Claudia Cravens is the author of Lucky Red, a Summer/Fall 2023 Indies Introduce selection.
Cravens grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has a BA in Literature from Bard College and lives in New York City.
Rachael Conrad of PRINT: A Bookstore in Portland, Maine, served on the panel that selected Cravens’ debut for Indies Introduce. Of the book, Conrad said, “Set in the heart of the American West, Claudia Cravens’ debut novel, Lucky Red, is best described as True Grit by way of Sarah Waters. It’s a delightfully queer and sexy subversion of the western genre that puts a charismatic and hard-hearted harlot front and center. You’ll feel grit in your teeth and smell gun smoke in the air by the end of this ambitious, action packed novel.”
Here, Cravens and Conrad discuss Lucky Red.
Rachel Conrad: Which westerns (books/movies/tv shows), if any, did you turn to for inspiration while you were working on Lucky Red?
Claudia Cravens: I read and watched a lot of westerns to help me get a feel for the style, the world, and the tropes that I was working with. In particular, I sought out westerns that defied the “lone ranger” stereotype and instead focused on unusual characters and/or relationships. I love repetition, so I tended to read and watch the same things over and over (and over and over) again. The most influential books were Lonesome Dove, True Grit, and The Sisters Brothers. The most influential films & TV were McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Deadwood.
RC: Lucky Red is a vibrant work of historical fiction. What did your research process look like?
CC: I researched from the ground up. What I wanted most of all was for the world of the novel to feel real, so I focused most of my research on day-to-day life. We live our whole lives in the everyday — how our food tastes, the textures of furniture and clothing, lighting, smells — all of this is where life happens, so I wanted to make all of those things as real as possible. I did a lot of visual research by watching westerns and looking at photographs and printed materials (brochures, Sears & Roebuck catalogs, advertisements) from the time. I’d seize on details and then look up more information to see how to bring them to life, searching questions like, “What are the parts of a kerosene lamp?”
My best resource for everything costume-related was my mom. She trained as a costume designer and has an encyclopedic knowledge of historical American clothing, so I consulted her regularly. I’d watch Westerns and send her screenshots with questions like, “What would this shirt feel like?” or, “Where would she have gotten this dress?” The answers always revealed so much about what it was actually like to be a person moving through this time and place.
RC: For the most part the women working at the Buffalo Queen seem to have each others' backs. Why was it important to you to portray these characters and their dynamic in this way?
CC: This dynamic grew out of how I wanted to portray the work that they do. There are two big stereotypes in historical portrayals of sex workers: “fallen angels” and “happy hookers.” But I wanted to show these women as competent professionals, because that’s really what they are! They are people with jobs, they know they have a really good version of their job, and they’re very good at what they do. To me, a clear part of that competence would be a level of mutual respect and care. Even the women who don’t really like each other still help each other out and respect each other’s skills, because they all have a vested interest in keeping the Buffalo Queen safe and profitable. When Bridget’s coworkers and/or bosses are mad at her, it’s almost always because of those stakes rather than anything personal.
RC: Queerness is an important part of Lucky Red. How did the idea of Bridget first come to you? Can you walk us through the decision to make her a queer character in a genre that is so often dominated by cishet male characters?
CC: Bridget’s queerness started with a simple “what if?” question: “What if the mysterious stranger this girl falls in love with is a woman instead of a man?” I was also working backwards from the first character I created, which was Spartan Lee; I kept asking myself, “I have this ultimate badass, now who’s life can she totally mess up?” Bridget herself is based on a very common western trope —the hooker with the heart of gold — of a character who is usually treated as disposable. I wanted to see what would happen if she got to tell her own story, and if that story revolved around queer love and desire.
Although the ways we think and talk about queerness have changed a lot over time, queer people have always existed and always found each other, even when we don’t necessarily stand out from the crowd. Bridget presents as femme throughout the bulk of the novel — it’s just the way things are for women in her world — and she earns a living having sex with men. All of this lets her hide in plain sight, even from herself! When she’s swept up in crushes on other women, trying to surf these huge waves of desire, it becomes a multi-layered journey for her: she discovers what desire feels like, that she feels it for women, and that — as is true for so many small-town queer people even to this day — it is going to lead her into a whole new life that she never expected.
RC: Bridget is an incredibly stubborn character who follows her heart before considering the consequences. Did you ever find yourself frustrated with Bridget's actions while you were creating her?
CC: Of course! She’s a passionate, mouthy sixteen-year-old girl who always follows her heart — any one of those is a recipe for drama, never mind having it all in one person! But I love her, too: she’s doing what she has to do, and she’s making mistakes that she has to make. There are a lot of moments where I’m watching her like, “Oh, sweetie, don’t do that…I mean, I totally get it and would absolutely do the same thing in your shoes…but stop…but also, baby, you gotta.” My hope is that everyone else’s frustration with Bridget is tempered with that same empathy. She’s a girl in love for the first time in her life; of course she forgets that other people even exist, and of course she makes all the wrong choices. What else could she possibly do?
Lucky Red by Claudia Cravens (The Dial Press, 9780593498248, Hardcover Western, $27) On Sale: 6/20/2023.
Find out more about the author on her Twitter, @claudia_cravens.
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