I grew up in the rough-and-tumble silver mining town of Wallace, Idaho. Many visitors have noted the town’s eccentricity, and plenty of locals embrace its checkered past. Heather Branstetter is here today to share details on her nonfiction book Selling Sex in the Silver Valley. So not only am I happy to introduce you to another Idaho author today, I am also excited introduce you to my home town.
Official Bio: Silver Valley native, Heather Branstetter graduated summa cum laude with a BA in English and philosophy from the University of Idaho before completing a PhD in rhetoric, writing, and cultural studies at the University of North Carolina. She taught at the University of Idaho, the University of North Carolina and Wake Forest University and was assistant professor of rhetoric and writing at the Virginia Military Institute. Dr. Branstetter now lives in Wallace, Idaho, where she is executive director of the Historic Wallace Preservation Society. To schedule an event or request more information, you may reach her by sending an email to [email protected]
1. Please provide a brief synopsis of your most-recently released book.
Title: Selling Sex in the Silver Valley: A Business Doing Pleasure
Genre: History, non-fiction, travel, local interest, women’s history, sociology
“About the widest open, most flagrantly and shamelessly wicked city for its size in America…”
—Congregationalist and Christian World, 1908
Once the largest silver producer in the world, Wallace, Idaho became notorious for labor uprisings, hard drinking, gambling, and prostitution. From 1884 until 1991, illegal brothels openly flourished because locals believed that sex work prevented rape and bolstered the economy, so long as it was regulated and confined to a particular area of town. Madams enjoyed unprecedented status as influential businesswomen, community leaders, and philanthropists, while elsewhere a growing aversion to the sex trade drove red-light districts underground. My research features previously unpublished archival materials and ninety-nine new oral histories as I relate the intimate details of this unlikely history.
The book documents a century of sex work in the Silver Valley in about 64,000 words and eighty pictures. This history had never before been documented in a book-length exploration, even though prostitution made Wallace famous and supported the major local industries. I move through time chronologically as I tell this story: in the first section, I use a more traditional approach; in the second section, I shift to my own interpretation and firsthand written accounts; and then the third section features interviews I conducted between 2010 and 2016. Since the tone of the book differs from section to section, there is something in it for many different audiences, from casual readers to serious history geeks or those interested in the industry of sex work.
2. Tell us a little bit about what motivates or inspires your writing.
I’m not sure what made me want to become a writer, except that it’s something I’ve always done and wanted to do for as long as I can remember. My inspiration is reading books that change the way I think and wanting to impact or empower others. I have written stories since I was six years old, which was also around the time I first started keeping a journal. When I was younger I mostly wrote fiction stories, and then as I grew older, I wrote more poetry and creative nonfiction. Since going to grad school (where I studied rhetoric, writing, and philosophy), I’ve focused more on writing about topics related to cultural studies, sociology, and history, especially histories featuring influential women.
With Selling Sex in the Silver Valley, I wanted to serve my community by collecting and preserving our area’s stories about an aspect of our past that was important yet unwritten. I thought that these women who contributed so much to our economy and cultural life deserved documentation in history, so that was my main goal in writing this book. I tried neither to romanticize nor stigmatize the women or their work, and I wanted to express the town’s pragmatic acceptance of prostitution as a part of our identity: Wallace has historically been a live-and-let-live hardrock mining town where “you don’t have to obey the laws, but you do have to follow the rules.”
Others have said this before, but I think writers help us understand who we are as humans. Writing is an art of radical empathy—when we read, we are transported into the mind of another, instantly immersed in their world and perspective.
3. As an Idaho resident, what do you most enjoy about living here?
Idaho’s main attraction for me is definitely the outdoor recreation. The Bitterroots of North Idaho are where I was born and raised and where my home will always be. I grew up skiing at Lookout, hiking to mountain lakes, swimming in north fork of the Coeur d’Alene, riding horses, fishing, hunting, and riding ATVs. Now I also mountain bike, road bike, raft, and whitewater kayak. My great-grandpa homesteaded near Elk City in central Idaho, so that area is also in my heart, as is Kamiah, where my mom was raised and my grandparents lived while I was growing up.
I love that Idaho has so much public land and so many wilderness areas where there aren’t even any roads or motorized travel allowed. I was a rafting guide on the Salmon in my twenties, and I love that river and try to make sure I touch its waters at least once a year. The Seven Devils, Sawtooths, Tetons, and Selkirks are Idaho places I’ve explored a little, but I would like to spend more time there.
4. Describe some highlights of Idaho’s literary community.
Idaho’s writers are at their best when they write literary nonfiction, poetry, nature writing, history, and comedy. Joy Passanante’s writing and teaching inspired my writing more than anyone else. I also loved Kim Barnes’s pair of memoirs, In the Wilderness and Hungry for the World, which I read when I was an undergrad at the University of Idaho, and they made me want to take her workshop classes, which influenced my writing a lot as well. So these women are the highlight of Idaho’s literary community for me. Cort Conley’s books, especially the ones that celebrate and explore the idiosyncrasies of wild Idaho, also occupy a prominent place on my bookshelf.
