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 meta-narrative of the settlement of North America, were desperately needed to understand how Manifest Destiny became the organizing set of principles that would be taken up a century later as Neo-conservatism, or how we got from there to here. Moreover, it would unmask the treacherous role played in that history by some of our most esteemed and celebrated heroes. That was IT in a nutshell.
Jonathan wrote back a few minutes later: "Congratulations! Can you write this into a proposal right away?"
The press' editorial board was so enthused about the idea that they removed the title from the Icons of America list and put it in Yale's Western History list, a list for which Yale Press is renowned. Then they sent the proposal out to several "academic readers," all of whom gave the book's premise two enthusiastic thumbs up. (This was a much different process than the one followed by 'commercial' publishers — with Yale and Cambridge, you have to run the gauntlet of geeks.) Then we went to contract.
I spent the next year adding to the research I had already amassed for Coyote Warrior, and the six months after that writing the first draft of the manuscript. When it was finished, thanks to mentors and sources like Vine Deloria Jr. (who died while I was writing it) and Raymond Cross and Charles Wilkinson, Jonathan and I knew that we were onto a story about America that was very fresh. This wasn't simply a repackaging of well-known history. Savages and Scoundrels was going to take a new generation of readers into an intellectual and physical landscape they had never seen before. That was an exciting prospect, one well worth the passions spent — a crossing worth the storm.