by Paul VanDevelder, May 8, 2009 10:04 AM
The debate currently raging in the media over the use of torture by the Bush administration is enough to turn any sane person into a political revolutionary. Or an expat. As our over-consumed, over-fed, under-informed and over-entertained society awakens fitfully from its somnabulistic torpor and beholds the "banality of evil" that was the Bush Reign of Terror
, we come reluctantly to the awful truth that the blood spilt by these beasts is on all of our hands. And, sadly, I having proudly counted myself among them, no single institution in our society is more responsible than the pathetic cadre of yapping lap dogs we call the press
. Never in our history has the fourth estate so completely failed to fulfill its responsibilities to inform, expose, and illuminate than it did during the Bush years. Lone voices, like that of Frank Rich
of the New York Times
, have thankfully had the juevos to call a spade a spade by having the temerity to lay the cadaver of democracy at the feet of those most responsible for this travesty. Let us please not equivocate about this simple truth: torture is a crime in this country. Ronald Reagan declared that torture was unacceptable in any
circumstance (though his own agents used it freely in Central America). The entire Bush team should be hauled before an international tribunal, especially Condoleezza Rice
; Dick Cheney; Cheney's mouthpiece, David Addington
; John Yoo
(the city council in Berkeley, California, where Yoo teaches, recently passed a resolution condemning Woo for war crimes); Alberto Gonzales; Karl Rove; and Bubba the Bombastic Bumbler himself.
In the late '60s and early '70s we came very close to bringing the government to its knees over the colossal deceptions contrived by American industry to promote the Vietnam War (see David Halberstam's The Best and The Brightest). The creeps in power back then were pikers compared to the cabal of monsters that ran this country into the ground during Dubya's reign. Never, writes economist Paul Krugman, have the leaders of this nation so savagely trounced the principles on which the country was founded.
The scandal over the use of torture by the Bush Administration has now mushroomed into a global disgrace! I just spent three years writing a book about the cost of abuses of power in the 19th Century. Those abuses, committed by some of our most esteemed leaders, took the lives (and stole the homelands) of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans to satisfy the appetites of an inbred, ignorant, and illiterate citizenry. But for all the havoc they wreaked, and the rivers of blood they spilt, they were amateurs. The Bush Team turned corruption and abuse of power into an art form.
Throughout Dubya's reign of terror, my wife and I more than once considered packing up the family, turning in our passports, and emigrating to another country. I grew up in Latin America, so adopting another culture isn't a leap into the unknown. What stopped us? I don't know. Maybe I was more fiercely loyal to the nation's originating principles than I'd realized. Maybe it was that line from John Stuart Mill: "My love for my country is equaled only by my determination to change it!" Maybe leaving, with the barbarians inside the gate, would have been an act of cowardice. It reminds me of the story when Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Henry David Thoreau in jail after Thoreau was arrested for protesting President Polk's (illegal) war with Mexico.
"David, what are you doing in there?" asked Emerson.
"Ralph," said Thoreau, "the question is, what are you doing out there?!"
That's a lofty sentiment, today, in a country so mired in self-serving obfuscation and rationalizations that when Antonin Scalia and four of his cohorts on the U.S. Supreme Court hijacked the Constitution (Jeffrey Toobin's account of this disaster, from Justice Seuter's vantage point, should haunt this nation for generations to come), in November 2001 (those are President Carter's own words), we, as a nation, did what? We took a Valium and went shopping. Instead of camping out in the streets and demanding a new election, like they did in Kiev, Russia, we went shopping after electing a Kurtz-like character (see Conrad's Heart of Darkness, or Francis Ford Coppala's Apocalypse Now) to serve as the nation's vice-president. Dick Cheney was the same man who, a few years before, as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, cast the only vote against a resolution (can you get your brain around this?) condemning apartheid in South Africa. Now, for the next eight years, this man would barricade himself behind executive privilege and run a shadow government that not only made a mockery of the rule of law, and thumbed his nose at Congress and the Constitution, but was also responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens. And he's walking around today as a free man? When PBS's Frontline did a two-hour investigation into Cheney, they had the spine to call it The Dark Side. And that's putting it midly.
