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Mining Dreams, A Life of Extremes: Q&A with Donna Baier Stein

by Evelyn Somers

From the age of seven, Donna Baier Stein wanted to be a writer. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was at this same age that she first learned about the sensational and tragic life of Baby Doe Tabor, one of the most scandalous women in Colorado’s history, its 1880s “silver queen” and for a while the “best-dressed woman in the West.” Baby Doe was herself a writer: a poet/mystic who throughout her life recorded her dreams and spiritual visions.  In September, 2016, at age 62, Stein finally saw the publication of the novel based on her story, The Silver Baron’s Wife.

The project took decades and is grounded in historical research that was frequently interrupted by parenthood and her work as an advertising copywriter for environmental groups. Donna is the founding poetry editor of Bellevue Literary Review, the founding editor of Tiferet, author of the story collection Sympathetic People (Iowa Finalist Award Winner and 2015 IndieBook Awards Finalist) and of the poetry chapbook Sometimes You Sense the Difference.

The novel tells the story of the independent-minded Elizabeth McCourt, daughter of an Irish Catholic clothier in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, who against her family’s wishes marries a Protestant man, Harvey Doe (the Doe in her later nickname Baby Doe comes from this first marriage). When Harvey and Lizzie are sent by his father to Colorado to look after the family’s mining interests, Lizzie discovers her new husband’s lack of mettle (along with his habits of heavy drinking and visiting brothels), but finds her own passion for the mines and convinces the foreman to let her work in Harvey’s place. When she eventually divorces Harvey—ensuring her excommunication from the Church—she looks for mining work elsewhere.  In Leadville she meets Horace Tabor, millionaire mine owner of the Matchless Mine, a man many years her senior. Tabor is enchanted and eventually leaves his wife and marries Lizzie. The marriage scandalizes not just local society but the elite culture of Washington, DC, where they are married. It also ruins Tabor’s bid for reelection to a congressional seat to which he has been appointed. The couple returns to Colorado, but neither their efforts to gain acceptance through charity and good works nor the birth of their two daughters wins them the approval they hope for. They live—lavishly but largely shunned—in Denver for barely ten years before the crash of 1893 destroys them financially.

The story depicts Lizzie’s resilience and strength of will, and these qualities carry her forward as she faces first poverty and then widowhood, when Horace dies in his early seventies. Now a single mother, she refuses to remarry and is convinced that the Matchless (pretty clearly mined out) may make them a fortune again. The novel takes us through loss after loss, as Lizzie’s daughters leave her and she retreats to a remote cabin near the mine. There she records her dreams on scraps of paper and becomes increasingly obsessed with her past sins. As the novel moves toward its conclusion, Stein interweaves these dreams to show us Lizzie’s material decline and spiritual ascendance. Her reclusiveness and “mad” visions might appear to be her lowest point, but by alternating Lizzie’s own writing with the narrative of her last years and days, Stein portrays Lizzie’s decline and death as a victory over the most tragic aspects of a briefly glamorous but mostly difficult life.

Evelyn Somers: Your interest in Baby Doe Tabor (Elizabeth McCourt Tabor) dates to childhood. Why did her story capture your imagination at that young age?

Donna Baier Stein: I saw two postcards of Baby Doe Tabor during a family vacation in Colorado when I was seven. I still own those postcards. In one she wears an elegant ermine opera coat; in another much later one she stands in front of a run-down shack in an old coat, wearing a man’s hat. I wondered how she got from Point A to Point B and how she was internally the same woman in such radically different situations. I was also fascinated by the thousands of dreams she had written down. In some of them, Jesus and Mary appear, as well as members of her family. I think that even as a kid, the huge contrasts in her life – between spirituality and materialism, wealth and poverty, love and loneliness – intrigued me.

ES: How long did you plan to write this novel before you actually began writing it?

DBS: It’s embarrassing to say. Many years. Decades. I remember starting to do some research in the early 1980s at a library; I’d work on the research in spurts. When I finally had a draft of the novel, it won a PEN/New England Discovery Prize for Fiction. It was for unpublished manuscripts. I got to read at the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe. Agents were interested, but I’m afraid motherhood, my work as a copywriter, and a move to New Jersey prevented me from giving the novel the attention it deserved for a good long while.

