Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Chat with Margaret Coel

RHYS: I have always been fascinated by Native American culture and enjoyed the books of Margaret Coel long before I met her. It's always a thrill for me to meet a writer whose work I have enjoyed and next month I get to share two events in Scottsdale, AZ with Margaret when our books are released on the same day by the same publisher.

So welcome Margaret. What first drew you to the Arapaho and native American culture?
Was it your area of expertise? Something you've been interested in for a long time?

MARGARET:I get that question a lot, usually prefaced by: Are you Arapaho? I am not, but writers write about what interests us, and I became very interested in the Arapahos. Probably because I am a 4th generation Coloradan who grew up on stories of the past. Before my people (and everybody else) decamped to the Great Plains, they were home to numerous Native American tribes. The Arapahos and Cheyennes were the people of Colorado. I just wanted to know more about them. Where did they live? How did they live? What happened to them? That led me to write what I thought was a magazine article and what turned into a non-fiction book on the Arapahos and one of their great leaders: Chief Left Hand, published by the University of Oklahoma Press. And that led me--after three more books on the history of the American West—to writing mystery novels set among the Arapahos on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, where the government in its infinite wisdom
placed them in 1878.

RHYS:Tell us about your main characters--are they based on real people?

MARGARETl Arapaho attorney, Vicky Holden, and Jesuit priest, Father
John Aloysius O'Malley, hold center stage in my reservation
novels. I don't know if any characters are born screaming and
kicking. I know mine were not. They arrived in a process. I
didn't start out to write about a priest--in fact, the eventual
birth of Father John rather surprised me. My intention was to
create a character who would be an outsider to the culture and
history of the Arapahos--as I was, when I first started writing
about them. Naturally, I assumed this outsider would be a woman
like me. But here came this tall, red headed, good looking guy
walking around in my dreams. He seemed to be trying to tell me he
was the perfect outsider. In my rational waking moments, I thought
about the fact that a Jesuit mission has existed on the reservation
for more than a hundred years and that my outsider--the guy in my
dreams--was a priest assigned to the mission. He's from Boston, he
told me at some point, so he's an outsider not only to the Arapaho
culture but to the Western culture. He had a lot to learn all
around. And he's also fighting his own demons. Not a perfect man,
Father John, but I find him interesting because he has failed in the
past, and yet he keeps trying.

So I had my outsider, a man and a priest, but I really wanted to
write from the point of view of a woman. Plus, I wanted a strong
Arapaho point of view in the stories. And sure enough, a beautiful,
smart, black-haired and dark-eyed woman started appearing in my
dreams. She is Vicky Holden, a name that came to me because she is
trying to "hold on" to what is important in her culture and her life,
despite some pretty rough patches. She started out as a traditional
Arapaho woman, marrying young, raising children, participating in the
ceremonies and looking after the elders. But because of those rough
patches--personified in her ex-husband, Ben Holden--she took herself
off to Denver and college and law school. In the novels she is back
on the rez with all of her fiery determination turned on helping her

The Arapahos call Father John and Vicky "edge people," because they
live at the edge of two different worlds.

As for all that dreaming part, I thought this was a little strange
until I read that Henry James, one of my favorite authors, also
dreamed his characters. In fact he called them his "dream people."
So I copied that from him and that's what I call Vicky and Father John.

RHYS: Do you visit the reservation frequently to get inspiration for
your stories?

MARGARET: I visit the Wind River Reservation every year, usually in the
summer or early fall--before the snow starts. I enjoy catching up
with old friends and meeting new people. This summer I was blessed
to attend part of the Sun Dance, the tribe's most sacred ceremony
where men pledge themselves to dance off and on for three days with
no food and nothing to drink. It is a prayer sacrifice on behalf of
the tribe, very solemn and beautiful. A dear Arapaho friend assured
me that my life would be blessed just by attending, and I believe
it. And it happens that the Sun Dance is an important part of my
new book, The Spider's Web.