So, one wonders, have we, as a society, lost our collective mind? What happened to our will to decency, as Pete Hamill asked in his brilliant essay "End Game"? What happened to our common sense? Ha
by Paul VanDevelder, May 7, 2009 10:07 AM
A few years ago, my then-six-year-old daughter Ellie asked me a great question: "Daddy, where do books come from?"
"Well, a boy book and a girl book meet at the library, they fall in love in the circulation room, and when all the librarians go home for the evening, they get together and make baby books..."
"That's not how they do it!!!" she laughed. "Tell me really."
I don't remember what I told her, exactly, but it couldn't have been as unlikely, or surprising, as the way it actually happened with Savages and Scoundrels. Savage's predecessor, Coyote Warrior, had taken me about ten years to research and write. That book told the story of the Cross family, a Mandan/Hidatsa clan of Native Americans whose ancestors lived at the Knife River Villages when Lewis and Clark paddled up the Missouri River and met them in their town in the autumn of 1804. The book tells America's story, from that October afternoon until today, through the eyes of five generations of the Cross family. Simultaneously, it traces the evolution of federal Indian law, and the natural history of the Missouri River, from the Middle Ages to the 21st century.
When I finished writing Coyote, I was exhilarated. And exhausted. I don't know how other writers feel at such moments, but the last thing I wanted to do, or could imagine doing, was starting another book. I remember Steinbeck saying that nothing terrified him more than a ream of blank paper. Yet, every time I was asked to do a reading, or speak about the book, invariably the first question put to me was, "What's your next book going to be about?"
I successfully slipped that noose a couple of hundred times over the next two years. Instead of focusing on another book I directed my energies toward public speaking, writing columns for the Los Angeles Times and stories for Audubon magazine and High Country News. Also, I rewrote and rewrote a screenplay that I had written as a draft, years earlier, about three American journalists in Latin America who broke the Iran-Contra scandal wide open (Eureka! That film, entitled The Eighth Circle (thank you, Senor Dante) is currently in pre-production, with Adrian Brody scheduled to star — the website will launch this week!). Then, out of the blue, I came home one day to a phone message from my agent, Joe Vallely. He'd had lunch that afternoon with a publisher who wanted to talk to me about writing a new book. It's a big deal, said Joe. Call immediately. Important.
The publisher, it turned out, was Yale University Press, and they had just published Gore Vidal's wonderful book on the nation's founders, Inventing a Nation, under Yale's Icons of America series. Based on the work I did in Coyote, they wanted to know if I would be interested in proposing a new idea involving Native American land rights, the law, battles, personalities — whatever struck my fancy — for the Icons of America series.
Hmmmmm. Gore Vidal? For about six and a half seconds I was flattered speechless. Goosebump city. Then I blinked and shuttered uncontrollably for about two hours. Impossible. I couldn't write such a book, not with The Master standing behind me looking over my shoulder. Forget it. Too risky, too daunting, too high a mountain!
I called my agent back the next day and we talked. His logic got me turned around in the right direction. That conversation led to a talk with the editorial director at Yale, Jonathan Brent, who could not have been more personable and encouraging. Yep, I was the guy to do this, he said. He was sure of it. He'd been in publishing a long time. He knew what he wanted and I was it. I wagged my tail. Now, the thing we had to do, said Jonathan, was to come up with just the right hook, the right idea. Did I have any thoughts on that?
It took about six months of going back and forth before Jonathan and I settled on "the perfect idea," an idea that resonated like a "tuning fork struck upon a star," to borrow Scott Fitzgerald's wonderful metaphor. We decided against doing a biography on personalities, such as Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse or King Phillip, and we also decided against the all-to-obvious 'iconic' bloodbaths of the 19th century. The answer was elusive, but I didn't want to rush into this thing just for the sake of another advance check. The concept had to be right. What's more, if I were going to spend the next two to three years focused on a single project, I had to feel a lot of passion for it. It needed to make my bones shake.
