Alexandra Fuller

Alexandra Fuller

Bio

Alexandra Fuller was born in England in 1969 and in 1972 she moved with her family to a farm in Rhodesia. After that country’s civil war in 1981, the Fullers moved first to Malawi, then to Zambia. Fuller received a B.A. from Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada. She is the author of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, a national bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book of 2002, and a finalist for the Guardian First Book Award, and Scribbling the Cat, winner of the 2005 Ulysses Award for Art of Reportage. Fuller lives in Wyoming with her husband and children.

Alexandra Fuller

Alexandra Fuller

Books

Q&A

Who is Colton H. Bryant and what drew you to his story?

I had been researching the oil fields in Sublette County, Wyoming for a couple of years before I came across Colton. I was researching for a magazine article which eventually appeared in February, 2007. That whole time, I saved clippings from the paper—anything to do with the energy boom—and in February 2006, the article about Colton’s accident on the oil rig and his obituary were in the paper. I clipped them out and had them next to my computer for over a year. In early 2007, I saw a piece in The High Country News about the deaths on the rigs. The reporter had interviewed Bill and Kaylee Bryant (Colton’s parents) and there was this haunting photo of them in the article that I just couldn’t get out of my head. There were also internet links to the accident reports. When I pulled up the accident reports I was struck by the blatant negligence on the part of the oil companies and by the fact that they had been fined so little for causing Colton’s death.

So I phoned Bill and Kaylee and started the research that would become this book. From what Colton told his family and his wife Melissa, he always knew he was going to die young and I think this gave him a sense of purpose and perspective. He lived with such an inspiring, reckless heart, with such a talent for love and goodness. And there was also this spiritual component to Colton that I started to understand when Jake (Colton’s best friend) showed me photos of the rainbow on the mesa above where Colton died (the rainbow had appeared the morning after Colton’s death).

I also understood, fairly early on, that Colton’s death wasn’t just the fault of a greedy, sloppy drilling company but the fault of all of us who consume energy faster than anyone can drill for it. We don’t honor enough the men and women who are the engines of our lives—the teachers and nurses and yes, the roughnecks and cowboys. Colton was every bit as iconic as an old Western figure. Cowboys have been dying off since they were invented and, at heart, every cowboy story is about the death if not of themselves, of their way of life. Colton is a new kind of cowboy—neither the old hard-bitten kind, nor the new shiny-boot variety—but he stood for something brief and great and he had been such a gift to those who had been close to him. I wanted to bring him to the world as a reminder of what simple goodness looks like.

How did meeting Colton’s family make you realize you had to write this book?

By the time I went down to Evanston to speak to Bill and Kaylee, it was clear to me that there was something very wrong with the way Wyoming was handling this energy boom. At that time, I knew I wanted to do more than a magazine article about the boom and I had thought of writing a conventional book along the lines of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I wanted to show how the lives of ordinary Wyomingites—cowboys, roughnecks, mountain men, contractors, teachers, social workers—had been affected by the boom and I had imagined that Colton might slip into the slot of roughneck (a chapter or two, I thought). But then Kaylee and Bill started to tell me about Colton, how he had been born going seventy miles an hour in a 1976 Ford Thunderbird, how he had been in a rush ever since, and all the time we talked there was a template of Colton’s gravestone propped up on their kitchen table that read, “Mind Over Matter” (Colton’s motto) and his dates, so close together. And then there were all the Colton stories—he lived such a story-worthy life. I think fairly soon after that, I realized that I wanted to write about Colton and no one else. I wanted the book to come out exactly the way the family and Jake told me about Colton, from their lips to my page, like we were all sitting around a campfire reminiscing about the boy and his life.

My youngest baby was a little over a year old at the time that I was doing these interviews and I know that as much as I was inspired by Colton, I was also inspired by Bill and Kaylee’s love for Colton and the vividness with which they could remember every stage of his life. I was struck by the fact that, no mater how old a child is when he or she dies, the parents have not only lost the physical person but also a whole world of possibilities and hope. They have also lost the person attached to the baby they gave birth to, the toddler they taught to walk, the boy they taught to ride and hunt and fish. In some tiny way, I knew I wanted to write a record of Colton for his parents as well as for his children.

You chose not to tell the story of Colton’s birth until the next-to-last chapter of the book. What prompted this departure from your generally chronological approach to your narrative?

Chronologically it might have made sense to put Colton’s birth first—and in several early drafts, I tried that—but emotionally, it didn’t feel right to me. I hoped that by putting Colton’s birth at the end—that magical moment when he came racing into the world with his parents watching—the reader would have become attached enough to Bill and Kaylee to connect to that moment when every parent meets their child for the first time and attached enough to Colton that they would have understood that this is the only way Colton could have been born. There was an awful, tragic symmetry to his life—as Kaylee once said to me when I was interviewing her for this book, “He came into this world in a hurry and he left in a hurry.” I wanted the reader to leave the book with an image of the new, innocent Colton coming into the world, all in a hurry to get ‘er done and then read, in the author’s note, how carelessly his short life was wasted.

I also, perversely, wanted to change the course of Colton’s life. I wanted to leave the readers with a sense of Colton’s possibilities. What if the world he had been born into was as forgiving and loving as he was? What if his aptitude for romance and big-heartedness had met a world that embraced a boy like Colton H. Bryant? What would Colton have become if he had been allowed to live—would he have become a version of his decent, hard-working father? Or would he have surpassed Bill’s talent for goodness? What is indisputable is that Colton was taken too early and I wanted the ending of my book to be something other than his death.

You titled your book The Legend of Colton H. Bryant. What led you to characterize the life of Colton H. Bryant as a “legend?”

After I came up with the title, I phoned Jake to ask what he thought of it. Jake was quiet for a moment and then he said in that lovely Rocky Mountain drawl of his, “It makes me kinda warm and fuzzy all over.” And we agreed that Colton was a legend in the way that only Wyoming can make them. He was the kind of boy that made people want to tell stories around the camp-fire, “Remember the time Colton stopped the train….” “Remember the time Colton lost Cocoa….” He was also a man of legendary forgiveness and love. Those are not simple or easy qualities to embody in the oil and gas world of Wyoming. There was something unique and slightly old-fashioned about the way Colton was raised to respect women, take care of his family, never curse unless you absolutely have to. It’s hard not be smitten by those kinds of old world manners.

There are few people whose lives have passed through England, Rhodesia, Malawi, Zambia, and Nova Scotia on their way to Wyoming. How has thisunique personal odyssey shaped you as a writer? &/