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‘Gilded Mountain’ weaves local mining history into a coming-of-age tale

Kate Manning by Beowulf Sheehan
Beowulf Sheehan
Courtesy Photo
Kate Manning is the author of "Gilded Mountain," a new coming-of-age adventure set in a mining town in the mountains of Colorado. The author will be in the Roaring Fork Valley on Dec. 3 and 4 for book signings and author talks.

Author Kate Manning wasn’t planning on writing a new book about life in a Colorado mining town when she started researching her family’s history.

All she had was a photograph from a 1915 convention in the town of Marble that might have pictured her great-grandfather.

But once she started digging, she found material rich enough for fiction.

Her latest novel, “Gilded Mountain,” is a coming-of-age story of adventure, romance and labor rights in a town that isn’t so different from Marble.

Kaya Williams spoke with Manning on the phone yesterday before the author makes a couple of book tour stops in Aspen and Redstone this weekend.

Aspen Public Radio spoke with Manning on the phone yesterday before the author makes a couple of book tour stops in Aspen and Redstone this weekend.

Manning will sign books on Saturday at the Redstone Holiday Market and speak at Crystal Dreams in Redstone that afternoon at 4:30 p.m. She’ll also be speaking and signing books at Explore Booksellers in Aspen on Sunday at 4:30 p.m.

Kaya Williams: I've noticed a lot of parallels in “Gilded Mountain.” We have this imagined “Diamond River Valley” and these towns called “Moonstone” and “Ruby” that make me think a lot of the Crystal River Valley and the towns of Marble and Redstone. But there are also references to these very real places like Glenwood Springs and Mount Sopris. Why distinguish some places as fictional and others as real, rather than using only real places, or only imagined ones?

Kate Manning:  Maybe some of it was just accidental, I might have left some landmarks, for example, like Mount Sopris, because I wanted to mark the story as distinctly set in Colorado.

But had I called the settings Marble or Redstone, for example, then I really would have felt obligated to make everything factual as a historian would. And by changing the names and putting people in places as I imagined them, it gave me much more freedom.

Williams: What did the research process look like to really flesh out this novel?

Manning: Well, I didn't set out to really write a novel, I just wanted to find out more about this family history.

But as I delved into Colorado labor history, and small mining camps, and particularly the stories coming out of Marble and Redstone sometime before my relatives’ time in 1907, 1908, I just began trying to imagine what it was like. The fortitude of the workers and their families and how they persisted and thrived, even thrived in these conditions. Sub zero temperatures and earning subsistence wages. There were many, many immigrants.

It really sparked my imagination. So I read lots of books and did lots of sleuthing around. Pictures really helped me fuel the writing, helped me describe what I imagined life must be like, must have been like.

Williams: Did anything surprise you, or did you find anything unexpected, as you were looking into this reading and looking at these photos?

Manning: Well, I did find out along the way that my ancestor had been a strike-breaker. Union busting and tactics to break up labor unions and to pay workers as little as possible were fairly standard management practices in those days. He certainly wasn't the only one. And strike-breaking remains a management practice, if you can call it that.

But in those days, there really weren't protections for workers and they really had to fight for every advance whether it was overtime pay or reasonable hours or regular wages. I've been in a union and I really wanted to grapple with that, so the novel concerns itself with some of the figures from history like Mother Jones and other labor leaders from the time period.

I hope the book wears the research lightly, and that this story propels and doesn't feel like some kind of history lesson because that's not what fiction is good at.

Williams: I'm curious about this background you have in nonfiction. You've done some journalism and some documentary television producing, and a lot of writing just about history. And there is so much history in Gilded Mountain.

You also wrote “My Notorious Life” in 2013, which also looks very far into the past but tells a novelistic story. Why choose to tell these stories through fiction instead of a history book?

Manning: History books really leave out a lot, and I thought a lot about a quote from E. L. Doctorow, where he talks about how a historian will tell you what happened, but a novelist will tell you how it felt.

And a novelist is allowed to add very textured details and emotion and develop character in a way that works as a plot. And historians can do that to some degree, but textbook history seems to be about battles and wars and kings and presidents and it's hard to find a woman's story in it. Lots of people — African Americans, Indigenous people — those stories are left out.

Williams: Do you find that there are some truths that you can communicate through fiction that you might not be able to tell as well, strictly through fact?

Manning: I think that truth comes from the detail and also I think that as the character Sylvie learns because she's apprenticed to a newspaper and begins to see the town's newspaper war, she begins to see that the way you understand the world depends on who's telling you the story.

I think that old piece of advice to novelists, that you show and don't tell, might be the way novelists get at the truth.

Williams: Did writing this book change your relationship to your own family's history, or what you thought you knew about your great grandfather's past?

Manning: Sure. I think that so many of us don't know much within one or two generations. So I was very curious to know, I didn't know much about my dad's family. It's just interesting to know and to ponder what elements of your ancestral past have helped to form you, or what elements of their past led us to where we are now, as a country.

Williams: Do you see parallels between the stories set in the early 1900s and the events that are happening in the 2020s?

Manning: Sure, I think there's a lot of similarities. There's an enormous wealth gap, where you have a small percentage of people earning huge amounts of money and the rest of the people trying to share a small piece of the pie.

You have labor battles, you have news wars, in which there are different versions of what's going on, you have immigrant struggles, and certainly battles over monuments, who we honor and who we believe is important to hold up as an example of morality and honorable history. I think that all of those elements were happening in the 1910s. And some places you can say, well, certainly, we've come a long way from those times, but other times you think, everything old is new again.

But it's helpful, I think, to have a long term perspective and not just think, ‘Oh, well, this is the first time we've had this kind of conflict or strife or division.’ It's not and we've gotten over it. So let's hope we do it again.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.