Author Feature: Joseph Bruchac

What kind of young reader were you?

I was voracious–in more ways than one. Not only did I read everything I could get my hands on, I developed a taste for books, literally. Whenever I read a page I would tear off the lower outside corner and eat that postage-stamp-sized piece of paper.

A gentle (but firm) children’s librarian managed to break me of that habit by reminding me that others would be reading the books after me and they might find a nibbled-upon copy somewhat distasteful.

Whenever I had any spare money I would use it to buy books (you could buy hardcover books back then for a dollar or less), and I had bookcases on every wall of my room by the time I was ten.

What first inspired you to write for children and teenagers?

I was primarily writing and publishing poetry in literary magazines for the first decade of my writing career. Having my own two sons inspired me to write for young readers. They are also the ones who turned me into a storyteller.

Once I began writing for young people, I realized what a wonderful and important audience they are. Our native traditions remind us that our children are the continuation of the circle, and there’s no more fertile and creative soil to plant the seed of story than in the mind of a child. When I write for kids, I feel as if I am reaching for the hands of seven generations.

You’re an extensively published and widely acclaimed author! How many books have you written, and how do you maintain such a high level of quality and productivity?

I’m not quite sure right now. If you count small books, picture books, chapbooks of poetry and so on, then it is about 140 now, more or less.

As far as quality goes, I have been blessed with some very outstanding editors over the years and a first reader–my wife of 44 years, Carol–who’ve helped me keep my standards high. (I’ve also never written anything just to get it published. I always write something because I care about what it says. Love, not money or success.)

As far as productivity goes. I was blessed by the Creator with a very high level of energy and given the gift of being able to express myself with ease and some facility.

If you could pick four of your books, those that are closest to your heart, which would they be and why?

That’s both hard and easy to do. My favorite book is always the one I’m working on because my spirit is immersed in the journey of walking that story. I never write or talk about a book specifically while it’s in process, so I won’t say more about that.

My autobiography, Bowman’s Store: A Journey to Myself (Lee & Low, 2001), is dear to my heart because it tells the story of my family, especially my grandfather, Jesse Bowman, the man who put my feet on the path I follow today, even though he could barely read and write.

Hidden Roots (Scholastic Paperbacks, 2006) is important to me because it tells the story of many of my Abenaki people who had to hide their Native identities to survive, and it’s also a book about the love of books, about the difficulties of work, about family violence, and about some of my own experiences, once removed into the realm of fiction.

Wabi: A Hero’s Tale (Puffin, 2007) is my wife Carol’s favorite of my novels, and I feel very connected to the main character, both when he is an owl and when he is a person trying to make sense out of living in this confusing human world.

There’s the four that come to me today. Tomorrow (except for the first book), I’d probably list different titles.

We last spoke in September 2005 about the publication of Code Talker: A Novel about the Navajo Marines of World War II (Dial, 2005). What’s new in your writing life since then?

I’ve had several novels published since then and have four or five books coming out over the next year or so. They include The Way (Darby Creek, 2007), a novel about a boy learning martial arts, Geronimo (Scholastic, 2006), Jim Thorpe, Original All American (Dial, 2006), The Return of Skeleton Man (HarperCollins, 2006), Bearwalker (HarperCollins, 2007), and my two newest, Buffalo Song (Lee & Low, 2008) and March Toward the Thunder (Dial, 2008). The last one is a novel about the Civil War, and it draws in part from the experiences of my own great-grandfather, an Abenaki Indian who served as a Union soldier in the NY 69th, the famed Irish Brigade.

Congratulations on the publication of Buffalo Song, illustrated by Bill Farnsworth (Lee & Low, 2008)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Hearing the story of Walking Coyote and the Buffalo Orphans about 12 years ago while I was out in Montana with Nora and Dick Dauenhauer, doing workshops at Stone Child Community College on the Chippewa Cree Reservation.

What was the timeline between spark and publication?

I did my first draft of the story 11 years ago. A few years later, one of my previous editors took it and planned to publish it. But when she moved to another publisher, the project died.

