How a Biography Became a Novel by Carolyn Niethammer
Every author knows the thrill of ripping open a box that holds copies of your new book. Holding your first book is akin to experiencing your first kiss. Recently the mail carrier brought such a box to me – it was my tenth book, but The Piano Player was my first novel. It was also the first of my books in which I had a major say on the cover.
This book did not start out as a novel. Thirty years ago, my husband was a young journalism professor at the University of Arizona and one of his classes was The Tombstone Epitaph. The owner of that venerable paper, founded in 1880, had given it to the journalism department to use as a lab paper. The students would drive down from Tucson and do some reporting, then put it together back on campus. The professor not only guided them, he was also the paperboy. So every other week I’d go with my husband to Tombstone to deliver the paper, and I would wander around while he tended to business. During those wandering afternoons, I ran across the historic character, Nellie Cashman and was intrigued. I found a short article about Nellie in an historical journal and I followed up on that. Soon I was hooked.
Nellie was an Irish immigrant who had bounced around several mining areas, including those in Canada, before she ended up running restaurants and boarding houses first in Tucson, then Tombstone. Nellie was very active in the new mining camp, helping to raise money for the Catholic Church and the miners’ league. Articles appeared about her in both the Epitaph and the Tombstone Nugget.
Nellie left Tombstone when it ground to a halt when the mines filled with water in 1886. She wandered around the West, starting and closing businesses, until she joined the gold rush to the Klondike in Alaska in 1898. Her journey and her businesses in Dawson City are well documented. After a few years, Dawson became too citified for her and she moved even further north to the Brooks Range. I took a trip to Alaska and Yukon Territory to follow up on research.
But I could not account for the twelve years between when she left Tombstone and started into the Klondike. The Sisters of St. Ann, with whom she had been close and who nursed her at the end, had materials in their library, but they would not allow me access.
At that point, I decided to novelize my story. Since Nellie was a bit of a goodie-goodie, I added a character totally different. Well-born Mary Rose faces family reverses and goes to Tombstone to be an actress. She ends up playing the piano at the Bird Cage Theatre and must learn a completely new lifestyle as Frisco Rosie. She boards at Nellie Cashman’s Russ House, and although the two women are very different, they are both living outside the norms for women of the day and end up becoming unlikely friends. Over many rewrites, the story became Rosie’s tale, although Nellie was usually close by. Together they deal with a lover who turns out to be a murderer, imprisonment in a Mexican jail, near death falling into the icy Yukon River, and disappointment when their quest for gold is dashed.
The book was sold in 1983, but while I was doing the suggested tightening, the acquiring editor was fired, everybody remaining at the publishing company hated the book and they declined to publish it. Every few years I would haul out the manuscript, tinker, update it to a new computer system, then go write another of my nonfiction books. By the new millennium, the book was much better, publishing was changing, and small independent publishers were filling niches abandoned by the New York houses. Through colleagues in Women Writing the West, I learned about Oak Tree Press. It seemed to be perfect for The Piano Player. It was, and a year later, in late June that box of books finally arrived with the postman.
(Subsequently the librarian hoarding the materials at the Sisters of St. Ann died, and Don Chaput, an academic historian, got access to the information and published an excellent biography of Nellie.)
Bio: Carolyn Niethammer grew up in the historic town of Prescott, Arizona, and now lives in Tucson. She is the author of nine nonfiction books on southwest subjects – popular ethnobotanies of western plants, biographies, a book on Native American women and a travel book on southeastern Arizona. Find her work at www.cniethammer.com. The Piano Player is available at https://tinyurl.com/madl42a/
See other award-winning works at www.cniethammer.com