Local author Phyllis Barber finds the balance of history and fiction in her new book ‘The Desert Between Us’
Although award-winning author and Park City resident Phyllis Barber has written nine books and dozens of essays and short stories throughout her career, she still enjoys the challenge of intertwining historical fact with fictional characters.
“The hardest thing for me to do was find a balance, and I had to keep reminding myself that I was writing a novel and not a nonfiction treatise,” Barber said about her new book, “The Desert Between Us.” “It’s a tightrope walk.”
“The Desert Between Us,” which is available at Dolly’s Bookstore, King’s English and Amazon, is a love story set in the polygamous Mormon town of St. Thomas, Nevada, between 1867 and 1870.
The story follows the relationship between an angry Mormon husband, Charles Weston Hughes, his third wife Sophia, and a former Civil War soldier and salt purveyor Geoffrey Scott, who is sent to the Southwest with a camel named Adababa to help build what would eventually become the base for Route 66.
“I did a lot of research of the expedition that helped scout the area to see if they could build roads from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Needles, California,” said Barber, who was inducted into the Nevada Writers’ Hall of Fame in 2005.
The idea of camels in the southwest kickstarted Barber’s research that led to writing the book.
After the Civil War, the United States imported 75 camels from the Middle East to help traverse the rugged and unexplored territory, she said.
“I read a little snippet somewhere, and the more I learned about the camels, the more I decided they needed to be part of a novel,” Barber said.
Using the military expedition helped Barber expand the story’s scope from the small town of St. Thomas to the rest of the United States.
“I wanted it to be put in a national context, because there was so much happening at that time,” she said. “Not only was the Mormon church being founded, the Civil War was ending and John Brown was trying to end slavery. Putting in these elements helped me create a larger context for myself and my readers.”
Some of the book’s characters such as Geoffrey Scott, who is always referred to by his full name, are figments of Barber’s imagination.
“He’s based on a conglomerate of people,” she said. “He isn’t Mormon, but he is an abolitionist.”
Charles Hughes, on the other hand, was based on one of Barber’s ancestors.
“It’s interesting how little tendrils that you want to put together form from the research that you do,” she said.
Barber, a recipient of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs prize for creative nonfiction, said writing a purely fictional character like Geoffrey Scott was much easier than writing about the Mormon aspect.
“It’s because I know a lot about the Mormon culture,” she said. “I was raised in the church, and the culture is very deep in me. So, when I was writing the book, I didn’t want to come across as though I was taking sides. I just wanted to write a story.”
In addition to being raised Mormon, Barber’s early childhood was spent in Boulder City, Nevada, which is 50 miles away from St. Thomas.
Throughout her childhood, St. Thomas was covered by Lake Mead after the construction of Hoover Dam, she said.
“St. Thomas always interested me, and I didn’t not know it was a polygamous settlement, even though I had ancestors who lived there,” Barber said. “I just thought it was an interesting community. That’s how I got interested in the whole area.”
“The Desert Between Us” also examines the relationship between Sophia and Hughes’ first wife, Harriett.
“After I found out that I had come from polygamous ancestors, I read a lot about polygamous situations, and I found that some wives got along pretty well, and some didn’t,” she said. “So I thought this would be a good chance to put in one wife who just doesn’t work out, and then add another wife who is very loving and accepting.”
Barber spent nearly eight years researching and writing “The Desert Between Us.”
“It was basically plugging my nose and jumping into the water,” she said with laugh. “I didn’t have a big plan. I just knew the camels and St. Thomas interested me. So it was wonderful to have the book published.”
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