That was fortunate, for I’d learned more about the story since then–largely from information given me by friends at Salish Kootenai College. I kept learning more about the story and the culture surrounding it over the years until I finally decided, about three years ago, to do another revision and send it to Lee & Low.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

I think the biggest challenge was continuing to believe in my telling of this story after the initial attempt to see it published failed. But it was a blessing in disguise, for the eventual story I told is far superior to the earlier draft that might have been printed.

Blending fact and fiction is also a challenge–I want to avoid at all costs, distorting the truth. So the framework of people and events is very true to everything that I’ve discovered in the years I’ve been researching the story. What I’ve done is to imagine conversations and try to get into the heads of the characters–human and animal–in my telling.

What did Bill Farnsworth’s illustrations bring to your text?

Bill knows the area and is a good researcher. He also showed me the drafts of his paintings and was very interested in whatever advice and sources I could offer him to help insure cultural accuracy. I think he did an excellent job of visualizing the story, showing the people and the places in a creative and respectful manner.

In my own Native-themed writing, I’ve tended to stick close to home, so to speak–focusing on characters with whom I have a common heritage and/or those from areas in which I’ve lived and whose communities I’ve known. How do you go about approaching a story immersed in another region/Nation?

I’m always hearing new stories as I travel. Often, when that story is told by someone who is a Native writer or storyteller himself or herself, what I do is to urge them to tell that story, to write that book. There are many stories that I’ve heard that I keep in my heart, but I do not write or tell them.

But if it is a traditional tale that I would like to write down, then I ask about the proper way of my telling it. Is it okay for me to tell it, what do I need to know about it? (If the answer is “No, don’t tell it,” then I don’t.) It may mean that it will be a long time, years even, before I am well prepared enough to tell that story.

I also find that there are many people who want to help me tell a story the right way. For example, Navajo Code Talkers read my manuscript, Code Talker, as did Harry Walters, who runs the Museum at Dine College and several fluent Navajo speakers.

How do you go about researching and, if need be, acquiring permissions? In what situations do you find seeking permission a good idea and why?

I don’t just rely on books. I turn to people, those who experienced the story or are the descendants of those who lived that history. For my two books about Jim Thorpe [Jim Thorpe’s Bright Path, illustrated by S. D. Nelson (Lee & Low, 2004) and Jim Thorpe: Original All-American (Dial, 2006)], I interviewed his surviving children and other Sac & Fox people, visited the Carlisle Indian School, walked the Oklahoma hills where Jim lived and listened to the land.

In terms of written source material, I always go first to primary sources. It’s amazing how much inaccuracy there is in secondary materials.

I also immerse myself as much as possible in the Native language, using dictionaries, recordings of speakers, having fluent speakers make sure I have something right.

What would someone speaking Chiricahua Apache say–or not say? For example, in Chiricahua, there are no words for “warrior,” or “raiding,” or “renegade.” I took that to heart. As a result, my novel Geronimo may be the only books ever written about Geronimo in which those words are never used.

I love to study languages. They tell you so much and living languages are always growing and changing. That’s why my novel Pocahontas (Harcourt Paperbacks, 2005) has a double glossary in the back, one a dictionary of the Powhatan language and the other of Elizabethan English.

By the way, I should add something I’ve already inferred. For me, research also means walking the land where the story lived and still lives.

In one way or another, I find that seeking permission is always a good idea. For one, it is the honorable thing to do. For another, it usually results in your getting great advice, and a final manuscript that is much better than it would otherwise have been.

With regard to retellings in particular, many writers are interested in adapting traditional stories for the picture book market. Such efforts are well reflected within your own body of work. What special considerations should come into play?

Writers need to be very careful when adapting a story that comes from a tradition other than their own to avoid certain assumptions that stem (I fear) from a sense of cultural superiority and entitlement. One is the assumption that you understand the story just because it is written in English and you’ve read it a few times. Another is that it is perfectly all right to make drastic changes in such a story because such alterations “seem right” to you and are your creation prerogative. A third is that the story is “just a story” and nothing more.

You need to know something (at least) of the original language. You need to know who was the teller of that story. (I know of many Abenaki stories, for example, that were collected in a form that is either incomplete or distorted because the “informant” either didn’t know the story well or was misunderstood by the person who wrote it down, or was reticent to tell it.)

You need to know the purpose of the story. What is the cultural context? What did it teach within its own community? Why and when was it told? What did those who heard it know that you do not know?

