Hi Everyone!! I want to take the opportunity to welcome Donna Baier Stein, author of The Silver Baron’s Wife, to The Maiden’s Court today. I was intrigued by this book from the first time I saw the blurb. We hear about western migration in the USA, but not much about life actually in the west very often and The Silver Baron’s Wife sounds like a great novel.
Heather: Your novel, The Silver Baron’s Wife, focuses on Lizzie Doe Tabor, who I had never heard of before, and I’m sure that many of our readers have not either. Could you give us a little introduction about her to whet our appetites and help us to dive into your book?
Donna Baier Stein: Baby Doe Tabor lived in Colorado in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She was in many ways a woman ahead of her time. She worked in the silver mines despite the prevalent superstition that women brought bad luck to miners… was a key figure in one of the Wild West’s most scandalous love triangles… and wrote down thousands of her dreams at a time when, though psychoanalysis was becoming popular in Europe, people were not regularly keeping dream journals! She noted spirit visitations on her wall calendars.
Some people have considered her a female American mystic; others thought she was simply eccentric. She was also married to one of America’s wealthiest men, silver baron Horace Tabor.
H: She sounds like she has such a fascinating story to tell. How did you come across the story of Lizzie Doe Tabor and what was it about her story that called out to you to fictionalize it?
DBS: I first learned about her on a family vacation to Colorado when I was seven years old. I still own the postcards I got on that trip. Even as a child I recognized something very special in her life – the contradictions between materialism and spirituality, family ties and loneliness, wealth and poverty. And I’m sure those last decades of her life, writing down her dreams, especially attracted me. My obsession with her lasted into my adulthood.
H: For a story to stick with you for so long it must be fascinating!
What type of research did you do for this book? Were there sites that you were able to visit or any places that had special collections or valuable resources that helped you bring your story to life?
DBS: I travelled several times to Leadville and Denver as an adult. The Denver Public Library and Colorado Historical Society were especially helpful. I remember my first visit to the Denver Library, photocopying many of Lizzie’s dreams. It was mysterious, overwhelming, and addictive reading. I’ve spent time in both the Matchless Mine and Tabor Opera House in Leadville. It’s a town that has a very special appeal to me. I also found helpful information in John Burke’s nonfiction book about Baby Doe Tabor and in Judy Nolte Temple’s nonfiction book Madwoman in the Cabin. I’ve listened to Douglas Moore’s Ballad of Baby Doe as well and seen that opera performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. I also visited the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC where Lizzie and her second husband Horace were married.
H: Oh wow! That sounds like some really cool resources. I love that there is an opera about her!
The Silver Baron’s Wife is your first novel – what has that experience been like bringing your idea to fruition? Has anything been more difficult than you expected? Easier?
DBS: The novel took me quite a long time to write. I initially thought that because Lizzie’s story was so dramatic, it would be easy to develop a plot. That was a naïve expectation! I had to revise several times in order to find a compelling narrative arc. I also experimented with telling the story in both first person and third person limited. First person was my final choice, because I felt strongly that I wanted her story to come through me. The biggest surprise—or mysterious circumstance—was that while I was revising a chapter on the fire that destroyed Lizzie’s childhood home in Oshkosh, I had a fire in my own home office. Luckily, I had just emailed the novel to a friend and fellow writer. Otherwise, it would have been lost.
H: Talk about art emulating life and vice versa! I love hearing the different iterations that a novel goes through before arriving at the final product.
You have written other types of works (non-fiction and poetry). How has that experience compared to writing a novel?
DBS: I actually sometimes enjoy the more limited time frame imposed in writing short stories. I’m a stickler for language and there are fewer sentences to rewrite when you are writing a story! It’s hard to pick one genre, though. I tend to work on multiple projects at once. For me, the important thing is to do the writing and to be engaged in what I’m writing about.
H: I feel like that is important too because your reader will feel it if you aren’t.
When you are not reading for research, what types of books or authors do you enjoy reading?
DBS: I just finished Mark Haddon’s The Pier Falls and Other Stories; it is exquisite. I also enjoyed B.A. Shapiro’s The Muralist, and I’ve just started Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. I like contemporary literary fiction and historical fiction. And Dean Koontz’s books are my secret guilty pleasure.
H: I have The Muralist on my list of books to read soon, I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it!
Having now published a novel, do you have any further writing plans?
DBS: Oh yes! I’ve published eight short stories set in the 1930s and 1940s based on lithographs by the Midwestern artist Thomas Hart Benton. Once I write two more, I’ll have a collection to submit. This has been a fascinating project, and I have high hopes for its publication as a book. I’ve also started a new novel but it is in a very early stage. I want to write many more books and am fortunate to be in a situation where writing can be my life priority now.
H: Oh that sounds like it could be a fascinating collection! I look forward to when it gets released.
Award-winning novelist, short story writer and poet. Iowa Fiction Award Finalist and 2015 IndieBook Awards Finalist. PEN New England Discovery Award Winner. Bread Loaf Scholar. Johns Hopkins University MFA.
The Silver Baron’s Wife is the true story of a fiercely independent woman who rose above every social and gender expectation, and became a key figure in the West’s most scandalous love triangle. In the 1870’s, Lizzie Tabor notoriously defied convention: when her first husband failed as a provider, she descended into the mines herself. When she caught her husband in a brothel, she divorced him. And when she captured the attention of Horace Tabor, a silver baron 30 years her senior, she married him after he left his wife amid huge scandal – officially branding Lizzie one of the wealthiest women in America, and an outcast in high society. When the couple lost everything with the repeal of the Sherman Silver Act, Lizzie stayed by Horace’s side until his death, moving to a one-room shack at the Matchless Mine where she lived the rest of her life in mysterious isolation, writing down thousands of dreams and spiritual visitations.
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