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Hana je nahadina: An Interview with Margaret Coel

by Lynn Kaczmarek, Mystery News

"The Arapahos have a saying. They say that stories exist in the universe and every once in a while they decide to be told and when they decide to be told, they choose the storyteller," said Margaret Coel in our recent conversation. After six mystery novels, numerous short stories, magazine articles, and one non-fiction work on the subject, it seems pretty clear to me that the stories have chosen Margaret Coel.

The author of the Wind River series, set primarily on an Arapaho reservation in Wyoming, Margaret Coel is a native of Colorado. Trained as a newspaper reporter, she easily moved between non-fiction books and magazine articles exploring her love of Western history. Her interest in Colorado history drew her to the Arapahos, one of the plains tribes, and resulted in a non-fiction work entitled Chief Left Hand: Southern Arapaho. And then she heard Tony Hillerman speak... "He talked about writing about the Navajos and the joys of doing that and I thought maybe I could do that with the Arapahos," said Coel. A long time mystery reader, Coel thought it might be fun to write a mystery novel. With some four years of research under her belt while writing the Chief Left Hand book, she surely had the credentials to write about the Arapahos.

But it was the move from non-fiction to fiction that was risky in Coel's mind. "I had offers to do non-fiction books so that I knew that whatever I decided to do next I could get it published—I didn't know that when I wrote Eagle Catcher. I didn't know if I could get it published. I didn't even know if I could write a novel. That was a huge risk and it was the most fun I've ever had."

Coel's first mystery, The Eagle Catcher came directly out of the research she had done for the non-fiction book, Chief Left Hand. "... [it] deals with the ways in which Arapahoes were defrauded when they went on the reservation 130 years ago. That actually did happen...," says Coel. The first three books were sold to Berkley who planned to publish them as paperback originals. Having had her non-fiction books first published in hardcover, Coel was understandably hesitant and attempted to convince Berkley to begin with hardcovers. And then fate stepped in. Coel had previously entered the manuscript for The Eagle Catcher in a contest sponsored by the University Press of Colorado and the Colorado Arts and Humanities Council. The Eagle Catcher was one of several winners and as such it automatically went to the University Press for review. So right in the middle of the Berkley discussions, "I get a call from the Director of the University Press and he says I've read The Eagle Catcher and I love it. I'd like to publish it in hardback." And so it was... Berkley published in paperback the following year and since then all six of the Wind River Reservation series have published originally in hardcover.

The University Press edition of The Eagle Catcher caused quite a stir among collectors in 1995. With only about 1,000 copies published, it quickly became collectible (selling between $150 and $200 today). Margaret Coel knew little about that phenomenon at the time. "I don't even want to tell you what I did. I had ordered a box of books, which I think was 36 books, from the University Press just because... I don't know why, for my kids... About four days after the book came out I got a panicky call from the press and they said we've run out of books and we have all these orders. And they didn't know what to do." Yep, she did exactly what I probably would have done—she drove them to the University Press of Colorado. That meant, of course, that when she wanted to pass on the books to her kids, she had to "go around and buy them in the bookstores. I'm out there buying my own books!" Authors write to be read, not collected "And I wanted to get the book into people's hands hoping they would read it," said Coel with a laugh.

And read it they did. The Ghost Walker, The Dream Stalker, The Story Teller, The Lost Bird and last month, The Spirit Woman, followed. All are set on the Wind River Reservation in Central Wyoming and feature Father John O'Malley, S.J., the recovering-alcoholic Jesuit priest of the St. Francis Mission and Vicky Holden, an Arapaho attorney, who after a number of years in the outside world, has returned to the reservation to do something more worthwhile for her people. The early books in the series focus on all-too-common Native American issues, fraudulent oil and land deals, illegal drugs, nuclear waste storage, and development. My favorites, though, are the two that deal with Arapaho antiquities.

