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Interview: September 5, 2003

September 5, 2003

Margaret Coel is the New York Times bestselling, award-winning author of the acclaimed series featuring Father John O'Malley and Vicky Holden, as well as several works of nonfiction. Originally a historian by trade, she is an expert on the Arapaho Indians.

In this interview with's reviewer Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum, Coel discusses KILLING RAVEN, the ninth installment in her O'Malley/Holden series. She also talks about the research she conducts for her books, her fascination with the Arapaho Reservation and the tenth book in the series due out next year.

BRC: In KILLING RAVEN you explore gambling casinos on Indian Reservations. While you admit they bring some jobs to the tribe, you place more emphasis on the damage they do. What are your feelings about Native Americans using gambling to bring money to the reservation?

MC: Well, KILLING RAVEN is a mystery novel, which accounts for my emphasis on the darker side of casinos. I don't happen to be a gambler myself, although I've been known to plug $5.00 into a slot machine once in a rare while. But my personal feelings about Indian casinos are that, if managed correctly, casinos can generate a lot of needed income for a tribe. There are many examples of casinos that have built hospitals, schools, new roads, and created much-needed jobs on reservations. It is not without reason that Indian people refer to casinos as the "new buffalo;" that is, a new economic base.

As I point out in the novel, gambling has always been part of Indian tradition. Indian people do not particularly see gambling in moral terms, although of course they recognize the problems that can arise. Rather, they see gambling as a metaphor for life. Life is a chance. And gambling reminds us that each day is a risk, so it is important to live each day as best as possible. Also, gambling is a way of contributing to charity. They assume that, if they lose, someone has won who is more in need of the money.

BRC: At the beginning of KILLING RAVEN, when Father John is called to the murder scene, the chief of the BIA police asks him if he wants to pray over the dead man. The priest reflects that "there had been so many bodies. It never got easier." What does the priest mean by the remark?

MC: KILLING RAVEN is the ninth outing for Father John O'Malley and Vicky Holden, the Arapaho attorney --- the pair of sleuths in my Wind River mystery series. Over the novels, Father John and Vicky have seen a lot of dead bodies and had to solve a lot of murders. I've had several priests (and ministers, too) tell me that Father John has a much more interesting life than they have! So his thoughts at this moment refer to what has happened in the past. They also show that he cares a great deal for his people. He is truly trying to be a good shepherd to his flock. A death among the people is always hard on him. That, of course, propels him to solve murders, help bring about justice, and restore a kind of balance to the community, which is always knocked out of whack by murder. It's what makes him a good sleuth.

BRC: Vicky goes to visit "elders" who give her advice in oblique language. Have you found that this is how the generations communicate in real life?

MC: I love writing about the elders because Arapahos treat their elders with such wonderful respect and because the elders wield so much quiet, "oblique" power. It would not be the Arapaho Way for Will Standing Bear, the elder in KILLING RAVEN (and in several other novels) to tell Vicky what she must do. Rather, his role is to help her come to understand what, as an Arapaho, she must do for her people. In KILLING RAVEN, this presents quite a conflict for Vicky since she is a lawyer with a special responsibility to her clients, who happen to be the casino managers, but the elder expects her to make sure that the managers are doing their job. For me, it's fun to give my characters such conflicts, then sit back and see how they're going to work through them.

BRC: Your work reflects an enormous amount of research. How important is research to any writer, especially one who has developed characters who must have certain knowledge, live in a place with a certain climate, topography, mores and merge two worlds: reservation life and the outside world. How do you go about your fact-finding?

MC: As a historian by trade --- I'm the author of four nonfiction books on Colorado history, including CHIEF LEFT HAND, a history of the Arapahos --- I naturally love, love, love research. I do a lot of research for each novel, more than I could ever put in without choking the story to death. Even though I've written extensively about the Arapahos, I am still doing research on the history and the culture, and I'm still learning new and wonderful things, which keeps the tribe interesting to me. I do the research by going to the reservation, visiting with friends, talking to all kinds of people, going to powwows and other celebrations. I've been to the Sun Dance, and I've taken part in a sweat lodge. I also do a lot of reading on the Plains Indians in general. I constantly refer to the anthropological studies done on the Arapahos. All of which helps to give me a handle on my Arapaho characters, particularly Vicky, who really lives at the edge of two worlds --- the Arapaho world and the outside world. But so does Father John. These characters are what the Arapahos call the "edge people," because they can move from one world to the other and explain one world to the other.

