I’m am thrilled to have Jim Kristofic on today, author of Navajos Wear Nikes, an endearing, colorful, funny and sad memoir about growing up on an Indian reservation. Jim and I are classmates in Write a YA Novel in 9 Months led by Jonathan Maberry and Marie Lamba. Today Jim talks about his process of going from personal to published.
Personal to Published: Writing Memoir
by Jim Kristofic
So I got the email yesterday. My memoir, Navajos Wear Nikes, a memoir about life on the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona, released this spring from University of New Mexico Press, just sold out its hardcover run. It’s going paperback.
Two years ago, I wasn’t sure I’d find a publisher for the book. So I was asked to talk about how I got from there to here. Here it goes.
Writing the memoir began in small projects. I had memories and stories to tell. They were experiences that were valuable to me, that happened in a place that was more than 2,000 miles from where I was living at the time in Pennsylvania.
It started in a creative writing class (as do many books, I’m sure). We were asked to write a “creative nonfiction” essay about a “fantastic reality” in our lives: something that seemed ‘other-worldly’ to us but also actually happened.
So I wrote about my eighth grade geometry teacher butchering a sheep in the middle of the day at my middle school. I remembered it all very clearly: the smell of the sagebrush caught in the sheep’s wool, the mud clinging to its hooves when the sheep was carried in, the sounds of its throat cut, the respectful quiet of the students, the way we all worked together to collect the organs after the sheep was skinned, the feel of the sheep’s stomach while I picked it clean of fat in the kitchen of our school cafeteria so that it could be used to bake blood sausage.
Write about what you know
Something clicked. And in writing about a place that I’d loved so dearly – Diné Bikeyáh, the Navajo Land – that place became more vivid and alive for me than before. This was no longer nostalgia. This was truth. This event actually happened. And now – if someone read it – it would happen again.
I graduated from college just a few months later, got married, and found myself still living in Pennsylvania. And still homesick.
So I wrote another essay, this one about how I’d caught a hawk and held it. The next one about saving dogs from a dogcatcher. The next one about encountering Navajo witchcraft and being chased by a Navajo witch. And so on. I understood that these were stories I wanted to pass on to my close relatives and my wife. And I was writing for myself.
Write from example
I tried following the best examples I could. I kept in mind the sharp observation and keen intimacy of essays and short stories like Flood by Annie Dillard, Greasy Lake by T.C. Boyle, and Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation by Sherman Alexie. These were authors who had nurtured me in my high school years. Now they were helping me put together these valuable memories.
Eventually, I had so many of these memories written out that it was really approaching a book length. So I contacted some publishers and some literary agents, hoping that the book could be something to reach out and create some meaning of the “Rez life” for my friends who were also living off the Rez (about 60% of Navajos end up leaving the Rez to look for jobs).
Publishers and agents were initially fascinated by the idea of the book, they felt they were “interesting stories told by a unique voice,” but they weren’t really approaching a “greater sense of meaning.” So they passed.
What were they talking about? A greater sense of meaning? I finally understood what they meant when one agent wrote me and suggested I try reading a few memoirs in order to take the collected essays in a more fluid direction.
My response? What’s a memoir?
Learning a greater sense of meaning through others
So I read memoirs. I studied authors whose memoirs of culture, identity, and place, have become celebrated and loved. I read them with a pencil in hand, made notes, and dog-earred important passages that revealed that “greater sense of meaning” that my own ignorance of the craft hadn’t allowed me to explore yet. And I also had a lot of “Rez humility.” Still do.
I learned about exploring the emotional landscape from Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad, relating the minute to the universal in Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood, and spacing small episodes in Haven Kimmel’s A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana. Christopher de Bellaigue’s In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs taught me how to explain a foreign world to the American reader; Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir taught me some cool tricks about writing about childhood; and Dr. Lori Alvord and Elizabeth Cohen Van Pelt’s The Scalpel and the Silver Bear gave me a clear path to follow in writing memoir specifically about the Reservation.
And in the meantime, I got to know the landscape of the Rez. I did an oral history project. I picked up freelance work from western publications like High Country News, Arizona Highways, and The Navajo Times. I built my writing chops. I tried paying my dues as best I could.
I also found out that memoirs are pretty popular. Memoirs had sold well throughout the decade and propped sagging sales of hardcover fiction. The nation’s fascination with memoirs had spilled over into television with reality TV. And – not surprisingly – Indian life and culture had been a popular feature.
Morgan Spurlock’s 30 Days series featured an episode titled “What’s Life Like on an Indian Reservation?”, where Spurlock lived for a month in a Navajo hogan. Likewise, Billy Luther’s PBS documentary Miss Navajo – which chronicled the entrees of the famous pageant on the Navajo Reservation – won the Special Founders Prize at the 2007 Traverse City Film Festival and was an Official Selection to 2007 Sundance Film Festival. And you better believe I included that information in my book proposal. I learned to write a book proposal by reading How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen.
Keep looking for a home for your book
Then I took the book back to the agencies. Most thought it was too “regional” and some really liked it and wanted me too expand it to include other Reservations like the Lakota or the Mohawk or the Tlingit (as though they’re all the same tribe or something). But I wasn’t going to do that. I was writing about this particular place, a place where sheep were butchered in school, where human hands could catch hawks, and where you didn’t go out at night because you might get cursed by a witch.
Eventually, I found a wonderful home with University of New Mexico Press, who loved the book from the start and who have championed it in the bustling literary scene of Santa Fe and beyond. Where it grows from there, I do not know. And I don’t really care.
What has moved me most is the really positive response from the people from the Rez and the Navajo living off the Rez. By marketing the book through Facebook, I’ve been able to make connections with people from New Mexico to Ohio to Ireland.
One reader had just picked it up in a library outside Flagstaff, Arizona, and sent me a message via Facebook as she and her mother were driving up to their sheep camp near Sheep Springs, New Mexico, just to tell me how great it was to see a book about the Rez life.
All I can say to her – and to all the authors who helped me and all the people who’ve read the book – is Aheehee. Thank you.