5. What is the name of your blog and what can readers expect to find there?
My blog is called A Business Doing Pleasure. I published a lot of my preliminary research on my blog, including an overview that became the basic outline for my book. There are also a couple of podcasts and press the book has received since it came out, including some interviews and a TV news story. Right now, I’m working on some new content featuring research for a follow-up book, plus an interview with Maggie McNeill, “The Honest Courtesan” Seattle sex worker/blogger I spoke with in 2015 while I was working on the Selling Sex book.
6. What does your drafting and/or editing process entail?
It seems to work best for me to write consistently in blocks of at least two hours, first thing in the morning and/or late at night. I can write for hours without realizing the passage of the time, and my preference is to write for longer stretches, but that is trickier to make happen with a job and life. The most important thing is consistency and writing something every day. My favorite part of the writing process is the initial creation, when everything is fresh and rough and still beginning to take shape. I think I like that part of writing most because it’s all about potential and experimentation and creative play. I also enjoy the sentence-level editing near the end of the process, because the attention to words and metaphor and theme required at that stage is more like poetry. It’s what really brings the story to life.
I’ve been in a writing group with friends from grad school for around a decade now, but they are all professors now and in charge of writing programs at their schools, so their focus is more academic than mine. They have been there for me during those times when I feel doubtful, and I trust their judgment more than anyone else’s. Writing is such a solitary venture much of the time—it’s important to have a group of people you can rely on to encourage you through the rough spots and tell you when and how to “murder your darlings” or point out writing habits that are holding you back.
7. Are you traditionally published or self-published?
I am traditionally published, but I worked as my own agent and negotiated directly with the publisher, which was a challenge, but taught me a lot about contracts and intellectual property. The way I was published was that an acquisitions editor, Artie Crisp, was traveling through town and saw my work at a local brewery—I had created a little thirteen-minute video that summarized the history that I was writing about in the book—and he contacted me. My vision for the book was a history very specific to northern Idaho and I didn’t want to alter it to fit into what a big-five publisher might want to appeal to a national audience, and Artie explained that was exactly what his press specialized in, so it seemed pretty serendipitous to me. I negotiated that they incorporate my input and approval for the front and back cover and I really liked how it all turned out.
8. Can you offer one or two helpful tips for fellow writers when it comes to marketing and publicity?
The thing that made the biggest difference in terms of turning marketing and publicity into sales was building an audience online while I was writing the book. Everything I published to my blog received a great response and helped to generate an incredible amount of good buzz so that my first run of 900 books sold out even before the book’s official publication release date. The press had trouble keeping up with my sales for the first couple of months, in fact, and I’m sure it’s because I was sharing my work along the way, so people knew what they would be getting. I posted articles to my website and then I pushed them to Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. I have also begun posting pictures of my events and book happenings to Instagram as well, while setting up a link where they can buy in my bio.
I set myself up as a sole-proprietor LLC and that was key to professionalizing as a writer. I created a PayPal “Buy Now” button for my blog, so people can order signed copies directly from me on my website. As of this week, I’ve sold about 1,300 copies of the book by myself, and about 500 of those were through my website. The others were copies I bought at an author discount from the publisher and then resold directly to individuals and regional retailers. I’m pretty self-taught in this area, mostly from listening to podcasts and reading a lot of books and blogs about business and marketing.
9. What future projects can we look forward to?
I’m working on a follow-up book that focuses more on the history of federal intervention in the area and the history of bootlegging and gambling, as well as some information about prostitution in the area that has come to light in the time since my book was published. I filed a FOIPA request asking the FBI to send me files related to the 1991 raid in June of 2015, for example, and they finally delivered them to me in March of this year, which was too late to put in the book, but there are some juicy bits of information in there.
10. Is there anything else you want your potential readers to know? What passions drive your life?
It was a wonderful surprise and honor to find out that the academic, peer-reviewed article version of the research I did for this book just received a prestigious award for being the “most significant contribution to scholarship in rhetoric” last year. I left higher education in 2015 but already had this article in the publication pipeline, so I just decided to keep going with it in hopes that professors and grad students of English and Communication Studies could learn something from little northern Idaho. I’m so glad I didn’t just abandon that piece even though there was no longer any incentive to publish it, because the award means that now even more academics will read it and learn from it.
The other thing I didn’t expect was how much the book would benefit the town I live in and love by bringing some fresh notoriety to the area. I had hoped that writing about our history would serve this community, which is still struggling with the transition from a mining camp to a tourism-based economy, but I didn’t expect that it would attract as much attention as it has. So that has been really great, because I love this area and want to share it with others and see it thrive.
Passion is a tricky thing to explain, but I think the main things I’ve been obsessed with throughout my life have been outdoor adventures, social justice, and freedom. Those are all pretty sweeping abstracts, but they are the threads that seem to run through my life.
Is there anything else you’d like to know about Heather Branstetter?
Images courtesy of Heather Branstetter, 2017. Please share responsibly.