Ursula Pike – Karuk – Author – Peace Corps Volunteer
Ursula Pike’s debut book is An Indian among los Indígenas: A Native Travel Memoir
At the age of 25, I stepped off a plane in Bolivia to begin two years of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I assumed that connections with the people of South America’s most indigenous country would be easy because I’m Native. The truth was much more complicated. This is my debut book.
Deborah Miranda (Ohlone /Costanoan-Esselen) author of Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir, said this about the book, “The Indigenous peoples Pike lived and worked with speak loudly from these pages, challenging many of us to check privileges we didn’t know we had, demanding the right to be complex, strong, and human. This book is all heart, all vulnerability, as a young California Indian woman makes family far from home.”
Do you write in more than one genre? Creative Nonfiction is my favorite genre to write in, and by that, I mean memoir and essays. However, I have a few short stories I’ve written. I have a story about a Native Elvis impersonator who dances in powwows in his Elvis regalia.
What brought you to writing? Writing has always been my strategy for dealing with life. Writing in a journal is a mindfulness exercise. I never knew that when I started, but that’s exactly what it is. Writing requires me to focus on the moment I’m in. All the brutally honest writing I filled my journals with helped me develop a clear voice on the page. I learned to write for myself and never thought I’d show my writing to anyone else. An online writing class at Austin Community College helped me have the courage to share my writing with others.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? A library is the absolute best place to write. During the pandemic, I’ve really missed libraries. Not only are they usually bright and quiet with comfortable chairs, but I am also surrounded by books. There is nothing as inspiring as looking up from my writing to see a book that looks terrible and think, “If that book was published, maybe mine has a chance.”
Tell us about your writing process: There are times when I feel inspired to write, or an essay idea pops into my head, but, honestly, deadlines are the thing that makes me actually sit down and write. In Austin, I used to read at a monthly open mike event, and the pressure to produce something good to read terrified me. I was always motivated to get a good five-minute piece ready by the deadline.
What is the most challenging part of your writing process? The very first revision is incredibly challenging. I am comfortable with churning out the crappy first draft. But turning that imperfect lump into a chapter or essay that I might want to show someone else is daunting. My computer is littered with first drafts that I never went back to because I wasn’t sure what to do with them.
Who’s currently your favorite author? Right now I’m reading Toni Jensen’s Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land and loving it. It is beautiful, honest, and humorous in a sly way that makes me want to read it slowly to enjoy the stories.
Do you travel and visit the settings used in your work? My book is set in Bolivia during the two years I lived there in the late 1990s. But I did travel back to Bolivia in 2018 while I was writing the book. Bolivia is a stunningly beautiful country, and the trip helped me beef up the descriptions of the landscape and the people. During my return, I also paid attention to how Bolivians speak and revised some of the dialogue in an attempt to more accurately reflect conversations.
How long to get it published? I queried agents for over a year with no luck. Then Heyday Books, a small publisher in Berkeley, California, began accepting submissions after being closed for a while. They liked the book outline I sent and asked for the full manuscript. A few months later, they made an offer to publish the book. In total, I spent about 18 months trying to get the book published before finding Heyday. Then I spent another year and a half working closely with two editors revising the book.
How do you come up with character names? Naming the people in my book was a difficult issue for me because it is a true story. But I didn’t want anyone else who is part of the story to be easily identifiable. For this reason, I changed everyone’s name except my own. I even changed the name of the town. Bolivian newspapers were a great resource for finding realistic names because they are full of quotes by people listing their names.
Do you have subplots? The revision process helped me with the subplots. The editors I worked with pointed out ways that I could strengthen the subplots. For example, there’s a subplot about an important friendship I had with a volunteer from El Paso. In earlier drafts, the description of the friendship was primarily in one or two later chapters. My editors suggested I add scenes earlier in the book to develop those subplots more. They also helped me discover a few subplots that needed to be cut out entirely.
What kind of research do you do? People might think that writing memoirs doesn’t require any research because the author is writing about their life. And it is true that the eight blank journals I filled with my recollections while a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bolivia were the first source of information for the book. But, in my case and that of most memoir writers I know, research was a critical part of the writing process. I read books and academic articles about Bolivia, the Peace Corps, and even about my own tribe, the Karuk. Not all of this research ended up in the book. Still, it helped me better understand the historical context I was writing about.
Looking in the future, what’s in store for you? An Indian among los Indígenas: A Native Travel Memoir came out on April 6th, and I’ll be promoting that during the spring and summer. After that I will be finishing my next book, which details the years after the Peace Corps when I lived in Eastern Mississippi, broke and pregnant, teaching English at a chicken processing plant. The working title for that book is House, Mississippi, although my teenage daughter thinks I should call it Radioactive Chicken Baby.
Order Book: An Indian among los Indígenas: A Native Travel Memoir
How do readers contact you?https://ursulapike.com/
I’ve known a few people who served in the Peace Corps. I salute you for your dedication and courage in helping to make this world a better place. Good luck with your writing.