Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016.
Samantha Thomson LoCoco, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Joe Jackson about his book Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which is among the final five selections in the category of Biography for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
In Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary, Joe Jackson extends the narrative of the Lakota holy man made famous by John G. Neihardt’s 1932 Black Elk Speaks. Picking up where Neihardt left off, Jackson illuminates for a new generation of readers the full and complex life of Black Elk.
Samantha Thomson LoCoco: One of the most difficult challenges for writers are often endings. Neihardt chose to end Black Elk Speaks when Black Elk was in his twenties, even though the holy man lived for decades longer. It feels fitting that your book ends with Black Elk’s son, Ben, the image of the next generation stating, “We are still here.” How did you decide on your ending?
Joe Jackson: I had originally thought of ending with my own visit to what was then Harney Peak, but when I discovered the story of Ben’s transmission on Telstar, I knew that was right. In many ways, this biography is a family tale, and Ben struggled to preserve Lakota ways as ardently as his father. When Ben’s words atop Rushmore were translated for me – “We are still here” – I knew that had to be the last line since, after all, endurance is the major theme of the book.
STL: You mention that the paperback reissue of Black Elk Speaks in 1961 happened during a time when there was a “rise of counterculture, ecological worries, and a new interest in Native
Americans.” I can’t help but think your book arrives at a similar time in history where resistance arises in daily actions, and native lands are once again under political and physical attack. Do you see this biography as potentially having a similar impact?
JJ: It could, but let’s be truthful, one never knows how his or her book will be received, or even what buttons it will push after you hit the SEND button. I see Black Elk Speaks as an American classic, but I also knew that it only encompassed about one-third of Black Elk’s life. Most Native American histories end at Wounded Knee, but I wanted to go beyond that, and with Black Elk and his quest such a tale was possible.
STL: When you look at all the ways war was waged against the Lakota from the wasichu’s, or white man’s, side – the extermination of the buffalo, the ruse of land allotment, annihilating Native culture through the destruction of their language and possessions, the use of humiliation and shame in educational institutions to further distance the cultural gap between generations, and the banishment of the Sun Dance, to name just a few – Black Elk’s people didn’t stand a chance. It’s hard not to find similar experiences in our world today, especially when thinking about Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline. How do you navigate the bleakness of these past and current experiences?
JJ: “Bleak” certainly is a word that keeps popping up when describing my book, isn’t it? I think Walter Kirn used something close to “relentlessly bleak” in his Harper’s essay about how the biography drove him in despair to Standing Rock, and then on the way back his car died. “Man,” I thought, “I was not good for this poor guy’s mental health.” Actually, as I researched and wrote this book, I was repeatedly amazed by how Black Elk would be slapped down by historical circumstance, only to pick himself up, adapt, and try again. When I started this book, I was intrigued by the question of what our culture considers “holy,” and in the end, I more or less concluded that such endurance is a major part of the recipe. There was never anything loud or self-aggrandizing about Black Elk’s method – he simply saw a path and kept going. If there’s anything didactic about Black Elk’s story, I’d say that was the moral.
STL: While reading, I continually asked myself, “What’s the answer in all this? How do we stop history from repeating itself?” These are questions I ask in response to many of our present-day challenges, and struggle to come up with any answers. I latched on to something towards the end of your book when you discuss a 1973 siege on Wounded Knee Trading Post where activists demanded Senate hearings on the topics of broken treaties and deplorable conditions on reservations. You write, “It is hard to say what long-term effects were nurtured by the siege. Hard feelings still exist, yet many reformers in positions of responsibility today were, forty years ago, in their teens and twenties. The movement sparked their imagination and showed them that change was possible.” Is change possible?
JJ: Yes, I think change is possible, but it seems slow as molasses in our short lifespans, and it’s certainly never linear. That’s what’s good about historical narratives – to remind us of what came before us, and to try to identify the cultural patterns pointing forward. I think that’s one thing Faulkner meant when he said in Requiem for a Nun that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” We make the same mistakes, over and over, but some of us are also not stuck in the eternal present and try to address the root cause.
STL: How long did this book take you to research? How long to write?
JJ: It took four years to research and write this book. The first year was probably the most intense research-wise: I spent a lot of time in the various huge libraries and archives in Washington, D.C., but also went out west to archives, collections, family homes, battlefields and reservations. After that, however, as you start the first draft, you discover multiple holes in your story and, to use a quaint Southernism, “you slap yourself upside the head.” Thus, the research never really ends.
STL: I work as a researcher for historical nonfiction authors and am consistently amazed at their ability to not only retain information but also to weave historical details into a narrative context. Do your books stay with you after you’ve completed them, or do you have to make mental room for the next project? What is your process for incorporating dialogue and internal landscapes for your historical characters?
JJ: I actually used to worry about that – that I’d seem to know everything about a subject when I was involved in the writing, but then as I started working on the next book, a lot of the fine detail would slip away. Am I getting Alzheimer’s?, I worried. Am I losing my mind? Finally, I came to terms with the fact that I just have limited cranial capacity and if someone asks a detailed question about one or two books back, I can just flip through the voluminous Endnotes and Bibliography and act like I actually remember things.
