WIPs Conversation: John Solensten on His Work in Progress

John Solensten

John Solensten has published five novels, two short story collections, more than 30 individual short stories and memoirs and more than 90 poems. His plays have been produced by theaters in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth and Oklahoma City.His first play Goodthunder won a national native American drama competition and his fiction has been awarded first place in the national AWP novel competition and the Minnesota Voices short fiction competition. His most recent novel, Buffalo Grass (2013), is based on Lakota legends of the white buffalo and the restoration of buffalo in the South Dakota prairie. He is currently completing a novel based on the life of Richard Harding Davis, the legendary Gibson Boy. He lives in Burnsville, Minnesota.

John, this chapter from The Gibson Boy, an American Hero provides an intriguing glimpse into high society during the fashionable Gay 90s, and to the idea of developing an iconic American ideal: Charles Dana Gibson’s depiction and actual discovery of “the real American Girl.” What led to your interest in portraying the period in novel form?

I had published on Davis’ fiction in various periodicals, but discovered he had not really dealt in any psychological depth with his capture by the Germans. His actual capture was of relatively short duration, but it provided, two years before his death in 1916, an opportunity for me to use my research to make this period a period of “reckoning” as he becomes more introspective during his “death walk.”

The novel is told within the context of journalist Richard Harding Davis—the Gibson Boy—having been captured by German troops during the First World War, and reflections upon his life during his capture. Could you elaborate on that aspect a little and explain how you chose to tell his story that way?

Davis was a man driven by “great expectations”–imposed—some biographers noted—by his mother and by the very self-heroism he depicted in the wide range of his fiction. In his memoirs like WITH THE ALLIES IN FRANCE he did make personal comments on the ruthless power of the German war machine as it moved through Belgium. In a way, this novel is a logical extension of those personal comments and a commentary on his sense of personal destiny—the reporter as hero.

While this chapter revolves around Davis’ desire for Irene Langhorne, only to be bested for her affection by Gibson, it also includes Ethel Barrymore, and refers to Booth Tarkington, Stephen Crane, William Hearst, and many notable others. As a work of fiction, do you take great liberties in your writing with respect to recorded history or is the novel generally based upon the facts as they are known?

I take quite a few liberties with all these people—though they all have had some presence in Davis’ life. . For example, when Davis covered the Greco-Turkish War with Crane he once chastised Crane for being “so damn melodramatic” in exposing himself to Turkish fire. Davis wrote and produced several Broadway plays and did know Ms. Barrymore who (for me as writer) was quite handy as an honest friend for Davis in the final moment of this section of the novel.

The narrative tone and style of the excerpt seems pitch-perfect for the story itself, and is somewhat reminiscent of classic American novels from a century ago. Is that something you’ve consciously tried to achieve as you’ve worked on the book?

Thanks. Yes, I did “echo” all my reading of Davis’ own fiction and news reporting. Davis did take his heroes seriously even as he sometimes moved them toward the comic. And Teddy called Davis writing “a textbook of Americanism”—important stuff indeed!

How is the novel progressing? Are you writing it with regard to any deadlines, self-imposed or otherwise?

No deadlines. It’s progressing rather slowly simply because creating a linear plot or pragma out of the life of a man who desired “to live several lifetimes in one” is a challenge.

In addition to the Gibson Boy are there any other creative projects you’re working on presently?

I guess I’m multi-tasking in my own non-technical way, working on plays, poems and a new series of short stories set in the oil country of North Dakota.

Thanks, John. Is there anything else you’d like to share or explain to readers?

Only that I can say—at 84—that it’s been a helluva lot of fun to write and that I’ve developed a kind of “affection” for people like Richard Harding Davis, who seems to have written and lived himself to death but mostly loved it.


Read Chapter Eight: The Gibson Girl, from John Solensten’s novel in progress, The Gibson Boy, an American Hero