Stephanie Clifford

Year of Graduation: 
A smiling woman outside

Writing about music helps me think about how to be creative ... how to put something out into the world and try to be brave about its reception, something you can’t control.

Stephanie Clifford ’96 upends the American Western, shifting focus from cowboys and outlaws to country music and the pioneering women of the Pacific Northwest, in her latest novel, The Farewell Tour. The book traces protagonist Lillian Waters’ life as a musician over a five-decade span — from Depression-era Washington state through the early days of the Nashville music scene and into the 1980s. Clifford intertwines emotive scenes from Waters’ younger days with her professional career, offering readers evocative details of grow-ing up on a dusty farm, World War II Tacoma, and climbs up (and slides down) the country music ladder. 

This story is worlds away from Clifford’s terrific 2015 debut novel, Everybody Rise, a contemporary take on Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, but the two books share elements of Clifford’s voice, tone and approach as a writer. What comes across clearly in Clifford’s work, as well as in conversation, is a palpable presence of compassion, empathy and a willingness to listen — all traits she has honed during her decades-long career as an award-winning investigative journalist. Clifford first developed a love of reporting as a student reporter for The Exonian. After being on staff at The New York Times, she now writes long-form investigations about criminal justice and business for publications such as The Times, The Economist and Elle. 

We caught up with her in between deadlines.

Did Farewell Tour have a particular starting point? 
Two, actually. I was reading a lot of classics about the American West — The Grapes of Wrath and Wallace Stegner and Willa Cather — and I was getting increasingly mad about not seeing the Northwest represented. I’m from Seattle, and when these writers talked about the West, they left out a huge chunk of it which has a very different geography, feel and ethos. I wanted to write a Northwest novel, a Northwestern, not in terms of saloons and shootouts, but in terms of examining the land, grappling with how the place forms people. I also noticed that the women characters were always stuck inside — cooking, cleaning, baking — and it didn’t reflect the Northwest women I knew, the fierce women of my grandmother’s generation. I wanted to get some of that particular grit of a Northwest woman into my book, place it at the center. 

Is your main character partly based on your grandmother’s story?
Like Lillian, my grandmother grew up on a Depression-era farm and left home at age 10 to become a hired girl. With my grandmother, we never knew why. Something bad had happened and she didn’t discuss it. But I was always struck by this idea of leaving home at 10, supporting oneself from that point on. I wondered,  
a) What could have made somebody leave home that young? And b) How does that shape a person? Those elements became the genesis of this novel.

In Farewell Tour you seem to be addressing some of today’s most pressing topics, including immigration and racism, through Lillian’s eyes — though it takes her a while to understand the systemic racism around her.   
Yes, Lillian only sees what is happening to her until the end of the book. Early on, she’s friends with a Black woman, Althea, and later she’s friends with Kaori, a Japanese American fiddler, but it’s only when she faces her own past that she opens her eyes to Washington’s history of racism and the Japanese American internment camps. I wanted to get her thinking about how different people look at the world. I wanted to get that perspective shift into the book. And yes, Lil is part of the community of Swedish immigrants who faced a lot of hostility. I was thinking very much about the current animosity toward immi-grants as I wrote that.

You cover an interesting range of topics as a journalist: e-bike batteries, the Martin Shkreli pharmaceutical case, how autism is treated in courts. What satisfaction do you get from your journalism?
Journalism is great! It’s getting out into the world and talking to people and trying to figure out why things are the way they are. With court cases there is usually a huge number of documents to read through and distill the information and be able to say, “Here’s what happened.” That’s super-satisfying. In fiction, it’s much more fungible and it’s not necessarily fact-based when you start — that comes with research. It’s really nice to have both: You’re still at the computer most of the time, but the forms work very different creative muscles.

This novel features a protagonist with a thing for music, as did Everybody Rise: Evelyn loves musical theater; Lillian is all about country music. Do you have a musical background? 
I play piano — just sort of honky-tonk, play-by-ear stuff — and I learned guitar at Exeter. There are ways where music can express things that words can’t — like some of these country songs in the book — and they get across emotions and stories in a way that words just don’t. It’s one way that I’m really envious of musicians because they can do these things with their music that I can’t do in writing. Writing about music helps me think about how to be creative, how to write better, and how to put something out into the world and try to be brave about its reception, something you can’t control.  

Nearly two decades have passed since you graduated from the Academy. What does being an Exonian mean to you?
I came from Seattle not knowing what to expect. I was not used to being in a place where being smart was celebrated. At Exeter it seemed like everybody could be who they wanted to be; my classmates seemed to be able to define who they wanted to be and they were accepted on that level. Whenever I meet people from Exeter these days, there’s a certain moral core to most of them. They want to be kind, thoughtful people. They want to listen — and they want to learn.   

— Daneet Steffens ‘82

This story was originally published in the Spring 2023 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.