I've done a lot of research on priests --- mainly by talking to priests and reading about their work and their calling. Lately, with the horrific scandals in the Catholic Church, priests have really come under fire and certainly with justification in many cases. But the vast majority of Catholic priests are like Father John --- dedicated men who work extremely hard to help others. I know several priests who have worked on the Wind River Reservation and they have been a great source of information for me. I often call them and say, "Father John is caught up in this or that situation. What would you do?" And they tell me.

As for Vicky, I've had to research what lawyers do and how they think. It helps that one of my daughters is a lawyer.

The topography, geography, weather --- I love them all. The Wind River Reservation is a remote and beautiful place. I take photographs when I'm there and make lots of notes, which come in handy when I'm writing.

BRC: Your books are character-driven. What made you decide to frame your stories that way?

MC: In my opinion, the best mystery novels are character-driven. Plots are fun and I certainly want a strong plot in a mystery novel, but the novels that resonate are those with great characters --- the kind who get under your skin and seem like real people. One of the most gratifying things as a writer is to have readers get involved with your characters because they've become real for them.

I was at a book signing in California sometime ago, and two women came up with books. One said, "When is Father John going to leave the priesthood and marry Vicky?" The other clasped her book to her chest and said, "Never!" I had to laugh because they were both so passionate about people who don't exist --- except in my head and in theirs. How much fun is that? I have to admit, however, that when I stay in the guesthouse at St. Stephen's Mission, which is the real mission upon which I base my fictional mission, I'm always sort of looking around, half-expecting to see Father John.

BRC: Vicky Holden is an attorney with real ties to the world beyond the reservation, while Father O'Malley came from the outside world to live within the boundaries of his faith and the reservation. There is a strong attraction between them, but clearly it will be unfulfilled. Is it tough for you to write about a relationship like this?

MC: Very, very tough. I set up the attraction between them in the first novel, THE EAGLE CATCHER, not knowing of course that down the road I would be writing novels ten, eleven and twelve. The reason I made them very attracted to each other was to enhance the character of Father John. As I was writing THE EAGLE CATCHER, Father John seemed like Father Perfect. He was so boring! (As perfect people are.) So I thought, I have to make this guy interesting. I have to give him some problems. So he became a recovering alcoholic. Then I thought, well, now, here is a man who has given into temptation in the past. He's a fallen man, which means he's human. Vicky was there in his line of sight and I see her as beautiful, intelligent and interesting. And Father John is a red-blooded male. So I sat back to see what was going to happen.

And both of them have taught me a lot. Father John is trying to live his vows, and it's not easy to live one's vows, including marriage vows. Vicky found that she couldn't live her marriage vows. She had to get out, but since she'd married an abusive alcoholic, she had a great reason. Father John doesn't have a legitimate reason. The fact that he's now met a woman and found that he loves her doesn't qualify. That doesn't mean that they don't care for each other and that there isn't a wistfulness about what might have been, because of course there is. But Father John and Vicky have come to understand that it doesn't matter what they might want. We don't get everything we want in life. We make our choices, take our vows, and that's what we get. And that can be good enough.

BRC: Vicky and Father O'Malley are flawed in unique ways. Is this a deliberate stroke on your part to keep them accessible and to humanize them?

MC: Absolutely. They do have their flaws and their problems and that's what keeps them interesting to me. Also, it keeps them growing and changing. As they grapple with their problems and conflicts, they change. They're affected by their experiences and they have to incorporate those experiences into their lives. For example, in THE SPIRIT WOMAN, Vicky is forced to kill a man. You don't kill someone and walk away untouched, even when it's justifiable. She has to figure out how to incorporate this horrendous event into her psyche and go on. Not easy.

