Joseph Bruchac draws on the Adirondacks, where he lives, and on his Native American heritage (Abenaki) for storytelling and writing. His poems, articles and stories have appeared in more than 500 publications, from "American Poetry Review" to "Smithsonian" magazine. He has written more than 70 books for adults and children, including his latest, "March Toward the Thunder" (Penguin/Dial, 2008). His honors include a Rockefeller Humanities Fellowship, the National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellowship for Poetry, the Cherokee National Prose Award, the Knickerbocker Award and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas. He lives in Greenfield Center, N.Y.
Previous National Book Festival Appearances
From the 2008 National Book Festival
What sparked your imagination for your newest book – March Toward the Thunder?
My great-grandfather, who was an Abenaki Indian from Canada, served in the Irish Brigade during the Civil War. I've always had a great interest in the War Between the States, in all its complexity. I wanted to tell a story that would draw from my great-grandfather's experiences and also deal with some of those complexities of war, including an American Indian serving among immigrants, the terrible losses that both sides suffered, the common humanity of all the people involved in that struggle.
What challenges do you face in the storytelling/writing process? How do you overcome them?
In terms of writing, every author always starts with a blank page (or computer screen) each time. The challenge of making something where there was nothing before is always a great one. Disciplining myself to write at least a page each day when I am involved in writing a book is one way that I approach that challenge. In terms of storytelling, remembering to be a listener and not just a talker can be a challenge. A good storyteller must always be a very good listener. We have two ears and only one mouth. We need to listen at least twice as much as we speak. And we also have to remember that there are always at least two sides to every story. Don't get caught by thinking one point of view is the only one. That is a challenge for the writer and the storyteller both.
What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing?
Write because you enjoy it, not because you have to do it. If writing is not fun or rewarding to you, then it may not be for you. Or it may be that you just need to think of writing as something other than a chore. I look forward to the times when I have uninterrupted time and can use it writing.
Can you suggest a fun writing topic to get them started?
One of the simplest exercises that I often use with young writers is the use of memory. Think about things you remember in terms of your senses. Things you've smelled or tasted or touched. Then begin by writing down the words "I remember. . ." and go from them, always remembering to bring in that sensory information as you write. Each of those sensory cues can lead to other memories. For example, "I remember the smell of bacon frying on my grandmother's old cast iron stove on a winter morning when it was so cold that my fingers froze to the railing on her porch. . ." (And that sentence is one I just composed right now.)
What advice can you give to aspiring storytellers?
Something I've already mentioned--to listen. Listen well and you'll hear things that others miss. Remember that stories are all around you. There are stories in every person and every thing. Don't worry about memorizing stories word for word. Just try to tell them in your own words, seeing them as you speak them.
What is your list of favorite children or teen books?
My list of favorite children's books is so long that I know we do not have room for it all. So let me just list the names of a few of my favorite contemporary writers for young people whose names come to mind at this moment. In no particular order: Richard Peck, Jane Yolen, Christopher Paul Curtis, Dr. Seuss, Louise Erdrich, Terry Pratchett, Cynthia Voigt, Naomi Shihab Nye, Gary Soto, Neal Gaiman
How do you decide on themes for your books?
I write about whatever interests me. It may come out of my life, my travels, things I've read and want to know more about, even suggestions made to me by my readers. In general, I always want to write a story that is true in the sense of the higher truth behind traditional storytelling--that it must both entertain and contain a useful message. Many, but not all of my books, come from my connection to American Indian culture, but I've also explored the other side of my family--which is European, Slovak to be precise. I could also say that there is always, to a greater or lesser extent, storytelling in everything I write.
How important is research in the development of your books? Can you explain the process as well?
Research is a very important element of much of my work, especially those books that deal with historical events, but also those that are "pure" fantasy. For example, I've been writing a fantasy novel that takes place in Slovakia long ago. As part of the research for that, I've been immersing myself in traditional Slovak tales, studying Slovak history and language. In writing March Toward Thunder, my research process included not only reading hundreds of books about the Civil War (over the course of the last ten years), it also included visiting the sites of the battles. I spend a good deal of time taking notes as I read and I create timelines, lists of events and places, obtain copies of photos of people and places and maps that I hang on the wall near my desk. I also make use of people who know much more than I do. For my novel Codetalker I turned to actual Navajo code talkers and Navajo people who still speak their own language fluently. My sister Marge, who has her Ph.D. in anthropology and is also the best historian in our family, as well as a writer and storyteller herself, always helps me a great deal when I am dealing with anything that has to do with New England Native history and culture. She was the one who found the records of our great-grandfather's military service in the Civil War, for example, and then located a great deal more information about Abenakis in the Civil War. You'll find her credited in many of my books.
What is your advice to parents for passing the joys of reading on to their children?
Model reading yourself. If your children see you reading for enjoyment, they are much more likely to do the same. And let your children read what they like-it doesn't matter if it is a comic book (or graphic novel) or a book about cars or a current teen idol. (And let me quickly add that I have great respect for comics--I read them all the time when I was a kid and still find the "graphic novel" form fascinating and full of possibilities.) Reading leads to more reading. It's as simple as that.