RHYS; So tell us a little about this new book.
MARGARET; The novel is set in the summer with the reservation planning the sacred Sun Dance, the ancient ceremony of peace and reconciliation.
But when a blond, beautiful outsider arrives on the rez, murder,
suspicion and recrimination follow in her path. Marcy Morrison claims
to be engaged to Arapaho Ned Windsong, even though Ned had never
mentioned a fiance--before he is found shot to death. Marcy, brutally
attacked at the scene, identifies two Arapaho troublemakers as the men
who burst into Ned's house and shot him. Nothing ties her to the
murder, yet all eyes on the rez are trained on her, the outsider.
When Vicky Holden agrees to represent her,Vicky finds herself at odds
with her own people and, for the first time, with Father John
O'Malley who has glimpsed something in the beautiful outsider that
shakes him to his core.

RHYS; How many books are there in the series now? Do you see the series
going on indefinitely or do you have other ideas and areas you'd
like to write about?

MARGARET; The Spider's Web is the fifteenth book in the series. Three years ago I took a break from the series and wrote a stand- alone suspense novel, Blood Memory. But that novel, set in Denver with Catherine McLeod, a journalist, is also about the Arapahos and their history.
So I can't seem to break myself entirely from the subject. And
Vicky even made a cameo appearance in the story. I've already
outlined another novel with Vicky and Father John, but at the
moment, I'm finishing up a second suspense novel with Catherine, and
I am enjoying going back and forth between the two sets of
characters and the different locales.
As for the series continuing indefinitely, nothing does that. The
day will no doubt come when Father John and Vicky no longer have any
surprises in their bag of tricks, and that will be the day that I'll
bid them farewell. But not for awhile, I hope.

One of the most gratifying parts of writing a long series is the way
in which readers have come to think of Vicky and Father John as old
friends. They seem like old friends to me, but it's wonderful to
have other people regard my "dream people" in the same way. I get a
lot of emails with advice for them. Such as one woman who suggested
that Father John could become an Episcopal priest, then he could
marry Vicky. She said that she was an Episcopalian, and she would
be glad to recommend him to her bishop! Emails like that just add
to the writing fun.

RHYS: Thank you, Margaret. Margaret and I will be speaking and signing at Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale on September 9th, also speaking at a luncheon arranged by Poisoned Pen. We hope to see some of you there!


  1. Fascinating interview, and good luck with your upcoming signing, Margaret and Rhys!

  2. Hi Margaret, so nice to have you visiting us! (Margaret graciously agreed to sit on the board of directors of Sisters in Crime when I was president--and we were thrilled to have her.)

    I'm so envious of your dreams about characters! I have to force my characters onto the pages. Though I agree--it's so much fun when readers take them into their lives as real people.

    The dancing ceremony sounds fascinating. How were you able to convince folks to let you--the outside--sit in?

  3. Hi Margaret,
    Welcome to Jungle Red. You make juggling two different series, between stand alones, sound so effortless.

    (sure sign of an artist)

    Congrats on the latest release.

  4. Hey Margaret! Dream people. Sigh. But we know, don't we, that they are a manifestation of what your awake-brain wouldn't reveal? So--you thought of them--you just we're aware you had thought of them. Until you went to sleep.

    Which is so fascinating!

    We've been talking here about the lure of the internet..how difficult it is to resist it when you're supposed to be writing. Do you fight that battle?

  5. Thank you for a wonderful interview. I'm envious of your dream people.

    I was suppose to spend a summer on the Pine Ridge Res. back in '77 but had a car accident. The money I saved to go was used instead to buy a car. I never got to the reservation but my interest of Natvie American culture is still intack.

    Good Luck Margaret and Rhys at the signing.

  6. www.margaretcoel.comAugust 19, 2010 at 1:09 PM

    Thanks for your comments everyone!
    How did I get to attend the Sun Dance on the Wind River Reservation? It is open to the public. It is a very solemn and sacred ceremony. I was fortunate to attend with some dear Arapaho friends.

    And yes, my characters are no doubt rattling around in my head, but they get lost with so much daytime stuff. So they show up in my dreams. I love it.

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