Of Panthers and People
Interview by John A. Murray
Introduction and About Author Linda Hogan
I first met Linda Hogan ten years ago, when we were guest writers at the Oklahoma Arts Institute. Although there were several other writers in attendance—Robert Creeley, Phil Lopate, Amy Hempel—I was particularly struck by the presence of Linda Hogan.
She was a calm, gentle soul, quiet around the edges and given to silent observation. When she spoke, her voice was clear and steady and her words were spare and carefully chosen. She avoided the big noisy groups, with all their false sincerity and forced laughter, and reminded me of a deer, uncomfortable to be out in the open and away from familiar paths. In this I sensed a kindred spirit. The few times I glimpsed her center I saw that it was a peaceful, sunny place, like a clearing in the forest, elusive, hard to find, but full of light and warmth. There was in this initial meeting an impression of strength, of a person who draws truth and power from that most ancient source, humility.
For the next decade I became acquainted with Linda Hogan through the pages of her many books (which she produced while working as a professor at the University of Colorado and single-parenting two children). These include several acclaimed books of poetry, two award-winning novels, and a distinguished work of nonfiction, Dwellings. It was the fiction that interested me the most, particularly Mean Spirit, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in the year of its publication (and should have won). Her second novel, Solar Storms, seemed to me a magnificent achievement. Individual paragraphs were like finely crafted poems, each word fitting perfectly into place. I kept wondering, why is such a fuss made over this or that author when there is someone like Linda Hogan out there, a novelist who has created such an original prose style, who focuses on such fresh themes and characters, and who has taken such an imaginative approach to narration?
In the spring of 1998 the editors of The Bloomsbury Review asked me to interview Linda Hogan, who had just published two new books, a novel (Power) and a nature anthology (Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals). I hesitated–it had been six years since I’d last done an interview–but ultimately agreed to do it. An interview, after all, provides an opportunity to honor a writer, and to share his or her work with a larger constituency, which is always a good thing for literature. The interview took place on the morning of May 24 at Linda’s home in the mountains west of Denver. For the first part of the interview we sat on the garden wall below her house, surrounded by yellow mustard seed flowers and beneath a chromium-blue Colorado sky. When rain clouds gathered we moved indoors. As we talked, her black tomcat watched us appraisingly from the bushes, and later from the sofa in the living room, and conveyed the feeling that he was the owner of the place and that people were there only because he had granted official permission.
Intimate Nature, which Hogan co-edited with Brenda Peterson and Deena Metzger, includes the essays, poems, and stories of more than 70 contributors, all women. Naturalists of the stature of Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey, Cynthia Moss and Diane Boyd write movingly of chimpanzees and gorillas, elephants and wolves, and the collective losses that have been sustained by the biosphere in recent years. Through these selections it becomes clear that women have a special kinship with the natural world, and that their measured, informed voices are needed in the forums where public policy is made.
Andrew Wyeth once observed to his biographer, Richard Meryman, that all of his paintings, including the Helga series, were self-portraits. As I read Linda Hogan’s latest novel, Power, it occurred to me that the book is also a self-portrait. On the surface it is concerned with the killing of an endangered species, a Florida panther, but at another level it relates the story of another endangered species: an author committed to excellence, a Native American woman addressing the central questions of human culture, a human being who values family over ambition, difficult truths over easy half-truths, faith and hope over cynicism and despair. Like the beleaguered panther, Linda Hogan inhabits a landscape fraught with danger, a literary ecosystem with its own predators, habitat loss, and deadly traps, all set against a society that too often misunderstands, mythologizes, and misrepresents its artists and visionaries.
Herewith is the literary portion of our conversation. Left out is interesting dialogue concerning her children and grandchildren, the nature of cats, home renovation, the local deer and elk, and, of all things, the cellular memory of transplanted organs. Despite the amateur quality of the questions and the free-flowing and often digressive nature of our conversation, what follows may be of interest to friends of contemporary literature. I offer Linda Hogan to you as an author deserving of a far wider readership (as Malcolm Cowley once suggested of a little-known Mississippi novelist), as a storyteller whose tales will often amaze and delight, and as a creative artist, like Willa Cather and Pearl S. Buck, Eudora Welty and Toni Morrison, N. Scott Momaday and Louise Erdrich, whose body of work will endure.
