Linda Hogan is a celebrated poet, storyteller, academic, playwright, novelist, environmentalist, and a writer of short stories. Her novel, Mean Spirit, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She’s an NEA Fellowship recipient, a Guggenheim winner, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, and, most recently, the recipient of the 2016 Thoreau Prize from the PEN American Center. Linda is currently the Chickasaw Nation Writer in Residence.
I reached out to Linda after I attended a panel at AWP which featured Linda and Lidia Yuknavitch, another friend of PDXX Collective. Throughout their all-star panel discussion, I was moved by Linda’s strength, resilience, and humor, all of which carry over into her brilliant writing. I am honored to have the opportunity to present you with more of her words.
Were you a writer from an early age? Can you describe your publishing process?
No, I wasn’t a writer from an early age. I didn’t begin writing until I was in my late twenties. I hadn’t read much as a young person, either. When I hear this question asked of most writers, I hear them say they were always avid readers and they always wrote. Our experiences as writers are so varied. I am one of those who didn’t have books in [the] house [as a child]. I would have been more interested in visual art than anything, but even more than that, I was interested in being outdoors. I liked exploring the world. I loved trees and animals. Those were my gods. Maybe for me, as a writer, that was the very best beginning.
When I was older and discovered contemporary poetry, it was unlike anything else I had read. I began to read it and to write. Writing became a beautiful and magical experience. I recall falling in love so completely with words and what they could do when put together in the right way, how much feeling they could have. The resonance and the feeling of language was so complete, such an experience of wholeness, I knew it was what I wanted to do the rest of my life.
Our experiences as writers are so varied. I am one of those who didn’t have books in [the] house [as a child].
After that, I went back to school and took workshops. Interestingly, my first teacher didn’t make us put our names on the poems we wrote. He read them. The group discussed them. This became a very supportive group and we became friends. Some of those friendships lasted many good years. Our classes were not competitive and I credit the professor, Rod Jellema. He was kind, a good man. If I were in one of the workshops with any competition, I would have continued writing, but on my own, and that is never the best idea.
When you started writing, what stories were you preoccupied with telling?
I wrote only poetry. It was the first form. I practiced for a long time and I wrote, first, about life in Oklahoma, my younglife and memories. I dedicated it to my sister since she shared that time. Those poems were in Calling Myself Home, my first book, and it was about growing up as a Chickasaw girl, living as a Chickasaw child. It was a necessity for me, considering that I then lived in the suburbs of DC.
It was as if one day I woke up and I had culture shock about the changes in a human life, this one.
When I wrote fiction, my first stories were also about that time and the people. Then, I did the Pulitzer finalist novel, Mean Spirit. It was based on the true story of the oil boom in Oklahoma in the early 20s, the murders of Native people for their oil-rich land, and is a rich mystery revolving around one family, but it was not a book without truth and humor. To this day, I don’t know how I wrote a novel with no help and no computer!
Now, what are your literary preoccupations, or obsessions?
I write about whatever floats in and catches my attention. Also, I am still interested in the environment and how ecosystems work, so I find myself writing essays about our amazing planet and the connections that need to be learned by us. Like how important wolves are for the survival of trees and water, or how restoring buffalo also restores water and birds to a location, or the communication of trees beneath ground and how they communicate and give to one another. I still write poetry and fiction. I just finished a new novel, or so I thought, until I realized that after many years, it isn’t working and I need to rethink the entire concept.
How did these preoccupations develop?
With novels, I write about true historical events in the present and how people rise up to overcome the destruction of their homelands, such as the James Bay Hydroquebec project in Solar Storms, the issue of whaling, and the oil boom or the killing of an endangered species. With essays, I write about the beauty of the world and its many meanings to us on all levels. Then, with poetry, what can be said? I write what comes through and then I add and subtract and revise until something intelligent is on the page. But not with a choice about the topics, although in my New and selected, Dark. Sweet., the last part is called “The Remedies,” and is about healing. And I think even the memoir I once wrote, many years ago, I tried to take in Native Science and from around the continent. I had to look at truth in that book because a memoir is not an easy task unless it is around a single event in a life. I covered the long span up until then.
Now, of course, many more years have passed and looking back, there could be another long sequel, but maturity and ripening helps a person become bored with her own life and more interested in others.
Have you ever been surprised by the degree to which your work resonated with readers?
Yes, I am always surprised, but so grateful to touch another person’s world because I think it offers something to others. I hope it is a gift. Sometimes, though, I sit here in my quiet life and forget that the work even goes anywhere, is read, and is alive out there. But I also think it is a gift to me, because I can’t say where it even comes from.
Can you tell me about the work you do with Native youth?
Between teaching, keeping the house warm, and all the other things I do, I am no longer able [to do those programs]. Also, I am no longer able to ride. But I do love it when I have a chance to work with youth. If I teach a workshop, I am surprised at their excitement, their need to give a reading, to stand and be heard, to try. We need to have creativity in schools so much more than we do. It is a joy for me, but a necessity for them. Our problems in this time is not the young people. They are willing to have a rightness in the world and not afraid to say it.
Sometimes, though, I sit here in my quiet life and forget that the work even goes anywhere, is read, and is alive out there.
Regarding inequality in publishing, have you ever felt that your work was more difficult to place than that of your male peers or of white writers?
Definitely. There are a few tokens and then the rest are invisible, now matter how good. But I don’t like to say that. I do know a few writers who are masters at self-promotion and manage to get their work out in the world just through their own exhausting efforts. It takes a special personality to do that. Most of us are not that willing to push ourselves into the world. Many of us are quiet. Many have other commitments. And many would rather write with their energy. But honestly, I have thought of how differently my writing would exist in the world if I were a white man. It would be in another category and I would probably earn a living.
How does your feminism inform your writing?
I’m sure it does, but I am not conscious of it because when I write, I am not thinking. I go into what I call “the zone” and there a person exists without any categories.
Who are some writers who influence your writing?
I read everything. Right now I have The Carnivore’s Way by friend Christina Eisenberg nearby, Carl Safina’s new book, one on Lakota Star Knowledge, and Parabola’s edition on Intelligence. But when I need a real “hit,” I always go to Neruda or Patty Ann Rodgers, or van der Post. Some brilliant and beautiful writer that will send me off on a writing journey.
If there was one writer you would require every American to read, who would that be?
I would start with Howard Zinn: A People’s History of the United States.
Being from the Pacific Northwest, I grew up reading Native American writers. Should we be doing more to bring more of those voices into the literary “canon” and why?
Of course the people of all of America should know about one another. And yes, there is something very important in the work of Native writers and scholars, and it is at the foundation of everything else in the workings of our country, a source for others who are not from this land.
Have a favorite author or feminist leader you would like us to interview?
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