Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Visit with Barbara Marriott, Ph.D

Barbara Marriott earned an advanced degree in cultural anthropology and, among other subjects, writes about the mysteries of the Old West and her adopted state of Arizona.

Barbara, is there a connection between your last name and your book: Annie’s Guests, Tales from a Frontier Hotel?

The hotel in Annie’s Guests was chosen as a central theme and focus point. Rather like a vehicle that carries the reader into the history of a particular part of Arizona. The connection between my name, Marriott, and hotels, never occurred to me. It wasn’t until well after the book was published and I was at a signing that someone remarked about the connection. Marriott is my marriage name, and since it is something that is part of me I don’t connect it to the commercial endeavor.When people ask me if I am related to THE MARRIOTT’s I usually give one or two replies: How far back do you want to go? (Norman invasion of England 1066), or the more painful reply: Not in the pocketbook.

Tell us about your latest book.

Myths and Mysteries of New Mexico just came out. It is a historical romp of some of the amazing and outlandish history of New Mexico. The book I am working on now is fiction. I decided to take a break from the truth. It is more faction, the irreverent combination of history and imagination. It is the story of a woman who goes west to find a father that abandoned her twenty years ago. She is motivated by the fact that she is penniless and needs his signature or proof of his death, to get her inheritance. In her search she meets Poker Alice, Bat Masterson, Bob Ford and a whole bunch of historical characters. She is also caught in a fire, shot at, blasted in a mine, and gets drunk, and that is just for starters. I can’t remember when I have had so much fun.

Why your interest in New Mexico?

Born in the fury of fire, New Mexico is a mischievous child that has offered herself up in the most outlandish ways. Nature may have conjured her up, but man contributed the greed and the legends. Gold! That’s what man wanted and he found it in such unlikely places as the bowels of Victorio Peak, and lost it in Adams’ diggings. Power and control, and riches are what man sought and it led to murders, strange disappearances and the legend of a whole town. But New Mexico is multidimensional: She has a sense of humor that can be tempting with her history of famous outlaws, ghosts, staircases built by carpenters from Heaven, visitors from outer space, unidentified creatures that walk in the woods and ancient bones that lay hidden only to pop up and reveal first man. New Mexico may never be understood, but her capriciousness and flavor can be enjoyed. Here are a few bites to tempt you.

In which subject is your advanced degree? And why your interest in the mysteries and history of the Old West?

 My Ph. D. is in Cultural Anthropology. I wanted to get the advance degree but couldn’t make up my mind what I wanted to study. There are so many things I am interested in. So I made a list and the only discipline that includes everything and left room for my ever expanding curiosity was anthropology. As it turned out I find my studies are a great help when writing history, which to me is an interaction of people, circumstances, and culture.

My interest in the Old West was due to a move. I had spent my life on the east coast, or in Europe, and when moving to Arizona found myself confronted by a land I knew nothing about. The trees are different, the people are different, the culture is different, and the weather is very different, even the food is hot. Since this was to be my home I decided to learn something about this “strange” land. I volunteered for just about every museum and historical society I could find. I decided to write Annie’s Guests thinking there were a lot of new people in this part of Arizona that might be interested in the history of their new home. Never did I imagine that there were so many of them.

You know writing books is like eating peanuts. You just can’t stop at one. My curiosity took hold and an old ranch ruin turned into a book about the pioneers of the Santa Catalina Mountain area, Canyon of Gold. And then that led to another book and another and so on. I found myself on a wild gallop through the history of the Old West, thoroughly enjoying the ride.

Which book was the most challenging to research and write? And why?

 In Our own Words: The Lives of Arizona Pioneer Women was a toughie. It took me over eight months to chase down the original Arizona Federal Writer’s Project (FRP) interviews. Arizona is one of the few states that took ownership of most of the official paperwork. Once I found out they were not in our federal system I had to find out where they were, negotiate for copies, and then print them, analyze them, and organize the material. Nonfiction writing usually includes getting the facts checking the facts and weaving them together in a way that turns facts into fascinating stories. That was not an option in this book. The big decision was how to handle these interviews. Do I paraphrase them? How about an interpretive manuscript of the 144 women’s interviews? In the end I decided the women’s words were too powerful not to be quoted exactly. However I did think they would be more comprehensible, and give more of a complete historical picture if I divided every interview up into applicable sections and put these sections into chapters. That of course demanded introductions to each chapter for clarification purposes and smoothness. I think it would have been easier to just write the interviews based on historical facts. But, that would not have been in their own words, and would not have truly captured the deep passions expressed by these pioneer women.