John A. Murray: Could you tell use about yourself, where you’re from, your family background, your educational background?
Linda Hogan: My father was in the military, our family is from Oklahoma, and I’ve lived here in this town for 20 years. My parents are now in Colorado Springs, but because my father was military we lived in a variety of places including three years in Germany. I’m writing about our experience in Germany now and coming back on the ship. I’m working on essays that are historical memoir; they’re the lives of an Indian family in the context of American history.
John A. Murray: You went to the University of Colorado at Boulder?
LH: I went to the Colorado Springs campus, and then I moved away to Maryland with my husband. A couple years later we moved back to Colorado, and I went back to school in Boulder.
John A. Murray: So you began writing at that time in Boulder, or had you written all your life?
Linda Hogan: I had already started writing poetry. I only started in my late 20s. I wasn’t interested in writing in my earlier life.
John A. Murray: Did you keep, or do you keep, a journal?
Linda Hogan: I used to keep a journal religiously. That was how I began every morning. I’d get up and write in my journal. It seems that when I started writing fiction and essays, the energy that normally goes into journal writing had another outlet, although I do miss it.
I also realized that I was writing about the same things every day anyway. Every morning I would remark about the beauty of that particular morning and what the birds were doing, what the trees looked like, whether it was raining. I finally realized that probably I could do more for nature in other, less private, kinds of writing.
John A. Murray: Many of The Bloomsbury Review’s readers are writers themselves and might be interested in learning how you approach the task of writing. When you have a book-length project, do you approach it like Faulkner did in a very structured way, working from a detailed chapter outline, or do you approach it like Jack Kerouac did, just get it out as fast as you can? How do you pace a book-length project?
Linda Hogan: I’m not sure you could compare my process to those writers. I don’t know if it’s because I’m indigenous and a woman, but when I write it’s not from my mind, not from a mental point of view. In fact, if the mental process gets involved in it, I’m lost, because then I’m trying so hard to control it that I lose the story or I lose the form or language. I’d say it’s like an egg dividing, my process, a cell dividing and becoming something larger and more whole as it goes. It’s more of an organic process.
John A. Murray: Many writers who are also teachers of writing might be intrigued by your innovative schedule, which combines teaching and writing in a very writing-friendly way. Could you tell us a bit about your yearly, seasonal schedule?
Linda Hogan: I’m fortunate enough to be working at a university that is supportive of my not being there part of the time. When I went to work in the university, I didn’t foresee what my life as a writer was going to become. I didn’t think that I would have novels published. I didn’t think that I would be in demand in so many different ways, in the areas of native science, ecology, poetry, fiction. It just didn’t seem like my life was going to expand the way it did.
What I’m doing now is teaching one class a year in the graduate writing program. Even during that one class, I’m often extremely exhausted because university teaching is such a hard job. I’m also trying to keep up with my other schedule and my other work. I’m the sole support of myself and my home, so I keep very busy. If I had to work full time, I would probably not be able to do any writing. I certainly know that’s true of the people I know all over the country who are working full time.
John A. Murray: It’s a very tough thing to do. What advice would you have for young writers? Do you think they should study creative writing at a university or that they should study writing in a different context, or both?
Linda Hogan: If someone is going to be a writer, they’ll be a writer no matter what they do. I don’t think I have any advice. I used to think I did, but if somebody loves to write they will be a writer.
John A. Murray: You recently published Intimate Nature. This book offers writings by women who explore the special bond that women enjoy with the living world. Why do you think it is that women, in general, seem to have a greater capacity for empathy and a greater respect for life?
