WomensHistoryReads interview: Melissa Lenhardt

Yesterday we talked about "speculative historical fiction" as a genre in Kari Bovee's #WomensHistoryReads interview, and today's guest introduces us to another deeply cool genre: the feminist Western. I'll let her speak directly to you about what that means because I love the way she does it. Without further ado: Melissa Lenhardt!

Melissa Lenhardt

Melissa Lenhardt

Greer: How would you describe what you write?

Melissa: My historical fiction novels have been described as feminist Westerns, a label I wholeheartedly endorse and embrace. I’m proud of that title, but I imagine it could put some people off. Have I just dropped women with 21st-century sensibilities into the past and am calling it historical? No. Absolutely not. My books are feminist for one apparently radical idea: I’m representing women in Westerns the way men have been represented for 100 years:

Women are the center of the story. 

Women drive the plot. 

Women make decisions independently of men. 

Women don’t need men to validate their existence in the world. 

Women don’t need to fall in love to be happy (though they do, at times).

Somehow, I also find a way to treat the male characters with respect. Shocking! (But, honestly, it’s not that hard to respect all of your characters.)

Greer: Yes! Brilliant. What’s your next book about and when will we see it?

Melissa: My next novel, HERESY, will be released on October 2, 2018. The one-line pitch to my publisher was “Thelma and Louise meet the Magnificent Seven.” The more detailed pitch was it’s the story of the last days of a gang of female outlaws who were ignored during their time and written out of history. 

I got the idea a couple of years ago when I saw the trailer for the Denzel Washington version of The Magnificent Seven. I was excited to see a diverse cast, then I wondered why they didn’t take it a step farther and include a woman, which led to “this would be awesome with all women” which of course led to me deciding, “I’ll write that.” This was also during the 25th anniversary of Thelma and Louise so I decided to also make the story about a friendship between two women from very different backgrounds whose mutual respect and love for each other are central to the story. It was a difficult book to write because I decided to tell the story through journals, oral history, lost documents, newspaper articles, and “official” histories. This book challenged me as a writer, to say the least. I’m proud of the end result, and I can’t wait to share it with the world.

Greer: What book, movie or TV show would your readers probably be surprised to find out you love?

Melissa: "Avatar: The Last Airbender," the Nickelodeon series. I started watching it with my sons but stayed for the characters and story. Over four seasons, "A:TLA" tells a cohesive story, with a beginning, middle and end. The characters grow, change, and do things you don’t always agree with. There’s humor, platonic and romantic love, action, good versus evil, and social commentary. And, it’s always entertaining. If you’re looking for something to stream, "Avatar: The Last Airbender" is an out of the box choice, but totally worth it.

Question for Greer: What is a genre you don’t write in (and think you would never, ever be able to write) that you secretly wish you could? (Mine is sci-fi/fantasy.)

Greer: I love sci-fi and fantasy too (what is it with us historical fiction authors and a passion for sci-fi?!) and could see myself possibly writing in that direction at some point in the future, though I have heaps of historical fiction ideas that await me first. So the SF ideas have to get in line. And it is such a long line.

I'm not sure I could ever write a successful romance, though I'd love to! My books always have an element of romance to them, because I love to write what I love to read, but in terms of straight-up category romance, that's a demanding genre with specific rules. I don't think its writers get the credit they're due. There's a big difference between including a love story between two characters in a novel in some other genre -- historical, contemporary, SF, literary, whatever -- and actually writing A Romance. It's like a sonnet. I'm not sure I'd have the skills to achieve something interesting, original and compelling that would meet reader expectations. Thank goodness other writers do, and we get to read them.


Melissa Lenhardt is the author the Jack McBride mystery series, as well as the Sawbones historical fiction series. Her debut mystery, STILLWATER, was a finalist for the 2014 Whidbey Writers’ MFA Alumni Emerging Writers Contest, and SAWBONES, her historical fiction debut, was hailed as a "thoroughly original, smart and satisfying hybrid, perhaps a new subgenre: the feminist Western" by Lone Star Literary Life. A lifelong Texan, she lives in the Dallas area with her husband and two sons.

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Website: melissalenhardt.com