Photos by LG Patterson
What do the University of Missouri’s president and a fiction novel about the California gold rush have in common? A writer named Gordy Sauer.
As Mun Choi’s speech writer and an about-to-be-published author, Sauer believes fiction and speech writing have a lot of parallels. “Speech writing is for someone, so you have to understand their persona and write the way that they would speak. And that’s exactly what you do in a novel — try to encapsulate the character’s voice.”
But Sauer was actually writing fiction long before his speech writing career. After earning his master of fine arts, he decided to take his interest in the mid-19th century and the Wild West and try his hand at a novel. “I have always had this enamored perception of the West because I grew up in Texas and read a lot of tall tales as a kid,” he says. The idea of the Gold Rush came to him as a turning point in American history. “That moment of mass expansion westward, which triggered more displacement of native communities and a reshaping of the U.S. as a country, was founded on the intense idea of manifest destiny. Which by itself is a violent, greed-based idea that felt very pertinent in 2013.
“There’s this idea that some of the best books can capture the time in which they are written and also be a little bit prescient. For me, it was about writing a historical novel that spoke to a contemporary moment. I don’t feel like I missed that moment.”
To Sauer, the theme of his debut novel Child in the Valley resonates with aspects our country is dealing with today, including race, social justice, gender, identity and sexuality. Its main character, a physician named Joshua, is going west on a greed-filled mission. “We’ve always been reckoning with these things, but right now we are at an existential moment in how we identify ourselves as Americans and how we identify our country as America.”
“It’s no coincidence,” he continues, “That the ideology of the frontier is ‘take what I want.’ We saw that in the mid-19th century and talk about it in past tense, but that mentality continues to happen in so many ways now.”
Joshua, who we can’t really call the protagonist, degrades as his story unfolds. “I wanted to write a character who readers struggled to identify with,” Sauer says. “I wanted someone who we are sympathetic to in the beginning, but because of actions he takes you struggle with feeling sympathetic later on.” In fiction, Joshua is considered an anti-hero.
“That is the human challenge,” Sauer says. “Most people aren’t fundamentally evil or bad, but the things that they do can be. The question we ask ourselves is: Do their actions negate the good?
“For Joshua, he’s someone who has struggled a lot because he’s orphaned and he’s gay in a moment when there’s intense prejudice. All of these societal functions are working against him, and we’re all sympathetic toward him, but the choices he makes to get out of his plight are ones that put him down a path that is morally suspect. Even though you’re sympathetic because certain things are out of his control, he’s culpable for his own moral degradation.”
Writing Child in the Valley took an immense amount of research in geology, medicine and botany. Sauer and his wife actually drove along the trail that Joshua would have taken from Independence, Missouri to California. They made the scenic drive on their way out west for a wedding in 2017. “It helped me understand how the landscape moved, being mindful of the fact that land changes a lot in 200 years,” he says. While trying to grasp the trail Joshua would have taken, Sauer hand-drew that California trail. “I needed to get a sense of the mountains, woodland, water sources and alkaline deposits,” he says.
He also camped in California and took gold panning lessons from park rangers. “I wondered, what does it take to pan for gold?” he says. And because Joshua is a doctor, Sauer studied what medicine and treatments would have looked like in 1849, though his family’s background in medicine helped immensely.
Gordy Sauer’s debut novel, Child in the Valley, will be available at Skylark Bookshop starting Aug. 24. Preorder is available now from Hub City Press and Amazon. Sauer is the executive communication specialist and senior writer for the president of the University of Missouri and director of the Quarry Heights Writers’ Workshop in Columbia, Missouri.