I met Deb Caletti at a signing for one of her early novels and, as we are both Puget Sound area residents, our paths cross from time to time; I’m tickled every time it happens. Deb is astute, funny, kind and one heck of a writer.
One of the best parts of being a writer is the interesting stuff you get to research and learn about while writing a novel. With Wild Roses I learned about classical violinists, creativity and madness. The Nature of Jade required a body of knowledge about animal behavior and elephants. The Last Forever brought strange facts about seeds and plants and the mysterious place in the arctic where seeds are stored in the event of global catastrophe, The Svalbard Seed Vault. But no book of mine has yet involved the extent of the research I’d done for my latest, The Secrets She Keeps, which brought me to the Nevada desert in 1951, surprisingly one of the most glamorous places of that time.
The Secrets She Keeps is about two sisters with troubled marriages who gather at their aunt’s now crumbling Nevada “divorce ranch.” The story is told in alternating time periods – one summer at the present-day ranch, and the summer of 1951, a summer of secrets, of Mad-Men-esque glamour, wild mustangs and majestic scenery. But, wait – divorce ranch? Exactly! A few years before, I’d run across a single line in a book that mentioned this term, and having never heard it before, I looked it up. Divorce ranches operated in the 1930’s to early 1950’s in Nevada. High-society women and Hollywood celebs stayed at such ranches for six weeks to establish residency in the state, in order to secure divorces that were impossible to get elsewhere. Often, this was called, “The Six-Week Cure,” or, alternately, “Getting Reno-vated.”
After learning about the ranches and the transformative experiences that were had when women gathered together there, I was intrigued. But when I realized how little there was about them in the popular culture, I had one of those writer-moments where your heart beats fast and you think: This. Here was all of my favorite stuff in one beautiful, dusty, desert locale: marriage, heartbreak, women of varying ages supporting each other and attempting to understand themselves and their relationships.
Bringing it to life, though, was trickier than I’d anticipated, because of exactly what I’d found so thrilling – how little there was out there about the ranches. Luckily, I discovered The Divorce Seekers, a stunning coffee table volume of photos and memories by a former dude wrangler at the famed Flying M.E. ranch, Bill McGee. The images – with their smoky, black-and-white, retro allure – are what brought the time and place alive for me so that I could bring them to life in the novel. I’d open the book to an image of two sleepy roommates in the middle of their Reno Cure, wearing silky chemises, drinks in hand, or to a photo of one of “the gals” in her party-night finery, and the mood would be set. Music of the time occasionally helped, too. As well, I researched the bestsellers of those years written by women, so I could get a feel for the female voices of the time. Sometimes I’d read a page or two in order to “get into character” so to speak.
When you go back into the past, every little thing must be considered and checked – each item of clothing, every phrase, every piece of furniture and automobile. Kitchen supplies! Hair products! Restaurants in a city! Music! What kind of gun would they have had at the ranch then? When did cars first get radios? Was a certain slang expression used yet? Which hat did a man wear for work, and which for dress? I learned about divorce laws through time, and obstetric practices, and the fact that ambulances were still not commonplace in rural areas then. I played virtual dress-up with the many beautiful outfits I discovered, and drooled (or cringed) over the food of the time period. The wild mustangs of the area were important in both the past and the present stories in the book, and so I also got a mini-education in land management and mustang gathering practices over time.
My favorite thing I learned though? How timeless our struggles are in terms of love. I could see the storylines repeating over the generations. Women now battle the same old things women then did – bad choices, infidelity, abuse, career versus marriage conflicts, intruding parents. We move on too fast after a breakup; they’d go from the courthouse to the marriage chapel. We’re intrigued and tempted by a life not like ours; they’d buy ranch wear and try to bring home a cowboy. We’ve been taken (or we take); we’re endlessly hopeful (or fed up and jaded); we fall for the wrong person (or, finally, the right one). And so it was then.
As with every story an author writes, The Secrets She Keeps added new facts and details and bits of information to the trove. But the intertwining theme I discovered within those facts – love, it’s timeless troubles, and it’s stubborn, enduring joys – will be the thing I never forget.
Deb Caletti is an award-winning author and National Book Award finalist. Her many books for young adults include “Stay,” “The Last Forever,” and “Honey, Baby Sweetheart,” winner of the Washington State Book award, the PNBA Best Book Award, and a finalist for the PEN USA Award. Her books for adults include “He’s Gone,” and her latest release, “The Secrets She Keeps.” She lives with her family in Seattle.