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Interview: July 29, 2005

July 29, 2005

Legendary bestselling author Tony Hillerman, whose latest novel is SKELETON MAN, interviewed Margaret Coel, author of EYE OF THE WOLF. This eleventh book in her Wind River Reservation series will be released on September 6th. Coel discusses the influences of Native American culture and natural landscapes on her writing, describes the creation of main characters Father John O'Malley and Vicky Holden, and explains how Hillerman himself inspired her to begin writing mystery novels.

Tony Hillerman: How did you get started writing the Wind River mystery series?

Margaret Coel: Well, I have you to thank for that! I enjoyed reading your novels. I enjoyed going on the journey into the Southwest and learning about Navajo culture and life on the reservation while, at the same time, being absorbed in the mystery. At that time, I was writing nonfiction books and articles for magazines and newspapers. Then I happened to attend a writers' conference where you were the main speaker. I remember sitting in a crowded ballroom and all the time that I was listening to what you had to say, I was thinking, Gee, maybe I could do that with the Arapahos. Write a mystery novel, that is. I had no idea of whether I could do it. I didn't even know if I could write fiction. My entire writing career up to that point had been writing about real people and actual events, but I decided to give it a try. The result was THE EAGLE CATCHER.

TH: How do you make sure that the details about the Arapaho tribe are accurate?

MC: I sweat blood over that. I do have a pretty strong background in Arapaho history, which I've been studying and writing about for twenty-five years, and that gives me a starting point. For all the details about the tribe today, I go to the source. I visit the Wind River Reservation every year. I've gone to the Sun Dance, sweat lodge, and more powwows than I can count. I visit with my Arapaho friends, have dinner with them, and listen to what they have to say and the ways in which they say it. They know I'm always doing research, and they want me to get the details about them right, so they're really very open with me. I drive the roads that Vicky and Father John drive and visit the places where my stories unfold. I subscribe to the reservation newspaper and I read everything that I can about what's going on generally in Indian Country.

TH: How important is the landscape of the reservation to your plots?

MC: Oh, so important! For me, the landscape is like a continuing character --- complex, larger-than-life, and unpredictable. It is a source of ongoing conflict for my main characters. For example, they always have to contend with the vastness of the area, the miles and miles of emptiness. Father John and Vicky can never get anywhere in less than forty or fifty minutes. In all that emptiness, as Father John says in one of the novels, there is no place to hide, so the landscape really forces my characters to confront themselves. And the weather is not only unpredictable, it can take sudden, dangerous turns. Blizzards, wind storms, scorching heat and freezing cold can descend without warning at almost any time of the year. My characters never know when this landscape-character might, in a way, explode. Yet, it's a character that I love trying to describe, with its raw, primitive beauty and constantly changing face. It is really quite amazing.

TH: What led you to make your main characters a Jesuit priest and an Arapaho woman who is a lawyer?

MC: I have to say that Father John Aloysius O'Malley and Vicky Holden came as complete surprises to me. I call them my "dream people," (which is what Henry James called his characters), because they came to me in dreams. I'd been trying to think of a main character who would be like me --- an outsider to the Arapaho culture. Someone who would come into the culture, learn about it, and grow to appreciate it. My thinking was that the reader could come along on the journey. At the same time, I assumed that my main character would be a woman. So I did not set out to write about a priest.

Then, this tall, handsome, red-headed man started just sort of hanging around in my dreams, and gradually I understood that he was my character. He was a priest, a Jesuit, and he was of Irish descent --- well, he did have all that red hair. He hailed from Boston, which made him a genuine outsider not only to the Arapaho culture but to the West. Since there is an actual mission run by the Jesuits on the reservation, called St. Stephens Mission, it wasn't a stretch for Father John to be the pastor of his own mission, which I call St. Francis Mission.

I thought I had my main character. Except that there was a woman now hanging around in my dreams. She was black-haired, beautiful, intelligent and highly impatient. I tried to tell her to go away, the part was already cast. But Vicky Holden was not going away, and I began to understand that she was also a main character. An Arapaho woman --- an insider --- who was also an attorney, capable of working the magic of the law on behalf of her people.

So as it turned out, I got what I wanted --- an outsider and a woman. And two main characters, instead of one.

TH: Tell us about a minor character who took over a bigger role than you had planned for him/her.

MC: Oh, I would love to tell you about Ben Holden. In all my planning, he was about as insignificant as you can imagine. Because I wanted Vicky to have been a traditional woman before she became a lawyer, she had to have been married. And Ben Holden was the man's name. A character definitely on the sidelines, necessary only to provide Vicky with a past. But Ben Holden was not a man to stay on the sidelines. By the second novel, THE GHOST WALKER, he was striding through the story, causing a lot of problems and disruptions, taking the plot in different directions --- almost hijacking the novel. And that was only the beginning. He became a kind of force, like a tornado blowing through subsequent novels. But I have to admit, I really came to like the guy. As flawed and horrible as he could be, he was fun to write about.