Where Waters Converge

This weekend I sent my “final” draft of Where Waters Converge, the Second Song, to my editor. Obviously, it isn’t final, as the editor (who has worked with me on many drafts thus far) will have plenty of remaining suggestions for changes. Over the last few years we’ve removed several characters, introduced new ones, and cut probably 15,000 words from early drafts. But we’re close. I’ll have one more chance to complete the novel and publish it in March.

As a librarian, I will then consider that the “final” draft of the novel. It will be the version I’m ostensibly on public record having published, as it were. But as a writer I don’t see it that way. The only reason it’s finished is because, for sanity’s sake, I’ll have to move on.

Like much of the world, I’m saddened and shocked by the death of David Bowie. I can’t say I was his biggest fan–I know a lot of people who know far more about him and music in general than I do. But he has always inspired me. He’s made me feel a whole range of emotions with his art, everything from awe to discomfort, love to yearning, pride and shame and hope and despair.

Which is why I love this portion of an interview he did with Charlie Rose in the 90s. The sense of frustration and anger artists feel is very real–this almost cathartic need to express, which doesn’t always happen when and where and how we want it to. The feeling of “finishing” a novel to me is really more of “okay, this is good enough, I’m proud of it, and I can finally move on.”

But, to what?

This is what Bowie mastered, of course, and what others have waxed fare more eloquently than I in recent days: reinvention. Metamorphosis. Re-imagining one’s self. Bowie reminded us over and over, culminating with his final act, his final album and passing, that life and death are so illusory. Rebirth is what is real. We all understand it. Deep in the layers of our existence, we know this to be the only truism. Change.

So, I will publish Where Waters Converge in March and move on. To the Third Song, tentatively titled Cover Thy Sun, O God, and planned for release in late 2017. But this novel won’t be “finished.”

Because there is no such thing. There is only transformation.

Arno Book Club

Had a great time this weekend speaking to the Arno Book Club at the Denver Country Club–an honor to speak to such an historic organization!

This River

In some of my recent book talks, I’ve spoken about the Missouri River and its role in my life over the years. Growing up in Denver, where our Platte River and Cherry Creek pale in comparison to this rolling behemoth05370033, I suppose every year when I see this river, I am always taken aback by it. Its size, currents, color, smell, and feel are all nearly surreal to me. In the First Song the river is something of a character unto itself, I suppose, and it can be felt and sensed from a mile away. In the Second Song, I describe the grief of a character as the river’s tonnage lifting from its banks and pressing on his shoulders. I think it has played a similar role in my life: it’s just always there.

And yet, it’s not. I don’t live near it. I only see it on family visits, once or twice a year, usually. I don’t think I understand this river, or the plains, nearly as well as my cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents. Nor as well as a colleague and friend of mine, Jonna Gjevre, who is working on a new novel, River Rising. In just the first chapter I knew she understood the rivers of the Plains so much better than I. It’s an amazing draft.

Jonna also told me about an Indian myth she heard: that tornadoes don’t strike in the area between two rivers. There are a lot of myths about tornadoes, many of which I have grown up with. Some attribute this particular myth to the Osage (#2), and it includes the notion they don’t cross rivers. I haven’t taken the time to find a good source for this myth, and I can’t say I remember hearing that one, but one of my aunts, who lives in west Atchsion, has told me she’s seen twisters approaching the town, then make an abrupt turn to the north.

This RiverAtchison isn’t exactly at the confluence of two rivers, at least not in the way the myth purports to provide safety (Denver is, actually). Atchison lies at a great bend in the Missouri, what the 18th century French explorers called Le Grande Detour. Through it runs a small creek, the White Clay, which Lewis & Clark named 4th of July Creek when they camped there on that day in 1804. The next night, a few miles north, they camped near what they later named Independence Creek, which is much larger (I grew up calling it a “river,” in fact). My grandpa taught me to fish at this confluence, in fact, and it was the subject of our last conversation before he passed last year.

