Q & A with 2017 Omaha Reads author Jonis Agee

Nebraska author Jonis Agee has a long list of accolades. She is the author of 12 books, an English professor at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and one of the founders and editors of Brighthorse Books, a literary press that focuses on poetry, short fiction, novels, and creative nonfiction. Her work has made it on the New York Times Notable Books list and she has been awarded numerous prizes for her writing, including two Nebraska Book Awards. On top of all that, her latest novel "The Bones of Paradise" was selected as the 2017 Omaha Reads title. 

Your book "The Bones of Paradise" was chosen as this year's Omaha Reads title. For those that have yet to have the pleasure of reading it, tell us what it is about.

My book begins ten years after the Massacre at Wounded Knee, following two families, one white and one Lakota, whose lives are changed forever when the white rancher is found murdered alongside a Lakota girl, in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. What follows is an unraveling of the history of the Bennett family and the terrible secrets it harbors, alongside the history of the Massacre and the Lakota family that must seek justice for the dead girl.

The history of the Sand Hills in all its beauty and rawness is explored as the characters work to solve the mystery of the deaths as well as the mysteries at the heart of their lives, those which put them at the mercy of each other, while driving them to seek refuge and love in anyplace they can find it. These are strong characters, shaped by the harshness of the land and the force of their dreams, softened only by the love of their families who sometimes find themselves sacrificed to fulfill the desire to make a permanent home in a place that refuses to be tamed.

One of the primary goals of Omaha Reads is to have community conversations around a single book and its themes. What do you most want readers to take away from "The Bones of Paradise?"

I want my readers to fall in love with Nebraska’s best secret place: the Sand Hills, with its incredible beauty and silence, the vastness of sky and land, the wildlife that still thrives there, the people who inhabit the land with a perseverance that is remarkable even today. I also want my readers to discover the story of the Massacre at Wounded Knee in its fullness, not merely as a one line footnote. As much as we want to forget the past when it troubles us, I think we must remember it, we must recognize it, so that we don’t allow it to be repeated. Wounded Knee is the story of our very dark and deep human fear of others, in this case Native Americans, and fear of the new, the different, in this case the practice of a new religion through dancing.

The Massacre story gives us a chance to examine the policies of our government toward Native Americans that continue even today toward the erasure of a people and a culture that is simply in the way of what we see as our national progress. I hope that what I’ve written leads us to discuss the issues of water rights, religious beliefs, and contract rights that center around our relationship with Native Americans. Moreover, I hope my readers are interested in examining the roles of individuals in family, the reward and cost to each person when we service the dreams of parents. Our country is embroiled in a conversation at this time about immigrants and dreamers. I hope that my story leads to more discussion among my readers.

And finally, I hope my readers discuss the nature of love or yearning in all its forms: for land or place, of family, of work, for connection beyond the merely human, which seems to be one of the most basic desires of all. So finally, I hope that my readers come away from my work with a deepened empathy for the struggles we all experience as living creatures.

Much of your work takes place in a historical setting. How do you make history come alive in fiction?

It’s actually fun to write historically! My first four novels are all contemporary, so the turn to writing historically was daunting at first. But I soon loved the research, which I had been doing anyway to get a deeper sense of where I placed the early novels.

My first two Sand Hills novels involved the same ranch family and Lakota characters, and somehow I always knew that I had to go back and write about the early days in the Hills, which I had discovered through my reading. I always try to read histories of a place, as I mentioned, but I also read about the plants and animals, the weather, the architecture of the buildings, the towns, the origins of the inhabitants.

For this book, I read about the founding of every post office. It was fascinating! I also researched cattle raising, diseases, and already knew about horses, as a lifelong horse lover. I try to know enough that I can build a scene with specific details that will be historically accurate enough to trigger the reader to picture the place more fully. The key to writing this way is the details. Not that one has to include all details or so much that the writing is bogged down and the reader can’t get to characters. The characters have to be central, and they need to move comfortably in their world, as if they live there, not as if they’re visiting for the first time, and are noticing every little thing. Something I researched that made a big difference was the clothing and the furniture in the houses and hotel. I also look at language: slang, special terms, regionalisms. Again, for me the key is not to overburden the narrative with everything I discover, but to give the flavor instead.

I’d say that I use only ten to twenty percent of my research when I’m writing historically. I won’t know as I’m researching plants used medicinally in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for instance, when that will occur in the novel, or whether it will. But I’m prepared. A question I had as a writer was how much of the technical innovations of the time should I put in this novel. There was a big difference, for instance, between the large cities with streetcars and telephones, and the Sand Hills and the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations at the time. These are questions that pose themselves to the writer of historical fiction and challenge her to be more ingenious. Often when I’m writing historically, I’ll place myself inside a character and imagine myself walking into that past place, inhabiting it as if it is now, because, after all, we’re all human beings sharing the same large and small concerns, inhabiting the same body.

As an author, professor and editor you do quite a lot to honor and contribute to literary culture. But if you could give only one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?

Write fast, often, and don’t look back. Also, write to discover the deepest part of your yearning, your obsessions, your self, because that’s where the passion is, and that’s how you’ll reach out to others. What creates passion in you, will bring your readers to discover themselves and others also.

What’s the best book you’ve read recently that you would recommend to others?

I want to recommend two books: "How to Survive A Summer" by Nick White, and "The Boat Runner" by Devin Murphy.  These are two young writers with their first novels…both terrific!