That right idea came one day while my wife and daughter and I were sailing along the west coast of Pender Island, in British Columbia. When we tied up at the marina at Otter Bay that evening, I caught a shuttle into town and dashed a two line e-mail off to Jonathan: "Got it! The story of the Indian treaty, and the role the treaty played as a legal tool and artifice of deception in Manifest Destiny and the settlement of the North American continent. Our national story!"
That was it! This was a story that was begging to be told, and as far as I knew it was a story that had never been explored. There were plenty of books about treaties, and plenty more about westward expansion, but none that drew a bead on the role treaties played in our unfolding national story, and how that story impacts us today. For another thing, this story would be about the white guys. Coyote Warrior was told from the vantage point of an Indian village beside a river of time. Savages and Scoundrels would be told from the vantage point of the city on the hill, across that same river. This story had the potential to realign many of the major suppositions about westward migration and the evolution of the United States from 13 small states to a global superpower. Those realignments, or adjustment to the me
by Paul VanDevelder, May 6, 2009 10:09 AM
The run-up to the official launch of Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America's Road to Empire through Indian Territory, on April 21st, has been a thrill ride through the zany world of publishing PR and marketing. That's especially true in contrast to the launch of my previous book, Coyote Warrior: One Man, Three Tribes, and the Trial That Forged a Nation. The contrast between the two is where this deal gets interesting — as a cautionary tale and a tour through the labyrinth of imponderables that lay between your editor's desk and the front table in book stores. My learning curves always seem to look like flag poles.
Here's a rudimentary primer for would-be writers: Observation #1: writing your opus is the easy part. Observation #2: Getting it accepted, edited, proofread, typeset, designed, galley-ed, corrected, printed, and finally — drum roll, please — distributed, takes that once-upon-an-easy thing and turns it into an ordeal that involves a cast of dozens, if not hundreds, is a miracle akin to the loaves and fishes. Bottom line: to get from manuscript to published book requires the best efforts of a lot of very talented people. Be very, very nice to them. They're overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. They have dreams too, and truth be told, your book is just another slice of bologna on the shit sandwich of life. If you have a problem, let your agent handle it. That's why they get the big bucks.
Despite the best efforts of my publicist at Little Brown, a tireless cheerleader named Amanda Erickson who has since moved on (imagine the publishing world as a gigantic revolving door with a porta-potty installed in each bays), Coyote Warrior was launched in August, a terrible month, and didn't really get rolling until October. It earned great reviews from flagship newspapers and magazines, like Audubon and Esquire and Outside, but by October, even those weren't enough to overcome the weight of the Xmas season. Alas, the collective attention span of the American public is measured in nano seconds. The book quickly disappeared beneath waves of holiday confections and brain candy that hail the arrival of the season to be jolly. RIP.
But, no! Alas, the book gods had other ideas. Miraculously, Coyote popped right back up after the Xmas hangover. Five years later, I'm happy to report, it's still going strong. In fact, it will have its second debut as a new edition in 2009 (third printing), with a (fantastic) new cover and an afterword. My devoted and talented former editor, Deborah Baker (who also edited Barack Obama's first book) gets a huge share of the credit for Coyote's success. She was a fierce champion of this story from the get-go, even after she got canned in a downsizing coup at Little Brown (a coup that foreshadowed much darker days ahead for the entire publishing world).
Compared to its older sibling, Savages and Scoundrels has made a lot of pre-launch noise — noise that started showing up in sales four months before it was officially launched. Welcome to A Brave New World, wherein publishers use outlets like Amazon as freebie national focus groups for soon-to-be-released titles in hopes of gauging public sentiment for new titles and better targeting their marketing dollars. The pre-pub hype for Savages started in earnest with the Smithsonian excerpting a segment of chapter five in early April, days before the new PBS series We Shall Remain began airing on American Experience. Even though Savages is really about white guys (shhhhhhh!) like Jefferson, Jackson, and John Marshall, et. al., and introduces a brand-new wrinkle into the theory of westward migration (thank you, Yale Press!!!), the book is closely related to the PBS series in other ways; i.e., the producers of We Shall Remain just got development funding to turn Savages into their next documentary project for PBS. In the meantime, while the Smithsonian was being flooded with responses to the excerpt — a good thing — a cover story I had written for American History magazine, entitled "What do We Owe the Indians?" rolled off the press the following week.