Still, I somehow believe this myth. Not as a fact. I wouldn’t hide near a river from a tornado, and though Atchison has never been hit by one (knock on wood, and it came close last year), I wouldn’t think it immune at all. But the myth speaks to the power of rivers. Their majesty, Their steadfast march in the face of the brief violence of storms, like time and mortality.

In the Second Song, which is nearly finished, and which is going to be titled Where Waters Converge, I can’t help but play with these themes of water, rivers and rain and floods, and how they are not land or wood or rock.

Because somehow this river is every river to me.

 

 

Loveland Public Library

Looking forward to Thursday at 7pm, where I’ll be at the Loveland Public Library reading from the First and Second Songs. 

05380009

I’ll talk some about my family’s historic relationship to the land in Kansas…

 

And since it’s Halloween weekend, I might 05380032share a Kansas ghost story or two as well.

Long of the Earth

I have been on a family road/camping trip through the American Southwest the last couple

Rock art near Moab, UT.

Rock art near Moab, UT.

weeks. Throughout I have been consistently amazed at the un-ignorable evidence of those who came before. Ruins and rock art are not hard to find—and not only because contemporary land management in these states makes every effort to preserve and share them with the public—it is because there are literally thousands of them, sprinkled throughout the Colorado Plateau.

Millennia-old wall near New River, AZ.

Millennia-old wall near New River, AZ.

One simply cannot live in these lands and be totally ignorant of the peoples who preceded them.

This is not so much the situation in my native Denver, Colorado, nor of the region where the Songs take place, in eastern Kansas. The pre-historic and pre-European colonization peoples in these short- and tall-grass prairies produced different dwellings and art, which did not survive the tests of time as well. The Kanza, Pawnee, Arapahoe, Ute, and Cheyenne (to name a few) lived in dwellings of hide, wood, mud, and other materials that decay in decades, and their textile, bead, and painted art shared that fate. But the rock dwellings and art of the ancestral Puebloans, Hohokam, Yavapai, Navajo and Hopi has weathered many centuries. Obviously, these societies were using the most sensible resources, and despite vast trade networks and relative settled versus more nomadic tendencies I believe we underestimate and of which we have limited understanding of to this day, conspicuous evidence of their existence varies.

And yet, I believe all these peoples had lasting, if not semi-permanent effects on the lands they once inhabited. (As far as “permanent” goes, for nothing truly is—I was reminded of this last night watching an old family wedding video with my aunt, in which the youth of my grandparents and of those we’ve since lost was painfully clear—we are not long of this earth). Still, something of our lives seems to poke through the barriers of time and mortality. To me, this is part of what magical realism attempts to express; all art, really, including the art of the ancients.

Rock art in Arizona.

Rock art in Arizona.

In the Songs I deal with this in part through characters—both human and inhuman. I think they somehow embody the land and its past, including peoples who have since moved on, either in place or in time. The Kanza, who populated eastern Kansas in the centuries before the novels take place, did indeed leave physical evidence in the form of mounds and some other structures, but they’ve largely faded into memory (often at the hands of amateur “archaeologists” in the 19th century). But their more lasting impact on us is in their stories, creation myths, and contemporary Americans’ stories about them in turn, and the myths we tell ourselves of the West and American history in turn. Any American knows this, feels it—we are somehow the inheritors, at least in part, and certainly not by the free will of our benefactors, of the magic of Native peoples. Without question we destroyed much of what we may have learned, and we pay the price every day. But I believe we imbibed some wisdom, and it is never too late to learn more. The direct ancestors of these tribes, of course, are still with us. Reparations and greater inclusiveness of their cultures would do America well.

But rock walls and just public policy are not what I mean. I mean that when you sit, quietly, mindfully, in the woods or mountains, by rivers or streams, you can feel it—the magic of those who came before. People and animals, the earth itself. its wisdom, teeming within you, within all of us and within all things.

And in this mortality is breached, and we are somehow actually long of the earth.

