Wildyr: As I say elsewhere on this site, I’ve been interested in Native American cultures since childhood. I haunted the library and read everything I could find on the subject. Then I began to build little stories around what I’d learned. Cut Hand has been around for a long time, but it was only a few years back that I introduced him to others.
Travis: ¨Why was it important for him to emerge at that particular time?
Wildyr: By then, I’d found my own voice as a writer. I couldn't serve him well until I'd accomplished that. Many of my published short stories (and a novella) are peopled with Native Americans. Yet few of the stories were set in an era where the rich aboriginal cultural history was apparent or even relevant. As I say, Cut Hand was already there, but sometimes he’d been a Mohawk, a Comanche, a Blackfoot, an Apache.
Travis: So why did he end up a “Siouxan” of the Yanube Band in Dakota Territory in the 1830s?
Wildyr: The short answer is that’s who he told me he was when I actually sat down to write the book.
The longer one is that the Sioux are probably the most well-known and widely-publicized Indians of the 1800s. Their fight for survival has been told time and time again, usually from the white or settler’s viewpoint about fierce savages murdering peaceful Europeans as they proceeded to steal the Indians’ lands. I didn’t want Cut to be a member of the Council of the Seven Fires (as the Sioux referred to themselves), but there are several tribes related to the Sioux (the Mandan, for example), so I created a small band under the leadership of Cut Hand’s father, Yellow Puma.
As far as the 1800s, that’s the era that catches the fancy of many readers of historical fiction because it was a century of conflict and warfare with the tribes. Dakota Territory? Well, that comes with the “territory.”
Travis: That’s a terrible pun, but I’ll let it pass. If the young warrior, Cut Hand, was the motivating factor for the book, why does it unfold through the eyes of an American, Billy Strobaw?
Wildyr: Someone with a broader historical perspective needed to tell Cut Hand's story -- someone so physically and emotionally close he could share Cut’s thoughts and feelings almost as if they were his own. William Joseph Strobaw seemed ideal for that purpose.
Travis: Why not a woman? Why did you make them gay?
Wildyr: Simple question, complicated answer. There’s a very practical one: STARbooks Press is one of the larger, more successful gay publishing houses around, and they had brought out a number of my short stories with a gay theme. (To see how I got into that business, please read the “About” page of this site.) To satisfy their readership, the book had to have a gay theme.
Likewise, I’d had a number of reader contacts expressing interest in how I handled the gay issues in my short stories. I wanted to bring this readership to my novel, so this seemed a good way to do it.
Finally, and this is probably the real reason, given the LGBT issues of today, I wanted to show how “deviants” were treated by some Native cultures. Sometimes, they were accepted and even honored. Sometimes they were treated with hostility. This was true even among member tribes of the Seven Fires. The Lakota were more understanding; their kinsmen, the Dakota, were dismissive. By the way, Cut Hand isn’t gay. He’s bisexual.
Travis: Okay, so why not make Billy gay right from the beginning? And why the Tory reference in the opening pages?
Wildyr: The answers to these questions mesh together to make the theme of the book. I wanted Billy Strobaw to be an innocent. Educated but inexperienced. He needed to be driven west in a manner that made it hard for him to give up and return home the first time things got rough. Making him the son of Tories still feeling the onus of prejudice gave him a greater empathy for the plight of the Indians he later adopted as his own. Novels, particularly long novels (and this one covers 30 plus years) need to show their characters developing and changing as men and women. Billy Strobaw is the individual who does the most changing, the most growing – the definition of a protagonist, right? – so I wanted him to discover he was not who he thought he was and yet make him big enough to embrace who he discovered himself to be. I have tremendous respect for the Native American Circle of Life concept.
Travis: Anything you’d change if you wrote the novel over again?
Wildyr: Yes. Despite all the advice to the contrary (and there was lots), I had Splitlip Rumquiller and Wild Red Greavy speak in heavy dialect. I did this for two reasons. Much of the book is told in Colonial or early American terms, so these two characters seemed to fit seamlessly into the narrative. Secondly, I wanted a sharp contrast to the three viewpoints: Cut Hand, speaking broken English; Billy communicating in educated phrases; and the other two showing their rough edges. There were other ways to accomplish this, of course, but I was bull-headed enough to use this approach. I regret doing so because some readers have told me it was a hard slog through the section where Splitlip’s presence was heavily felt. One local author, whose opinion I value and respect I covet, gave up on the book.
Travis: I think this is enough. Does this repay my debt?
Wildyr: Not even.
Travis: Okay, we’ll do it again. Maybe talk about RIVER OTTER next time.
Note: New posts are published around the first of every month.
Comments are welcome, not only on this post, but also about any relevant subject the reader wishes to discuss.