My Favorite Bit: J.R. Dawson Talks About THE FIRST BRIGHT THING

J.R. Dawson is joining us today to talk about their novel, The First Bright Thing. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Ringmaster — Rin, to those who know her best — can jump to different moments in time as easily as her wife, Odette, soars from bar to bar on the trapeze. And the circus they lead is a rare home and safe haven for magical misfits and outcasts, known as Sparks.

With the world still reeling from World War I, Rin and her troupe — the Circus of the Fantasticals — travel the midwest, offering a single night of enchantment and respite to all who step into their Big Top.

But threats come at Rin from all sides. The future holds an impending war that the Sparks can see barrelling toward their show and everyone in it. And Rin’s past creeps closer every day, a malevolent shadow she can’t fully escape.

It takes the form of another circus, with tents as black as midnight and a ringmaster who rules over his troupe with a dangerous power. Rin’s circus has something he wants, and he won’t stop until it’s his.

What’s J.R.’s favorite bit?

J.R. Dawson

In early June of 2021, as my spouse and I sat in a cow field in the middle of Lawrence, Kansas, snapping pictures as I hung my body out the window, I thought to myself, “This is going to be a great story for the interviews when the book comes out.”

And after many an interview in the last month, coming up on the release of the book, I can say that not one person has asked me about the cow field. Not one. Every time I do a talk, a Q&A, I mention the cows. And every time my spouse looks at me and goes, “Why do you keep trying to make the cows happen? No one wants to hear about the cows.”

But now, the time has come to talk about “My Favorite Bit.” And I am going. To talk. About the cows. 

I will also make it educational, touching on how important research is when you’re writing historical fantasy. My book, The First Bright Thing, is anchored in 1926; a year of respite from the world wars. There were automobiles, baseball games, black and white silent films, a lot of rain … a real year that happened to real people. The 1926 in the book also has magical powers shining out of a traveling circus run by a time traveler. But the story had to be grounded in the actual world, our actual reality. 

Historical fiction helps us see where we have been, to make sense of where we are, and warns us about what is to come. I chose 1926 because it was a time where everyone had emerged from a plague and was attempting to find a new normal. Even though the hopes of a new normal had died in trenches a decade earlier. 1926 would be followed by famine, stock market crashes, genocide, war, and everything else that has happened in the last century. 

But like the Ringmaster says, the little things are the important things. 

And one of my favorite scenes is a very little scene.

The Ringmaster and her protege, Jo, stand in a field in Kansas, and Jo’s pain shows through her magic. Rin gets scared. Jo apologizes. 

“I’m a monster,” she says.

“You’re not a monster,” Rin responds. “You’ve known monsters.”

It’s this tender moment between two women who have been hurt, who are complicated and angry and don’t know how to heal themselves. But they’re finding beauty in a Kansas summer day, they’re finding a way to move forward in each other.

So clearly, I needed to drive to Kansas and stand in this field. 

I’ve learned two things: One, being in the real-life space is my favorite kind of research (I’m a kinesthetic learner). And two, I really love an excuse to travel. 

So my spouse and I went on these spurts of road trips in 2021. One was to chase the railroad tracks in Colorado, following them into the wilderness and seeing all these little towns I’d never seen. We stood in the hundred-degree weather in Iowa, peering at old pictures of county fairs. And finally, we arrived in Lawrence, Kansas.

We awkwardly asked the Historical Society where a circus would have put up shop in 1926, and they said with great confidence it would have been Bismark Grove. They gave me directions, and we were off to this magical historical county fairgrounds.

We followed the map. We did everything right. And soon we hit a speed bump as we entered … a field … full of cows?

“Maybe if we go further,” I said.

My spouse tepidly drove further into the field. The moos were deafening. 

So many cows.

“It says here,” my spouse said, checking their phone, “That Bismark Grove closed a long time ago.”

So uh … 

We could have left. But instead, my spouse said, “Take pictures. You’re gonna need them.” 

Suddenly, I was Sam O’Neill in Jurassic Park. It was a gorgeous day. Just the right amount of sun. The bold, bold colors of a Kansas afternoon shone in the blue sky, green grass, yellow sun … black and white cows … 

This story does not have a satisfying, climactic ending. It’s not flashy, there’s no great twist, every piece of me is screaming, “Why are you wasting your essay on this?” But it’s the small, simple things that make this chaotic life mean something. It was just me and my spouse, sitting in a field, taking photos of the sky. 

A year later, I got copy edit notes back, and thank God for copy editors, because they caught something that the Lawrence Historical Society had not.

Bismark Grove had closed in 1910. 

The book takes place in 1926.

So here’s the next lesson about historical fantasy. Sometimes, you can fudge things because it’s fantasy. So, I had a proprietor buy the property back around 1920, and ba-da-bing, I didn’t have to rewrite the entire scene.

I do love that little chapter because I’m proud of its dialogue, and I love its message. The mother-daughter relationship between Rin and Jo is my favorite. But another thing that I love about it, was the beautiful day I spent with my spouse on a field research trip where they patiently followed me into a ridiculous, superfluous adventure because they loved me and supported my silly dream to write this book. These little moments between people who care about each other.

So anyway, that’s the cow story. And now I can rest in peace. 

*No cows were harmed in this field research, they’re all totally fine. 


The First Bright Thing book link


J.R. Dawson (she/they) has published shorter works in places such as F&SF, Lightspeed, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. She lives in Omaha with her spouse and three dogs in the middle of a city park. Having earned a BFA from The Theatre School at DePaul and an MFA in Creative Writing from Stonecoast, Dawson works at Nebraska Writers Collective and other Midwestern nonprofits that teach kids the power of performance and storytelling. The First Bright Thing is her first novel.

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