An interview with award winning author of Bone Horses and Canyon of Remembering, Lesley Poling-Kempes

Several months ago I read two fabulous books, Canyon of Remembering and Bone Horses written by award winning author and long time New Mexico resident Lesley Poling-Kempes. Both were stunningly well done and deeply enchanting stories and one of those books, Bone Horses has won several awards which include the 2014 WILLA Award winner for Contemporary Fiction, the Tony Hillerman Award for Best Fiction by the New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards, the Silver Medal 2014 IPPY Book Awards and the Southwest Books of the Year "Good Read." 

I recently caught up with Lesley and asked if she would be interested in an interview. Much to my delight she agreed …
Was being an author always your goal?
When I was a young girl I made up stories, wrote them down, and made drawings to go with them. But I didn’t consider being a writer until college. I studied journalism at the University of New Mexico when Tony Hillerman was chairman of the department. Tony was my teacher and mentor, and he encouraged me to write both fiction and nonfiction.
Although you’ve been writing for awhile, there was obviously a time when you were just starting out. When did you openly call yourself a writer and feel comfortable doing so?
I called myself a writer right out of college. I worked at New Mexico Magazine for 6 months, and then quit so that I could ‘just write’ and find out who I was as a writer. With my husband, I lived in a very old adobe house in rural northern New Mexico. I wrote short stories and freelanced articles. While working on a documentary (I did post grad work in filmmaking) I stumbled into the story of the Harvey Girls and began working on a book that became The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West, published in 1989.
You write with a wonderful sense of place and you capture the culture and traditions of northern New Mexico so well. What is most intriguing to you about the Indio-Hispanic culture?
I have always been aware of the influence of places in my life and how a landscape affects the people and cultures that are connected to that landscape. I was smitten by northern New Mexico as a child (I was raised in New York, but had family in the Southwest) and wanted to live here after college so that I could be immersed in the place. It was natural to write stories about my adopted home of Abiquiu and the cultures native to this place, but I did not take on the history of Abiquiu until I had lived here almost twenty years. My book Valley of Shining Stone: The Story of Abiquiu was an enormous undertaking as a writer and a researcher, and I depended on the input and stories of my neighbors to bring that book to life. My book about Ghost Ranch (Ghost Ranch) also depended as much on oral histories as on archival research.
You mention you were raised in New York, why did you choose New Mexico as your home?
My dad was raised in El Paso and went east for college and grad school. I lived most of my childhood in New York. I came with my family to Ghost Ranch in the early 1960s and was smitten by northern New Mexico. I knew I was home here, and I returned to stay in my college years. I’ve lived near Abiquiu for more than three decades.
Lesley Poling-Kempes
You recently won several awards for your book Bone Horses. Did you expect such accolades? Can you tell us how that has changed things for you?
Having Bone Horses win these awards has given me wonderful affirmation as a writer. I become very disconnected from the outer world when I’m working and the publication of a book can be both exhilarating and nerve-wracking. I felt that Bone Horses was a good novel but until it began to get read and reviewed, I had many moments of doubt. I’m working on a new novel right now, and the process is difficult, as always. But the success of Bone Horses, a novel that took me years to sort out and write and rewrite, does help me through those days (and there are many of them!) when going is tough and slow. Have the awards changed things for me? Yes and no. People take my work more seriously now, and perhaps give Bone Horses a read because of the awards it has won. But ultimately, the success of a book comes down to how much readers love it and pass it along. That remains the same.

How would you categorize your writing style? Do you think your writing has changed over time?
I love magical realism and the blurring of what is considered ‘real’ and what is considered fantastical. I love for a place to be a character in my stories. My stories are always woven into a place, and the place is woven into the characters. My writing style has changed very little, except that I have become (I hope!) a better editor of my own prose. My first published short stories (in the literary reviews Puerto del Sol and Writer’s Forum, and in Best of the West and several other anthologies) were about people and place, and when I reread them, I recognize the emergence of the themes and style I still favor today, more than 30 years later.
Do you have any unique methods to inspire yourself to write?
I keep a notebook for every project I am working on, or hope to work on. In this way I can engage in and connect with a novel or book of nonfiction even before I begin to work on it. I am very disciplined when I’m working on a book and keep to a daily routine. I begin work early in the morning and often write until mid-afternoon.
Do you hand write your manuscripts or do you use any specific technology application to write?
I keep a journal that is handwritten – I love good paper and pens. But when I’m drafting a book I need to write quickly and so use a computer. I write a fairly messy first draft and do heavy editing. The computer makes this job bearable (I wrote my first book, The Harvey Girls, on a typewriter and literally cut and pasted text into place). I do print out drafts and do first edits and comments with a pen. I need to see the way a narrative is unfolding on the page. Then I return to the computer.
Do you have any current projects in the works?
I worked the last 2 years on a nonfiction book called LADIES OF THE CANYONS: A League of Extraordinary Women and their Adventures in the American Southwest, a project that was under contract with the University of Arizona Press. I handed the final manuscript in just a month ago. It is the most ambitious book I’ve undertaken, and the most satisfying. The book chronicles the lives of women who came into the Southwest before World War One. I did research in Boston and the East Coast, in San Diego and Los Angeles, and in archives in the Southwest. There are more than 50 historic photographs in the text. LADIES OF THE CANYONS will be released in September of 2015. I have also recently completed an historical novel, Gallup, with Robert N. Singer. This novel is based on a screenplay of the same name, and is represented by my literary agent and currently seeking a publisher.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Write write write. Write when you are inspired and write when you are not inspired. Believe that what you have to say is important and trust in your process. Read authors whose words and images and stories move you, change you. Honor your voice. Be kind to yourself and most of all, be patient and love the creative journey.
Thank you Lesley for your time, I'm looking forward to reading more of your work.

