When I got the bright idea to interview legendary author N Scott Momaday (at right, receiving the National Medal of Arts from President George W Bush in 2007) for this week's cover story, I first treated it like your average assignment. I went through the motions of getting the proper contacts, setting up the interview, getting directions to Momaday's house, and preparing myself by reading a bunch of his books over again—and it didn't quite hit me until an hour or two before the interview:
Holy shit. I'm about to interview N Sott Momaday.
Anyone who has any familiarity with Native American literature knows about Momaday. Actually, anyone who has any familiarity with American literature in general probably knows about Momaday. It has been said ad nauseam that his first novel, House Made of Dawn
, "opened the doors" for Native American writers across the country, sort of like how the Beatles opened the doors for music that wasn't lame or Jackie O opened the doors for first ladies to be non-frumpy. It had a massive impact on how Native American literature was received and how Native American culture was perceived in our country, which, at the time, was not so inviting to either.
Critics and scholars can say what they will about Momaday's writing and its effect on contemporary society, but, more importantly, Momaday's work is truly great. He writes from a passion for poetry which, he says, stems back to his ancestral roots of oral storytelling in the Native American culture. His prose is fluid and eloquent and unmistakably written by someone who can also pull his weight in poetry.
Our interview, which lasted nearly 90 minutes, was terrifying at first. Even in a wheelchair, the man is still intimidating. I've never actually broken a sweat during an interview—until this one. I don't know what it was that terrified me so. Momaday is very nice, has a voice like maple syrup, has a very comfortable home and never gave me any reason to think I should be on edge. But I was. It was simply by virtue of the fact that he was who he was that I was all freaked out.
But (sort of) needless to say, I eventually calmed down and talked to the man.
Since I love talking about myself (my main passion is poetry, after all—and I'm a Leo on top of that—and did I mention I was a theater kid in high school?—my mom thinks I'm cool), I have included a bit of first-person account stuff here that didn't fit into our print edition. Those have been italicized to separate them from the Q&A.
SFR: A lot of people would be inclined to call your work post-modern. I find that kind of funny, because your work just stems from such an ancient and timeless concept: the idea of oral storytelling.
I agree with you. I don't really know what post-modern is. It's kind of like deconstruction, as far as I can tell, and I don't understand that term either. But I would agree with you; its roots are timeless. I'm doing what people were doing thousands of years ago.
Does it ever irk you when people call your work post-modern?
No, I don't mind. Whatever they want to call it is fine with me. [laughs]
You mentioned that writing an autobiographical narrative like you did in The Names is 'burdensome.' I assume, then, that you don't prefer first-person to third-person.
No, I don't prefer it, though I do have a high respect for it. I like to read things in the first person, but I don't prefer it to third-person narrative.
What about your poetry? Is that first person?
A lot of it is. I think maybe the most—well, I don't know, I shouldn't say that. I was about to say the most important part of my poetry is first-person, but I don't know about that. I can write in different voices in poetry.
I'm sitting on the couch in his house on the northwest side of Santa Fe. In the main room, one entire wall is made of bookshelves—the kind with a built-in ladder to reach the ones closest to the high ceiling. The light is fading outside the sliding glass doors, and as we're talking, he suddenly takes his wheelchair's joystick in his hand and, without explanation, begins moving backwards, away from me. I don't ask why he's leaving; it doesn't seem right for me to question it. What he does, he'll do whether I know why he's doing it or not. I just hope he is going to come back.
He moves further and further away, still answering my question all the while, and stops at the doorway. He flicks on a light switch. Then he moves back to me. I breathe an inward sigh of relief. If N Scott Momaday wants to leave in the middle of a conversation, he can. But he chose to come back. I consider it an honor.
So if someone just isn't writing for two years, they're just not writing for two years?
Yeah. They have other things that interfere. But most writers have to write, I think, whether they know it or not. It's a drive, it's a compulsion. And I can easily imagine going for two years without writing, but I wouldn't call that a block. I would just say, ‘Well, he's not writing for the time being. It'll come.'
This, I might note, was a huge relief to hear. I have heard various accounts of what, when, how and how much writers should be writing—one former professor insists on four hours a day, another shrugs when I say I haven't written in three years, a former classmate has been writing a poem a day for about four years now, etc— but I'm more and more hearing that it's not such a big deal if writers don't write. I do wonder, however, how long it takes of not writing til you're not a writer any more. That, I've not been able to pinpoint yet.
You won the Pulitzer when you were in your mid-30s. Do you think it would have made your writing different if you had won the Pulitzer Prize later?
