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.