Linda Hogan: The idea of the book was to give women a voice in a collection of their own. So many of the women were serious workers with animals–a black rhinoceros, a llama, an African lion, a whale, the young girls who trained Keiko of Free Willy to go back into the wild-and they are serious, beautiful writers. All the other anthologies featured primarily men, so we thought this would be a great idea for a collection. It turned out to be even better than we originally thought. Many essays are just fantastic, and the book has done incredibly well. Do I think that women have more of a capacity for compassion than men? I can’t answer that. I know compassionate men. I’m not sure it’s gender-based. But I do know that in research, women were the ones who first broke down the walls of the objective, scientific point of view.
It took men quite a while to have the courage to look at things differently. Diane Fossey was hired by Leakey to do the research with primates. He selected women on their ability to have compassion and empathy. He did not select his graduate students to do that particular research. He was forward-thinking about the capacities of women in that way. I think that men are more easily able to sustain and believe in the status quo than women, and women have been making interesting outreaches recently in the field of science.
One thing I’ve learned from being a part of the native Science Dialogue is how limited the sciences actually are. Each category of knowledge believes in its own system but doesn’t often connect with other categories of knowledge. Much of science is based on myth. If you look back over the history of science, you see how completely a whole belief system gets overturned with one new discovery. What is called science is really a belief system, more than an understood knowledge of the world.
I’m very concerned with human, animal, and plant survival, traditions that are ecologically sound, and indigenous knowledge systems, and how to convey these understandings of the world to a wide readership.
John A. Murray: Did you have any favorite selections of the anthology?
Linda Hogan: I love “Black Rhinoceros,” and I think Joan McIntyre’s pieces on the whales is exquisite. Everybody likes the Judish Collas pieces about the woman sleeping with the dog, never wondering if she was sleeping with the right dog. I like to read that when I’m talking about the book because it relieves everyone’s tension and makes them laugh. I also love Ellery Aker’s “Left Sink.” That was one of the submissions all three of us heartily agreed upon.
John A. Murray: What was it like working with two other editors on an anthology? Did you have separate sections, or did you each bring your own pieces to it?
Linda Hogan: I did the “First People” section myself. I felt that the editors in New York who would look at those essays might not understand the political background that indigenous people are writing out of. We worked together on the rest of it. We spent time, almost a week, sitting, talking, amid enormous stacks of paper. We had no idea we were going to end up with hundreds of submissions. We had a lot of arguments, but we finally managed to get there.
John A. Murray: Many of the essayists are also environmental activists. Do you believe that in our age environmental writers have a political responsibility?
Linda Hogan: I could never generalize in that way, especially since I see so many disappointing environmental writers who are not writing about the environment at all. They’re writing about themselves in the environment, and they often don’t understand the world they’re writing about. There are clearly writers who are more concerned with traveling around and checking everything out than they are with long-term survival of the habitats that they’re working in. In some ways, the writing I do is politically centered because it is about a world view that can’t be separated from the political, but I would never generalize to say that all people should do it in a certain way.
John A. Murray: Bill Kittredge once wrote that all great art is driven by conflict and that political conflict is what is energizing nature writing in our time, the conflict between civilization and the environment. Do you agree with that? That’s why the genre’s been so commercially successful and has attracted so many quality writers?
Linda Hogan: Don’t you think that civilization is a confusing word? It seems that it always implies Western civilization and certain kinds of behavior and ways of being in the world that are in conflict with the environment.
John A. Murray: I meant post-industrial Euro-American civilization.
Linda Hogan: That particular one needs to be rethought, especially if you look over the history of the European knowledge system and mind. One of the things I’m most interested in is talking about indigenous traditions and looking at the differences between the two. If you take a system of agriculture that was in place on this continent at the time of first contact and how well it was working, and then you compare it with the agriculture of Europe at that time, there’s simply no comparison. Something happened in Europe, in Western civilization, that created a breakdown of a healthy knowledge system and a healthy relationship with the rest of the world. I spend all of my time reading, writing, thinking about what it is that created people who thought they were civilized but really were the harshest and cruelest people in any time and any place from the beginning.
John A. Murray: Tell us about your work with wildlife rehabilitation.