In the midst of that hoopla, the invitations from radio stations started rolling in, and we were still a week away from the official launch. It was heady and exciting, and while that fifteen minutes of fame can come and go in a flash, it reminded me of a conversation I had with Mark Spragg (An Unfinished Life) at the Montana Festival of the Book a few years ago. "Holy cow!" he exclaimed one morning when we sat on the curb outside the hotel sucking java out of Styrofoam cups. "Crowds make me break out in hives. I'm a hermit. I love being a hermit. Then poof! Your book comes out and the world expects you to be a media star. It's soooooo weird!"
I can relate. It's the schizophrenic side of the writer's life that you can only learn about the hard way. In a nutshell, crowded auditoriums can be damn intimidating, especially when you've spent the last six years of your life living in semi-catatonic isolation — all the more reason to marvel at the stage performances of Sherman Alexie, the champ — another reason to radio. Radio can be intimate at the same time it buffers you from all those eye balls. For me, radio is the coolest hot medium, the perfect showcase for books and authors — especially if the interviewer has taken the time to read your flap copy (here's my latest "Blah blah blah for Prairie Public Radio). Then, his/her lack of prepa
by Paul VanDevelder, May 5, 2009 11:16 AM
Hitting the road with a trunk full of your newly published books is a great way to 1) see parts of the country you've only seen out the window of a plane, 2) eat food you've never heard of, and 3) find out what your best stuff is really made of.
Not to worry about the last item. Citizens in that other America, those same fatalistic Missouri Senate Lutherans you met in Willa Cather novels and Ted Kooser poems in freshman lit, are some of the nicest folks you'll ever meet. In a lot of those small towns in Nebraska, Wyoming, and the Dakotas, the fact that you got there, under your own power, is, in and of itself, front page news in the local newspaper. At your reading that night they'll be happy to tell you what they think, but unlike some of their urban counterparts, they'll gush about the things they like, and they'll be painfully polite about the things they don't. Politeness is encoded in their DNA. Picture them sitting quietly on neat rows of folding chairs at the grange or the VFW, ankles crossed, backs straight, hands clasped loosely in their laps. For the next hour or two, they're yours!
But don't make the mistake of looking in their eyes. Those expressionless glares can unhinge your self-confidence as quickly as a registered letter from the IRS. One glance at that sea of blank faces and you think — I'm bombing. Now, your last best hope is to make it to the 'question and answer' period. But even that relief is short lived! Invariably, a verbal rocket, no, a meteor, unleashed by the oldest lady in the room, roars out of the left quadrant of the galaxy and comes straight at your forehead.
I remember just such a moment at the Smithsonian, in Washington D.C. Carlos Pienado, a Mandan/Hidatsa native from North Dakota, and his partner Daphane Ross, are film makers who produced a beautiful documentary called Waterbuster, a film that paralleled the story (and interviewed many of the characters) I wrote about in my book Coyote Warrior: One Man, Three Tribes, and the Trial That Forged a Nation (Little Brown, 2004). The trail of success for both the film and the book has led us to venues, large and small, all over the United States. Along the way, Carlos and I visited a number of cities and towns in the 'big empty' of the upper mid-west, the Pacific Northwest, and the Southwest. Large, enthusiastic crowds (500 qualifies as large in the Dakotas) greeted us at every stop. In time, the word spread and raced ahead of us, resulting in an invitation to the Smithsonian's National Museum for the American Indian on the mall in Washington D.C. By the time we rolled into Washington D.C., our shtick, as they say, was dialed in. We were a well-oiled machine.
