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.

25 thoughts on “Lone Dog Road — Why the Problem?”

  1. Hi Kent,
    Another boulder continues to roll off the other side, only to be pushed back up…. Our art, I as as potter well know, that what speaks to me in a creative piece falls deaf to another. I hold a piece and say to myself, no Fred~ not your best. I see someone pick the same up in a shop and they are taken by it. Go figure-
    I have read all your work, and shared with others those books that I feel will speak to them as well.
    You are a truly gifted writer and storyteller. I appreciate the unique ability you possess to enable us to embrace the meanings behind the truth. I look forward to reading your new book, of course I would be.
    Another path upon a less traveled road.

    Many blessings ~*~

    Fred

  2. I am eager to read your next book Kent as you have opened this white guy’s eyes to realities and blind spots that nothing else has. I honor your steadfast vision and integrity and the deep generosity in your works.

  3. I’m waiting, I’m hoping it will be with us soon. I had a Native jewelry store in Arizona and was lucky to meet great artists and went to their studios , what an honor it was.

  4. LEEANN TALLBEAR

    As a native writer, in the sense that I have made a fairly good living writing for other people and getting paid for it, I guess you could say that I have profited by speaking for others. You also write to make money to support yourself. Therefore, if you can write a good fiction story that people enjoy reading and get paid for it, so be it. But, is it cultural appropriation if you are telling the story through a fictional character? I guess it is if you (the author) are claiming to speak with an authentic voice, which depends one what criteria you are using to determine that. You can’t be that “authentic” voice because you are not. None of this rabbit hole stuff has anything to do with whether your book is a good read that people will buy. The fact that publishers are afraid to publish a book by a white writer writing in the voice of a person of a different race or culture just means that there will be one less fakey body of work out there. Write what you are and know. We can tell our own stories now and I don’t think you really want to stand in the way of us finding our own voices and screaming from the rooftops so the whole world can hear us. It’s time.

  5. There is an anger towards me in this that I respect but think is misplaced. I am the biggest non-Native advocate for Native voices that you will ever find, and I have laid myself on the line for it from the first days I went to work with the children and elders on Red Lake. By being a non-Native that non-Natives would listen to when no one wanted to hear Native voices, I had a part to play in opening doors for the Native voices that are now finally being heard. I hope yours is among them; I truly do.

  6. Dear Kent,

    I enjoy your writing, and I empathize with your publishing situation. But there is an alternative solution waiting for you. One that I took years ago: independent self-publishing. I, personally, have no need for agents, traditional publishers, and all the rest of this shrinking legacy industry. My suggestion: just do it yourself. I have.

    Harald Johnson
    author/publisher: “NEW YORK 1609”

  7. I hear you, Harold. But the sad truth is that this dog is too old to learn new tricks. Self-publishing requires promotion and bookkeeping, neither one of which has ever been my strong suit. In fact, the second of these, done to my ability, would probably put me in jail. Nope, if I were 15 years younger, I’d be on it. I don’t like the publishing world, and it gets more crass and market-desperate by the day. Before long the key ability for entry into the field will be the ability to manipulate social media successfully. I’ll be pushing up daisies by that time, and happy to be doing so.

  8. Hey, I’m glad its 400 pages! It’s always a sad experience to finish one of your books, especially the stories of Dan.
    What comes to mind as I read this is, “human, all too human”. We are all flawed and so is life. Life’s just not easy, but we press on.
    You have countless readers all over the globe that are so thankful that you have pressed on. I’m so glad you’ve fought for your work here. I’m really looking forward to reading your book.
    All the best to you and yours.

  9. Greetings Kent~
    Write on, write on, RIGHT ON! Keep on pushing what you feel and share with the world. Looking forward to
    Long Dog Road, I can’t imagine not reading it after the trilogy. Alot of thoughts here, but ‘yeah,’ keep writing brother~
    Mark in Michigan

  10. Douglas O’Neill

    The telling of a story by a writer is only a part of the story.

    The existing perspective(s) of the reader controls how the journey, will go forward.

    Will the reader ‘think critically’ of what they just read and confront internal conflicts on what ‘think they know’ versus what is an apparent truth, that forces one to think beyond ones comfort zone?

  11. I needed to read this. I’m a newish playwright but a late developer in my 60s. I am white, educated, middle class English woman. I am well aware of my privilege and want to explore the blindspots (and deaf spots) that privilege will have given me through theatre but I’ve got bogged down in the authentic voice, cultural appropriation thing. It’s theatre I want to create, not a documentary. If we are limited to permission to create around what we are and what we have directly experienced (which would confer on us old artists the privilege of age over younger artists which would be very reductionist) rather than seek to explore what our human connections might be without boundaries, we are not being creative artists. Your writing is a bridge because it is your authentic voice as a writer, that cannot be fake. I will be buying your book.

