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Telling Tales of Love, Grief and Longing for the West That Was

May 03, 1996|SARA DAVIDSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jo-Ann Mapson writes about odd couples, people who attain emotional and sexual heights despite all odds. Her couples are as baffling and compelling as the bumble bee, which has tissue-thin wings and a heavy round body and by the laws of aerodynamics should not fly. But it does.

In "Shadow Ranch," published this month by HarperCollins, the romantic misfits are Bop Carpenter, an 80-year-old former rancher with a genius for making money and abusing his loved ones, and Earlynn Sommers, a retired fan dancer in her 60s who is a fount of no-nonsense, ditzy wisdom.

In Mapson's previous book, "Blue Rodeo" (HarperCollins, 1994), it was a single mother divorced from a Hollywood producer who falls in love with a cowboy-laborer on the run from a bar fight that left a man dead.

In "Hank and Chloe" (HarperCollins, 1993), it was a conservative, cautious professor who is drawn to an uneducated blond horse trainer living in a shanty in one of the last wild places in Orange County.

"I like quirky relationships," Mapson said. "When people are from diverse backgrounds, sparks fly, and the hilarity that results is wonderful material. Love is mysterious, and being a bad match is a good place to start."

Mapson, 44, is a novelist and poet who's being recognized as one of the most gifted writers of the contemporary urban West.

I first came across her poetry at a gathering of cowboy poets in Elko, Nev., where her work was featured in a collection of poems by ranch women (the politically correct term for cowgirls). Her poems were so intimate, raw and startling that I went out and read "Blue Rodeo," and was hooked. I wrote her a letter and a few weeks later, drove down to Costa Mesa to interview her.

She'd come from a long line of ranchers and I expected to find her wearing mud-caked boots, carving out time to write between baling hay and training colts. Instead, I found her teaching English at Orange Coast Community College.

She'd warned me that she was shy and hermit-like. Her hair was long, thick and dark, and she wore horn-rimmed glasses, a gray sweater and a Navajo storm pattern necklace. After a jittery first 10 minutes, she settled on the couch with her three dogs tucked around her. As she relaxed, she conveyed a deep warmth, humor and unblinking honesty.

I asked why she hadn't published a novel until she was 40 and then had written three in four years.

"I went through a period when I deliberately tried not to write, although I'd wanted to be a writer since I was 8," she said. She grew up in Fullerton, "at a time when people had orange groves and horses in their yards. I'd climb over fences when no one was looking to ride the neighbors' horses."

Her father's family had been citrus ranchers and her mother's family were tobacco farmers.

"Everyone told stories," she said. "They were all raconteurs and liars. At family gatherings, it was a contest to see who could hold the floor longest."

She was inspired by a great aunt who had written books and magazine articles. "She was glamorous and larger than life--an amputee who had crutches painted to match her outfits. She'd send me books and poetry and they spoke to me."

Mapson went to an experimental college at the University of Redlands, majored in creative writing but dropped out to marry Stewart Allison, an artist. When she was 26, her son Jack was born with a rare blood disease that was misdiagnosed as cancer. For a year, she took him to oncologists who advised her not to get attached to the baby.

Finally, after a desperate search, she found a graduate student in hematology at UC Irvine who made the correct diagnosis, and her son's condition was stabilized.

"None of my friends were getting married and having babies then," she said. "They saw me as a throwback. Some of them were getting published, and I felt there was no way for me to enter that world. I couldn't divide up my energy between caring for my son and writing, so I chose not to write."

She channeled her creative impulses into cooking. "It's the same process--using your imagination to combine ingredients and conjure up something unique."

She entered contests at county fairs and won prizes for her orange cake and lemon pie. "I found an old Shaker recipe, where you sliced the lemons thinly and made a pudding on top of them. Everyone else made lemon meringue pie, so when the judges tasted mine, it was a welcome relief."

*

As her son's health grew stronger, the urge to write--never far below the surface--began to percolate.

She started writing stories and poems, and worked at odd jobs to help support her family. "I cleaned houses, wrote resumes, taught horseback riding, worked as a clerk at JCPenney's. I was naive. I thought if I sent out my stories, they'd be published."

She learned, later, that in the world of literary fiction, "there's a lot of insider trading--who you know and who recommends you."

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