Probably not. The only difference might have been in terms of timing, in terms of putting more things out sooner than I did. I don't think it makes a great difference.
When you first began writing, did you ever have any idea that your career would be so successful?
No, I had no idea what my career was going to be.
Did you have any interest in how it was going to be?
Oh, I think so. I think the normal kind of curiosity on the part of the writer—‘What am I going to be? If I choose writing as a career, is it going to work?' I think every writer has to think about that to some extent. And then you see what happens.
Is there anything throughout your writing career you would have done differently?
When you were growing up, did you have an idea that you wanted to study something having to do with words, or did you just want to learn?
I think it was always something that had to do with words. I wanted to be a lawyer at one time. I found out in the course of things that I didn't really want to be a lawyer, but I wanted to work with words, so English was the obvious kind of recourse. So I majored in English and minored in speech, so I was always having something to do with words.
Why did you want to be a lawyer?
I watched Perry Mason
a lot. I wanted to be a criminal lawyer. But when I found out that Perry Mason
wasn't the law, I was terribly disappointed. [laughs]
At any time in your life, have you had to depend on your writing for a living?
Truthfully, no. I've never had to depend on my writing to make a living. Thank God for teaching—I taught most of my life and that has been my breadwinning activity. And teaching, by the way, has been very good in the sense that it gave me time to write. The two things go together, thank goodness, very well.
Do you think the fact that you never had to write is one of the reasons why you wrote so much?
Hmm. I don't know. I don't know what to say to that. That's an interesting question. There are so many writers who have had to write, like Dostoevsky, and did it change is attitude towards is work? I don't know. He did it. And he did it well enough. Hmm.
It seems you have always created simply because you want to create.
Yes. And that's important to me. I think that's the way it should be. And it's too bad that many artists are in a position where they have to depend upon their art to survive. I wish it were otherwise. I don't know that it ever was, but I like to think of artists making art for its own sake.
You grew up on reservations, but many reservations, due to isolation and poverty, are not the best places for young Native people wanting to succeed in education today. You say it's lamentable that there are more Native Americans living in cities than on reservations, so did you create The Buffalo Trust as a solution, a remedy?
I see us [Natives] moving in a good direction. It is not a bad thing that there are more urban Indians than reservation Indians at the moment; that's the way things are moving. And the Indian is much better prepared to live in an urban situation than he was, say, in the 1950s, with the relocation program. And many more Indians are going to college, graduating from college, going into the professional world. Things are moving in the right direction. [When it comes to] reservations, of course, there's so much diversity that you can't really generalize too much. Some of the reservations are pockets of poverty and alcoholism, but on the whole, I think the Indian is moving into the mainstream and succeeding there.
When writing about war, there is a passage in The Names where you talk about World War II: ‘I try now to think of the war, of what it was to me as a child. It was almost nothing, and nothing of my innocence was lost in it. It was only later that I realized what had happened, what ancient histories had been made and remarked and set aside in a fraction of my lifetime, in an instant. And there is the loss of innocence, in retrospection, in the safe distance of time. There are the clocks of shame; we tell the lie of time, and our hearts are broken.'
Wow, that's good. [laughs]
What struck me about it is that we're putzing along in our American lives, and we have not one but two wars going on—and there are so may kids growing up on whom it will bear little importance.
That's right...It's history repeating itself. Kids today who are losing their fathers in wars around the world, that's a sad thing and it's going to be with them all their lives. It's going to be important to them one way or another. And it's something that shouldn't happen. But there it is, and you have to make the most of it.
Now, speaking to America's teachers, is there something that you think should be included as part of Native American Studies curricula?
...Teach the Gettysburg Address. Have your students memorize it.
Why is that?
It's one of the great historical documents in the world. I never get tired of reading it. And you know, it's so deep that I don't think anybody discovers it completely. It takes years to digest it. And there are a lot of Indian speeches around that are valuable too.
It's interesting that you would say the Gettysburg Address before the Indian speeches.
It's probably greater than most of the Indian speeches I know. It's one of those timeless, endlessly important documents. So is the Declaration of Independence. And those things bear upon the lives and well-being of the American Indian. The more we know about that, the more the Indian knows about those things, the better off he is. Also, Beowulf
As our interview finished up, I asked one last question—a reference to a quote from Ancestral Voice, a collection of interviews with Momaday by Charles L Woodard. I flipped to page 10, jokingly stating the page number "for the record" into the tape recorder, and reading Momadays double-decade-old words back to him.
"Wow," he said with a slight smile. "You've really done your homework. I'm a little intimidated."
I couldn't help but laugh and wipe my damp forehead. Intimidated. Yeah, that's the word.