Canyon of Remembering and Bone Horses are hauntingly memorable, with carefully crafted characters and a magnificent sense of place, both geographical and sociological.  I plan to add Valley of Shining Stone: The Story of Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch to my ever growing list of books to be read.

You can learn more about Lesley and her work by visiting her website and Facebook page. Her books can be purchased at all the usual places including B&N and Amazon but if you are so inclined I would suggest you support a local independent bookstore such as Bookwork’s in Albuquerque, The Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe or one in your neighborhood.
"WWA Spur Award finalist "Canyon of Remembering" is now available as an eBook and is free to borrow for Kindle Prime users" ~ from the authors website
Lesley's publications include:


Ladies of the Canyons, University of Arizona Press, 2015

Bone Horses, La Alameda Press, June 2013; 2014 WILLA Award for Contemporary Fiction; Tony Hillerman Award for Best Fiction, New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards; Silver Medal, IPPY Awards, Best Fiction/Mountain West; Southwest Books of the Year “Readers’ Choice” Award.

The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West, Paragon House, New York, 1989; Da Capo/Perseus, Cambridge, 2007; Zia Award for Excellence, New Mexico Press Women

Ghost Ranch, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 2005; IPPY Awards, runner up, Best Western nonfiction; Southwest Books of the Year “Top Choice” Award

Georgia O’Keeffe and New Mexico: A Sense of Place, (Barbara Buhler Lynes, Lesley Poling-Kempes, Frederick Turner), Princeton University Press, 2004 Winner, IPPY Award, Best Fine Art Book

Canyon of Remembering, Texas Tech University Press, Lubbock, 1996; paperback 2000 Western Writers of America Spur Award, finalist - Best First Novel

Valley of Shining Stone: The Story of Abiquiu, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1997

Children’s Literature:

The Golden Era: West by Rail with the Harvey Girls (Vol. 2), Texas Tech University Press, Lubbock, 1997

Far From Home: West by Rail with the Harvey Girls (Vol. 1), Texas Tech University Press, Lubbock, 1994

Contributing writer:

Voices From a Sacred Place: In Defense of Petroglyph National Monument“Keeping History Underfoot,” Artcraft Printing, Seattle, 1998.

Ghost Ranch: Land of Light: The Photographs of Janet Russek & David Scheinbaum“Piedra Lumbre: A Brief History,” Balcony Press, Los Angeles, 1997.

Short Fiction:

“Edith’s Own,” Higher Elevations: Stories from the West, Swallow Press, Ohio University, Athens, 1993

“My Sister and Her Visit West,” Best of the West 3: New Short Stories from the Wide Side of the Missouri, Peregrine Smith Books, Salt Lake City, 1990

“Edith’s Own,” Writer’s Forum 16, University Press of Colorado, Colorado Springs, 1990

“My Sister and Her Visit West,” Puerto del Sol, New Mexico State University, 1989


  1. I enjoyed reading the interview and look forward to picking up an earlier book. Thanks for bringing a New Mexico author to our attention. Hat

  2. Dear Maria,

    Oh, what a thoroughly enjoyable interview. I've interviewed Lesley twice now ( once for Bone Horses and the second time for Ladies of the Canyons), and I still learned so many new things about her here on your blog.

    I could pick out so many favorite lines in your interview, but my all time favorite from Lesley is this one: "I love magical realism and the blurring of what is considered ‘real’ and what is considered fantastical. I love for a place to be a character in my stories. My stories are always woven into a place, and the place is woven into the characters." She totally applied that to Bone Horses. And I can still visualize and feel the story of Canyon of Remembering. Both so equally good.

    Take care,


    1. Thank you Kathleen,

      I'm so happy you enjoyed the interview with Lesley. Yes, that is truly a fabulous statement and so indicative of her style.

      I am so happy we have connected.



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