Interview: Joseph Bruchac
by Gayle Surrette
SFRevu Interview ISBN/ITEM#: INTJBrucha
Date: Sept 2006 / Show Official Info /
SFRevu: I hadn't read Skeleton Man but found that there was enough information in Return of Skeleton Man to follow it. Do you often do a follow on book? What did you feel needed to be said that hadn't been in the first book?
Joseph Brucha: I've only written sequels once before--to a novel about pre-Columbian America called Dawn Land. In that case, the world I had found myself in and the characters I discovered were so interesting to me that I had to revisit it to find out what happened next, three more times in fact. In the case of this novel, because the Skeleton Man ended with the villain falling off a waterfall (ala Professor Moriarty) and his body never being found, it left my readers asking the question-- "Does Skeleton Man ever come back?" I know this because I received hundreds of letters from young (and not so young) readers asking just that. I even had some in which they suggested ideas for the sequel. Skeleton Man literally came about as a result of a dream. I woke up one morning, turned on my Apple computer and started typing the story that had begun to tell itself to me. The first draft only took me about five days--the fastest novel I've ever written. The Return Of Skeleton Man was a very similar experience. I woke up saying "He's back!" But this time the first draft took three weeks.
SFRevu: I particularly enjoyed the way you told the stories and introduced other cultures so seamlessly into the narrative. It's not often that I find so many different cultures represented in one story. Do you usually have multi-cultural threads in your books, I mean more than standard American/European culture and one Native American group?
J. Bruchac: I have always been fascinated by the wonderful complexity of human cultures. I love learning about the ways other people see and experience the world around them. It is one of the reasons why I spent three years in West Africa as a volunteer teacher--where I met and made friends with not only Ghanaians, but also Canadians, Brits and people from Syria and Lebanon. I am very aware of the fact that being a human being in the United States today is, in many places, a multi-cultural experience. I'm multi-cultural myself--Abenaki Indian, English and Slovak. So--as a reflection of what I've perceived and experienced as reality--I often bring in a mix of multi-cultural characters. In my suspense novel Whisper in the Dark, the main character is a Narragansett girl in modern-day Providence, Rhode Island and one of the minor characters is a man from India who drives a taxi. In another of my novels from HarperCollins, The Dark Pond, the protagonist is half-Shawnee and half-Armenian. Right now I'm working on a novel about the Civil War in which my main character (based on my great-grandfather) is an Abenaki youth who has joined the Union army as part of the famous Irish Brigade, the Fighting 69th. Among the people he encounters during the siege of Petersburg are African American soldiers who are part of the United States Colored Troops Regiments and Confederate soldiers who are part Cherokee. The American Civil War was incredibly multi-cultural.
SFRevu: Skeleton Man and The Return of Skeleton Man are intended for young readers. However, I found the story engrossing and the family depicted to have a lot to say to all readers of all ages. With books for very young children, authors often layer in some material for the adult who is reading the book to the child. For your young children, who will be reading on their own, do you expect or hope that they will share with their parent what they've learned or experienced while reading?
J. Bruchac: Yes, I do. I have a very strong background in traditional Native storytelling. I mention that because in our traditional cultures storytelling is not just for children. The same story may appeal to a very wide range of ages and, though it may seem simple, has layers of meaning that man only truly becomes understood and appreciated when you've lived long enough. So, when I write for young readers, I don't think of myself as just speaking to young people. I aim for that wider audience.
SFRevu: While science fiction, fantasy, and horror books may occasionally touch on native peoples and their stories, it's usually not with the depth and seamlessness of The Return of Skeleton Man. Do you think you might someday write in one of these genres for adults?
J. Bruchac: I actually have done a little bit of writing in all three genres for adult readers but have only had a few short stories recently in anthologies. Back in the 70s I had a couple of adult speculative fiction novels published by small presses--The Road to Black Mountain in 1976 from Thorp Springs and The Dreams of Jesse Brown in in 1978 from Cold Mountain Press. I'd welcome the opportunity to do more, but I'm also enjoying the heck out of what I'm doing at present in the very important arena of writing for young readers.
SFRevu: I've noticed in reading a lot of works for children and young adults, that there seems to be some big changes from when I was a child. The stories are now dealing with some pretty intense issues and seem to give young people a chance to see others their age dealing competently with events that many adults would have difficulty dealing with. As a writer have you noticed similar changes or have you always written the story you need to tell?
J. Bruchac: I've noticed these changes--and I agree with your assessment--more as a reader than as a writer. Quite frankly (and I have a dozen unpublished manuscripts from the last twenty years as evidence) I have always written the stories that wanted me to tell them. > SFRevu: Getting more into our standard questions, what's a typical day of writing for you? Do you consider yourself a visual writer -- imagining the scene or story and just writing down what you see -- or are you a writer that has to build up the scenes/story word by word until it's what you want?
