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Savannah Book Festival: Paulette Jiles recreates frontier Texas in novel about a most unlikely bond

  • Paulette Jiles
 

Savannah Book Festival: Paulette Jiles recreates frontier Texas in novel about a most unlikely bond

15 Feb 2017

In “News of the World,” author Paulette Jiles has created characters as endearing as they are unusual.

The book is set in the year 1870 in the North Texas frontier. The main character, Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd, travels from town to town to give readings from the latest newspapers to bring the “news of the world” to even the most isolated hamlets.

Jiles came up with the character after someone told her his great-grandfather read newspapers for a living.

“He even had a picture of him,” she says. “He was called Capt. Kidd. I assumed he was called ‘captain’ because of his military experience.

“I thought, ‘What a wonderful character,’” Jiles says. “I put him in ‘The Color of Lightning’ briefly, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought he needed a book of his own.”

In Wichita Falls, Kidd is asked to return a captive girl to her relatives near San Antonio, 400 miles to the south. Johanna — a character who also is based in reality — has been with the Kiowa for just four years, but has been completely absorbed into the tribe.

“There are a lot of captive narratives that go back to the early colonial days,” Jiles says. “I had read an amalgamation of all of them. I tried to imagine her experience and way of life.”

The unlikely pair sets out on a journey that is dangerous because of bandits, Comanche raids and stormy weather. Wary of each other at first, the two develop a strong bond along the way, which makes it hard when Kidd realizes Johanna’s relatives don’t want her.

Jiles is on a book tour in support of “News of the World” and will make a stop at the Savannah Book Festival on Feb 18. Plot and character are equally important to her.

“I can’t separate the two,” Jiles says. “A character is the type of person who will have a different thought line. You’ve got to have a plot to match the character.”

A poet and memoirist as well as a novelist, Jiles was born in Salem, Mo., and moved to Canada in 1969. Currently, she lives in San Antonio, Texas.

Jiles has been writing since a young age.

“I was 11 when I made my own little book,” she says. “It absorbed me for a month. I cut out magazine illustrations to paste into it and sewed it together.”

Being a writer is something like being a gambler.

“What most writers are concerned about is buying time,” Jiles says. “When you are writing, you’re not making any money. When you finish writing, you hope someone will pay you for it.”

Writing keeps Jiles busy.

“I never stop,” she says. “It’s compulsive behavior. If I’m not writing, I’m revising.

“Also, I have a little ranch, which keeps me busy. I’m always taking care of the horses and looking after the fencing.

“The captain’s horse is modeled on my own good, kind horse,” Jiles says. “I also play Irish tin whistle and play in a Celtic band we have here in Texas.”

Music has always been as much a part of Jiles’ life as writing.

“I sing in a choir,” she says. “I taught myself to read music. That’s absorbing.”

In Savannah, Jiles plans to talk about “News of the World” and its characters and take questions from the audience.

“They often say they had never heard of a news reader and ask where I got the characters. Usually, they ask about the captives and want to know what it was that made them so completely Native American.

“This is a very mysterious and strange thing,” Jiles says. “Johanna was only with them for four years. There are instances of a child missing only a year and yet they completely absorbed themselves into the tribe and even forgot English.”

PAULETTE JILES

Book: "News of the World”

When: 12:10 p.m. Feb. 18

Where: Savannah Theatre, 222 Bull St.

Info: savannahbookfestival.org

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