A Talk with Jonis Agee (The Bones of Paradise)

jonis-ageePraised by the New York Times as “a gifted poet of that dark lushness in the heart of the American landscape,” Jonis Agee is the award-winning author of 12 books. Her latest, The Bones of Paradise, is a multigenerational family saga set in the unforgiving Nebraska Sand Hills in the years following the massacre at Wounded Knee, and is at once a mystery, a tragedy, a romance, and an unflagging exploration of the beauty and brutality that defined the settling of the American west. In this interview, Agee—in characteristically sumptuous prose—discusses why she chose to tell this particular story at this particular moment in time, why she believes it’s futile for people to fight the truth of their histories, and how in the world she has come to own over 20 pairs of cowboy boots.

The Bones of Paradise takes place 10 years after the Wounded Knee Massacre. What inspired you to feature such a tragic, brutal moment in history in your novel?

In the early ‘90s, I spent a lot of time wandering the Sandhills of Nebraska and the Lakota Reservations of Pine Ridge and Rosebud in South Dakota. Eventually I wrote two novels about the people and places I encountered, but I was always haunted by a visit I paid to the site of the Massacre at Wounded Knee. I was alone on a sunny Sunday morning in June, and the only other people there were a Native family and a Native woman selling beaded necklaces she’d made. The site wasn’t what I expected…it was quiet, almost barren, windswept, except for a modest stone marker, around which people left tobacco and pieces of paper. It was disturbing to imagine what was beneath the hard packed earth, what the cost of my being there that day meant to the original people of that land. The Native woman came over, and we had a long conversation during which she showed me a notebook, pages filled with her dream visions in her untidy handwriting. It felt important, what was happening, and I bought a necklace of lacy looped yellow and orange beads and hung it on the rearview mirror in my truck as a reminder and as a guide. I still have it.

Over the years, I researched and read all I could about the Massacre because it would not let me rest. I wrote three more novels, but I wasn’t ready to write this story until now. I think in a writer’s life there are stories that are given to us, stories that won’t let us rest until we create them on the page, answering the questions they raise that haunt us, that make us explore our shared experience, our brilliant and doomed humanity in all its cruelty and mystery and redemption.

Some of the book’s background, mainly the Wounded Knee Massacre, is based in truth. Did you do a lot of research to bring the events to life on the page?

Yes, I have been researching this story for 15 years. The best resource I found was a compilation of photos, sketches and news accounts titled Eyewitness at Wounded Knee. It really helped me imagine the time and place, and provided key information so I could move my characters through the events. Also, as I traveled in that region, people would volunteer stories that had passed down through their families or towns. It helped remind me that history is living, breathing, and that it can’t disappear entirely, no matter how much the forces of society wish it to.

Many of your books take place in vast landscapes. What is it about space and large swathes of people-less environs that speaks to you as a writer? As a person?

I don’t know exactly why I am more attracted to vast, empty places than crowded urban areas. I guess the word “crowded” says a lot. I’ve always been most comfortable, scaled to size, when I am alone in the natural world. I can open all my senses in open spaces, where my skin can register the smallest touch of a gnat or blade of grass without recoiling. I can finally hear what’s around me, close and distant, without the urgency of other people’s desires and needs. I spent a lot of time growing up on my grandparents’ farm, riding an old horse on day-long trips down dirt roads surrounding his land, lunching in an old pioneer graveyard with only one marker still standing in the little grove of trees. I’ve always liked to be the first person up in the house, the first person to see the morning and what is offered. Like I said, it’s good to feel the scale of your life, to measure the proportion of yourself against the vastness of sky and land.

Along those same lines, nature’s inherent violence also plays a prominent role in many of your books, especially in The Bones of Paradise. What’s so striking about the dichotomy between beauty and violence in nature?

I think it follows the rhythms of life itself: There is chaos and the motions of violence that create it, and there is peace and restoration. If we wait long enough, if we learn a measure of patience, one always follows the other, which isn’t to say that we don’t suffer loss and pain and suffering and grief, but it is to say that we are granted resilience and sometimes the dumb animal luck of survival. I try to create a world that is realistic to the living that is being achieved, and so there has to be tornadoes and blizzards, as well as the relief of their ceasing. People get tested in this way, and we discover who they are when all is said and done.