That level of research also points to your question about “dialogue and internal landscapes.” I’ve always gravitated towards psychological puzzles; I want to know what makes someone tick. If I’d known that such a thing as a “criminal profiler” existed back when I was a student, I might have drifted in that direction. For my historical tales, I research the hell out of my subjects’ lives, visiting every manuscript collection and reading every diary, journal, letter, or paper I can find. Thus, their responses and/or internal monologues are often in their own words, and if not that, at least in their own idiom where they’ve thought about such issues or situations.
STL: When pulling from historical data that may contain derogatory terms, racial slurs, or demeaning representations, how do you decide what to use and what to leave out? Are there times where your opinion or perspective is imposed, and if so, what is your decision process about what to include in those moments?
JJ: Oh, I think you’ve got to present the past warts and all. Otherwise, you can rightly be accused of creating a partisan and incomplete vision. It’s not a technique that’s guaranteed to win you many friends, but I discovered a long time ago as a journalist that you don’t become a writer for Love. That includes keeping slurs and derogatory terms, etc., as long as you try to place them in the context of the place and time. That especially applies to quotes – knowingly altering a quote is a sin. Thus, I think that historical “facts” are sacrosanct, knowing, even as I say that, the huge difficulty with pinning so much down. I think, in the end, you just try to stay transparent and do the best you can, knowing of course that anything you write is only a part of a continuum and never the last word. The biographer’s opinion and perspective come out in the patterns he or she sees and how you interpret those. And that, of course, is where mounds and mounds of research come in handy.
STL: You often slow an event down to zero in on the reality of an experience, and the effect is illuminating. For example, Black Elk shoots a wounded white soldier to put him out of his misery. Before we continue with the action of the scene, you offer an educated guess as to who this soldier might have been based on the records of six white men who fell in the area. We not only receive the soldier’s name, height, age, eye and hair color, and occupation, but we also learn he was Scottish, a “martial” and “nomadic” race not unlike Black Elk’s. Deflating the oft-heightened frenzy of soldier versus Indian, you equate them, thereby humanizing them, and establishing for the reader man versus man. Do you set out with such intentions in your scene building? Was humanizing history part of your agenda, or is it something that takes shape as you move deeper into the research?
JJ: You have to realize that, as a writer, I’m something of a hybrid creature. I started out as a suicide counselor who liked to write, got an MFA in fiction, worked in newsletters, magazines and newspapers, then wrote my first book when I witnessed the execution of a man who was probably innocent. I kept writing books from there – one novel, the rest these nonfiction epics, and I’ll probably continue doing both until I drop at my desk and they throw me in a hole. Thus, I’ve never seen myself as simply or solely a “biographer,” or “historian,” or “journalist” – I’m a guy, trained in narrative, who tries to humanize everything. If I knew with absolute certainty that the poor doomed Scottish fellow was Black Elk’s victim, part of me would be thinking about telling his extended story in some shape or form.
STL: Neihardt’s epic poems poeticized the western conquest – the very conquest that tore apart Black Elk’s culture and his people’s identity. The interviews with Black Elk that were the basis of Black Elk Speaks were interpreted through his son, transcribed by Neihardt’s daughter, then arranged in a literary context by Neihardt himself, a non-native writer. By the time Black Elk’s words get to the page, they are potentially far away from his intended meaning, having gone through multiple rounds of translation and interpretation. What are the responsibilities of a non-native writer writing about a Native American experience?
JJ: Well, you have to try to understand his or her world – and the way your subject sees it -- as best as you can. That’s why the long and often jumbled transcripts for Black Elk Speaks were so important for this project; why diaries and journals in my previous projects have been my stepping-stones. It can be hard: Indian religion, with its communion with spirits, voices and visions are the very things Western society would find indicative of mental imbalance. You just have to read and read and read until finally you get a glimmer of how your subject thinks. Such attempts at understanding are a kind of literary role-playing; I would imagine that good actors and actresses do exactly the same.
STL: Why this book? Why now?
JJ: Ha! That’s like putting a writer on the couch and psycho-analyzing him. How do I work? What leads me to the next book? Good question. I do know that I identify – or probably better, “sense” – something going on in society and wonder how that can be addressed narratively. Black Elk, for instance – my last book [Atlantic Fever: Lindbergh, His Competitors, and the Race to Cross the Atlantic (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)] was about the winner and losers in the 1927 air race that made Lindbergh famous, but it was really about America’s penchant for creating and destroying secular heroes and saints. And that, in turn, set me to wondering about what our culture regards as “holy.” The rest was history. Or, in this case, biography.
Joe Jackson is the author of one novel and six works of nonfiction, including, most recently, Atlantic Fever: Lindbergh, His Competitors, and the Race to Cross the Atlantic (FSG, 2012). His book The Thief at the End of the World: Rubber, Power, and the Seeds of Empire was one of Time’s Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2008. He is the Mina Hohenberg Darden Endowed Professor of Creative Writing in the M.F.A. creative writing program at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.
Samantha Thomson LoCoco is a second-year MFA Fiction candidate at The New School, graduating this May. Originally from Dallas, she now lives in Inwood with her husband and two dogs. She works as a research assistant for Gilbert King, Pulitzer Prize winner for Devil in the Grove (2013, Nonfiction), and teaches poetry to second graders in the Bronx through her work with Teachers & Writers Collaborative. Samantha's novel-in-progress focuses on three generations of women on a dairy farm in East Texas. Follow her on Twitter: @Samantha_LoCoco