Waterbuster tells the story of Carlos' family's search for identity after their world — and the ancestral homelands of many thousands of native people on the Great Plains — was destroyed by Pick-Sloan dams built on the Missouri River in the 1950s. Carlos' family (and tribes) not only lost their homes and land, they were subsequently forced by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to move to urban centers on the west coast in a federal program called Relocation — a travesty of federal ineptitude and cultural cynicism that I investigated extensively in Coyote Warrior. Surprise surprise! Relocation just happened to be administered by a guy named Dillon Myer, the same racist autocrat who set up and ran the Japanese internment camps during World War II. Coyote Warrior and Waterbuster tell the story of Relocation from the eye of that storm, and witness the devastation it left in its wake.
As one might expect, the film was wonderfully received by the crowd at the Smithsonian. Waves of applause swept us to the front of the auditorium as the lights came up. Questions started popping beneath waving hands. After repeating this in twenty or thirty venues, the questions become somewhat threadbare, and the answers canned. How long did it take you to make this film? Where do you live now? What made you want to write the book? What happened to your uncle, the guy on the horse who got stranded in the ice floes at the beginning of the film? Questions like those, reasonable and understandable. Then came the zinger, one we'd never heard before, from an elderly woman at the back of the auditorium.
"You've done such a beautiful job telling your grandmother's story," she began. "I'm ashamed to say had no idea all of this happened. But what I really want to know is, where did you find so many articulate Indians?"
What can you say? The answer to that is — well, there really isn't one! You do your best to fumble through a diplomatic response and hope you don't make the guest appear more idiotic than they already have, which is not always easy. A similar thing happened to us in Grand Forks, North Dakota, when a college professor at the University of North Dakota stood up and explained that she was deeply moved by the film, but she wondered when someone was going to tell the story of the thousands of white people who were also devastated by Pick-Sloan?
"The reason I ask," she finally explained, "is because my family was destroyed by Pick-Sloan. We were fourth-generation homesteaders. My great-great-grandfather came from Sweden and built our farm from scratch. When we found out we were going to lose everything, I was a little girl. Six of our family members, my aunts and uncles, went out behind the barn and committed suicide rather than give it all up to the flood. And they weren't the only ones. Who's going to tell their story?"
Questions like hers leave me speechless, adrift in quandry. I think of something appropriate to say an hour later, after we've had pie at the local diner and we're driving back to the motel past the now-darkened windows of the grange — it comes to me then. But not at the moment. The moment finds me humbled and astonished and flushed with compassion for the real people of America, the everyday Joes and Sallys living their lives in urban boroughs or sleeply little backwater towns — just trying to make the best of things. After all, isn't that why we do this thing called writing, to tell great stories and hit the road with a trunk full of books so we can meet our fellow citizens face to face and connect with our readers and other strangers on their home turf in fleeting moments that lift the gloom?
I think so. It is for me, anyway. The moral to this little story is pretty straightforward. If you wanna be a writer, and you wanna tell tales that open old wounds, brace yourself for blowback (in many forms) when you hit the road. Be prepared to be a lightning rod for the hopes, sorrows, and joys of total strangers. And don't pass up the walleye platter at the Sceni
by Paul VanDevelder, May 4, 2009 10:21 AM
, a great friend and tennis buddy from my notorious Missoula years — back before the majored-in-English-minored-in-philosophy wannabe lit set ever got wind of the place and wrecked it with fern bars and wine boutiques — walks into a restaurant in Sun Valley, Idaho, and sees, who? — none other than Clint Eastwood
standing at the bar. True story. Steve steps right up to the bar and turns to Eastwood and says, "Hi, my name's Steve Krauzer, and I'd like to buy you a drink."
Krauzer orders two whiskies, then tells Dirty Harry he's in town for a writer's conference. As a matter of fact, says Steve, he's published a dozen or so western novels, if he doesn't mind saying so, all under a pseudonym, of course, and some private-eye pulp fiction, a couple of joke books, and even a film or two. Not too shabby for a guy on the sunny side of 40. Eastwood's impressed. The shots arrive. They toast to pulp fiction and loose women, then drain the fire. Then Krauzer says, "So, tell me, what do you do?"