ES: As you just mentioned, you were a copy writer before enrolling in an MFA program at age forty. Given that you’d been writing for a living for years, why go back to school to study creative writing?

DBS: I’d always wanted to be a writer. As a seven-year-old I wrote a story called “Melissa in Book World” that showed a little girl living underwater in a magical world of books. I wanted to go to the Iowa Writers Workshop after I graduated from college in 1972 but lacked the courage and confidence. I did get an MA in literature, but when it came time for paying work, I chose to become a direct-marketing copywriter. I worked successfully at that for several decades, writing stories and poems on the side. At age forty, I went for my MFA in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins because the long-term dream of being a Real Writer wouldn’t go away. 

ES: Your MFA was in fiction, but you’ve also published a poetry chapbook and been poetry editor for a now well-established literary journal. Why, and how, did you begin writing poetry?

DBS:: I wrote poems when I was in high school and college, and took classes, but it took a while before I started submitting to literary journals. My first published poem was written after I read Ray Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. It came out in an anthology from BkMk Press called Kansas City Outloud. I sent a copy to Ray Bradbury, who wrote me a lovely note saying in all caps “YOU ARE A TRUE POET” and telling me about the movie that was being made starring Jason Robards. 

ES: You’ve been rather entrepreneurial as an editor. You were a founding poetry editor of the Bellevue Literary Review and the founder of Tiferet, a journal that seeks to “promote tolerance through literature and art.” What motivated you to embark on the editing work, and how has it interacted with your writing?

DBS: I was very fortunate to meet Ronna Wineberg years ago at Bread Loaf Writers Conference. We shared our writings with each other, and when Ronna was brought on as fiction editor of Bellevue Literary Review, she kindly asked if I would like to join as a co-founding poetry editor, along with Roxanna Font. I so enjoyed working with Danielle Ofri and all the wonderful BLR staff for several years. At some point I got the crazy idea that since BLR focused on literature and the body, I wanted to create a new magazine that focused on literature and spirituality. I naively forgot I would be doing so without NYU’s staffing and financial resources! Publishing Tiferet has been a long-term labor of love for me. Its effect on my writing is both good and bad. The bad is that it takes a lot of hours to run a magazine and learn how to manage a staff. The good is that I have loved meeting other writers who contribute to or work for my magazine. And of course, reading others’ work always helps you pay more attention to your own.

ES: As I was reading The Silver Baron’s Wife, I kept admiring its structural unity. You take Baby Doe (Lizzie) from girlhood to her death, at age 81. Certainly there are gaps in her experience that aren’t narrated at all, but the novel doesn’t feel incomplete, and it successfully incorporates letters and Baby Doe’s strange records of her dreams. Did you struggle at all with the structure, or was it evident to you from the start?

DBS: Thank you for saying this. When I thought about writing my first novel about Baby Doe Tabor, I thought naively that it would be easy because there were so many fascinating events in her life. I spent a great deal of time on research but finally realized that eighty-one years of life events and piles of research do not a novel make. I had to create a narrative arc, and yes, I had to pick and choose which stories to tell. I also changed the structure several times.

ES: Did you know from the start that you were going to incorporate Baby Doe’s writings into the novel?

DBS: Yes, the dreams fascinated me from the beginning. They were so rich in detail. Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams in 1889 when Lizzie was forty-five years old and Horace died. Though Europeans were interested in psychoanalysis in the beginning of the twentieth century, I don’t think many people in America were       writing down their dreams! I personally kept dream journals for several decades. The fact that Lizzie paid such attention to her interior life as it revealed itself through her dreams is amazing for her era. 

ES: I was also quite interested in the fact that you take a character and life colored by enormous tragedy, yet the reader doesn’t feel that the story is simply tragic; there’s a great deal of victory, and even transcendence in the novel. Was that conscious? 

DBS: Yes. There certainly was a great deal of tragedy in Lizzie’s life. A huge number of losses of loved ones. All of us go through loss in our life, and one of the things that compelled me about Lizzie’s story was imagining how she used her spiritual faith to cope with those losses. And yes, I wanted those last paragraphs of the book to imply the possibility of transcendence.

