I don’t know how it happened, especially at this distance in time from the date of publication. But I just received word that my book, Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce, is on the New York Times ebook best seller list for non-fiction. I cannot tell you how happy this makes me.
Like any author I like to see my books sell. It helps pay the bills. But in my case, my thinking is a bit different. I am, at heart, a teacher, and have always looked upon my writing as a way of teaching. Since reading requires a commitment of time, a writer needs to engage readers sufficiently that they will take that time from their fractured lives to follow out a story or a theme or whatever the writer wishes to communicate.
When you are preaching to the choir it is relatively easy: people are there because they are interested in the subject you are addressing. Your job simply is to have something to say and to say it in a coherent or engaging way.
But what if you are writing about something that you think is important, but almost no one cares about? Unless you have a giant publisher with a giant promotional budget that is willing to commit big dollars to your little tome in order to jam it down people’s throats until they find that they like it, you are destined to muck about in your little corner of the world, speaking only to the few who care, and hoping against hope that somehow word-of-mouth brings your book, and the subject you addressed, into some larger arena of consideration.
With novels it’s a different game. People like stories and will happily follow and pass on a story well-told. But with non-fiction subjects, it is a long, and often fruitless, uphill struggle.
The four years and 20,000 miles of travel I put in on my book on Chief Joseph were the most solitary and poignant of my life. By doing the journey entirely alone, I was able to experience the power of the land and enter by imaginative sympathy into the lives of the people and the journey itself. Of course there were limits; there always are. But my strongest emotional skills have always been the capacity for empathy, the ability to divest myself of my own point of view and enter into different spiritual realities, and a deep sensitivity to the power and voices of the land.
By the end of those four years, my life had been changed and I had re-experienced a journey that I knew was one of the most poignant, if least known, in all of American history. I had to tell it in a way that would go beyond the limits of its tiny sphere of interest. I had to tell it as a story.
And so I did. There are wonderful histories of Joseph and Nez Perce journey. There are decent novels. But, to my mind, no one had written their history using the tools of the novel, inventing nothing, but animating everything and bringing the reader along on a ground-level experience, allowing the journey to be understood through the eyes of the participants, both Native and military.
This is what I tried to do.
The book almost killed me. It drained me like no other. At one point I said to my editor, who was a very intelligent and thoughtful man, “If I just wrote Seven Leadership lessons from Chief Joseph I’d have been done a long time ago and we’d sell a lot more books.” His response? “Don’t say that, Kent. Truth hurts.”
But we insisted on a different truth. I needed to write the story, and I wrote it well. When I go back now and see what I accomplished, I can’t believe it came from my mind and heart and hand. As I tell people, I did more work for that book than for my Ph. D. But it was worth it. I have given the world a story that needs to be told, in as many ways and in as many voices, as possible. Mine is now one of those voices, and my telling will appeal to those who have an affinity for my way of shaping and presenting a story.
What this bump up on the New York Times ebook best seller list means, I don’t know. But it does offer me the chance to reach out to you, my readers, and ask you to consider giving your time to this amazing journey. More of you have found Neither Wolf nor Dog, The Wolf at Twilight, and The Girl who Sang to the Buffalo. But if you want to learn a part of our American history that will amaze you and touch your heart, as well as to enlarge your understanding of the world in which we live, I hope you will pick up Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce.
Howard Zinn praised it. Robert Utley praised it. Louise Erdrich praised it. C-Span featured it, as did The History Channel. And, most importantly, the Nez Perce liked it.
If my goal as a writer is to teach, this book may be my most important. I am thrilled that it seems to be finding new readers. I hope some of you will be among them.