 

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This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. About twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (29th – 31st July 2015) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Please take the time to click on the button below to visit them and remember that links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.

Rocky Mountain Writer Podcast

Hrmfw-bannerad a great time chatting the other day with Mark Stevens about Song, writing, and family. It’s quite flattering to be interviewed by such an accomplished author!

We also spoke about myths in history, and how they relate to current events, such as the recent massacre in South Carolina. A wealth of writers have approached this issue far better than I ever could, one excellent editorial concluding, “A century and a half after Lincoln was killed, after 750,000 of our ancestors died, Americans still aren’t quite sure why.” I’m afraid this does seem true to me; I remember teaching a high school class some years ago, and somehow a conversation led to the Civil War, and somehow I learned the students not only had no idea in what century it was fought, but didn’t even know the combatants, much less the underlying causes. For a nation that was supposedly forged by this war to do such a poor job of educating its children about it in a few generations means something is rotten in the state(s).

Another editorial puts it best: we are confused about the Civil War and meaning of the Confederate Flag “not because the history is unclear, but because neo-Confederates still wielded considerable influence in our culture and our Congress…” The history is indeed very clear: Lincoln’s platform to stop the expansion of slavery and intimations that slavery must someday end altogether (think “a house divided”) was all it took for South Carolina to succeed. The war was about slavery. And indeed, inheritors of Confederate power structures remain in power today, and we have since engaged in 150 years of apologist history that has obfuscated the causes for which so many died.  And that only serves to undermine our own culture and its future.

But the myths don’t stop there. Even when we do get the history right–and say that slavery was the root of the Civil War–we simplify it to extents that make it impossible for us to empathize, and thereby, impossible to see ignorance in ourselves. The narrative I grew up with, as a Westerner, portrayed Northers as somehow enlightened, compassionate beings wiling to sacrifice their lives for the good of fellow humans; and Southerners as horrible monsters. In some cases these reputations are certainly deserved. But the truth is most white Americans in the 19th century were very racist, and there comparatively few actual slave-holders. Even fewer believed in the equality of races, or of genders–and most were willing to fight because they felt their homes, families, property, and other interests were somehow threatened. Yes, many fought and died because they could not longer stand for a system so brutal, and they should be lauded for this. But they were also, oftentimes, in it for themselves; not so much for actual equality under the eyes of the law.

I do not intend that as a criticism, necessarily. Selfishness is human. Humans are selfish. I believe it is in this that history, and historical fiction, can help make the world a better place–in helping us empathize with previous generations and historical figures so we may attain greater understanding of our own motivations. To say to ourselves, “it wasn’t about slavery, it was about state’s rights,” blinds us to the fact that slavery was a huge part of American society and it still has enormous impacts on us. But it is also blind to say to ourselves, “the South were slave-holding racists, the North were enlightened liberators.” It localizes the blame. It fails to recognize that all white Americans bear the inheritance of that horrible past. Maybe not in equal measure, but certainly, it is something of an original sin for which must all seek absolution.

If we can get this part of history right, then, I believe, we can take that next step and empathize. How did American slavery come into being in the first place? How and why did it exist for so long after much of the rest of the world had long since decided it was detestable? Why was it only abolished through war, and, could there have been more peaceful ways of eliminating it? What political structures, economic incentives, or enlightened leaders, would have been needed for a diplomatic solution? When we ask ourselves those questions, and see 19th century Americans as human beings, we are able to uncover greater realities about them, and about us. We see how their views on race, gender, religion, honor, power, and justice–how their base feeling of fear and love and sacrifice–all worked intricately together to create a strong rationalization of something terrible.

And then we can ask ourselves: are we too rationalizing any injustices? Are we telling ourselves any myths so we can justify something we shouldn’t? Do our notions of ourselves, and one another; of God and Justice and Truth, Good and Evil; of wealth and patriotism, globalization and the environment; inhibit our ability to find love and compassion?