J. Bruchac: In a typical writing day, I get up early, do a little tai chi, and then start writing. I don't outline or plan out what I'm going to do--although if it's a novel based on history I do usually create a chronology of events that I have up on my wall to refer to as I write. Instead, I write what I see, often with such interest that I lose all track of time. I'm there in the story. Sometimes, in fact, my wife Carol has to remind me that--as she did a few days ago-- "Joe, did you know that it's two in the afternoon and you still haven't had your breakfast." And yesterday I had to take a break when I started to see red smears on my keys and realized that I'd been typing so long and with such intensity that one of my fingertips was bleeding. That required a break to put on a fingertip bandage--great invention, Johnson&Johnson--and then get back to the battle of Cold Harbor.
SFRevu: What's on your to be read pile, right now?
J. Bruchac: I'm one step beyond what you might call a voracious reader. I always am reading at least 20 (and that's not an exaggeration) books at any given time--apart from those I'm using for research on whatever my current project might be (that Civil War novel I mentioned). Whenever I check out of a bookstore the clerks usually say something along the lines of, 'Oh, I see you are picking up all of your summer reading.' To which I reply 'See you next week.' Among the stack of books I'm working my way through now for enjoyment are Zorro by Isabel Allende, Warrior Woman by Peter Aleshire, Pegasus Descending by James Earl Burke, White Russian by Tom Bradby, The Devil's Teeth by Susan Casey, The Lady and the Panda by Vicki Constantine Croke, My Uncle Napoleon by Iraj Pezeshkzad, Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber by Stephen Yafa, and To Become a Human Being, the Message of Chief Leon Shenandoah by Steve Wall. That's one stack. I finish an average of a book a day.
SFRevu: I read that you have a musical group called Dawn Land Singers with your sister and sons. I believe there's an album out also. How important is music in your life? Do you feel it's just another way to tell stories?
J. Bruchac: I've been writing and performing songs for over 40 years and have had a few things recorded--nothing major, just by other people doing folk music. It's an important part of my life and I've been told that I have a decent voice and that I'm talented as a lyricist. I love performing with my family and we have done a couple of albums together. However, I saw the semi-nomadic life that friends and acquaintances of mine--such folks as Harry Chapin, who was a close friend of mine in college, Loudon Wainwright, Utah Phillips and others--had to live as musicians to succeed or just make a living. I didn't want to have to be away from home and family for months at a time. I made a conscious decision to not go on the road and pursue a song-writing career. Instead, I chose to focus my writing mostly on poetry and on writing fiction. I made a similar decision in 1981 when I resigned from an administrative position at Skidmore College to become a freelance wrtiter because the academic life was taking me away from my wife and my two sons. Getting back to music--it's of great importance to me. I'm always listening to all kinds of music, including hip-hop, Afro-pop, country and classical. And music is, indeed, a way to tell stories. I used to write essays on the lyrics of popular music and even had a little book of essays published in 1973 by Dustbooks Press called The Poetry of Pop.
SFRevu: How has your life been different from what you imaged it would be when you were younger?
J. Bruchac: When I was younger I always saw myself becoming a naturalist. I've always had a great love of animals and nature. In fact, I spent my first three years at Cornell University as a major in Wildlife Conservation. I also loved writing and ended up taking some creative writing courses at Cornell from such terrific teachers as the poet David Ray. At the end of my junior year I changed my major to English and went an extra year to get my Bachelor's degree in English and then went on to Syracuse University on a Creative Writing Fellowship for my Master's Degree. So that's one big difference. On the other hand, I always saw myself living in the same house where I was raised by my grandparents in Greenfield Center, New York--and here I am. And even though I was smaller than the other boys, timid and bullied, I always saw myself as growing up to be big and strong and sure of myself. I've been told I succeeded in realizing that image, too.
SFRevu: Do you have any regrets?
J. Bruchac: That I zigged when I should have zagged? Kidding aside, there was a time when I had too many regrets and lugged around the various kinds of guilt that people assume when they think they are carrying the world on their shoulders. That time, though, is long past. One reason is that I learned to listen to some of the advice I was getting from friends, like my dear friend Tommy Porter, a respected Mohawk elder. He reminded me that the first teaching the Creator gave human beings was to always give thanks. When you do that, you realize all that you have to be thankful for--even if it is only your next breath or the ability to get out of bed in the morning. When you are truly thankful and are trying to do your best each day, you have no need for regrets.
SFRevu: What question would you like to be asked in an interview? And, what would your answer be?
> A: Why are you so good-looking and talented? To which I might reply in the words of St. Elvis: Thank you verra much? Forgive me for treating that like a straight line. To be honest, I prefer to let others make up the questions for me when I'm being interviewed. That way I'm more likely to learn something about myself in my answers.
SFRevu: Thank you very much for taking the time to answer our questions.
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