Monday, July 24, 2017

My First Time: Jamie Harrison

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Jamie Harrison, author of the new novel The Widow Nash. Jamie has lived in Montana with her family for almost thirty years. She has worked as a caterer, writer, and as a technical editor for archaeological, botanical, and biological reports. She is the daughter of Jim Harrison.

My First Protagonist

My new novel, The Widow Nash, is the first book I’ve published in twenty years. Friends, understandably, had stopped asking for progress reports, and I’d stopped volunteering by the time I started it five years ago. I worked on it between research jobs, editing jobs, family illnesses, and despite grave self-doubt: when you don’t sell a book for decades, a little insecurity is only sane. I had a lot of time to think about my character, Dulcy Remfrey, and by the time I began really writing her story, she was clear in my head: a little lost, a little cranky, ready to do anything to save herself.

But my first protagonist, Jules Clement, the center of the four mystery novels I started twenty-five years ago, was accidental, as was my whole decision to write. My father was a poet and novelist, and until I was twenty, he didn’t make more than $10,000 a year. When you spend your childhood watching your parents worry about bills, you don’t romanticize the craft. And he had a calling—I had a love of reading and an English degree, but I made my living in food, and then magazines and script editing, and finally, after I moved to Montana, as an editor of a small press. I loved it, right up until the moment that we went out of business and I found myself in a small town with a small child and no job.

I was desperate; it brought out supreme arrogance. I’ll write a mystery, I thought. A series. I’d read enough of them; I’d even edited them. No art, but not just commerce: nothing soulful, but something good. What makes more readers happier than a well-written mystery? Nobody had handled an idiosyncratic town like mine realistically, or with humor: I’d transplant a New Yorker into the freezing, windy northern Rockies and watch things go wrong, and I’d grind a few axes from the past while I was at it.

I was an infant and an idiot, and within a month, I’d been smacked over the head by a series of discoveries:

Making my female protagonist an amateur and outsider felt contorted. Why would people talk to her, and anyway how many bodies can one character stumble over? One a book? Really?

Professions linked to crime and death felt just as awkward. Law was a possibility, but I wouldn’t be any good at a procedural; my husband, a defense attorney, is still stunned by my lack of legal knowledge, and his work also gave me a second insight: the job isn’t always that interesting. Making her a female cop would necessarily be all about that struggle, rather than whatever story I wanted to tell, and I was already struggling to imagine wanting to be a cop (given marriage to a defense attorney).

I tried making her a journalist, but found I couldn’t separate her from me, give her an independent existence. People would assume it was me. Sex scenes, background, everything. The horror.

I circled a male cop, a male lawyer, a male journalist, but by then I was having an utter failure of the imagination, and terrified that people would see my husband, or a local newspaper writer who fed me stories over drinks. And then I happened to go to a concert, and halfway through, listened to the singer’s calm, ironic speaking voice, looking at his skinny frame and crooked face.

I was a Clash girl; please don’t laugh hysterically if I admit the singer was Lyle Lovett.

I don’t know why everything clicked, but it did, and I shot past abstractions into a real character. I went home and scribbled out pages of notes, and I started writing, and I had a first draft within a couple of months. All my failed protagonists became secondary characters, but Jules Clement was really his own guy, a local boy turned social worker turned archaeologist turned cop (because he needed to make a living in the place he wanted to live), maybe a little younger and better looking than the singer, but with the same deadpan voice and curiosity and humor. And he was so fun: no one ever thought he was me, but of course the half of him I wasn’t in love with was me: political beliefs, years in New York, abandoned careers, problematic moods. I wanted him to do everything I hadn’t done or couldn’t do, including the archaeology degree and bar fights. It was completely freeing to write from a male point of view, to force myself to really think, to not incidentally make myself be empathetic to situations that had mostly brought out sarcasm or giddiness. I needed a separation to really get into someone’s skin.

I was lucky; I still like Jules Clement, and I still sometimes want to write about him, and he taught me how to come up with Dulcy Remfrey, another character I don’t want to give up. In many ways, she’s far less innocent than he was, and I don’t know that he would have been able to pry the truth out of the Widow Nash.

Author photo by Melanie Nashan


  1. Thank you for this. I like hearing about the genesis of an author's characters.

    I've bought your new book but I hope you will revisit Jules some day. I miss him, his town and his friends. I first found your books during my first visit to Montana and they always take me back to that first time there.

  2. I also hope for more about Jules and Blue Deer. I read my first one just before moving from Michigan to Montana at the end of 1998.