I have to start writing more reader-oriented blogs. I keep writing author/publisher focus blogs. Writing blogs directly intended for readers? Terrifying. Why? I don’t know. But it’s down in my gut, the feeling that I can’t do this, it’s stupid, etc. Fear of failure. I hate it. I’d rather talk about the writing process instead of the end result. So, apologies if this doesn’t work. I did it; that’s the big thing today.
When I was a kid, people would ask me to tell them interesting things that I had done or had happened to me. I never had any. My world was caught up in the books I read, not in the stuff I did every day. Books = exciting. My life = boring.
The older I was, the worse it got. Other people went overseas, had interesting jobs, met famous people.
And then I read The Gunslinger, the first book in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.
I enjoyed the book, read the next two (I think the next two were out then), and was heartbroken when I found out that he was probably never going to finish the series.
But shortly after that, I started to be able to come up with interesting things about my life. The fact that I grew up in the middle of nowhere started to mean something; I could start seeing it from other people’s perspective.
The Gunslinger, while not being about South Dakota and feeling just a bit off to me, made what I felt when I was out on the prairie something I could almost put a finger on. Over the next hill could be something completely surreal. The hawk sitting on top of the fence post over there might start talking. In the dark, people might change into something different, like werewolves, or even something weirder. The grass might cover up all kinds of strange things that went down into the earth. The gentle waves of grain might be a skin for some great beast, dozing in the July heat. Making the July heat.
The place I had lived as a kid became a magical place, when I was in college. Because of somebody else’s book. The power of reading.
I struggled with it. Stephen King had never lived in South Dakota, after all, so he couldn’t exactly be trusted to come up with a myth that described it so well, the way that the Dark Tower series described the further West or “Children of the Corn” described Iowa. (Later, when I lived in Iowa, I couldn’t escape the thought that something in the corn was watching me. I admit to being overimaginative.)
I wanted to be the person who came up with the defining South Dakota myth. Of course, I know that it’s not really possible; I’m too late. The Wizard of Oz wasn’t really written about Kansas, but about Aberdeen, South Dakota, where L. Frank Baum worked as a newspaper reporter. He never lived in Kansas. And The Little House on the Prairie books are as mythological as anything containing dragons.
Nevertheless, even after I figured that out, I continued.
My first book was about the prairie and the way it was fundamentally unreal. The world had become a collection of fantasy lands that faded out around the edges; the center one was a prairie populated by werewolves who were trying to stay human but failing miserably, and about to be destroyed by an invading country, the fairy-like Summerlands of Minnesota, led by a renegade werewolf. However, the real problem was that the world had been destroyed a few generations ago, and the only thing keeping it together was an old woman’s imagination; one of the werewolves had to give up his humanity in order to inherit the job of keeping everything running.
I’m making it sound better than it was, because I’m a better writer now, and I can’t help sprucing up the description: I think more in terms of stories than I used to, so it sounds more like a real story now, when I describe it. It was a first novel, of the usual type.
I tried; I failed; I got better.
Eventually I realized that it would be better if I spun off small bits of stories from that first novel: too many things going on. I thought and I thought and I thought…
After a while, I realized that I’d been around for the end of an era. The Old West had been dead for a long time, but I was there for the end of the Middle West, that mythical time that happened, for most people, on TV with shows like Gunsmoke and the fantasies of cowboys and Indians, red bandanas, silver stars, and capguns.
Independent ranchers and family farms.
Reservations before the casinos came.
Kids driving tractors for their families at stupid-young ages.
Johnny Cash was still alive and raising hell.
I mean, come on. I had my own horse at one point. He scared the crap out of me, and I rode one of the other horses instead. But there you go.
It’s a different kind of West than the Old West, but it was still a mythical time. Now, it’s all 80’s music with steel guitars, casinos, the Oscar Howe museum (where white kids take tours), feedlots, and industrialization. People have internet access and cell phones.
My childhood. Why not write about that?
Or even just a little bit earlier…
I wrote about 1960, the year the Big Bend Dam was being built. It flooded all kinds of Indian lands. (Back when I was growing up and riding the bus through the reservation to get to school in Chamberlain, it was both a compliment and @#$%^& insulting to call an Indian a Native American. Why would you want to be named after your own @#$%^& conquerers? Native was the important word. And people hadn’t taken to identifying first with their particular tribes at that point, at least, not in front of a white kid.)
I wasn’t born yet; my only real experience with the era was clips of movies shot on my grandpa’s movie camera, of branding cattle, riding horses, going to rodeos. Everything was sepia tinged, because the light was so bright and the film was so old, and in my imagination, everything was colored like that.
In my imagination, none of it was real, and yet all of it was incredibly important, like a dream that you had better get right, or you’re never waking up from it.
So I ended up putting together a story about a family of cowboys and ranchers, under the thumb of one of the giants of the earth, a veritable Zeus among cowboys. And a half-blood Indian girl who is the lynchpin of the universe (not quite making it all up the way that old woman from my first novel had, but close). And shotguns and pickup trucks and the wide open prairie, which might swallow you up at any moment, and the nearly-extinct buffalo thundering over the prairie.
Now, of course, there are great herds of bison (their proper, if non-mythological, name) out in the Black Hills; you can drive out to Custer State Park and see them. Times have changed.
But that sense of the grain being a skin over something else that you can’t quite see–nope. That’s still there.