Turning fact into fiction

'Hands-on novelist' discusses stories that evolve from history


Jim Fergus spent seven years piecing together the novel "One Thousand White Women" between journalism assignments. When the book turned out to be a great success, he thought his second book would be much easier to write.

It wasn't.

"One Thousand White Women," a story of what could have been had 1,000 white women been traded to the Cheyenne nation as part of a peace treaty, did well in the United States, but it did even better in France. He sold 400,000 copies and stayed on the bestseller list for 57 weeks -- second only to Mary Higgins Clark, he said.

"There was a lot of pressure with that second book. I thought that having the experience, I now knew how to write a book, but that's an illusion. I discovered that you're starting all over again every time. I hadn't learned a thing."

Partly because he spent time writing a screenplay for "One Thousand White Women" and partly because he was afraid of letting down his readers, "The Wild Girl: The Notebooks of Ned Giles, 1932" took him another seven years to write.

Like "One Thousand White Women," Fergus' second book starts with a shred of historical fact and then wanders off into the world of fiction.

"The Wild Girl" follows a young man named Ned Giles who heads West to work as a freelance photographer.

The "shred of historical fact" lay in the existence of a band of Apaches who had disappeared in the Sierra Madre Mountains, living free for years after the white settlers came to the West.

Fergus' imaginings about that group of Apaches triggered the rest of the book.

Although parts of his story may be part of history, Fergus does not consider himself bound by that history.

"My position is that novelists are allowed to do whatever they want," Fergus said. "I don't make any claims to be historically accurate. I felt a responsibility to accurately portray the history and the culture of the Apache, but that's where it stopped."

To research the book, Fergus spent time in Douglas, Ariz., took a horse pack trip in the Sierra Madres and went on a mountain lion hunt.

"Because of my background as a journalist, I'm a hands-on novelist," Fergus said. "I need to see the country in order to describe it."

Fergus will discuss "The Wild Girl" tonight at the Mesa Schoolhouse.


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