Whenever you enter into a professional field, you discover aspects of the craft that you never anticipated.

In my 35 years of writing I have had some strange Japanese fellow claim to be me on line (he may still be doing so, for all I know), a priest in New England literally lift passages from Letters to My Son and use them as his own in published sermons (I let it pass, much to the dismay of my more litigious and anti-Catholic friends), and seen a professor in the Philippines build a public following and develop his professional reputation around his thievery of my chapter on Marriage in Simple Truths.

But nothing has compared to the recent discovery that a highly popular French film, Driving Madeleine, currently showing around America as well, was a direct lifting of my story from Make Me an Instrument of your Peace about the time I picked up an elderly woman in my cab and drove her through her old neighborhood before dropping her off at a hospice.

To be fair, this story got cut loose from its point of origin in my book and set free on the internet, where it was often attributed to “anonymous” or claimed by various wannabe writers or inspirational bloggers. But, by and large, it was appropriately credited and became the one thing I’ve ever written that has “gone viral”, to use the parlance of a generation to which I do not belong.

“Aha,” I thought, when I first found out about the film.  ‘That’s my story.”  For once in my life I had dollar signs in my eyes and I was prepared to move to some South Sea island and spend my life smoking cigars and drinking Margaritas (“I said, ‘no salt, no salt'” for those of you in the know).

Alas, the legal Big Dogs said there is no case there. I would be squashed like a bug and drained of every penny I had. “You can’t copyright an idea,” they said. “You will be legal road kill.”

Now, there are many things I don’t want to be, and legal road kill is high on the list. So I have taken my dashed hopes and trudged back to my writing desk where I hunker down listening to the echo of my father and every other working stiff I have ever known who said, “Better the slow nickel than the quick dollar.” But it was a good fantasy while it lasted.

Now you can see for yourself what that fantasy was all about. Here’s the cab driving story:  And here’s the IMDB listing for Driving Madeleine:  The trailer doesn’t show the ending at the nursing home, but, trust me, it’s there.

Oh well, life goes on.

Hunker, hunker.  Write, write.  Where’s that nickel?


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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