My editor is always telling me that he feels sorry for my characters because I'm so hard on them. Well, I like to see what they're really made of. I like to see how tough they are. And I'm finding that they're plenty tough.

BRC: Can we expect to see more of Adam Lone Eagle in Vicky's future?

MC: Yep. He's going to be around for a while. Another quandary for Vicky. In KILLING RAVEN, she's not sure where he stands, whether he's one of the good guys or the bad guys. And Adam is going to be a bit of an enigma in the next novel. I like the man because he's hard to figure out, and that makes him interesting to Vicky, too. He's also a problem for Father John. It's hard enough for Father John that he can't have Vicky, but does he have to watch her go off with a gorgeous guy like Adam Lone Eagle?

BRC: Your Wyoming setting is magnificent yet you don't spend a great deal of time "painting the desert" so to speak. What are your thoughts on descriptive prose?

MC: Slip it in a little at a time, always through the eyes of the character. I try to describe what Father John is seeing as he drives across the reservation, the beauty of the natural environment surrounding him and the way in which it affects him. There's a peace and solitude in the wide-open spaces. And for Vicky, the beauty of the reservation always calls her back to her childhood and also connects her to the ancestors. The land that she moves through is the land that they moved through. The beauty of the natural surroundings gives her a sense of continuity.

As a born westerner who has spent most of my life in the west, I love the western landscapes, the big sky that, as Father John says, makes him feel that he's walking around in the sky, and I love the challenge of trying to describe it all.

BRC: You visit the Arapaho Reservation in Wyoming each year. What is the hold that this region has on you? What brought about your affinity for the Arapahos?

MC: This is my region. My place on the earth, I guess. I'm a fourth-generation Coloradan, and my love of the history of this area led me to the Arapahos. Before the settlement of the west in the mid-1800s, the Arapahos lived on the plains of Colorado. Their villages, hunting grounds and battlefields were here, and traces of their life can still be seen. As hunters, they ranged over an incredibly large area, including parts of Wyoming. The more I learned about them, the more fascinated I became. They were a warrior society, but they were also astute traders. When settlers first encountered them, they called them the "businessmen of the plains." They were also diplomats. They worked hard at keeping peace among the other plains tribes --- I suspect so that they could keep their trade routes open. And they were --- and still are --- very spiritual people with a great reverence for all of creation.

A little history lesson here: In the 1870s, the federal government sent half of the Arapahos to the Wind River Reservation in central Wyoming and half to a reservation in Oklahoma. Later, the people in Oklahoma sold their reservation back to the government, which means that the only reservation the tribe has today is in Wyoming. But the Wind River Reservation is much like the plains of Colorado, their homeland.

BRC: As a Native American writer, do you feel you should be an activist? Why or why not?

MC: Whoa! I am not a Native American. Like Father John, I'm of Irish descent. But thank you for thinking, after having read KILLING RAVEN, that I might be a Native American. So, am I an activist? Also no to that question. I'm a writer, a storyteller. My goal is to write a good story. I try to write the kind of story that I like to read. That is, a story with great characters, a strong plot and something more. I want a story to take me to a new place, introduce me to something I didn't know before, enlarge my life and enrich it. That's what I try to do for my readers, and that's a tall order. I would be very gratified if, after reading one of my novels, readers felt that they had visited an interesting world with interesting people and had learned something new. Maybe something about the history or culture of the Arapahos. Maybe something about the past injustices and the way in which they continue to affect the Arapaho people today.

Activist? Hey, I'm just trying to write a good story.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when can readers expect to see it?

MC: I am now completing the tenth novel in the series, which I'm calling WIFE OF MOON. It's been a challenge to write, since it is the first novel in which I have set some of the chapters in the past. Father John and Vicky often have to refer to what happened in the past in order to understand what's going on in the present, but this is the first time in which the reader gets to see the action unfold in the past. I think that, as a writer, you have to keep challenging yourself. You have to try something new and hope that it works. WIFE OF MOON will be published next year.