Thursday, March 28, 2019

Interview with Author Debra Gwartney

I Am a Stranger Here Myself
University of New Mexico Press

 I Am a Stranger Here Myself

1.    What inspired you to write this book?  As our country has become increasingly polarized over these past years, I’ve felt keenly a divide with my own family—patriarchal, staunchly conservative, and steeped in the mythology of the Frontier West. While I love Idaho, where I was born and raised, and fiercely honor my family’s heritage, I also must be true to my own feminist beliefs and values. So when I found a book in my grandmother’s collection about the first white woman to cross the Rocky Mountains in 1836 (she was reported to be the first), a missionary named Narcissa Whitman, I dove in to her history, suspecting that if I could discover something essential about the first white woman in the West, I would also solve a dilemma in myself.

When I started reading about Narcissa, I did so with a revisionist mindset (I was early to judgment about her and her religious agenda): I considered her yet another colonizer determined to dismantle a distant culture’s traditions and epistemology. That’s pretty much true of Narcissa and her husband, Marcus: their way was the only way and because of their narrow views, they clashed horribly with the people they’d come to “save,” the Cayuse Tribe. In 1847, a band of Cayuse attacked the Whitman Mission and killed Narcissa, Marcus, and a dozen others. Fifty women and children were taken hostage. 

The story fascinated me, so many layers of expectation and distrust and greed and exploitation. What surprised me was that, over time, she became, for me, a complex and vulnerable woman. I began to recognize the trap she was bound in, and this confirmed in me a need to comb through my own legacy as a fifth generation Idahoan. How can I be a woman of the West and still be true to myself? That became my central question, and Narcissa Whitman helped me pry open many answers.

2. Who should read it and why?  Any woman who recognizes herself in this divide—family members positioned against each other as polarization deepens. My intention was not to vilify my relatives, but to discover in myself a sense of reconciliation and peace in these troubled times.  Also, anyone interested in the history of US expansion and Manifest Destiny would find elements to love, hate, and quibble with in this book. I’m not an historian or a scholar—this is a creative expression of what I took from my years of research and I’m eager to share that with readers.

3.    How is it better or different than others in the genre?  I’m very excited to be writing in this time of genre-busting. Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk is in that camp, and was hugely inspirational to me because for the first time I felt I could successfully combine my own story and personal journey with the historical tale of Narcissa Whitman. The resulting book, I Am a Stranger Here Myself, is part memoir and part expository narrative—my take, again, on striking historical incidents that formed the Western ethos that has trickled down through generations of my family.

4.    What challenges did you overcome to write your book?  My challenge certainly wasn’t a lack of research materials about Narcissa Whitman, but perhaps too much. The first drafts of the book were overly dense with information, and my job, over the course of several years and much revising, was to discover a good balance of information and story-telling, which vexed me for a long time. My other challenge was to find a way to write about my role in family dynamics with fierce honesty, holding my own feet to the fire and eschewing, as best I could, blame.

5.    What lasting messages do you hope your readers are left after consuming your book? Perhaps that history, indeed, repeats itself. The expansion of the West, one of this country’s most profound migrations (300,000 people within a five-six year window on the Oregon Trail), was rife with many of the same issues we face today: the vilification of the “other,” in this case the Native people of frontier; the falsification of facts and fabrication of tales to bolster a questionable movement; and a very unsettled relationship with the Federal government—new settlers (speaking broadly) demanded government help and aid in procuring land, but then wanted largely to be left alone, free of restrictions and regulations. 

6. What advice do you have for struggling writers? Hang in there! Meet with other
     writers; read and read some more. Believe in yourself and what you have to say. 

7.    Where do you see the book publishing industry heading?  My first book was published ten years ago by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, so I went through the process with a large New York trade publisher. This book, because it’s the winner of the River Teeth Nonfiction Prize, was contracted with a small university publisher. I have learned tremendously from both experiences and find myself, more than ever, hoping for a resurgence of the mid-list book with less emphasis on giant best sellers. It’s my plan to keep writing and I certainly hope to be part of the US publishing industry for a long time to come.

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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog ©2019. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent.  This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by as a "best resource.” He recently hosted a panel on book publicity for Book Expo America.

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