Interview with William Heath
1. What made you choose William Wells as the main character of your novel? How did you first encounter his story?
I'm not certain where I first heard of William Wells. It might have been in Bil Gilbert's fine book about Tecumseh, God Gave Us This Country. In my previous novel, The Children Bob Moses Led, I had been teaching my students about the civil rights movement and I realized that most of them had been born after the 1960s and really had no idea what the Sixties were all about, except as those years had been mythologized by the mass media. For example, the civil rights movement was all about Martin Luther King and a major figure like Bob Moses was barely mentioned. In order to recover a truer picture of the early Sixties, which achieved a kind of moral high water mark during Freedom Summer of 1964, I decided to dramatize the life of Bob Moses as well as the lives of the "children," actually college students, who had followed his leadership.
After that book was published by Milkweed Editions in 1995, I wanted to write about another unsung hero whose life illuminated a period of American history, but I wanted to choose a different time. I'm from Ohio and one of my ancestors, Capt. Heath, was a surveyor in the early 19th century (his flintlock used to be over our fireplace), and so I was curious about early Ohio history. The story of Wells intrigued me since he seemed to be a real-life Little Big Man figure, the hero of Thomas Berger's wonderful novel about Custer's Last Stand.
When I began to research the period, the passing references to Wells sustained my interest; here was someone who had been captured by the Indians when he was a boy in 1784, grown up to become a Miami warrior fighting at the side of his father-in-law, the great Miami war chief Little Turtle, during the greatest victory the Indians ever won against the U. S. Army, St. Clair's Defeat in 1791; then switched sides and became the head scout for General Anthony Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, served as the interpreter between Little Turtle and Wayne at the Treaty of Greenville, which ceded most of Ohio to the United States, spend much of the rest of his life as Indian Agent for the Miami at Fort Wayne before dying in the defense of Fort Dearborn (Chicago) in 1812. If one wanted to understand the history of the Northwest Territory from both the Indian and white perspective, no one life could do that job better than that of William Wells.
2. I notice that both this novel and your novel The Children Bob Moses Led concern characters that are crossing a racial divide of some sort. Is this kind of cultural intersection part of what interested you about these stories?
The art of fiction involves creating multiple characters with differing points of view and then dramatizing their interactions. Novelists are to be judged, in part, by how well they create characters who are not them. As a white male writer living in a multicultural country, my work should be evaluated, then, by how well I create characters of different age, sex, race, region, and so forth. Many novelists themselves as well as readers don't adequately understand this, I think; hence we read a lot of me-me-me novels with an overbearing narrator who wants to tell us about his or her life; and we have readers who only read novels in order to "identify" with someone who is just like they are. Novels are to take you out of yourself, and they are to immerse you in different worlds. They also need to fulfill the ancient aesthetic mandate to delight and instruct.
Needless to say, it's not easy to create characters across racial lines. Especially nowadays with lots of reasons to be touchy about ethnic issues, there's an enormous challenge for the writer not to slip into old cliches or fashionable political correctness. There are a lot of African American characters in The Children Bob Moses Led and one of the largest challenges was to make sure that they not talk, think, or act the same; each is an individual with his or her own take on experience. My problems in creating the world of the Miami was even greater. I don't know the Miami language, so that was one hurdle I couldn't clear. And there are no complete ethnographic accounts of their manners and customs; far less, for example, than exist for their neighbors the Shawnee. That was one of the reasons I spent years and years researching--so I could present novelistic scenes that were still accurate history and sociology.
If you want to be an American novelist, then how can you not write about Native Americans and African Americans? This, by the way, also applies to African American novelists: how well do they create white characters?
3. Could you describe your methods of research for a historical novel? Is it the period or the person represented that interests you more? What kind of sources do you use?
I must report that I'm a fanatic when it comes to research. Once I've chosen my topic, I want to know everything possible about it. What that means in practice is that I over-research to an absurd degree. No sane person should try to repeat my methods. The challenge in writing a historical novel is that you want to write both vivid fiction and valid history. That means that your chapters must read as good fiction but have the accuracy, down to the smallest detail, of the best history books. In order to do this well, the author needs to find a treasure trove of primary documents, written at the time and on the spot. Secondary sources simply can't do the trick; they're too abstract and they impose later versions and interpretations on the events. I was fortunate (or cursed) to find what I was looking for. I visited many archives to research the civil rights movement, but there are two especially great collections: one is the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) files at the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta. One of their leaders, James Forman, was a former high school history teacher; he insisted that the SNCC workers write up their experiences and file reports on a regular basis. This is a rarity among political activists, who are usually so busy doing things and so tired afterwards that they leave very little in the way of a paper trail.
An even better archive for me was the Wisconsin Historical Center, which has massive files on the hundreds of civil rights workers that went to Mississippi in 1964. I could read their letters, diaries, memoirs, newspaper articles, and so forth; this enabled me to create some fictional characters whose experiences were a kind of quintessence of what happened to typical volunteers during Freedom Summer. I read hundreds of accounts of how they taught in Freedom Schools and canvassed for voters and from those sources I could re-create and compose a few scenes that I thought captured the truth of their lives.
