The Storyteller

Jane Eppinga tells tales about everything from an Aztec princess to Arizona's museums

Storytelling is Jane Eppinga's bailiwick.

Her numerous books and articles, many on topics of Western history, attest to the storytelling success she's had over the years.

Eppinga's own story is similar to the stories of many Tucsonans. Her family moved here in 1949 because of her father's poor health. After he passed away, her mother thought about taking the family back to Iowa, but didn't.

"I wrote and sold a fiction story in the 1970s," Eppinga recalls of her introduction to professional writing, "but found out nonfiction was easier to sell."

She proceeded to write numerous articles for a wide variety of publications, including Arizona Highways, Biology Digest and Good Housekeeping.

Eventually, her article writing led Eppinga to the longer format of books. Her first, published in 1996, was on Henry Flipper, the first African American to graduate from West Point; he later went on to play a role in Southern Arizona history.

"The more I saw of his life," Eppinga remarks of Flipper, "the more interested I became." Her well-researched book on Flipper made Eppinga a finalist for a Spur Award from the Western Writers of America.

In addition to extensive research, a diversity of subjects is a characteristic of Eppinga's writing. Her work has ranged from Around Tombstone: Ghost Towns and Gunfights all the way to a chapter in Arizona Goes to War. Eppinga says that wanting to learn more about a particular subject is what attracts her to write about it.

Diverting from her nonfiction tradition, Eppinga's latest book is a novel. La Malinche is a fictionalized account of the Aztec princess who became a mistress of Spanish conqueror Cortés.

Even though Eppinga has authored more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles, writing wasn't her sole occupation until recently. After receiving two degrees from the UA, she worked for an engineering company, but she points out, "I always kept the writing thing going."

Eppinga says that she hopes her writing style is "friendly and tells a story without being pedantic. It's more like a conversation with the reader."

As an example, in her 2006 book Arizona Sheriffs: Badges and Bad Men, she writes of Ed Echols, who was elected Pima County's chief lawman in 1936: "During his first term, Echols also had to capture a lion that had escaped from a small menagerie owned by the University of Arizona. Echols and his deputies put their cowboy skills to the test and lassoed the animal."

Interesting historical tidbits like that are laced throughout Eppinga's work. As she says: "All research is fun, because you're discovering something new."

In passing, she mentions a bit of history she learned in Bisbee. A commercial structure that is now a chic shop still has a horse elevator in it. In days gone by, a smiling Eppinga points out, it would be hard to steal a horse if it was on the second floor of a building.

The knowledge gained from her research and travel has led Eppinga to a few conclusions about the popular view of the history of the American West. First, she says, there was a great diversity of people who inhabited the region. Second, there is a huge difference between the public's image of the Wild West and the reality of it.

Gathering information will certainly play an important role in Eppinga's next book. She has submitted a lengthy manuscript to the University of Arizona Press on the state's museums.

"There are a total of 223 of them," she exclaims, "and I've visited 90 percent of them over the years."

The quirkiest museum is in Superior, she reports; it is one of the world's smallest. "It's only 137 square feet," Eppinga explains of its size, "but contains the world's largest fake Zippo lighter." Eppinga hopes the book will be available to commemorate Arizona's statehood centennial next February.

After that, she is considering two projects. The first is a sequel to La Malinche that would follow the life of the title character's son. The other book Eppinga is pondering would document some of the women aboard the Titanic; 1912 is also the centennial of its sinking. This effort would, in some respects, follow up on her 2009 work They Made Their Mark: An Illustrated History of the Society of Woman Geographers.

Two of the notable Titanic survivors Eppinga says she would include are Helen Candee and Charlotte Cardeza. Candee was an explorer of the ruins of Angkor Wat in what is now Cambodia. She was also an author who was honored for her book Angkor the Magnificent. On the other hand, Cardeza was an extremely wealthy big-game hunter and yachtswoman who, according to Eppinga, took an amazing 32 trunks of clothes with her aboard the Titanic.

At the Tucson Festival of Books, Eppinga will be part of a panel discussion at 11:30 a.m., Saturday, March 12, at the UA Bookstore. It will focus on working with publishers such as Arcadia, for whom Eppinga has done several books.

"They are very much image-driven," she says of Arcadia, "so it's important to get good pictures as cheaply as possible."

Eppinga lists self-editing as her biggest hurdle as an author. While she says she likes the physical act of writing, she admits: "I need to look at what I'm putting down on paper more carefully."

Eppinga's advice to budding authors is simple and straightforward. For one thing, she believes writers need to be adaptable. "If an editor asks for something," she says, "sure, I'll do it.

"If you really enjoy writing," she also suggests, "do it, and don't give up. Do some study, and find out where the market is to sell (what you write)."

Conversely, Eppinga says to those who are thinking of becoming authors: "If you don't enjoy writing, for God's sake, do something else."