something I’m often asked. Yet everyone wants to be a writer. You never hear someone saying, “You know, I’d really like to weave rugs.”
Is there something that you wish people would ask about your work more often?
I think people are often unaware of the emotional toll my work has taken. I’ve written about this side of it, but it’s the tip of the iceberg.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?
Hiking, baking, traveling.
About Deanne Stillman
Deanne Stillman is a widely published, critically acclaimed writer. Her latest book, Desert Reckoning, based on a Rolling Stone piece, won the 2013 Spur Award for best western nonfiction, contemporary, as well as the LA PRess Club Award. It was named a Southwest Book of the Year, and praised in many publications. She is also the author of Mustang, an LA Times “best book 08” and winner of the California Book Award silver medal for nonfiction. It’s currently under option for a film starring Wendie Malick. And she wrote the cult classic, Twentynine Palms, an LA Times “best book 01” which Hunter Thompson called “A strange and brilliant story by an important American writer.” It’s included in college nonfiction classes around the country and was recently re-issued as an e-book. In addition, she’s a member of the core faculty at the UC Riverside-Palm Desert Low Residency MFA Creative Writing Program.
[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Deanne Stillman” Words With Writers (August 16, 2013), https://wordswithwriters.com/2013/08/16/deanne-stillman.]