In the Story Teller, Vicky Holden is hired to help reclaim a missing Arapaho ledger book. The museum where it was stored denies ever having the book in their possession, but an Arapaho student says different. The ledger book represents the only written account of the Arapahos' presence on the plains and is not only priceless, but a sacred treasure. Coel's extensive knowledge of Arapaho history is apparent and enticing. The historical information never gets in the way, but provides full and credible context for the story she so obviously loves to tell.

Margaret Coel's newest book,
The Spirit Woman, takes us back to the time of Lewis and Clark and the rumored existence of memoirs accounted by the Shoshone guide, Sacajawea. According to both Shoshone and Arapaho legend, Sacajawea spent her last days on the Wind River Reservation, died in 1884, and is buried there. (This is contrary to current records, which suggest that Sacajawea died in December, 1812, at Fort Manuel Lise in present-day South Dakota.) In the 1980s a young researcher disappeared while studying Sacajawea and then in 2000, another is determined to pick up where she left off. Father John and Vicky are drawn into the story when the second researcher appears to be missing.

I asked Coel about the timeliness of this newest book. "I did not set out to write the book in the year of the coin. I couldn't believe it when I picked up the paper one day and saw that the U.S. Mint was bringing out this coin in the year 2000 and realized that the book I was then writing would be out the same year. I could hardly believe it." Really good marketing, I say. But could the legend be true? "The Arapahos and the Shoshones do believe that Sacajewia is buried out there on the Wind River Reservation. And I have stood there at her gravesite. And, in fact, I gave Laura Simmons [the second researcher] exactly the experience I had had standing there at the foot of this gravesite, thinking this is where you are. This is true.," answers Coel. Again Margaret Coel manages to weave a well-plotted story together with interesting Native American history. And then there are the characters...

Father John and Vicky Holden are compelling partners. Father John continually battles the demon alcohol while also fighting a decidedly unpriestlike interest in Vicky. Vicky's interests are also conflicted—while she gently falls in love with Father John, she also knows that unless he leaves the priesthood, there is no future for them. So far it looks like Father John is committed to the higher calling. I've termed this unrequited love stuff "Moonlighting Syndrome" after the TV show which played on this "will they; won't they" plot feature for all too many seasons. I usually don't like it at all, but somehow in Margaret Coel's deft hands, this is subtly managed and does not detract from the stories. I'm not quite ready to say it adds to them either, but the friendship that has arisen between the pair and their genuine love for each other is quite appealing. I, of course, asked Coel what the future would be like for Father John and Vicky Holden—she danced around the question quite nicely.

Margaret Coel has just finished the next book in the series, titled The Thunder Keeper, which is scheduled for publication in the fall of 2001. Its focus has to do with protecting the sacred places. Beyond that, I cannot say. When asked if she had any interest in returning to non-fiction, Coel's response was "I don't know. Every once in a while I get a great idea, but I'm pretty committed to the novels right now and what I'm enjoying about writing the Wind River series is that I'm able to really draw upon the background I have and a lot of the research. And I'm continually researching too, so I'm enjoying doing that and I'm sort of feeding my desire to research. And yet I love the creative part of writing the mystery novels. And I really love plotting; I think that's a lot of fun."

Fiction offers the author much more freedom—I always think that making up the facts must be much more fun than sticking to the real ones. "In fact," says Coel, "that was hard for me. In writing The Eagle Catcher, one of the characters started doing something which I had not planned on her doing. I deleted it right away. It was almost as if I had in my mind what I was going to write. Almost as if when I wrote a non-fiction book I had the facts in my mind that I was going to write and those facts cannot be changed. And so when a character did something I wasn't planning on I just deleted that. And then shortly thereafter I was reading a book about writing and the author talked about how wonderful this is when the characters start... talking to you. This book said you should listen to that and go with it, at least to see if it would go anywhere. And that's because it's a surprise. If the character surprises you, the author, then you know the reader is going to be surprised. Since then I really do listen to it and I go with it. Sometimes it doesn't work; sometimes the characters are wrong and I have to pull them back. But, I give it a chance."

