> Skip to content

Q&A  •  6 March 2023

 

Q&A with Shelley Read author of Go as a River

Get to know author Shelley Read and delve into the inspiration behind her soaring, heartstopping novel Go as a River!

Q: Victoria Nash is a woman ahead of her time. Where did the idea for such an extraordinary character come from?

Victoria Nash’s voice and character were so clear in my mind as I created her. Somehow, I knew her intimately from the start. Perhaps this is because Victoria embodies many qualities of the women I’ve known in my own family and in my local ranching and mountain community—tough, loyal, kind, humble women who work hard and do what needs to be done. I also felt in Victoria a certain naïveté and compliance to expectation, born of her limited understanding of self and world, a feeling I remember from my own youth. Victoria always wants to do right, but she is uncertain of herself. This innocence begins to peel away the day she meets Wilson Moon. It’s only when Victoria learns to trust her own heart and strength that she finds her way. So many women—of Victoria’s era, certainly, but of all eras—are diminished by limitation until they discover the power of their own choices. Victoria reminds us that these choices can be incredibly difficult, but this is how we become ourselves.

 

Q: Could you tell us a bit about the town that got flooded and was this part of the inspiration for the book’s setting and themes?

Iola, Colorado, was a small cattle ranching community along the Gunnison River, established in 1896. Three crucial components contributed to the rise and fall of Iola, as is common in Western Colorado: the primacy of cattle ranching, the role of the railroad, and, above all, water resources. At its peak, Iola had a population of around 250 people—most making a living through ranching, farming, and fly-fishing tourism—until, as I write in the novel, the U.S. government chose that section of the Gunnison Valley for a new dam and reservoir, part of a vast Great Basin water management plan. I grew up knowing about the three towns lying beneath Blue Mesa Reservoir and have long wondered what life and loss was like for the residents. Displacement from ancestral land has a long and tragic history in the American West. The demise of Iola is, for me, an interesting place to explore these themes. 

 

Q: Trees are such a huge presence in your book. We feel them breathe alongside Victoria. Do you have a special feeling for trees and why did you decide to make them so central to your book?

Oh, yes, I adore trees. I have the deepest respect for their intrinsic value, as well as for everything they give us. Victoria’s orchard—"the one last beautiful thing,” as she calls it— anchors her to purpose and belonging when all else is lost. Her trees become a metaphor for several of the novel’s central themes, especially those of family and motherhood, and of roots, displacement, and the hope for “resilience in new soil.”

Wild trees also play a role in the novel. Ecosystems differ greatly by elevation in Colorado; thus, tree species change as Victoria flees higher and higher—from the peach trees, cottonwoods, and scrub oak of Iola to the pine and aspen forests of the Big Blue. Trees symbolize how far Victoria has fled from home, and, later, help to guide her return. I love the lone ponderosa pine that serves as a marker of the fateful clearing for both Victoria and Inga, as if a sentinel is watching over that sacred place.  

 

Q: Tell us about Zelda, she is a beautifully drawn character. Where did she spring from? What was your intention behind her in the book?

Interestingly, Zelda is the final character that I created in the novel, and she has come to be one of my favourites. The idea of her was there from the start—someone more self-assured who could kindly yet boldly support and nudge Victoria—but that character took several forms before Zelda revealed herself as just the right fit. Zelda is a symbol of the changing times in the 1950s and 60s and of a woman unafraid to own her past and her grief. But what I think Zelda adds most powerfully to the novel is the importance of female friendship. Victoria’s love for Zelda—and vice versa—shows Victoria that the strength she finds in the natural world can also be found in human relationship, and that not all love ends in tragedy.    

 

Q: Did you know before you set out how your book would evolve? Did you know Victoria’s destiny? Is she based on someone you know or have read about?

When I began writing, I had no idea where this story was going, only that it was a story I needed to tell. I always knew that it was about being a woman in this world and also about drawing strength and guidance from nature. Beyond that, I let Victoria take the lead. Earlier drafts had a different structure and included more characters, but when I realized that this was really Victoria’s story above all else, she let me know just how she needed to evolve. No, Victoria is not based on a particular person, but I do think she embodies a quintessential female journey, and I hope readers, both female and male, find much to ponder in that.   

 

Q: Victoria talks about the beautiful idea of ‘Becoming’ – where did this word spring from?

I’ve long incorporated Native American writers and reality concepts into my university classes, and one of the most intriguing ideas I teach is a common indigenous understanding of cyclical time. The crux of this worldview is that all life is in a constant state of becoming. I love this perspective. I see this reflected in every aspect of the natural world, and it certainly informs my own sense of self. Like the forest and the river, our lives are more process than arrival. As Victoria states near the end of the novel, “We are one and all alike if for no other reason than the excruciating and beautiful way we grow piece by unpredictable piece, falling, pushing from the debris, rising again, and hoping for the best.” One of the benefits of writing my first novel in my fifties is how long I’ve contemplated the idea of becoming and observed its ebb and flow in myself.

 

Q: Was there any part of the story that was especially difficult to write? Which character sprang off the page, and who was harder to imagine?

Wilson Moon was not “difficult” to write, per se, but he was certainly the character with whom I took the most care. The complex U.S. history of “westward expansion” resulted in physical and cultural genocide against native people, and I believe we must name it as such. I certainly could not write a story about displacement in the American West without including the indigenous experience, but I am also aware of my limitations to accurately and respectfully tell Wil’s story. I had the same concern with Lukas later in the novel. It is important that native people be represented, but it is also important to not try to own their narratives. Research is crucial, but sometimes can only take a writer so far. Wil is a lovely character, and I adore him, but I decided that I can only know him as Victoria knows him, with deep affection but from a certain cultural distance. What I hope most cuts through for the reader is the shared depth of Wil and Victoria’s hearts. I wish more people could transcend cultural bias to connect in this way. But, of course, as Wil says of Seth’s ignorance and blind hate, “There are more folks like Seth than stars in the night sky.”