To know a story well enough to retell it, you need to be familiar with that story. I mean “familiar” in the very deepest sense of that word. The story needs to be part of your family, part of you, as close to you as your own relatives. And that is not easy to do.

Adoption in found in every culture in the world, so it is possible to develop a family tie to a story. But it is never done quickly, and it is never done for fame or financial gain.

What are good resources for students of Native youth literature?

Native people first. Two of my favorite books to recommend (both indispensable): A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children, edited by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin and Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children, edited by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin.

Do all of your books have Native characters and themes? If not, what other kinds of stories have called to you and why?

No. I’ve written about Africa. I lived in Ghana for three years as a volunteer teacher and have been to West African several times. I’ve written about popular music. I’ve written books of poetry without a single obvious Indian reference. I’ve written collections of Adirondack tall tales.

I also have now written two novels that take place in medieval Slovakia–the other side of my family. Janko and the Giant has been published in serialized form in newspapers over the last three years. I’m just finishing another Slovak novel that is a hero’s quest type of story, based on Slovak traditional stories.

How have you grown as a writer over the course of your career? In what areas are you still working to improve?

I’ve grown to the point where I know I can always sit down, start writing, and find something to say that I think is worthwhile. I’ve also become more disciplined as a writer, accepting that just a few pages a day is all you need to do to complete the longest project. (To climb the mountain, take one step, then another.)

I’m still working to improve every area I can think of.

If you could go back in time to your beginning writer self and offer some advice, what would you tell you?

Be patient with yourself; few good things happen fast.

What do you do outside the world of storytelling and books?

I teach karate two or three days a week. I’m a fourth degree black belt in Pencak Silat, the martial art of Indonesia. I’ve been studying an teaching martial arts for 35 years. I also was a high school/junior high wrestling coach for a time and have been working in Brazilian ju-jitsu for a few years.

I have that in common with my two sons. Jim’s also a fourth degree black belt–in Korean karate, and Jesse runs a mixed martial arts academy. Hitting each other, kicking each other, choking each other out. Perfect father/son togetherness. We are all crazy.

I do a lot of gardening–both indoors and out. Vegetables, flowers, trees.

How much gardening?

Well, a few years ago my wife Carol said, “Joe, how many jade plants do you have now?”

“Five or six, I guess,” I replied.

“Count them,” she countered.

I did. There were 57.

I also work some with my son Jim at our family nature preserve and Native outdoor center, teaching traditional skills such as shelter building, animal tracking, fire-making. It’s the Ndakinna Education Center.

I write songs and perform traditional and contemporary music. A few have been recorded by other artists, but I don’t push it. Just finished doing three days of performance at the Old Songs Festival, where I was also doing workshops on Native American flute. I play flute, guitar, drum.

My sister Marge, Jim and Jesse and I have performed together as The Dawnland Singers. We have a couple of CDs, and we’re working on a new one now. We’ve also all taught workshops and classes in Northeastern American Indian Traditional Dance.

I also do some traditional crafts. A little jewelry, mostly earrings, necklaces.

Also, mostly in winter, I make rattles, drums, and flutes.

I’ve been involved some in documentary film of late. Tom Weidlinger, who’s a well-known documentary film maker and I are now on the final edit of a film about the life of Jim Thorpe to be shown on PBS in 2008. And I’m working with my son Jim Bruchac on several film projects focussing on Adirondack and northeastern American Indian storytellers, musicians and tradition bearers. Jim is the co-owner of On Track Production, a small hi-def film making company that is located at our Ndakinna Education Center.

Also, Ndakinna is now doing an every-other-year large Native Festival. We did it in 2006 and 2007 and attracted about 5,000 attendees each year. Next one will be in 2009. Kind of like a pow wow but with more emphasis on education.

What can your readers expect from you next?

I have a couple of new things due out soon. One is a collection of retellings of traditional tales done by myself and my son Jim (we have now written eight books together)[see How Chipmunk Got His Stripes by James Bruchac and Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Jose Aruego and Ariane Dewey (Dial, 2001)].

Another is a new scary novel from HarperCollins called Wings In The Night. I’m also working on some graphic novels–illustrated by other people, of course–for First Second books. Then there’s one or two other things…