The optioning of Paint the Wind for the movies has caused me to be reminded very hauntingly of my mother. I should tell you, I think, that although my mother’s name was Kate, the family called her Manu, because it meant Giver of the Law in Hindi – she was a formidable force of nature, in any language. What has brought her so clearly to my mind today, is the fact that she loved two things passionately (besides her family)… books and politics. To explain just how much she loved politics, I should tell you that in her last illness, when we all thought she lay in a hopeless coma, she suddenly rose up in her bed and said quite lucidly, “I wish to enquire about the State of the Union.”
Manu died before I finished Paint the Wind, but she considered it her book as much as mine – not only because she loved the story, but because she had named one of its heroes. Years ago, she’d said to me, “Why don’t you write a book about a man named Chance McAllister… it would be a splendid name for a rogue” and that one sentence had set the story in motion, as if she’d let the genie out of the bottle. I dedicated Paint the Wind to her and can only imagine how thrilled she’d be to see it on The Big Screen.
Painting Colors on the Wind
The Indians say a story stalks a writer – watches, waits to see if you’re worthy of telling it. Then it comes to live in your heart for a time, and it’s your responsibility to work very hard and learn enough to give that story truthful voice. The story that stalked me for Paint the Wind led me into many remarkable learnings, for which I’ll always be grateful, and which I’d like to tell you a little about.
My tale begins in Natchitoches, Louisiana, on a great sugar plantation, very near the end of the Civil War. The plantation is ravaged by border raiders and a small child of privilege, called Fancy, is saved from death by an old slave named Atticus, who is a Wise Man of the Yoruba Tribe.
Atticus and Fancy travel West on a circus train, to the gold and silver boom of Colorado, in the company of a mysterious gypsy, two Shakespearean actors (one a brilliant dwarf) and an irascible Chinese cook. In Colorado, Fancy, now grown, meets Chance and Hart McAllister, and there begins a love story of three people, not merely two. A headstrong, willful, vulnerable girl… a gambler, who is a legend at the poker table, and in bed… and an honorable man, an artist who longs to paint the fierce Apache, before their world vanishes forever. An honorable man, doomed to love his brother’s wife.
Because the McAllister brothers love each other, as well as loving Fancy… and because she loves them both, but is in love with only one… their story becomes not just a journey west, but a journey of the heart and soul. A journey into wisdom.
You simply can’t tell a story like this, and have to live it. To do so, I had to walk down many strange highways.
Research that Changed My Life
I made a list of all I would have to learn in order to give this story voice and the list looked a bit overwhelming.
How to Run a House of Ill Repute
I generally spend a number of months immersed in research before starting a book – then I continue to research as I write. You have to live your characters’ lives – not think them. You have to cry for their pain, laugh for their joy, agonize over a death you could save them from with a stroke of a pen… but can’t because the story won’t let you.
You feel a terrible responsibility toward these characters who have somehow miraculously been given into your care. You don’t want to fail them. So I studied metaphysics and ritual magic to the point of actually learning hands-on healing from some of the leading metaphysical healers of our time. I already knew how to ride, but I couldn’t write authentically of the Old West without ever having handled a gun. So I went to a pistol range in Connecticut and was greeted, in this last great bastion of male supremacy, by a man roughly the size of a B1 bomber, who said his name was Doc… You know what they say, “Never eat dinner at a place called Mom’s; never play poker with a man named Doc…”
Doc said, “First, you don’t look like you’ll be good at this… second, you’ve got no business writing about the Old West if you’ve never packed a piece; third, $50 up front, if I don’t like the way you handle yourself you’re out of here.” Neither Doc nor I knew at that moment, that I had an oddball gift for shootin’ irons, and that the Peacemaker fit in my hand as if born there. It seemed to have the magic to transport me to those windswept streets of yesteryear… and that was only the beginning…
In fact, I studied so many remarkable enlightenments in pursuit of my story that by the time I reached the Mescalero Apache reservation to seek knowledge from Elbys Hugar, great granddaughter of the legendary Chiracahua Chief, Cochise, I had no trouble at all believing that Geronimo had been first and foremost a wise man, a medicine man, and only secondarily, a warrior. History is always written by the victors and has a notorious bias. When I began to learn history from the point of view of the Native Americans, I came to love Geronimo and the Apache nation, and became determined to try to set the record straighter with my story.
The Women Who Won the West
But more than anything, in the course of writing Paint the Wind, I fell in love with the women who won the West alongside their men, who have somehow been forgotten by history. I always try to research close to the bone – first-person materials, diaries contemporary to the times, etc – I found to my profound dismay that the women who went West didn’t want to go! They knew they were leaving beloved family behind forever… they were always pregnant in those days, and the trips West took six to nine months, so they could be assured of being pregnant on those wretched springless wagons, and giving birth in some godforsaken stretch of desolate wilderness. Their diaries are a litany of caring for the sick and burying the dead, of submission to their husbands and the male elders of the wagon train, and submission to the will of God… most times suspiciously close to the will of their husbands, it seemed to me. Their courage and their fortitude made me very proud of being a woman. I wanted to give voice to their heroism… their endurance and eternal spunk in the face of impossible odds. They loved their families, God and country… they, too, may have enquired about the State of the Union on their death beds.
The Indians call memory the Haunting of the heart… it is my sincerest hope that when you read Paint the Wind, or see it in the movies, your heart may be haunted by my story – and by theirs – at least a little. In all the years since I penned the final word of the manuscript, the characters have never left me for a moment.
© Cathy Cash Spellman/The Wild Harp & Co. Inc 2012