I hope Wil’s character encourages readers to educate themselves on the horrors of “Indian boarding schools” and the lasting effect that “westward expansion” has had on indigenous populations. I also hope readers think more deeply about how prejudice is learned and perpetuated, and how we can all do better.

 

Q: You write breathtakingly beautifully, musically, and so naturally and effortlessly. Do you write and re-write or does lyricism flow easily for you?

Thank you. This compliment means a lot to me because language means a lot to me. My answer is yes to both questions. Sometimes a phrase or description lands just right on the page; other times, I’ll rewrite one sentence a dozen times. I’m glad my writing feels “effortless” because, I assure you, that is not always the case.

In some mysterious way, I seem to have been born to writing. I certainly don’t think a writer needs to feel this way, but it is true for me. I notoriously wrote a sixty-six-page book for a two-page school assignment when I was nine years old. When I think of that, and the stacks of short stories and poems I wrote as a kid (yes, my mother saved them all, bless her), I’m so curious to understand where this impulse in me has always come from. I have also been a reader and a student of literature my entire life, which has deeply enhanced my intuitive sense of language and narrative. I turn to poetry more often than any other genre to give my heart a jolt or to ponder how language works or to jumpstart my writing when I hit a block. I was too busy with my professional and family life to focus on my writing for many years, so I am thrilled to now be doing what I know I was meant to do. The more I write, the easier the sentences flow.

 

Q:  Has any part of your own life gone into this book?

There is nothing overtly autobiographical in Go As A River, but the novel is very much an extension of who I am—what I think about and observe, what matters to me, and what I’ve learned about grief, determination, and resilience. The details of the setting come directly from my own homeland, and the respect for the natural world comes from deep inside my soul.   

 

Q: Did you learn anything about yourself or about writing when you finished this book?

Writing Go As A River was the learning experience of a lifetime. I hold undergraduate and graduate degrees in creative writing and have for decades taught various university writing courses—but the process of writing my first novel was difficult and incredibly humbling. As with most things in life, trial and error was the greatest teacher. My training and attention to craft certainly helped, but I most definitely learned how to write a novel by writing one. I also learned how crucial multiple revisions and a keen editor’s eye are to a polished final draft.  

 

Q: Peaches are an exquisite fruit and they are so pivotal to the plot. Why did you choose this?

Colorado peaches from the Western Slope are famous for their exquisite sweetness. Most are grown in the lush farmland of the North Fork and Grand Valleys, where cool nights and warm days combine with mineral-rich snow melt to enhance their flavour. Peach blossoms are so delicate and susceptible to spring frost that every Colorado peach seems a miracle but is actually the result of generational farming expertise and vigilant care. Peach trees don’t thrive in the high, arid climate of Gunnison County, and, most likely, no actual inhabitants of Iola ever attempted to grow them—but this is why I chose “miracle Nash peaches” as a source of unity for the otherwise troubled Nash family, as well as a metaphor for the possibility of growth despite difficult circumstance. I’ll never eat another peach without thinking of Victoria.   

 

Q: We are dying to know what you are writing next! Can you give us a glimpse of what’s in store?

Yes! I am hard at work on a second novel, which will again be rooted in character and aspects of the natural world. My new novel will take readers from the coalmines of rural Scotland to the south-eastern plains of Colorado and the Sangre de Cristo mountains, near where three generations of my ancestors have lived. I’m loving exploring these landscapes and imagining my characters’ lives. That’s all I’ll say for now.

Feature Title

Go as a River
An epic story of self-discovery and becoming, set against the magnificent and breathtaking landscape of mid-century Colorado.
Read more

More features

See all
Article
The books everyone is talking about in 2023

See the books that readers are obsessing over lately.

Article
The book to read based on your favourite Taylor Swift era

We’ve compiled a book guide to what should be on the top of your TBR pile, depending on your favourite Swift Era.

Article
What we're gifting to our mums and mother figures this Mother's Day!

Want some inspiration for great Mother's Day gifts? Read on to hear what members of the Penguin team are planning to gift to their mothers, grandmothers and mother figures!

Article
Staff Reviews: Go As A River

The world is loving Go As A River, so we asked some of our staff what they thought

Article
Where I Write: Shelley Read - In The Wilderness

Discover one of the locations where Shelley Read wrote her soaring novel Go as a River

Q&A
Ferdia Lennon shares the Plutarch passage that inspired Glorious Exploits

Plus, find out why he taught himself to memorise an entire deck of cards while researching for the novel.

Q&A
Gareth Brown shares how a yearning to travel inspired The Book of Doors

Plus find out why he’d choose to live in Middle Earth and main difference between him and Hugh Jackman.

Q&A
Lottie Hazell shares how she came up with the idea for Piglet

Plus, the cosy fictional world she’d most like to live in.

Q&A
Alex Michaelides shares why his upcoming novel was his favourite to write

Learn about Alex Michaelides’s new book, the real-life people who inspired his characters and how growing up in Cyprus contributed to the setting.

Q&A
Rachael Johns shares her trick for getting words onto the page

We caught up with Rachael Johns to learn about her writing routines, favourite rom-coms and new book The Other Bridget.

Q&A
21 Questions with Terry Hayes

The author of I Am Pilgrim shares his thoughts on finding inspiration, the books that shaped his youth, and what to expect from The Year of the Locust, his long-awaited second novel.

Q&A
Dolly Alderton on heartbreak, finding inspiration, and her new novel Good Material

The bestselling author talks heartbreak, fiction versus non-fiction, and her latest novel Good Material

Looking for more Q&As?

See all Q&As