Linda Hogan: I spent eight years working as a volunteer in wildlife rehabilitation. Two of those years were in a vet school. The other six were working at Birds of Prey Rehabilitation Center. It was very physical labor, and I reached a point where I wasn’t able to handle it very well. I would love to go back to it, but it requires that you are there reliably, not just off and on. As an older person I’m doing more good for animals by doing talks and writing.
I’m working on a book with my friend Brenda Peterson now about whales, so almost a week out of every month we’re on a whale trip. It started out when we wrote a series for the Seattle Times on the Makah bid to go whaling. The Makah is a Northwest tribe, and it was important to have an indigenous person interviewing the elders and talking to people. That opened up a new world of work. Of course, you know from reading Power that one of my main interests is the gray area between laws that affect sovereign nations and indigenous, religious freedom and the Endangered Species Act. I don’t know why that is so interesting to me, because there is always conflict. I am always having to deal with reactions from both sides. But it seems that nobody is willing to put their neck out and talk about those issues, so I’m doing it.
John A. Murray: Power came out this spring. How would you describe the novel to a potential reader?
Linda Hogan: The novel is about a young woman, Omishto, who is having to make some of the most important decisions anyone has to make in their lives. Who are the people she belongs to? In what capacity does she belong to her community? Is she going to be like her mother or herself, or is she going to be a woman of the land? It’s about a young Indian woman who has to make these serious decisions when she’s very young.
The novel itself is about the killing of an endangered species, the Florida panther. Omishto witnesses it and is then called to testify against her aunt. She also has to testify in a tribal court, after the American legal system is finished with the case.
I didn’t know anything about the Florida panther, but I was in a working group of Native people on the reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act. I don’t know why, but I was talking to somebody, and I said, “If somebody killed a Florida panther and if it were an endangered species, it would never be alright.” This brought a huge conflict. One man in the group was a rancher. He believed that, since indigenous people hadn’t endangered the species, he shouldn’t have to hold to American law. In reality, that is true. Indigenous people do not have to follow American law. That’s also the case with Makah. They do not have to have permission from the United States government to whale. That’s a treaty right.
On the other hand, as soon as I mentioned the Florida panther and the conflict began, I figured out quickly there was some special event that had happened with the Florida panther. So I asked questions and found out that in 1983 a Seminole man had killed a Florida panther. He was also the tribal chairman and a nightclub singer, a very complex man. He’d been out hunting with a friend, they were actually poaching with a light at night, and I believe he shot the panther by accident. From reading the court records, that’s what I concluded, but the case took four years. They spent four years trying to convict him of killing an endangered species, and he was finally acquitted because they bought the argument of religious freedom toward the end. But you could tell from the trial transcripts that something else had happened. It finally came down to, yes, he had the right to do that. On the other hand, people from the Panther Clan were called in to testify for or against him. It was clear that he was not of the Panther Clan. He probably did not have the right to do that, religiously even. I feel that, as an Indian woman, it’s important to hold to our integrity about our relationships with all the other species, including plants, and that they not be endangered. They are part of our cultural heritage and part of our spiritual life and our well-being, in terms of keeping our tribal lands and ecosystems intact.
In Pine Ridge, Alex Whiteplume was one of the people who brought back the buffalo to that area. He talks about how important it had been to the people, culturally, to have the buffalo returned. Their ecosystem also began to return to what it had been, because as the buffalo pounded the earth, some water came to the surface that hadn’t been there for a very long time. Creeks started to appear again. Then certain plants started to appear, and then birds came back to eat the plants. It was a real restoration, environmentally. As that happened, he said, the people looked at each other and said, “What about us? Now we need to restore ourselves. We also need to return to our traditional thinking, which says that we’re common, humble people, not much different from the sparrow or the meadowlark.” I feel very strongly that each case is different. If there was the killing of an animal for religious purposes, that right needs to be protected. But in the case of killing an eagle, as was done in Colorado at one time to sell the feathers on the black market, I think that’s always illegal. There’s nothing right about it.
John A. Murray: The novel is narrated by 16-year-old Omishto. Did you have someone in mind in creating this character?
