Native Voice: Brian Young on Writing Healer of the Water Monster

By Kim Rogers

Today, we’re chatting with Navajo author Brian Young. Brian is a film maker and personal trainer. His debut middle grade novel is Healer of the Water Monster (Heartdrum, 2021). From the promotional copy:

“When Nathan goes to visit his grandma, Nali, at her mobile summer home on the Navajo reservation, he knows he’s in for a pretty uneventful summer, with no electricity or cell service. Still, he loves spending time with Nali and with his uncle Jet, though it’s clear when Jet arrives that he brings his problems with him.

One night, while lost in the nearby desert, Nathan finds someone extraordinary: a Holy Being from the Navajo Creation Story—a Water Monster—in need of help. Now Nathan must summon all his courage to save his new friend. With the help of other Navajo Holy Beings, Nathan is determined to save the Water Monster, and to support Uncle Jet in healing from his own pain.”

I had the pleasure of meeting Brian a few years ago at Kweli: The Color of Literature Conference in New York City.

Welcome to Cynsations, Brian! Tell us about your writing journey. Have you always wanted to write? What inspired you to write for young readers?

I’ve always gravitated towards writing. I made my first attempts at writing after I had seen “Jurassic Park” when I was eight years old. I handwrote two chapters about dinosaurs on the Rez. It was awesome.

Part of why I always shifted toward the writing portion of fiction and film is because I believed that is where the true power of storytelling is at. I acted in both theater and film and was always highly disappointed in what roles were available. And what meaningful roles were available…those roles always went to the same established Native actors.

Power to them, but for someone trying to break into the industry, it’s frustrating. So, I didn’t want to be a complainer and started making the roles that I wanted to see. I made the characters that I saw in my life, growing up on my homeland. Most of my projects lean towards a young audience or readership. That’s because there are so precious few representations of them.

I was a young avid reader and never found a meaningful representation of myself in the books I read.

Traditional Navajo Female Hogan – Hoghan Nimasi

What was your inspiration for writing The Healer of the Water Monster?

The Healer of the Water Monster started as a dream I had when I was living in Albuquerque, working as a meat cutter. I was struggling, barely able to make ends meet, paying my undergraduate loans and living expenses. I dreamed of a young Diné boy playing a portable gaming system in a mobile home in the desert, and then he stopped playing and ran into the nearby desert. He met up with a little lizard and they started singing. Suddenly, it started to rain.

I keep revisiting that dream. At the time, I was working in the film industry, trying my best to get projects started. I’d pitched ideas to producers and kept hearing “Native stories don’t sell” or “There’s no audience for Native films.”

So, I originally wanted to write this as a movie script and get it into production, but I knew I’d be running into those same biases. And I couldn’t keep asking the Native filmmakers I was working with to keep working for free on my behalf. I committed to writing it as a book first with hopes of eventually turning it into a film.

Around that time, I also figured out that the boy in my dream wasn’t a learner. The lizard wasn’t teaching him. He already knew the songs and/or was teaching the lizard the song that caused it to rain. I feel we always come across the archetype of elder teaching a kid, and I wanted to reverse that image and make the kid the teacher. And that simple act of turning the kid into a teacher shaped Nathan’s entire character.

He stopped being passive and grew instantly into an active shaper of the narrative. His actions would have consequences. Those two moments of turning this story into a book—(a) where I had space and power that film didn’t, and (b) making Nathan an active character—were influential to this entire process.

What joys and challenges have you faced in writing and publishing this book?

When I initially wrote the first few drafts of Healer of the Water Monster, I wasn’t ready as a writer. I didn’t know about the unique strengths and abilities of literature or what you could do with them. I had used #DVpit and was able to get forty agents asking for my manuscript.

They all said no. That’s fine, because I wasn’t ready. Healer of the Water Monster wasn’t ready.

I was using screenwriting techniques in a novel. Bad idea. At that early stage, I did encounter someone who told me I should make Nathan’s hair long and have a scene where Nali was braiding a feather into his long black hair, so that people would know that Nathan was “Indian.” Hopefully, that [kind of advice] isn’t common these days.

I think my greatest joy was when my agent and I secured a two-book deal with Heartdrum.

My journey from manuscript to print has been extremely quick. I signed with my agent I think in March or April. Then we went on submission in late April. I didn’t know that Healer of the Water Monster was going to get a deal. I just knew that I worked on it for so many years and had made it as strong as I could.

Brian on graduation day.

