BRIAN YOUNG – Navajo Author of The Healer of the Water Monster

Brian Young is a graduate of Yale University and Columbia University. He is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation. He enjoys reading, watching movies, playing video games (when he has time), and keeping physically active.

What brought you to writing? When I first wrote The Healer of the Water Monster, I lived in Albuquerque and worked as a meat cutter, and contributed to the native film community as a screenwriter and director. I first envisioned Healer as a movie, possibly a trilogy of feature films. But when I sat down to write it, I knew that a film interpretation wasn’t feasible. The scope and size of Healer’s story was growing in ways that would require an extensive budget to successfully depict. At that time, no one was willing to financially produce native stories because of the prejudiced idea that “Native stories don’t sell.” So, I made the decision to write Healer first as a book because those limitations that filmmaking imposed don’t exist with prose writing. It also helps that I love writing.

How long did it take you to write your first book? Such a long time! Six or seven years? The first draft took me like two months because I was really motivated and in love with the story. I already had daydreamed about the plot points and character growth paths. I did revisions to it for three years. But I was using techniques from screenwriting. I’d have huge paragraphs at the beginning of chapters and scenes going into great detail of the land and environment, then like five pages of nothing but dialogue. I had to grow as a storyteller, definitely as a prose writer. That’s why I decided that getting an MFA was going to help me get Healer published. I was super fortunate but also did a tremendous amount of work to get into Columbia’s MFA for Creative Writing. Through that program, I learned the tools, techniques, and unique abilities that prose writing has.

How long to get it published? I hear this process can take a long time. But for me, it was very short. To complete my MFA program, I did a ground-up revision of Healer for my thesis. I took a third year to rewrite every single sentence of my manuscript. Columbia University’s School of the Arts hosts an agent mixer for third-year writing students and alumni. It was there that I met my agent. I pitched Healer to him, and he wanted to read my manuscript. I wasn’t fully finished with my revision, and he agreed to wait.

A month later, I had finished the revision and sent it to him. When he offered me his representation, I cried. I literally spent ten minutes in my room praying and saying thank you to the Navajo Holy Beings. After accepting his offer through an email, he wanted to go right into sending it out to publishers and editors. After another revision I felt was needed, my agent and I sent Healer out to publishing houses and editors. The rejections came first, as they usually do. But then, we got some interest. My agent set up some meetings, and I had the massive fortune to meet with Rosemary Brosnan, who was gearing up to launch Heartdrum, a native-focused imprint of HarperCollins. I had some immediate gut vibes that told me Rosemary was the one who was going to help bring Nathan’s story across the finish line. After we met, Rosemary offered a pre-empt and my agent worked his magic. By the end, I had a signed two-book deal! It was finalized the day I picked up my mom and sister from LaGuardia for my graduation from Columbia. I had experienced so many setbacks and heartbreaks before. But all that hardship was worth it when I showed my mom my contract. All in all, it took four months, getting an agent then a book deal. After that, Rosemary and I did another revision (I’ve lost count of how many revisions I did), and that is the version that went to print.

We hear of strong-willed characters. Do yours behave, or do they run the show? In my opinion, if your protagonist isn’t making decisions that shape the environment, world, people around them, then why are they the protagonist? Nathan, the protagonist of The Healer of the Water Monster, definitely runs the show. Both he and I agreed that his actions would have consequences for the worlds around him. There are very precious few stories that depict native children as heroes whose actions shape the world around them. So, throughout all the revisions and from the very start, both Nathan and I wanted him to be as active as he could possibly be. I speak of him as an actual person because I spent seven years with him! Actually more, because he is in my next book!

Do you outline, or are you a pantser? On that spectrum, I am more of an outliner. I love seeing the story in its entirety. It’s actually my favorite part of the writing process. I love looking at the macro-level of the story and tinkering with plot points and action beats. When writing a new story, I’ll often do a 27 chapter outline and write a paragraph describing what happens in each chapter and break it down further into scene outlines for each chapter.

That being said, my initial 27 chapter outline usually becomes useless because at the halfway point in the actual writing of the story is when I’ll diverge from the outline. Or I’ll discover some story bits or character emotions that I overlooked when writing the whole story. It’s also here in the middle of the story that the characters start to do their own actions and say their own words. When I’m in the zone, I don’t know what the characters are going to do. It’s like I’m reading a new book that is being written right in front of my eyes.

So, I like to start with having an outline down but will concede to the characters when they start to fully come into their own.

Do you have any advice for new writers? My biggest advice is “Write what you love.” I can’t stress enough that this is a long journey that you are on. From inception to publication, it took me seven years to turn The Healer of the Water Monsterinto a book. You, new writers, are going to be with the story that you are writing for a very long time. If I didn’t love the story or characters, I’m not sure if I would have been as committed to its publication, nor am I sure if I would have been able to devote seven years of my life to Healer. If you love your story, the sacrifices and effort needed to publish a book will be worth it.

People can buy The Healer of the Water Monster on Amazon, but I recommend Red Planet Comics and Books (native owned and operated in Albuquerque, NM)
https://redplanetbooksncomics.com/products/healer-of-the-water-monster?_pos=1&_sid=a217895af&_ss=r

To reach me, here is my author website: https://brianlyoung.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/BYoungWrites
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/byoungwrites/

5 Comments

  1. Thonie Hevron

    What an interesting story about Brian Young’s journey to bring Healer to fruition. I’m looking forward to reading it.

    Reply
  2. Glenda Carroll

    Congratulations on the publication of The Healer. You are to a great start in your writing career.

    Reply
  3. Michael A. Black

    The story of your novel’s evolution reads like an adventure story itself. Congratulations on realizing your dream and completing your MFA. Best of luck to you with your future writing.

    Reply
  4. Madeline Gornell

    Great meeting you, Brian. Sounds like you’ve gotten a great start to wonderful writing career. Much success!

    Reply
  5. Alec Peche

    Congrats on getting a book deal. You mention that you love outlining and start with a detailed 27 chapter outline. As a pantser, that sounds like my version of a monster. I’m curious as to whether there were any pantsers in your MFA class?

    Reply

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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/

Twitter: @urs_pike

IG: @ursulapike_in_austin

 

 

1 Comment

  1. Michael A. Black

    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.

    Reply

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