WbtR guest Michael F. Mercurio conducts an e-interview with member Tamela Ritter, author of From These Ashes…
1. The book description by itself is enough to really pull the reader in, seeming to allude to an almost pseudo-mystical plot. Would that be a fair description of the overall theme, or would you describe it as more of a coming-of-age novel? Or something else entirely perhaps?
Well, it is a coming of age story and there is a bit of mystical elements. You can’t really allude to phoenix, Native Americans and religious cults without a bit of fantasy, magic and mysticism involved. But those elements are just alluded to and touched on briefly in what is a story ground very heavily in reality and everyday struggles. There are no wizards, no shaman and “other world” per se…
2. Did anything in your real life inspire you for the novel’s theme? Are you part Native American yourself? Or do you perhaps identify with Naomi – maybe apt to have been very quiet when you were growing up, and tended to express yourself better through your writing?
This book started and remains to be a sister telling stories about her brother. Only in the beginning, the sister was me and the brother was my own brother, Tim, who died when I was 10 and he was 14. I wanted to tell stories about him, to remember him, to honor him. And in many ways (though all the things–almost all the things– didn’t happen to us) it very much still is a sister (Naomi) telling stories about her brother (Tim). And also, while I never got to know what my own brother would have been like as a man, I like to think that I infused this character Tim with enough of my brother’s personality, struggles and spirit that he very much still is my brother.
Am I Native American? Yes. On my mother’s side I am Cherokee. Though my mother doesn’t talk about it and is loathe to admit it. I only know about my own heritage from my grandmother who lived far from us and died before I was old enough to have an interest in my heritage. All I know about being Indian is from living in areas with a larger than usual Native population, namely the Salish, Kootenai and Spokane. I didn’t set out to tell a story about Indians, but like so many elements of the story, that happened organically and as the characters struggled to define what it meant to be a family, and what it meant to be Indian, it made sense as these are things I’ve often struggled with knowing myself.
3. Did you have to do any research for any part of your story? On cults or “cult recovery” for example, or on the history of Arizona?
A lot of research. As organically as this story came, it was crucial to me that I get as many of the facts as I could correct. I was telling a story of a tribe that was not my own, it was absolutely essential to get it as right as I could. Is the tribe I described like the ones that exist in reality in Montana, Idaho and Washington state? Yes and no. I took what I learned and some things I had to bend to tell the story and some things I had to embellish a bit, but all was done with as much respect and understanding as possible.
My fascination with religious cults stems from a class I took at the University of Montana about the sociology of cults. I was especially intrigued with the sort of cult described as a Charismatic Leader: cults that were formed around a single person and their beliefs and/or delusions. While living in Montana I visited a few places in the backwoods owned by groups looking to live an utopian society of their own making. I remember thinking there was something peaceful and very “Montana” about that and yet, most of them had been abandoned and disbanded. The cult, The Way, created for my story is an imagining of those two concepts, charismatic leader and the search for an utopia of your own making and how it can all fall apart.
4. Exactly when does this story take place? At first, it seems to imply that it occurs in the past, perhaps during the gold rush. But then I realized it could just as easily be in present day.
The story begins in a Montana reservation in 1980 and ends at a cult recovery facility in 1992. In between these two events the characters take a different paths through Montana, Idaho and Washington to be rejoined in Arizona. Hopefully, it’s quite a ride.
5. Do you have any future novels in the works?
Yes. Always. I have participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) every year since 2004, this novel is the fruit of that very first attempt. Hopefully, one of the six novels I’ve started since will be my next published work. *fingers crossed*
6. (Bonus Question) Any advice for aspiring writers?
Write what you know to be true in whatever disguise of fiction that best suits it and yourself.