Your description of J.B.’s burial preparations is quite delicate: his burly old friend and colleague, Higgs, wiping the body with such care. What is it about death that makes even the brawniest of men humble?

I think it’s the most profound encounter we can have with the ultimate meaning of time…aside from birth, and most of us aren’t aware of being born. But in the face of death, our lives, our egos, our petty complaints become universalized and diminished. We become aware of ourselves as transitory. We are left gasping with the enormity of how short our time is and how little we really matter in time. It’s also our last chance to respect the dignity of a person who, regardless of how you felt about them in life, has now entered a realm you can’t grasp. Simply, they know, they deserve our respect. We are less in their presence.

In writing The Bones of Paradise, you jump back and forth in history. What prompted you to tell the story in this way? Did you write it this way from the beginning, or did the structure change during the writing process?

I told the story from multiple points of time because I wanted to respect the events and Native Americans at Wounded Knee by making them as alive and as vivid as possible. I wanted the reader to have as close to a firsthand experience as possible. I dramatized key events with my characters involved so that the impact of the massacre could be registered as horrific as it was. Perhaps the most important thing my story is trying to say is that we can’t ignore and suppress our histories, whether they’re on a large social scale or on a family scale; the more we work to change or erase the truth, the more dangerous it becomes to us.

As I wrote through the drafts, I began to expand the historical past more and more. What began as a single scene in the voice of the young girl witnessing the massacre and death of her mother opened the door to other scenes, until enough of the past was told. J.B. always began the novel, but I couldn’t let his story go either and had to go back in time to discover his story, his great love for Dulcinea, which seemed to survive even after his passing. Eventually every character revealed their past, and I saw it bring them into their present.

Rose and Dulcinea are such fierce female characters. Are you drawn to either of them over the other?

I first truly met Dulcinea at two in the morning, when her voice kept me awake until I got up and wrote her words down. She surprised me with her toughness and determination. At first I wasn’t even sure I liked her. Then I began to understand and know her and was able to show her as a fuller person. Her tragedy, of course, was that she lost her family for 10 years, and she had to develop the strength to fight Drum and the men who wanted to displace her. I was always on Rose’s side, perhaps because of her sister and what she had suffered. I liked her rebellion as a girl and felt close to her immediately. To me she’s irresistible because she has a task, to avenge her family, and she never questions whether she’s up to it. To find the murderer requires patience, ingenuity and ruthlessness. She knows what she has to do, and she does it.

You reveal the truth about who murdered J.B. and Star and shot Graver at different times in the book. How did you decide when was the right moment to unveil each morsel of information? Was this clear when you started writing the novel, or did it change as you shaped and edited the story?

It did change as I revised the book, especially after I started working with my editor, Jessica Williams, who had such a good sense of structure and helped strengthen the mystery. I had so many candidates for who shot J.B. and Graver that it wasn’t until the second draft that I began to solve that problem. Revealing Graver’s shooter came pretty naturally once the boy began to grow closer to the older man. By the second draft, I knew who killed J.B. and Star, but decided to hold off revealing it until the end because once that was solved, the urgency was over. I didn’t want to turn the novel into a chase. I thought it was more effective left until all the forces had gathered and the murderer revealed himself.

The ending of the novel is a real shocker! Without giving too much away, what did you hope to accomplish when crafting the scenes leading up to the finale? Was it a thrill to write the ending?

It was difficult to write the ending because the way it plays out, each character has to shift from active to passive to active again. I rewrote that finale at least eight times, trying to get it right, until finally I knew what should happen. It was also hard to revisit the crimes that the murderer had committed against Rose’s family, but it needed to be placed before the reader again as background against which the retribution could be exacted.

The Bones of Paradise is almost like a puzzle in the way that it’s crafted. Did you write the scenes straight through, or did you work on various sections at different points in the writing journey?