Myths and symbols can be strong conveyors of universal truths. But they can also delude and blind us not only from historical fact, but present-day fact, and hamper our ability to build a just future.

Because the real horror lies in the fact that evil people do not do these things. People do these things. Just…people.

 

 

 

 

Colorado Book Awards Winner

11033124_851435518227555_4434116465713268768_nSo humbled to have won in the Historical Fiction category of the Colorado Book Awards! Here I am standing awkwardly among some very good writers (just behind a Pulitzer Prize winner, in fact!).

The other finalists in my category, The Circle of Na’mow and A Quilt for Christmas, were certainly just as deserving of the award. Congratulations to Anna McDermott, Gretchen Wiegand, and Sandra Dallas for their nominations.

I was also captivated by many of the other finalists and winners, including Mark Stevens’s mystery Trapline and Christopher Merkner’s short story collection The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic. Check them out!

I feel very grateful to have the support of my fellow authors at Wooden Stake, including Jonna Gjevre and Jeff Chacon. Thanks guys. I owe you a drink.

San Patricios

I had a wonderful Center for the Book Logotime on Saturday at BookBar in Denver with fellow finalists for the Colorado Book Awards. Many thanks to Wooden Stake Press, BookBar, and the Colorado Humanities Center for the Book for all you do for literature in Colorado.

In March I wrote about the suffering of Irish immigrants in the 19th century as a bit of a backstory for the Dugans in the Songs. I think it’s remarkable how that story has parallels throughout history, including the wave of Hispanic immigration of the last decade or so to the United States, but also to the recent tragedies African immigrants have experienced in the Mediterranean as they attempt to find relief in Europe. In the face of desperation, people show amazing courage and risk their lives for the chance of a better life.

But the similarities between Irish and Mexican peoples in American history don’t stop there. Though Mexico is now a great allay to the United States, in the decade before the Songs open we were at war. Much of the West was ceded by Mexico in 1848 in the treaty that ended this conflict, including part of my home state of Colorado. And, in a little-known but fascinating turn of events, an Irish brigade in the US Army defected to Mexico during the war. In Mexico they would come to be known as San Patricios, the Saint Patricks.

Joseph James Hawkins mentions them in the First Song, as he would have faced thsan-patricio2em in the Battle of Buena Vista during his service in the Missouri Volunteers before the novel begins. He calls them “a bunch a traitors,” and the US Army, of course, tended to agree. In perhaps the larges mass execution in US History, thirty were hanged with little documented court proceedings. The Mexicans viewed, and continue to view them as heroes.

Why did the defect?

There are a number of explanations, all of which probably played a role, but I tend to agree with Joseph James’s very simple, human explanation in the First Song: “You San Patricios traitors just as soon fight with the Mexicans, damn Catholics, than anyone else.” Catholicism, not just its doctrine but its cultural underpinnings, and the impoverished state of Catolicos in Mexico, I think explains it. In Mexico the Irish saw closely knit Catholic communities and families suffering from an invading army and chronic impoverishment. The Irish were second class citizens in the US and its army–sometimes forced to attend Protestant services, an act they would have abhorred, it being so reminiscent of their persecution in Britain. In Mexico they saw a Catholic nation, and wanted to be a part of it.

irishmexicanflagAnd so they are. No less than a half million Mexicans of Irish descent live in metropolitan Mexico City, and while it’s not nearly as common as it is in the US, Irish ancestry is celebrated in Mexico.

And in this I see great irony. American culture once reviled the Irish, and in just a few decades this was completely undone. Irish Americans are now a huge part of our society, its governance, and our overall culture. Seven million of us. But there are eleven million Americans from Mexico.

One day they will be just as big a part of America, and still, today, we erect walls to keep them out. Only history can show us the true folly of such policy.

The US didn’t simply welcome the Irish with open arms, by any means–but in time, our arms became nearly indistinguishable from one another. I think in time the same will happen with the Hispanic diaspora in America. The values we share–centered around liberty, family, and a New World ethos–will triumph.