ES: What about the research for the novel? How long did it take, and what kinds of research did you do?

DBS: I went to Denver and Leadville several times. I was always drawn, almost magically, to the Matchless Mine. On one early trip to Denver I photocopied scores of her dreams and took them home and transcribed Lizzie’s rather messy handwriting. Once again, I ended up using only a fraction of those dreams in the novel. I looked at newspapers of the era, read earlier books that had been written about the Tabors, and saw the American opera The Ballad of Baby Doe. I started the research long before the Internet, so I have boxes of background material. Then of course the Internet provided even more material.

ES: Your novel gives us a young woman who marries outside her Catholic faith, who journeys to another state, away from her family, who violates convention and takes great physical risks to go to work in the silver mines, who divorces her husband (and doesn’t go home to her family), who marries for a second time in violation of social mores. Her choices demonstrate great “risk-tolerance” and independence. Do you see her as a feminist, or an eccentric? Or both?

DBS: I definitely see her as a feminist. She bucked social expectations every step of the way. But I don’t think I would characterize her as eccentric in her younger years. When people see photos of this strange-looking older woman who lived alone at the Matchless Mine, or when people back then saw her walking through town in Leadville, she’s fifty-plus. My sense is that her loneliness and grief after Horace’s death and her daughters’ disappearance from her life led her to the increased devotion to her faith in Jesus and to her so-called madness. Some theologians have said she may have been an American female mystic. It’s a wonderful possibility to consider. Others think she may have suffered madness from lead poisoning.

ES: In a lot of ways Baby Doe’s life, which was truly a “riches to rags” story, illustrates a clash between materialism and spirituality. She was a spiritual seeker—even a “mystic,” as you say.

DBS: She was raised as a Catholic by Irish immigrant parents. Somewhat against their wishes, she married a Protestant. Even worse, she divorced him and was thus excommunicated from the Catholic Church. I believe she had to make her own spiritual journey as she went through her life. Her dreams and other writings certainly indicate that she prayed frequently, and she noted visitations of Jesus on the wall calendar in her cabin at the Matchless Mine. In reading her dreams, you have a sense that she firmly believed in the appearances of Jesus or Mary or Saint Rita, a newly canonized saint of mourning women.

ES: What is your current book project?

DBS: I am finishing a collection of stories based on lithographs by the Midwestern artist Thomas Hart Benton. My parents gave me a lithograph they had purchased when we lived in Kansas City many years ago. It hangs in my office. One day I looked at it and started writing a story based on what I saw. That ended up being published in Virginia Quarterly Review. There are eight stories now; all but the last have been published in literary journals. I am looking for a publisher for the collection. I also know that the lithographs can be reprinted, with permission, so I think that will add to the value of the published book. I’ve given a few workshops on ekphrastic fiction—turning images into tales. It’s a topic that interests me because it’s been a lot of fun writing these stories based on works of visual art.

ES: Do you have any reflections on the path that led you to become a later-life novelist–would you change anything, if you could?

DBS: The main thing I would do is give my younger self an infusion of confidence. Self-doubt kept me from devoting myself wholeheartedly to my fiction for a long time. I dabbled in writing. And I chose other activities to occupy my time: working as a freelance copywriter for many years, being a Mom, following my former husband for his work. The writing, which had been my real love since childhood, always took last place. I wish I hadn’t let that happen. Still, I know that age does bring at least a modicum of wisdom, and pretty much everything I write includes my life experiences and the thoughts/realizations I’ve had from them. And it’s possibly a better gift to share my crone-age wisdom now than my twenty-something musings! One thing I’ve learned is that unhappiness stems in large part from wishing things were other than they are. So for me, I am very grateful I can focus on my writing now and look forward to, with good fortune and good health, a couple more decades of doing so.

Bloom Post End

Evelyn Somers is associate editor of the Missouri Review.  Her writing has appeared in Southwest Review, Florida Review, Shenandoah, Georgia Review, Crazyhorse, Copper Nickel, Bloom, and the Millions, among others. As a freelancer she’s edited prizewinners in multiple genres. She lives in a dilapidated 19th-century mansion and recently completed a second novel.  Her current book in progress is a collection of linked stories about music and two rival female ghosts.

Homepage image via Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame

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