Lone Dog Road — Why the Problem?

No one really needs the “inside baseball” stuff about my job or anybody else’s.  But some of you have asked why I have had such trouble getting Lone Dog Road to the marketplace, given the legacy of the “Dan” trilogy and Chief Joseph.  It’s a fair question that opens up some real issues that are worthy of one-time mention.

First off, to give publishers their due, there is an issue of length with Lone Dog Road.  It’s long.  It will run to well over 400 pages.  Printing books costs money and I was unwilling to cut LDR down by 30 or 50 thousand words.  So one part of the issue of finding a publisher was merely me reaping the fruits of my own stubbornness.  It was going to cost a lot to print this book, and selling it at a reasonable price while still making a profit was going to be a challenge. Add in the fact that I went out with it right at the end of the pandemic, when publishers were hurting financially and no one knew when or if the market for books would rebound, and their wariness was warranted.

But here is the more interesting aspect.  I don’t just have Indian characters in my books, as do my friend William Kent Krueger or Tony Hillerman, both of whom take their share of grief for supposed cultural appropriation.  My books aim to illuminate the Native experience as their primary goal.  I am, and always will be, at heart a teacher.  Though I work hard to make my books readable and engaging, my primary purpose is to open my readers’ eyes and hearts to a world too long ignored or hidden from view.  This casts me, rightly or wrongly, in the apparent role as a spokesperson.

The murder of George Floyd brought to a head everything that had been burbling below the surface in American culture.   Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, a hundred other unknown and previously ignored deaths of unarmed Black people; the disappearance on an almost daily basis of Native women; the frustration of women in general at the glass ceiling, “mansplaining”, and unequal representation in any number of aspects of American life — and a chorus of voices rose up almost organically saying, “Stop talking for me for once as if you understand me.  Just shut up and listen for a change.”

It was, and is, a fair demand, long overdue.

The result was the growth of the “Own Voices” movement where finally we are hearing people speak their own truths in their own words.  The corollary was, “You white men, STFU.  We’ve heard quite enough from you.”  And I am a white man who has tried to give voice to the way of seeing and understanding of a people not my own.  Notwithstanding who I am as a writer and what I have done, or even the quality of my heart or my writing, we have entered a cultural season where my voice is not one that is sought out, or even trusted, by publishers who have to make judgment calls on what the marketplace will accept.

But if that was all there was, there would surely be one or two big publishers who would be willing to fight the headwinds.  But I quite purposely pushed things further.  I truly believe that the “own voices” movement is a season, and not a discovery of a deeper reality.  The essence of the artist is to be able to enter into other realities and give them voice.  If we can only write from within our own experience, however you cut and slice it, we are living in a balkanized reality that is dangerous and self-limiting.  We need to acknowledge everyone’s voice, but we need to reach across and hold hands in the darkness.  This is what I decided to do in Lone Dog Road:  to write from within many voices in search of a common understanding.

And so I not only touched the third rail, I jumped on it and held it.

“You are writing in the voice of an 11 year old Lakota boy?  And a Black traveling gospel singer?  And a Dakota woman?  And a mother who has just lost a child? We’ll put up with the ex-seminarian who has lost his faith.  He’s a white guy.  And the middle aged white wanderer.  You can do that, too.  But these others?  We don’t think so.  We’ll take a hard pass.”

And they did.

So, add it up.  Old white guy.  No history as a novelist.  400 plus page book.  No social media presence other than a faithful but small following on Facebook.  Writing in voices of people whose experience it is assumed I cannot possibly understand. And you end up in the rejection pile of any publisher that keeps an eye on the bottom line.  And that’s all of them.

But that disrespects you as my readers, especially my Native readers, who value my work as a bridge voice.  It devalues my work as a way to draw people into an awareness of a world we all need to both learn from and understand.  And it shows a lack of faith, even a cowardice, on the part of those who should be championing all voices that allow us to see behind the veil of other people’s lives.

As a writer, and, perhaps as a human being, I’m truly neither wolf nor dog.  But I’m nothing if not dogged.  And I continue to bark.  Or maybe to howl.

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Where, oh where, is Lone Dog Road?

Many of you are asking (as am I):  Where, oh where, is the promised new novel, Lone Dog Road?

Here’s what you are waiting for:

A book that William Kent Krueger says “is breathtaking in its beauty and heartwarming in its humanity.”

A book that Dan O’Brien says “Opens a door on another reality.”

A book that Leif Enger says is “swift, compassionate, and instantly credible.”

A book that my friend, Robert Plant, calls “a revelation.”

It is, I hope, all of that.  But it is also a book that is having a frustrating and difficult time being born.  As I’ve said, the big publishers ran from it because it has the mark of Cain upon it:  A white man writing about Indians.  Notwithstanding that I’ve earned my spurs in the Native world by my patient labors over 30 years, and that hundreds of you Native folks — among my most faithful and insightful readers — would stand up for me on a moment’s notice, the publishing world sees with wary eyes and paints with a broad brush.  The book scared them, leaving me to go with this earnest, courageous young publisher, Polished Stone Press.

To their credit, Polished Stone is, with a small staff, trying to do what the big publishers do with hundreds of employees and well-oiled machines.   Not suprisingly, they are struggling.  The innards of the struggle are unimportant; watching the sausage be made is generally a sight to be avoided.  I just want to see the book in your hands, because I love it and believe in it and want to offer it to you as what I think is a unique literary gift.  And I will get it to you.

At this point there are plans to simultaneously publish a limited edition hardcover and a paperback, and to do so within the next few months.  I do not want to be “the boy who cried, ‘book’!” so I’m not going to proclaim a date.   And, understand, I’m none too happy with the delays myself.  But I think there is light at the end of the tunnel.  We only have to hope that the light is not some chimerical illusion or distant mirage.

But I’m willing to be patient.  Lone Dog Road is a good book; one of my favorites, and I believe it is worth the wait.

Just know that when it finally does come out, I will need all of you to help it make its way in the world by flooding the cyber world with reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, and everywhere else.  A small publisher has no real promotion budget and has to rely on word of mouth, which has always been good to me.

We as author and readers have always had a special relationship — more friends than readers and writer, so I know I can count on you.  Lone Dog Road is going to need all of us pushing it into the light if we want it to do the good in the world that my other books have done.

So stay patient and stay tuned.  And talk to your local bookseller about making a pre-order.  They will be the first to know when this little literary infant will crawl forth into the world.  Hopefully, it will be before the buds are on the trees.

I’ll keep you updated as best I can. 

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