I started writing professionally as a journalist for the Aspen paper.
Those of you who have seen The Post about the daily life on a newspaper before Watergate, in Katherine Graham’s era in the 1960s, will appreciate the very hands-on realities of the pre-computer days working for a newspaper. Copy went to an editor, then back to you for a single edit, and then to the compositor and paste-up. (Our brother Brian Kinal was a reporter and editor for a daily newspaper all of his career; Tom Hanks’ performance channeled our brother, and the closeups of the linotype, setting copy, running the press brought me to tears.)
My start in advertising as a copywriter, revealed that I was not going to be good enough to write award winning ads, thus within a year, I was switched to marketing. Time as a marketing consultant—a paid “Cassandra”—were spent writing daily: white papers and proposals mostly. But I still considered it creative.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered during my MFA at Bennington, that my creativity muscles had gone flabby, that I had become a glib and facile hack. Surprises even more surpassing awaited: it takes me the better part of a decade to write a novel! Bringing a character alive on the page is an act worthy of Dr. Frankenstein. A late bloomer, I was delighted to hear Toni Morrison say that it takes her eight to ten years to write a novel.
Of the three parts of writing—research, the actual act of writing and revision—my lifelong fondness for research fed my flame. Similar to being in the dentist’s office on a Monday morning on nitrous, writing a scene on a page out of the raw material of one’s imagination, tears, laughter, is ecstatic and like all ecstasy, highly addictive. Unlike many writers, I have never experienced writers’ block. I suspect I indulge in a lot more of what Morrison calls meditation on her themes. I let my “it” send me dreams. I call out to the universe for what I am missing. Now, with two novels completed and released to their readers, I have come to appreciate revision the most. It’s here that all three of the elements of writing come into play and fuse into what we call a novel.
An element of my research may become a dependent clause in a sentence, a throw away, but I am very careful with my readers. I want hard evidence backing up my important assertions.
And so when my European characters in Burning Silk began to cast longing glances at the freedoms their native neighbors enjoyed, I called a halt and went out to speak with my native historians. Michael Galban, for instance, introduced me to Sally Roesch Wagner, whose newly published book Sisters in Spirit, documented the influence the Haudenosaunee women (Iroquois) had on our early women’s rights movement. I returned to my desk ready to give my characters permission to be influenced!
The details of raising silk, processing flax to become linen, are highly accurate.
But in the immortal words of Paul West (Diane Ackerman’s husband), there are times when you have all the facts and feelings that research can provide and still have essential gaps.
Many of my friends in native American tribes are involved in the same process. When you have exhausted all the primary and secondary resources to rebuild a culture, the spark of your deepest intuitive imagination must leap across the gap. Many times, I have found that I was right, when time coughs up fresh information that reveals your intuitive leap to be factual.
And we hire great editors with whom we become intimate, developing trust.
So when my editor Lois Gilbert of Santa Fe tells me that an important character is uni-dimensional, or too good to be true, I go to work. When she asks me to lose the wolves (Linen Shroud) I consider and then decide: no, the wolves are an important counterpart to human society. I so admired Witi Himaera, the Maori author of Whale Rider for giving a pod of whales agency and dialog; I was determined to try the feat myself with a wolf pack, also matrilineal.
My novels begin and proceed like oil paintings, with successive layers adding information, leaving time for the oil paint to dry on the easel, to consider.
I have always followed the advice of my mentors who said not to think about my market, or what is trending now (pointless anyways when you take the better part of a decade to write a novel: incest is passe, the mystic nun has been done), just write the best book that you can.