Linda Hogan: My characters actually create me instead of the other way around. I had nobody in mind. I do love this character. I was sitting in my car in Florida in the middle of a thunderstorm when I heard her voice in my ear. This began the novel. I had no intention of writing this novel. I thought I was doing research on a legal case to write an article for a legal journal. So when the novel started to come to me, of course I knew what was happening. I began to write down everything she was saying. I find that my process usually isn’t that I’m full of intention. It’s usually that I’m just open, and something comes to visit and tells me the story and creates it.
I knew that it was going to be about the killing of the Florida panther, and I knew it wasn’t going to be about the case I had researched because of the involvement of the 16-year-old girl in this particular novel. ut I didn’t really know what it would become. I suppose you could say that when I read all the court records, I’d nourished my mind to go in a particular direction, but it was an organic process for me. I know there are people who do outlines and have the whole story structure and the subplots and all these things figured out in advance, but I just don’t work that way.
John A. Murray: When you’re describing Ama, a key character in the novel and a surrogate mother for Omishto, you say, “If she was a flower, she’d be one of those hard-living ones that hang on to the earth for dear life and have tiny blooms a person can barely see but they are there.” I thought I’d ask you, if you were a flower, what kind would you be?
Linda Hogan: Definitely a perennial. I’d be back every season.
John A. Murray: What are your current literary projects?
Linda Hogan: I’m working on a book that is memoir, but it’s set with history. It brings indigenous stories into the contemporary world, but it also moves back and forth in time. I’m writing a little bit about Ohiyesha, who as a medical doctor and a Santee Sioux. He was the physician at Pine Ridge at the time of the massacre at Wounded Knee. I’m also writing about Lozen, Geronimo’s female chief military strategist who was also the sister to Victorio.
John A. Murray: The Chiricahua Apache?
Linda Hogan: Right. She was the reason they were able to stay away from the Americans and the Mexicans for so long. She was brilliant.
So, it’s about my daughters, my parents, my grandparents, my life in the context of the whole history. I’m also taking notes on a new novel and working on some poems. I have a new book of poetry. I wish that I could work on one project only, but, for some reason, I do different things simultaneously. I even clean my house like that. I pick up one thing from one room, go to the next room, and do something there. It all gets done finally, eventually, but it’s a very haphazard way to work and not as quiet as I would like.
John A. Murray: Mark Twain once said that his imagination was like a giant shipyard and he always had three or four ships being built.
Linda Hogan: That’s it.
John A. Murray: He’d just wander back and forth and work on this one and then work on that one.
Linda Hogan: That’s good. I’ll borrow that from him.
John A. Murray: You recently traveled to Baja and Monterrey to view the whales with Jean-Michel Cousteau? Is that the literary project you mentioned earlier, with Brenda Peterson?
Linda Hogan: It is. We’re working on a book, and the Cousteaus are filming the relationship between whales and people because of the friendly whale syndrome in that location. We went there and hung out with the gray whales, who are amazing. We’ve interviewed people about them. Even to leading whale experts, they’re a mystery. Nobody can quite figure out what they are. Jean-Michel Cousteau said he thinks they’re like a living, breathing planet–each one. I love that he said that. I’d thought he’d be a great photographer and a good guy, but he’s also very poetic in how he sees the world. We’re going to be following the same pathway up to the Bering Sea. I’m working with indigenous and local people all along the way. That’s where I work the best. Brenda works well with the scientists and is a terrific organizer.
John A. Murray: For me, as a writer, family’s very important. It keeps me centered and reminds me of values. Do you find that to be the case with your children and grandchildren?
Linda Hogan: I feel like I owe the future to my children and grandchildren, that the work I do, I hope, will help sustain them in the future. Even just having this house, it’s really for my grandchildren. It’s not just my residence but something that they will have that is in a place where the land is protected, where they can actually see nature. Not very many people get that joy and pleasure.
My family’s important to me. I think you feel that even more when you’re an American Indian. You see your children, and you want them to know the tradition, to know the language to follow in some way, and yet, you still have to live in America. I think that’s my priority in my life. My work is all dedicated to those babies and children.
Header photo of Florida panther by Jo Crebbin, courtesy Shutterstock.