Month: June 2005
Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce has been a long time in the writing — almost four years at last count. I’ve had my ups and downs, but those have mostly been in terms of the in-the-seat writing experience. The actual process of travel, research, and learning has been among the most amazing and rewarding of my life. I have essentially lived inside another world since August of 1991. It has been lonely — one of the occupational hazards of writing — and difficult on my family — one of the occupational hazards of having a writer as a husband or father. But it has been transformative in ways that are difficult to explain. Much like Alice going through the keyhole, I have entered into a different world. The mountains and high plains of the west have taken over my imagination; Joseph, Looking Glass, Colonel Nelson Miles, and the fleeing Nez Perce have become my imaginary traveling companions.
It is difficult to explain to someone who has never had such an experience. The closest I can come is to say that it is like traveling to a foreign country and spending time among people and places that none of your friends know. When you return, you can tell them about it, but they can do no more than appreciate your fascination with a world they have never seen. But you can go off in your imagination to the people and places you visited, conjuring them with a vividness that sometimes is greater than your everyday life.
This has been my experience. And now, I am mostly back. We are pushing forward with the technical aspects of cover, cover copy, promotion and publicity, maps, etc. I am only tangentially involved — now the publishing machine takes over. I get to sit back and be part of a process. I am now like someone riding on a moving train rather than someone pushing a boulder up a hill. It is a great relief and more than a little bit exciting.
What is perhaps most exciting is the response I am getting from people who have received the reader’s copy. A reader’s copy is a rough version sent out to people of significance seeking their endorsements. These become the cover blurbs.
It is a strange part of the process, and all writers experience it, because all writers get approached for endorsements. Some will endorse anything because it gets their name before the public. Others will endorse nothing because they do not believe in the practice. In between are most of the rest of us who recognize it as a service we can provide to other writers whose work we respect.
I consider any endorsements I get to be gifts of the highest order. I know someone took time and effort and put his or her name and reputation on the line in order to support my book.
So endorsements become an early measure of the quality of a work, because, truly, if you are a writer of any self-awareness, you have no idea when you have finished whether your creation is strong or weak. It is like saying a word over and over until it becomes nonsense in your mind — your book has become, if not nonsense, at least intellectual gibberish. You need distance before you can ascertain what you have or have not done.
Endorsements provide you with an early hint.
The endorsements that have come in for Chief Joseph have been most gratifying. They lead me to believe that perhaps my four year journey has been worthwhile. I thought I would share some with you, since you as readers have been so loyal and patient.
Here they are:
“Kent Nerburn not only tells Chief Joseph’s story accurately and engagingly but probes deep nuances of the psyche of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce tribe. This is a fine book full of fresh insights.” — — Robert Utley, author of The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull
“As a Nez Perce woman of 71 years of age, and a Joseph Band descendant, reading of the tragedy of Chief Joseph always brings tears to my eyes. But the story must be told, for it has great value to all Americans, Indian or white. Kent Nerburn portrays Chief Joseph as a leader of his people, a man of peace, not a warrior. Nerburn’s book can be recommended as the one account that addresses the whole story of the flight of the Nez Perce.”
— Ruth Wapato, descendant of the Chief Joseph band and board member of the Nez Perce National HistoricTrail Foundation
“Kent Nerburn has done a remarkable job of research in telling the thus far untold story of Chief Joseph — the mythical hero, the real man. It is a poignant, touching tale.”
–Howard Zinn, author of The People’s History of the United States.
“Everyone should read this book, so that the world will know of the crimes and atrocities committed against the Nez Perce people, who only wanted to be left alone on the land the Creator had given to them.”
–Leonard Peltier, author of Prison Writings and My Life is My Sundance, artist, and activist.
These are good folks who do not lend their names lightly. If they are any indication, perhaps I have succeeded in the task I began those many years ago — to bring a story before the American people that is every bit as poignant, every bit as dramatic, and every bit as important to an understanding of our nation’s history as the stories of the western pioneer migration or the journey of Lewis and Clark.
Well, it’s summer, and the living is easy. This is the time when people read fluff books and do their best to turn their primary attentions to leisure. So I decided to assist in your summer entertainment.
For about the last eight or nine years my books have carried what I call “The Moses Picture.” It’s a photo of me that I took in my living room using a 35mm camera with a shutter delay. One of my publishers was demanding a new publicity photo, and I seem to do very poorly when confronted with someone telling me to say “cheese” or to look serious and authorial. So I took about a million shots and, like the blind pig in search of the acorn, came up with one photo that not only looked great, it didn’t even look like me. I considered it a wonderful coup.
However, in the back of my mind was the memory of an elderly woman at a reading I had given several years earlier who had been looking at the publicity photo on the original harcover of Letters to My Son. Being a bit deaf, she had no sense of the volume of her speech. Right before I began my reading she bellowed to her neighbor, “That must be an old photo on the book. He looks a lot older in person.”
Well, that photo was not old — it had been taken about 6 months earlier — and it looked much like I looked, which, one would assume, is what a photo should do.
Anyway, I never forgot her loud comment. My discomfort only increased when I submitted The Moses Photo. It was like the best I can look on the best day of my life. Maybe better. My publisher thought it was great.
I tried to rectify this when we published Road Angels where I used a photo taken by a local photographer. I liked it just fine and thought I had come clean. But since nobody bought Road Angels, my rectification came to naught.
Which brings us to now.
The folks at both HarperSanFrancisco who are publishing Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce, and those at New World Library who are reissuing Simple Truths, needed a publicity photo. So I decided the time had come. I told my son, Nik (Nick’s new spelling of his name), to grab the digital and set things right. He managed to take one shot before the battery went dead and, voila, it was just fine. It looked like I look, revealed something of my character, and freed me for all times from the burden of being a Moses manque.
I am herewith posting it on the “about” page of the website.
Those of you who liked Moses may be disappointed. Those of you who have gently requested something more authentic should be mollified. And I, for my part, can now go speak to elderhostel groups without having hard-of-hearing women boom out, “That must be an old photo,” or, “Who is this guy? We were expecting Moses.”
Now they’ll just say, “He looks like he’s as old as we are.”
It will be a fine moment of truth, and I will embrace it fondly.