My guest today is Sandi Ault, author of Wild Inferno, a 2009 Women Writing the West WILLA Award finalist. This book was also a finalist in the Colorado Book Awards in 2009. Wild Inferno is the second book of the “Wild” mystery series, preceded by Wild Indigo, winner of the Simon & Schuster Mary Higgins Clark Award for 2008. Her third, Wild Sorrow was released in March of this year, and Wild Penance is set to hit the shelves in February, 2010.
Welcome and congratulations, Sandi. You are a prolific author! Tell us how you came up with the idea for this series. Was Wild Indigo your first published book?
WILD INDIGO was my first published book, but not the first book I wrote. I actually had a “near miss” with my first book—it was accepted by an editor who then had a heart attack before the book came out, causing the project to stall in pre-publication. It never made the shelves, and I was heart-broken. But I wrote another book and another after that. WILD INDIGO was my third book, and it was an instant success. Thirty agents were interested in representing it, and I got to talk with them all and choose the one that seemed best for me. How cool is that?
Then, when my newly-chosen agent sent the manuscript to publishers, there were many of them interested as well, so the book went to auction. At the auction, Berkley Prime Crime was the highest bidder, and they bought two books, not just the one they’d seen.
One more note about that first book that seemed such a tragedy: it is being released in February, 2010. The title is WILD PENANCE, and it is a prequel to the series and the fourth release by Berkley Prime Crime. So let that be encouragement to anyone who has experienced a big let-down! Sometimes, in the long run, that let-down becomes a double down winner!
That gives us all a great deal of hope. Perseverance is key!
From meeting you at the WWW Conference and looking at your website, I can see that you immerse yourself in the world and details of what you write about. For background on Wild Inferno, you’ve served as a volunteer firefighter and Fire Information Officer, responding locally and nationally to wildfires. Which came first, the experience or the book idea?
The experience came first. I had been serving as a wildland firefighter for several years, and I couldn’t wait to write my sleuth, Jamaica, onto a wildfire. And it was really easy to bring along her medicine teacher, Momma Anna, and even her wolf, Mountain, because we frequently have wildfires on Indian lands and work with Native American tribes and fire crews. And what an exciting world wildland firefighting is—surging with adrenaline, everything happening at breakneck pace, a whole culture of the best of the best at war with a deadly force and so much hanging in the balance! A perfect setting for a murder, too, as there is so much chaos and confusion. I loved placing the story at Chimney Rock at the time of the Lunar Standstill because Chimney Rock is the world’s only known natural observatory for that phenomenon, and there happens to be an ancient Puebloan ruin there!
Likewise, for Wild Indigo, your main character, Jamaica Wild, has a wolf as a pet. So do you. How did that come about?
I don’t really like the word “pet” for a wolf. It’s not the same as having a dog live with you. I say that I live with a wolf. He doesn’t belong to me, nor I to him. We choose to live together, and it’s quite an experience to do so! My experiences with my beloved wolf, Mountain, were pretty close to what I describe as Jamaica’s experiences with him. He was my greatest teacher, challenge, and friend. He passed beyond the ridge while I was finishing WILD INDIGO, and I am pleased that he lives on in the series. He would love that, too. The wolf I live with now, Tiwa, is a very different character from Mountain. Mountain was an alpha wolf, and Tiwa is more a beta personality. He is not so much a challenge, but perhaps that’s also because I learned so much from Mountain about living with a wolf that Tiwa didn’t have to teach me all the things to do (and not to do.)
How closely related to you is Jamaica?
I think she’s actually very close to me in many ways. She lives in a remote cabin, spends a lot of time alone, lives with a wolf, and has a handsome and exciting male companion. She loves adventure, wild places, and Native America and is curious enough to be in trouble about half the time, if not more. That is all very close to my nature. But Jamaica gets to be younger and slimmer and maybe even stronger than me. No, I take that back—she’s not stronger than me. I’m pretty strong. Make that younger and slimmer. And maybe a little smarter, too.
You also write quite knowledgeably about the Pueblo Indian culture. How did that evolve?
I have always been a student of Native America. My grandfather was one-quarter Cherokee, and my grandmother had some Sioux blood, although we don’t know how much. I studied with a medicine teacher and a shaman from native tribes when I was younger. But more than that, my husband and I were adopted by a Tiwa family when we got married, and they have taught us and included us in all their family customs and rituals. Over the years, I have made friends with a number of Pueblo Indian families through my research and through introductions by my Tiwa family. So I have a tremendous amount of direct experience with the Pueblo Indian culture. And I do tons of research, enough so that I might have earned a PhD with as much study as I’ve done. I read everything I can, I do at least two months of field research for every book, I interview extensively, attend ceremonies, hang out at trading posts and on reservations, and research, research, research. I research as if I were writing non-fiction, so that what I write is as credible as I can make it.
You are a former journalist and newspaper editor. How has that helped (or hindered) you in writing fiction?