I also had other life events going on. I was getting ready to graduate from my master’s program. I was already over the moon having signed with my agent. But, thankfully, Heartdrum bought my manuscript in a two-book deal the day before I graduated.

I received the final contract when I was picking up my mom, sister, and niece from La Guardia for my graduation. Seeing my mom breathless reading my book deal was a great time that I will cherish forever. It definitely made all those early rejections worth it.

Brian has a master’s degree in creative writing from Columbia University.

You have two stories, “Senecavajo: Alan’s Story” and “Squash Blossom Bracelet: Kevin’s story,” included in Cynthia Leitich Smith’s anthology Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids (Heartdrum, 2021). How did writing them come about? What was the initial spark for these stories? What were the ah-ha moments in bringing these stories to life?

I actually was invited to contribute one story to the anthology by an email. I was in the middle of my creative writing master’s program and didn’t read the entire email, which included story length recommendations and a bunch of other stuff. So I wrote one short story that had both Alan and Kevin and was twice the length of what was recommended.

I got an email back from Cynthia saying, “I’m not sure if you read the email.” I was so embarrassed. But Cynthia was so graceful and understanding and suggested I cut the story in half and see which story was stronger.

I was fortunate enough that both were accepted.

My initial spark was I had a friend back in middle school who would attend powwows. He was often picked on because he had long braids. I wasn’t exposed to powwows growing up and was fortunate enough to participate in my people’s traditional ceremonies. I was exposed more to powwow culture when I left my reservation to come east for school.

My big aha! moment [in the story] was when Kevin confessed to his mother that he had sold the squash blossom bracelet for way less than its original price while Alan watched. That moment is the crux of a lot of emotional development for both characters. Kevin ‘fessing up to his mom, and Alan seeing his own mom as an adult and being brave to tell her something she may not want to hear.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

My biggest piece of advice would be: Learn how to channel your inner negative voice into a constructive voice. I’m sure like 99.999999% of writers have this inner nagging voice that tells them their writing is a bunch of garbage. I definitely do!

When I’m writing, that voice is still there telling me to quit my career and crawl under a rock. At the beginning of my writing process, or when I’m getting back into a writing flow after a break, that voice is very strong. But every time I hear that voice, I tell it, “Calm down. Thank you for your opinion, but I don’t need it in this moment.”

Over time—and I mean a lot of times and a lot of telling that voice the same thing over and over again—it gets easier. My calm-down voice gets firm. Then, when I go into revision mode, that’s when I ask that negative voice for its opinion. And in that way, I am able to redirect that negative voice into a constructive one. It’s not easy and doesn’t happen overnight. But when you are able to work together with your negative voice, it’s amazing.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Thank you for having me! I would also love to do a shout out to Shonto Begay who did an amazing job with the [Healer of the Water Monster] cover art. It’s beyond gorgeous! And also to the team currently working on the audiobook version of Healer, including Shaun Taylor-Corbett, who is doing so much extra work on his pronunciation of the Navajo language.

Cynsational Notes

Author and filmmaker, Brian Young is a graduate of both Yale University with a Bachelor’s in Film Studies and Columbia University with a Master’s in Creative Writing Fiction. An enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, he grew up on the Navajo Reservation but now currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

As an undergraduate, Brian won a fellowship with the prestigious Sundance Ford Foundation with one of his feature length scripts. He has worked on several short films, including “Tsídii Nááts’íílid – Rainbow Bird” and “A Conversation on Race with Native Americans” for the short documentary series produced by the New York Times.

Brian is currently working on his two book deal with Heartdrum, an imprint of HarperCollins. In addition to film and writing, Brian also works as a personal trainer, both online and in person.

Kim Rogers covers children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations.

Kim writes books, short stories, and poems across all children’s literature age groups. She is a contributor to Ancestor Approved coming February, 2021 with HarperCollins/Heartdrum. Her picture books, Just Like Grandma, illustrated by Julie Flett, and A Letter for Bob, illustrated by Jonathan Nelson are slated for 2023 with HarperCollins/Heartdrum.  Kim’s work has also been published in Highlights for Children, Guideposts Sweet 16, the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, and many other publications.

Kim is an enrolled member of Wichita and Affiliated Tribes  and the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. Much of her current writing highlights her Wichita heritage. She lives in Oklahoma with her husband, two boys, and one ornery, but very cute Chiweenie dog named Lucky. She is represented by Tricia Lawrence at Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

To find more Children’s and Young Adult Books created by Native American/First Nations authors and illustrators, visit Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Book Resource pages.