What did you find most interesting and distressing while researching your book, In Our Own Words: The Lives of Arizona Pioneer Woman.

I knew pioneer women faced hardships beyond the comprehension of modern day women. I found it interesting that in all the interviews there was not one note of complaint. They faced whatever life threw at them, conquered their problems as best as they could, and continued on. No matter what: the death of children, even deprivation of the most basic needs of life like food, clothing, shelter and warmth, they went forward with their lives always looking for happiness and contentment, bearing life’s blows and using them as incentives to seek a better life of their own making. Their stories humbled me. How different from today’s culture where so many of us feel we are owed, and life’s hardships are not to be suffered but must serve as compensation factors. I found some of what they suffered to be distressing, all of it to be thought provoking.

Your departure from the Old West is an intriguing book titled Banana River. Briefly, what does the book entail and why did you decide to write it?

Banana River is the story of a World War II small Navy Base that found itself one of the first battlegrounds in the war. It tells of the growth of the base from a small auxiliary station to a large naval installation. JFK’s older brother trained there, two navy planes were mysteriously lost in the Bermuda Triangle, and it served as a safe training base for the Free French, and was one of the first locations for WAVES. The story is more than a book about a base, it is a book about the men and woman who trained there, lived there, and in some cases died there. And, then it disappeared.

The United States Navy and its history is very much a part of my life. My husband and son both served in the Navy, and I spent thirty years of my life in that environment. How the book came about is a long story (you can delete this). My husband as a naval officer was based at Patrick Air Force Base. He went to buy razorblades and was told the checkout line was for military personnel only. Now a navy officer’s summer uniform consists of a lot of gold and white. The clerk must have thought he had gaudy taste. He put the razorblades back on the shelf and by the time he came home he thought it was a funny story. I didn’t. It was “My Navy” they had dissed. That night we went to a party at the commanding officer’s house. I got that poor Colonel in the corner and ranted and raved. He responded by laughing his head off. “What’s so funny?” I growled. He thought it was funny that a navy officer went unrecognized in a place that was a historical navy base. That’s when I decided it was a story that someday had to be told. So I did. By the way, the base, Air Force and Navy, is on the Banana River, Florida.

Did you begin your writing career as a journalist?

I have been Reporter Friday for a monthly newspaper, created and edited a newspaper in France that outsold the International Tribune, created and wrote travel guides for American sailors in overseas ports, created and edited information booklets for American children living in England and Spain, and worked as a copywriter for many years.

What are the best and worst aspects of writing, in your opinion?

The very best is the opportunity to learn. Non fiction writing requires a lot of research. It takes you down avenues you might never have thought to travel, and along the way not only do you find out interesting things and places, but you get to meet so many fascinating people. Writing is something you can do anywhere, and it is something you do alone. Good or bad, successful or not, it is all your responsibility. The sense of achievement is yours alone. That is a wonderful reward.

Writing (books) does not stand alone. Its shadow is marketing. You write to inform, educate, or entertain people. For the public to experience these things they must have access to your writings so you must market your work. Marketing wears me out. It is creatively demanding, and also hard on the body. You must get out and market your product, and if you are an author the ultimate product is you. You have got to sell yourself, and it shall follow, the public will buy your book…maybe.

Which writer influenced your own writing and why?

When I am researching I read books, both fiction and nonfiction on my subject, so the author is unimportant to me. I am looking for facts. And, the books that give me the clearest, substantiated facts are at that moment, my favorites. When I read for pleasure I read everything. I mostly enjoy authors with a sense of humor, and I think my tongue in cheek writing comes from that influence.

If I had to name one author, one book of importance, it would be Andy Adams The Log of a Cowboy: A Narrative of the Old Trail Days (1903). While it is pitched as a fiction, it is a true story of his days riding the cattle trail in 1882 from Brownsville to Montana. He strips the Hollywood fantasy that we have been fed and in its place gives a true picture of the hardships, the brutal land, and the unpredictability of the cattle…always the cattle. He manages to describe history in a way that puts the reader in the story. The reader becomes part of the action, and it is happening now. That is a rare talent and one I strive to emulate in my writings.

Thank you, Barbara.

You can visit Barbara at her website:


Jean Henry Mead said...

Welcome to Mysterious Writers, Barbara. It's good to have you join us.

Jodie Baker said...

I love anthropology, Barbara, and will look for your books. New Mexico is my home state.