It has helped tremendously. One thing a journalist (and an editor) learns to do with great skill is to get the hook in quick, develop a dynamic plot, and make the lead flow through a story. And that little extensive research habit of mine we just talked about comes from journalism, too. The only problem I encountered when writing fiction that related to journalism was that I had a little trouble breaking out and letting myself just tell a wonderful story without worrying about facts. But I’m not sure that was all because of my background in journalism. I’ve learned that it’s a common problem with all writers—that fear of cutting loose and going for it and shutting down the internal critic long enough to get the story on the page.
I can sure identify with that, Sandi!
I see that you teach Wild Writing Workshops. What kind of advice do you give to aspiring writers in your classes?
I don’t really give advice. I teach skills. If you came to one of my workshops, you would see your writing skills improve right inside of the workshop. You wouldn’t have to wait to go home and read your notes, or study, or even practice to see it (although practicing good skills makes them even better). You would see it right in the workshop. And not only your own writing skills, but everyone else’s, which would also inform you about what works and doesn’t in your own writing. I am aces at teaching skills. I have a gift for it, and many of my students have gone on to become published authors themselves.
Well, if I’m ever in your area or you are in the Pacific Northwest, teaching a class, I’d love to take one from you!
You are certainly passionate about the West. Did you grow up there? Were you raised as a cowgirl, on a ranch?
I was born in Las Vegas, but I did not grow up in any one place. My father was in the Air Force, and we traveled all around the world. But I think my roots sank deep in the West at birth. The West is not only a place; it is the embodiment of what remains that is wild and free in our country. It is the frontier for important decisions about questions like: do we have the right to use up all the earth’s resources? Or do we want to share them? Do we want to grant other species the right to live on the land alongside us or must we annihilate them so that we can spread even deeper and more densely across the land and dominate it? And do our needs supersede all other species’ needs? Do we want to have beautiful places left intact so that we and our children and our grandchildren and their grandchildren will have beautiful wild places to retreat to, so that they can nourish themselves spiritually and creatively? Do we hope to see a bear or a bison or a wolf or even a mountain lion outside of a zoo in the future? And if not, will they be the same creatures in captivity? Do we need them for our own existence, biologically, environmentally? And especially relevant to human beings: what is going to happen to Native America if we keep on like we have been? Will Native cultures be able to survive the land-grabbing, resources-gobbling, money-means-more-than-anything machine that has been chewing up our country for the last two hundred or more years? The West is the frontier where most of these issues will be decided, and soon.
We live on a knife edge. The West is vanishing. Native Cultures are being squeezed to extinction. Amazing great heaven beasts are being extirpated at an alarming rate. Water, minerals, lumber, resources, and land, land, land are driving a race to have what is most valued in terms of dollars as opposed to what might be even more precious in other ways. I am hurrying as fast as I can to record what I see of the beautiful, precious, delicate, vanishing West. The West is going to teach us the lesson of what we truly value. It’s not going to be an easy lesson to learn. I hope it’s not going to come too late.
What are your secrets to successful promotion?
If there are any secrets to success in any area, I wasn’t privy to the memo. There are only two reasons for my success as an author, in any respect: hard work and grace. It is probably the fact that I’m practically obsessive-compulsive about my writing that makes it award-winning, and brought me the profound initial success that came to me right from the first query letter I sent out. I won’t start a manuscript until I’m filled to brimming over with the research, the knowledge that is the foundation upon which the story will rest. I won’t let go of a manuscript until it is as perfect as I can possibly make it. This means endless polishing, editing, fine-tuning, honing, and refining. It’s often that sixth or seventh draft that finally hums like a tuning fork in my heart. Never the first few. And when I do turn in my manuscripts, my editor seldom has any edits to recommend. In fact, none at all for the past two books, and hardly any for the first two. As for the grace part, I have been extremely fortunate in many ways.
As for promoting, I think the surest way to succeed is probably to write the very best story you have ever heard. Fall in love with it. Tend it like a newborn and nurture it until it has everything you ever wanted in a story. Then, when you send it out the door into the big, wide world, you will want to do whatever you can for it, and so will anyone else who reads it. Beyond that, I have always loved and celebrated the independent booksellers. They are the folks I have tried to partner with to help them find ways to put my stories into the hands of their readers. And they have been wonderfully supportive of my series in return. It’s a very satisfying team relationship. My fans have been part of the grace I was talking about. They have gotten behind my series and spread the word, acted as WILD Wranglers at my signings, participated on my website and given my books to their friends, family members, book clubs, VA hospitals and community groups. They bring me gifts and take me to coffee when I’m in town and send me the greatest e-mails and letters you can ever imagine. I’m so lucky!
Thank you, Sandi, for a wonderful interview. This has been fun, and I wish you the best with your next book!
For more information and to order Sandi Ault’s books go to her website http://www.sandiault.com