  12. I have two Indians as major characters in my published novel and the novel I’m working on. I don’t think for them and their spoken voices are part of family. I don’t pretend to “know” anything. But yeah, it’s a very slippery slope. My bottom line is that my characters are human beings and I do my best to stay true to that. As I’ve said before, I’ll read anything you’ll publish and am eagerly awaiting this new one.

  13. Thanks Kent, for additional info. It’s not surprising.
    I can appreciate publishers, but not when they chicken-out.

    It could be worse. It took 6 years for In The Spirit of Crazy Horse.
    That was because the government wanted to keep the Sioux down.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if they are doing the same with you, covertly.

    Great Spirit and your Muse will take them all to task for any hindrance.
    Prophets are forever silenced. It’s why “Civilizations are waves on the shore.”

    Wovoka’s prophecies will come true, same as “The meek shall inherit the earth.”

    fyi Just as I watch old movies I’ve loved, it helps me re-reading your books.
    You take us where we need to be like a spirit-guide, walking in other’s moccasins.

    And opening our hearts to theirs.

  14. Kent, I know of no other person as genuine as you are; as willing to question your own voice, your own motivations, your own legitimacy.
    Here in West Africa, the highest compliment one can pay is that someone has a “clean heart”.
    You have a clean heart, Kent, and I am confident you know it.
    Keep on going, my brother.

  15. If we never imagine life from another perspective, we are doomed to a narcissistic world with further divisions. I’ve used your books in classrooms of diverse students and seen the awareness that they encourage.

  16. Kent, thanks so much for the explanation. I am working on my first (non-fiction) book as I write this (isn’t my procrastination effective?) and it is good for me to know what you, as a well-published author, has gone/is going through! In America today it seems like those of us who genuinely care about others and use their hearts as well as their minds in the service of others are neither wolves nor dogs. Perhaps we are lone coyotes wandering in the wasteland trying to find one another!

  17. I understand hour frustration and your pain. It hurts yo be so misunderstood. I stand with you

  18. Thank you for sharing your experiences on publishing a new book. Don’t give up. You have a writing gift and you use it well. I am personally looking forward to reading your new novel. As I read through everyone’s comments, I, too, am happy to have had a new understanding and inspiration created in my soul by your writings. You are the best in opening people’s eyes. I have no doubt that “Lone Dog Road” will do that, too. One of my book clubs this month is reading “Neither Wolf nor Dog.” It was my way of sharing your understanding and perspective with others. Keep writing and don’t give up.

  19. Have you thought of donations? Patreon? Maybe you are doing this already.. it could help finance your book, paperback.
    The Wolf Nor Dog triology was terrific, the words of Dan being played out for centruies if not thousands of years of humanity. The book on Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce was incredible. Never heard of Chief Joseph or the Nez Perce prior … wonder why!
    I say “press on” with your endeavors and when the time is right and everything aligns, albiet slowly, and your latest book will surface to readers.
    FYI: I write as well. It is all from imagination, a phrase or two or a couplet that pops into my head: none of it has to be “real,” as in what is directly in front of us (desk, pen, computer, house, car, co-workers, neighbors, a tree, etc) yet it is real in another dimension and then physicalized via writing into this dimension. Thank goodness writers have chosen to write. Thank goodness a British writer, John Sugden, wrote the fantastic book, “Tecumseh, A Life,” and other “white” writers wrote on Quannah Parker, Cochise/Geronimo, Red Cloud, Mary Jemison (in her own words to a white writer), the Mayflower (including the Mayflower Compact, King Phillips War of 1675), etc. I never learned any of this in school. Wonder why. And I have just learned about the (Irish) Magdalene Laundries and the horrors of enslaving children, pregnant teen girls, and young women, mass graves of their hidden babies/children… outrageous! I do not have to be full-blooded Irish to fathom these injustices nor have to be Irish to write about them, perhaps, one day.
    Anyway, keep on keeping on. Am looking forward to your writings. Cheers from chilly New Hampshire.

  20. Hi Kent. I came here today hoping to be able to order “Lone Dog Road”. I have not checked in for awhile and was not aware of the story behind your story. It’s sad that someone with your writing gift and your history can’t get this work published. There’s so much that is published that really is not worth the paper it’s printed on or the time to read it…I wish that I had the resource and contacts to help make this novel available. I know that there’s an audience for it. Your work has informed, enlightened and entertained me for years. Thank you for that. I know that Michael Shaara had a very hard time getting the “Killer Angels” published and finally a small publisher took it…and the novel won a Pulitzer Prize. All the best, Mike

  21. Thanks, Mike. The saga gets more convoluted by the day. I’ll post about it when the smoke clears. Bottom line: I think it is going to get published. There is a clear road ahead, but it has some unusual bumps. Stay tune.

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