With Blacksnake's Path: The True Adventures of William Wells, I faced an even more daunting task. The Freedom Summer volunteers were exactly my generation, and so I knew how they looked, talked, and thought. But going back to the late 18th century and early 19th century, and viewing that world through both Indian and white eyes, presented a huge challenge. Not surprisingly, the research I did was extensive. At the end, I made a count and I had read 500 books, 300 articles, and visited 33 archives. I'm sure you don't want me to go into detail about them all, but curiously the best archive was again the Wisconsin Historical Society. They have the remarkable Lyman C. Draper Collection of 480 volumes of primary material about the Northwest Territory frontier. In the early nineteenth century Draper realized that all the old pioneers were dying off, and he set out to interview all of them that he could find; and if they were already passed away he talked to their children. He also gathered all the other primary material he could: treaties, diaries, newspaper articles, old maps, what have you. And he interviewed Indians as well as whites. While much of the material is suspect, because the informants were old and memories are unreliable, there is still wonderful anecdotes and telling details that exist nowhere else. Without the Draper Collection, I don't think I could have fine-tuned my presentation of pioneer life in Kentucky, the customs of the Miami, the various famous battles of the period, the personalities of the participants, and many other things. My mad method, by the way, is to take voluminous notes, and then notes on those notes, and sometimes notes on my notes on my notes, until I feel I have what I need to sit down and write. I don't like staring at a blank computer screen; when I sit down to write I usually have something in mind to say, and then of course I discover more things in the very act of composition--"creation as discovery" is the phrase. In sum, I research very much like a historian, but once I start to write the novelist is in charge.
4. One thing that impressed me about Blacksnake's Path was the lush sense of landscape. On a continent so trimmed and altered, how did you get an accurate sense of past abundance?
When I wrote the novel I was very acutely aware of the fact that not only were the Native Americans forced off their land, but that the land itself was being irrevocably changed--"some forever, not for better," as the Beatles song goes. When I was reading my primary sources, one of the things I took notes on conscientiously was what they had to say about the natural world. What trees did they notice, how big were they, and ditto for plants, animals, birds, et. al. Few Americans realize that there are almost no forests left east of the Mississippi that haven't been logged over several times. Hence it's hard to picture how big some of those trees once were, or what a forest inhabited by its full complement of wildlife would look like. Of course the Northwest Territory wasn't all forest; there were vast grasslands, especially in Indiana and Illinois, and big areas of bogs and swamps that were impassable. Buffalo were common in the area until the late 18th century; and other large animals like elk, moose (at least in the northern part of the Northwest Territory), black bears, panthers, wolves, were prevalent. Most famously, and lamentably, flocks of passenger pigeons used to darken the skies on days when millions flew over. These, of course, were annihilated in the nineteenth century and not one is left. William Wells lived right at the time when this natural world flourished and then disappeared. The lush wilderness he enjoyed as a boy in Kentucky and Indiana was rapidly disappearing during his young manhood. I mentioned that one of the ways to judge a novelist is how well he or she creates differing characters; I think another way is how poetically the natural world is evoked, so that the reader has a genuine sense of place and time.
5. When you become interested in a subject, how do you decide what form you will use to express it? Does one form satisfy you more as a writer?
My agent wanted me to write the story of William Wells as a biography; she was sure she would have an easier time selling it in that form. I consider myself primarily a novelist, who started out as a poet, and I felt that I could best dramatize Wells's life in fiction. The major issue, it seemed to me, was how to write about his life with the Miami. The historical record is very limited: we know he was captured in 1784 and we know he turned up again in 1792, but we know almost nothing about his life as a Miami. A historian has to stick with the facts he has, even though he knows they leave a large gap in the story. A novelist, on the other hand, can fill in that gap by imaginatively recreating the world of the Miami. The historian can say he probably had a Vision Quest, learned to hunt, went on the warpath, and found a woman to marry. The novelist can take you on that Vision Question, show how he learned to hunt, describe in detail the battles he fought, and tell you exactly who he fell in love with and how he courted her. The challenge (see the answer on research) is how to imagine these things truly. That's what took me twelve years of research and writing.
Probably the chapters I am proudest of in my novel are those chapters that re-create the world of the Miami. That has never been done before, and I think it brings back a lost world of great value. Only if we can feel what Wells must have felt can we understand why he wanted to become a good hunter and warrior but also why he eventually decided to switch back to the white side. I will go so far as to assert that a really good historical novel is a superior way to understand the past than a good work of history. The successful novel can truly put you there, so you experience the past with all your senses; I also think the novelist has a higher standard of eloquence. It's one thing to write clear and correct prose; it's another to write prose that draws on all the poetic resources of language. At least that high standard of eloquence is what a good novelist aims for; needless to say, some sentences don't sing as well as others.
6. Is there something about your time at Case that helped to make this book possible?
I was a history major at Hiram College, but I developed a strong interest in literature during my years there and I wanted to double major, but by then it was too late. I decided to do my graduate work in American Studies because that would enable me to study both history and literature. Case had a very small American Studies program; so I often found myself as the lone American Studies student in a class of graduate students specializing in the specific field of the class. Since I studied Sociology, Political Science, Art, Folklore, European Literature, English Literature, as well as American History and Literature during my graduate years, I had to scramble to keep up with those more specialized students, learn the lingo of their discipline, be on my toes. That was probably good training for a novelist--learning all those different points of view and the jargons of the disciplines.
As a history student, I also learned how to do professional research. My main history professor was Harvey Wish. As a literature student, I developed many of my present assumptions about what constitutes great literature. I am especially grateful to Professor Richardson, who first told me I was a talented writer (he also corrected rigorously my numerous writing mistakes); to Thomas McFarland, who taught me to love Shakespeare and sharpened my aesthetic assumptions; and especially to Roger Salomon who gave me great encouragement and support as my dissertation advisor.
In those days, by the way, I thought of myself as a literary critic; then when I started to teach at Kenyon College in Ohio, I began writing poetry; after publishing about a hundred poems, I switched to writing fiction in the 1980s, and that's what I mainly do, although I still write an occasional poem and I have published ten critical essays, some historical and some literary. In sum, Case played a major role in shaping my career and I would like to believe that my historical novels demonstrate an American Studies method of understanding America's past.