I write novel drafts straight through from beginning to end, but then in later drafts I will move pieces around as needed to make the story both flow and build a charge dramatically. I found myself moving from character to character as each needed to add their stories to create the larger piece I was constructing. The novel and this story really belongs to all the characters. It’s an accumulation rather than a straight narrative line. Years ago, the writer and social activist Grace Paley told me that “there is no hierarchy of grief.” I took that to heart and tried to write a story where we come to understand the complexity and difficulty of being alive, of suffering and of trying to make connections with our world. How we manage our grievances, our griefs, whether we punish the world or embrace it, that’s the difference between us.

The novel’s title is quite an interesting choice. How did you come up with it? Were there others that you considered?

Titles are always an interesting and sometimes difficult decision. I had 10 or 20, maybe two or three I liked, but no one else did. Then one night I was watching TV with my husband, writer Brent Spencer, and he handed me a sticky note with the title scrawled on it. He has bad handwriting so I said, “What, what does this say?” He told me he’d done a search and no one else had ever used it. I loved it. He’d read several drafts of the novel, knew it about as well as I did by then, so I trusted him. Everyone else loved it, too.

Many of your books and stories are set in the 19th century. What makes that period so fascinating a setting for your fiction?

I’ve always loved historical fiction, specifically the 19th century in both English and American literature. In our culture there were so many huge changes in terms of technology and culture, both good and bad. I think my fascination has its basis in both the American frontier and the Civil War. Because I had ancestors involved in both, it seemed natural to let the scope of my imagination encompass the 19th century, too. I grew up hearing stories of western exploration, outlaws and Civil War battles. How could I not be drawn through that personal thread to discover those times and recreate those stories?

You have lived in Iowa, New York, Los Angeles, the Twin Cities, Ann Arbor, and are now back in Nebraska. How has living such a nomadic life informed your writing? How has it impacted your thinking and doing?

See, that doesn’t feel nomadic at all to me! I wanted to live in many more places. I’ve never visited a state without thinking how I would set up a household and write there. In my fantasy, I buy small houses in small towns all over the country and migrate from place to place to write.

Actually, I tend to sit down in one place when I’m writing a book. My only travel then is to conduct research on place and people by driving there and living in motels for a few days until I’ve soaked in enough to go home and continue with a renewed sense of reality. I’ve always been restless, though. I’m also an insomniac. Maybe that’s the same thing.

When you’re not writing, you’re wearing another hat as an English and writing professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. What is the one piece of advice you most often give your students?

If I only had one piece of advice, I’d probably be out of a job! But here goes: Write fast, turn it face down and rewrite it. Do that again. And again. And again.

Is it true that you own 20 pairs of cowboy boots? What prompted the obsession? Do you have what you consider to be the perfect pair?

I’ve always loved cowboy boots. As a child from a large family, we’d have a choice each summer for one pair of shoes: sandals or sneakers. Unlike my sisters and brothers, I came up with a third option: cowboy boots. Yes, they were hot and clunky, but I also had a little cowgirl felt skirt and vest and toy gun and holster. I wanted to be a cowboy as I grew, not a cowgirl, because I knew girls couldn’t sleep on the open range with their horse. Does all this give you an idea?

I’ve always had a pair of boots, but starting in the late ‘80s through the early ‘90s, a lot of people important in my life began to pass on, and for some reason, I began a ritual of buying a pair of boots to commemorate each person. I had grandfather, grandmother, sister, mother, father boots. They were my boots of death. Then I thought, maybe I should have some boots of life, too. So I began to celebrate books I published, marriages and new jobs. You get the idea. Then finally, I found a bootmaker in Missouri and began to design and have made my own boots. I have four pairs of those, one-of-a-kind boots: the bluebird boots, the broken heart boots, the sun, moon and stars boots, and the snake boots (with a real stuffed snake wrapped around one…I don’t touch it and keep them in the dark of my closet).

The most perfect pair is the one that needs to be on my feet that day. To my nephew’s wedding I recently wore the sun, moon and stars boots because they are the most romantic. A character in my novel South of Resurrection gives them to the woman he loves because she won’t take a ring. They’re his promise to love her for eternity.

Originally posted on Bookreporter.com on August 5, 2016

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