Not only is Margaret Coel committed to the mystery novels, but she's made a big commitment to Jim Seels from A.S.A.P. Publishing—a Wind River Reservation short story based on each of the ten Arapaho commandments. The first she tackled was the obvious one—Hana je nahadina which translates to "Thou shalt do no murder" and appears in Dead End from A.S.A.P. Four short stories have been published to date, each in a separate signed limited edition volume replete with the commandment written in Arapaho by Coel, original artwork by the celebrated Phil Parks, and forewards written by prominent mystery writers the likes of James D. Doss and Marcia Muller. Coel's newest short story, Stolen Smoke, featuring the Arapaho first commandment "I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have none other gods but me," was published earlier this year. Coel says she's saving the longest commandment for last "it's like a page long and I have to write all this out in Arapaho in each book."

Margaret Coel loves the short stories, though. "To me a short story is to a novel as an article is to a non-fiction book and I did a lot of both of those. They're different and I enjoy doing both." Perhaps it draws on different parts of the creative energy.

These days Coel begins exercising her creative energy at 5:30 in the morning. She and her husband, George, walk three miles before they leave for work—he to an office miles away and she to the bedroom-turned-study/office. "It's about 10' x 12'. I have my desk along one wall and I have my maps of the reservation on the wall over my desk. Then I have two huge bookcases that take up a lot of space. They are crammed full, like three layers deep... The books I keep in my study are a lot of research books, things I can grab right away when I'm working and need to check something. A lot of books on the West, the Plains Indians, on the Arapahos. And then a lot of mystery novels are here too—ones that I'm going to read or ones that I've just read and really love and want to look at again... it's just an odd weird collection of things I happen to like." Old photographs of her family, two pictures of trains, and an R.C. Gorman print cover the walls. The trains because she loves them, as is evidenced by her collaboration with Sam Speas on the book Goin' Railroading: Two Generations of Colorado Stories. "Then I have an old antique file cabinet and it's filled with stuff. Then I have a closet that is crammed full of shelves, crammed full of papers, more books and all my magazines... they're all piled in there." Sounds like home to me.

The writing routine seems pretty normal for a mystery writer these days. "I'm always under a deadline even for the novels. I have a year to write them, but I really don't have a year because my novels come out in the fall and I'll spend two months out promoting... And then I do maybe four short stories a year. So, I've always got these deadlines coming at me—coming down the track like a locomotive. So I work every day. I'm at my computer by 7:30 in the morning and I'll write until noon then sometimes I'll go back and write some more in the afternoon. And then I'll still need the later part of the day for research, for the reading, and then there's all the business part of writing...," says Coel, only slightly out of breath.

So what advice would Coel give to new authors? "What really was the most helpful thing for me when I decided to write a novel? I took a couple of novels that I really loved, mystery novels... I took these two novels and I went back and I outlined them... By outline I mean I went through and analyzed them. And I made a whole notebook on each book on how did the author begin the book, how did the author introduce characters, how did the author do dialog. When I got through with that, I knew what I was doing. It is really tedious. I teach classes on plotting; I give workshops on it and I tell my students to do that and they look at me like I'm nuts. And I say, you know, you can spend a month doing this or you can spend ten years. And this is not my brilliant idea. I learned to do this from other authors. Guess who told me to do it? Clive Cussler. He said he did it; that's how he learned how to write a novel... It's very, very valuable... At some point when I was doing this analysis, the light bulb went on in my head. And I got it." So, the obvious question is which two books did Margaret Coel outline? Fatherland by Robert Harris and The Late Candidate by Mike Phillips.

I wonder if this very day there's some budding new author opening one of Margaret Coel's books, picking up paper and pencil and beginning to outline the first chapter. Wouldn't surprise me a bit.

Lynn Kaczmarek, at Mystery News, may be contacted at:

PMB 152
262 Hawthorn Village Commons
Vernon Hills, IL 60061
Lynn Kaczmarek

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