That, ladies and gentlemen, was pure Krauzer chutzpah (the late, great Art Buchwald defined chutzpah as the behavioral hallmark of a guy on trial for killing his mother and father who asks for mercy from the court because he's an orphan). Krauzer was the original funny Jew from Manchester, New Hampshire! As his friend Bryan di Salvatore wrote in Steve's obit a couple of weeks ago, Steve — when he was on — was the funniest son of a bitch west of the Cayahooga. By turns, Steve's comedic shtick was searingly sardonic one moment, then self-annihilating the next — revealing a breathtaking arsenal of weapons that lurked in the high voltage brain behind those darting brown eyes. If you missed his act this time around, be on the lookout for him in your next life. Some people use humor like a stiletto. Krauzer used it like a rack of billy clubs. He was the original irreverent East Coast transplant, the original Yalie for all seasons, and he, like many of us, fell under the spell of western landscapes framed by our westward facing windshields when he was young enough to make the most of it.
That romance began for Krauzer on a road trip he took shortly after college, in the early '70s. He never looked back. The great loves of his life were whiskey, games of chance, and pulp fiction, not necessarily in that order. The man was a writing, card-playing, drinking machine. He could bang out a dozen publishable pages of prose before breakfast, after sitting up half the night with 'da boyze' in a room full of blue smoke and a floor full of peanut shells and empty bottles. Krauzer was so prolific in his heyday that he wrote three novels a year (all published) without ever missing a tennis date, a softball tournament, a raft trip, a card game, or a deadline. Not your average 'skill set.'
Those were the wild and carefree years in Missoula, before big sky country got itself discovered by the Hollywood crowd. Once that happened, there was no going back to innocence and decency any more than you could undo your circumcision. Back then, folks said Montana was a small town with the longest main street in the world. It was true. You could still use food stamps to pay off the bail/bondsman, or to buy poker chips at the $5 draw table in the backroom at the Oxford Café if you were a little short on rent money. Looking back from the vantage point of a new millennium, those years seem far too bawdy and imaginative (and faintly surreal) to describe in detail without taxing credulity. Ken Kesey, Hunter Thompson, Tom McGuane, Bud Guthrie, and Wendell Berry were among the many wordsmiths who regularly cycled through town to drink of the waters and partake of the hilarity. And for that, there was never a shortage of culprits willing to throw another cup of gasoline on the fire, or, for that matter, ready to throw a tire iron at the canine patrol van on a snowy night. Just to see what would happen. Our adventures usually involved some combination of golf clubs, fishing rods, canoes, side-by-side shotguns, rafts, hunting dogs, big coolers, borrowed cars, siphon hoses, rubber checks, and police. Folks like William Kittredge, Jim Crumley, Dick Hugo (Dick's widow, Ripley, has a new book of poems out that's wonderful), Bryan di Salvatore, Jim Welch, Richard Ford, Max Crawford, Rick deMarinis, Peter Stark, and Bill Vaughn, to name a few, all piled into those jalopies at one time or another, and there was never any way of knowing where we would end up, break down, or run out of luck, booze, money, food, or jokes, out in the high, wide, and lonesome.
We were damn lucky to have those years, before A River Runs Through It, the movie, came to the silver screen and forever altered the anything-goes aspects of life under the Big Sky. The movie's credits were still running when the gentile set arrived with their Orvis fishing rods and Lexuses and started building ten thousand square-foot starter castles on blue ribbon trout streams. That heralded a new day, for sure, and those of us with Zebco reels and Volkswagens didn't quite know what to make of it. Somebody at the Chamber of Commerce decided the town's image — affectionately described as "poverty with a view" — needed a facelift and an attitude adjustment. Fast. Gentrification hit us like a white out blizzard at a July picnic.
Some of us survived the town's (and state's) upwardly mobile demise, and some of us didn't. Some o