Find out how Shelley Read wrote 'Go as a River', what the publishing process was like, and what she hopes readers will take away from the book.
From her hometown in Colorado, Shelley Read looks out at Rocky Mountains, watching snow dust the mountaintops. It’s been a perfectly snowy winter – six feet of snow in the past two weeks – ideal for skiing! But Shelley hasn’t had much time for that this year.
Instead of spending the winter enjoying the Colorado landscape that’s so closely interwoven with her life (her two children are even named after nearby mountains), she’s been spending the past few months touring the world to publicise her debut novel Go as a River.
Go as a River, Shelley Read
Fittingly set in Colorado's Gunnison Valley, Read’s novel follows a girl named Victoria Nash who meets a drifter named Wilson Moon when he passes through her small mountain town, Iola. Almost immediately after meeting him, her world is turned upside down by his presence and unique perspective on life. Struck by first love, Victoria finds herself enamoured by Wil's keen observations on the world and falls hard for him. But life, as it goes, is not so simple.
When tragedy strikes, Victoria finds herself changed. After meeting Wil, she now feels like an outside observer of the world, the town and the family that she has grown up with. Faced with new questions of morality, belonging, and family, she must grapple with who she is – and more importantly – who she wants to become.
Though it is Shelley's debut novel, Go as a River has been bubbling beneath the surface for awhile. After a nearly-thirty-year career as a university professor, Shelley retired in 2018 to finally focus on the book that had been tugging on her soul. ‘When I was teaching full time and raising kids, it was very very hard for me to tap into my creative self’, she says. ‘I’ve always loved my job and I loved my students, but all of it was way more social than I am.’
In moments of overwhelm, stress or simply in need of an escape, she’d turn to her natural reprieve: nature.
‘I’d tell my family, “Sorry, Mommy’s going camping,” she says. ‘I’d grab my tent, and I go up the valley which is my sacred place of the world.’
It was on one of these camping trips when the initial idea for the book struck.
‘It was right at dusk,’ Shelley explains, when a doe and two fawns passed through her camp. ‘It was so moving and so beautiful,’ she says. ‘I looked into those big brown doe eyes, and I felt so powerfully connected to her mother-to-mother. I thought, “Oh my god, how is she going to keep both of those babies alive?”'
As the deer moved along, Shelley grabbed her notebook (an essential item in her camping kit) and jotted down the whole scene. The next morning, she climbed a mountain, thinking about it the whole time. While she replayed the moment in her mind, Shelley realised that she was revisiting the previous day's events through the eyes of someone else. ‘I thought “huh, that feels like a character” and that’s where the character Victoria was born.’
While the scene made it into the final novel, it’s not where the story of Go as a River begins. Rather, Shelley drew on local history and tales of the generations that had come before her to estalish a starting-point for Victoria's story. Dredging up knowledge that had lain dormant in her imagination since childhood, she began exploring the history of the towns that were evacuated and flooded to create the Blue Mesa reservoir.
‘Even when I was a child, I had family in the Gunnison Valley, so I’ve been around the reservoir forever,’ she says. ‘It’s where we go fishing and boating and ice skating. When I was quite young, I heard that there had been three towns there before. The writer in me was always like, “Woah, what’s the story there? And how did those people feel about that?”’
It captured her imagination for years, and once Shelley began working with themes of displacement and home, she realised that the information she had filed in the back of her mind about the reservoir was a good fit.
Somehow, ‘like a very complex puzzle’, the full story started coming together. ‘It’s a very mysterious thing, the creative process,’ says Shelley. ‘I don’t know why, in the midst of my busy life, I felt so compelled to write this story. Over time, it just became something I really felt like I needed to finish.'
Weaving in themes of family, displacement, love, loss, prejudice and war, Go as a River contains myriad moral messages that will stick with readers for years to come. Surprisingly, Shelley didn’t plot any of those points out while planning the novel but rather relied on the sense of narrative that she’d developed over years as an academic in the literary space.
She didn’t chart the narrative arc, so to speak, but ‘what I did do is think about it all the time,’ she says. ‘I had a rather long, very mountainous drive to work every day, and I would think about it a lot while I was driving and write down little scribbly notes.’
Even with her non-linear writing style, Shelley’s confidence in how she wanted the story to flow allowed her to trust the process and craft something that she loved and that readers around the world have now fallen in love with too.
Despite the years she had put into the novel, however, the path to publication was still a challenge. After finding a Colorado-based agent, Shelley began pitching her book, at first, to no avail.
‘We got plenty of what they call rejections, but I didn’t think of them as rejections,’ she says, adding that her agent, Sandra Bond, called them the nicest rejections she’s ever gotten.
Undeterred, Shelley hunkered down on revisions as Sandra continued sending the manuscript to all the big publishing houses in the United States. ‘I kept telling her, “it’s my debut novel, a small house will do’, but she was so convinced that this book belonged in the hands of a big publisher.
As it turns out, Sandra’s instinct was correct; the book is now published in thirty territories and counting. ‘I’ve just been on this wild ride ever since!' says Shelley. 'I never expected it to be published on this level.'
‘It was a long journey writing Go as a River and a long journey publishing it, but I feel like it’s all just perfect.’ Excited to share the themes that are important to her own heart, Shelley can’t wait for readers to be immersed in Victoria’s world.
‘The themes in the book are the things that matter to me,’ says Shelley. ‘Prejudice, the deep wisdom of the wilderness, the pain of displacement, the importance of home . . . those are all very important themes in my own life and my own heart.’
In addition to the moving lessons that Go as a River offers readers, Shelley is delighted that the book is introducing international audiences to her beloved home state as well. ‘I had to immerse the story in Colorado because I am just such a Colorado person,’ she says. ‘Now when I’m visiting foreign countries, they want to know everything about Colorado because of this book.’
‘I feel very proud that this book is generating interest in Colorado, and I am glad that I can immerse foreign readers in our landscape. I feel very connected.’
See the books that readers are obsessing over lately.
Find the perfect book based on the blooms she already loves.
Find out why it’s so important to support authors upon the publication of their first book and meet a few of our 2023 debut authors.
Check out the most anticipated books of 2023.
Connor Parissis shares his favourite reads of 2022 and the books he’s looking forward to in 2023.
A soaring coming-of-age novel to read with your book club.
The Fresh Voices of 2023 look back on what they found most surprising when publishing their debut novels.
The Fresh Voices of 2023 share their advice with fellow writers. Whether you’re aspiring to get your book published or looking for writing tips, these words of wisdom will help.
An author and editor share the unique publication story of Amy Doak's debut novel, Eleanor Jones is Not a Murderer.
Plus, the cosy fictional world she’d most like to live in.
She took up a few new hobbies, including horseback riding, sewing and Georgian dance.
We caught up with debut author Ela Lee to learn about how she made time for writing while working full-time, her ‘big break’ into publishing and more.