By Ericka Taylor
What is now recognized as the “first Thanksgiving” took place nearly 400 years ago, in 1621, when members of the Wampanoag tribe and Pilgrim settlers sat down together for a three-day feast. The Thanksgiving meal is still central to the occasion today, but we also connect it to a range of other associations—from football to potentially challenging conversations with family to the encroachment of Black Friday. There’s no doubt the holiday has changed. Yet, for some, the image of Native people has not.
When Marcie Rendon was a child, the only representations she saw of her community were set in a distant past that had no bearing on her present reality. Her debut novel Murder on the Red River (Cinco Puntos Press), which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Award, tackles that issue head-on by introducing readers to a young, Native woman who is very much an inhabitant of the 20th century.
Renee “Cash” Blackbear is a 19-year-old farm laborer and pool shark who finds herself embroiled in a murder mystery. Having entered the foster system as a child, Cash has a long history with the local sheriff, who is happy to have her help investigating the death of an unfamiliar Native man. Désirée Zamorano wrote in the LA Review of Books: “Rendon, a member of the White Earth Anishinabe Nation, masterfully weaves two stories in a seamless, vivid narrative. The first is that of a dead Indian found stabbed in his chest without money or ID; the second is that of Cash’s life, and how she came to be a cue-stick-slinging farm hand, playing pool and sleeping with her married lover.”
This is Rendon’s first novel, and her children’s book, Pow Wow Summer, was reprinted in 2014. She is a recipient of the Loft’s Inroads Writers of Color Award for Native Americans. Rendon generously agreed to talk with Bloom about Murder on the Red River and her writing process.
Ericka Taylor: Are you a reader/fan of the murder mystery genre? Who are some of your influences in this genre?
Marcie Rendon: Yes, I read murder mysteries, psychological thrillers, and action thrillers—what I call airport novels. I have been a longtime reader of Stephen King. In my opinion he is the ‘best’ storyteller. The other authors I gravitate to are John Sanford, Lee Child, and the Kellermans. After reading one book of Henning Mankell’s in his Wallander series, I went online and ordered them all and binge read them all. I love King as a storyteller: the first time I visited Maine I “remembered” being there and had to remind myself I only thought that because of reading King. Sanford’s books are easy to read, even while taking you on a roller coaster ride of murder and chaos. I think (though I don’t know because I’ve never talked to him) his writing is so good because he is a journalist. There isn’t a lot of “extra”—which I find time consuming and annoying—in his writing. I want the story.
ET: Murder on the Red River is not a typical murder mystery in that Cash has access to clues and investigative tools unavailable to (or, at least not often used by) traditional law enforcement. She doesn’t only use her dreams and visions to guide her, but also eavesdrops on suspicious conversations and tails potential suspects. How did you decide when to apply the various skills Cash has at her disposal?
MR: My writing process is character driven not “format” or “outline” driven so the story evolved as the character evolved. The skills Cash used were determined by the situation she found herself in.
ET: What was most clear to you about the character Cash, then, when you started the novel? What traits and experiences evolved as you wrote? Did you “discover” things about her as you wrote? If so, anything surprising?
MR: Cash, the character that appeared was, and continues to be, very compelling and insistent on where the story is going. There is the tough bar girl but underneath all that is the vulnerable young woman who survived a lot growing up. She is very smart, intellectually and with common sense. When I re-read parts of the book I notice how detached she is from much of the heartbreak in her life. In today’s world she would be diagnosed with PTSD.
ET: Place is prominent in the novel, and you really ground the reader in both the history and geography of the region. The only chapter headings in the book refer to the setting, based first in Fargo on the North Dakota side of the Red River and then in Moorhead on the Minnesota side. The Red Lake Reservation is also a key location. Could you tell us about your decision to make place central to the book and what you were hoping it would evoke?
MR: I grew up on the edges of the White Earth Reservation, in and around the Red River Valley, so it is country and landscape that is home to me and is familiar to me. As Native people we have never left our homeland, we are home—so place is our experience on this continent. We know who we are, and where we are from. We are not newcomers to the idea that the Earth is a living entity. It makes sense that in my writing the land is as much a character as the human characters. Prior to European contact, the state lines we know as they exist in the United States did not exist in Native worldview. I believe the same is true for many farmers. They farm the land and have a relationship with the land and the weather and changing seasons. The place settings of North Dakota side and Minnesota side of the Red River were included to help the reader understand the current demarcation between the two states, the two cities of Fargo-Moorhead and the Red River as the dividing line.
ET: Are there also metaphorical/thematic ideas embodied in that dividing line?
MR: As always, one can conjecture the divisions and boundaries that exist because of gender, class, and race. There are lines that we can use to divide us or there are rivers and fields of life that sustain us all. I think as humans we need to decide which is important to us—the divisions or the sustenance.
ET: When you set out to create this mystery, did you already know whodunit, or was that something you discovered through the writing process?
MR: I knew at the beginning that it was a non-Native person who did the killing. I learned as I wrote the number of men involved in the situation and their reason for doing so.
ET: Can you say more about that, i.e. the murderer was a “type” of person before an actual person with motives—what was your interest in establishing that from the outset?
MR: This story called for this “type” of person to have done the dirty deed. In another story, it could easily be the other way around; or another type of person completely; i.e. a woman killing a man. This story just happened to call for this particular situation. I have a short story that will be published in an upcoming Sisters In Crime anthology here in Minnesota. The murderer in that story is a young, pre-teen, Native girl. I guess for me it all depends on where the muse takes me or asks to be taken.
ET: Cash suffered the horror of being raised in foster care with white families who saw her not as a child, but as free labor. How much did exploring that phenomenon, which shifted a bit with the 1978 passing of the Indian Child Welfare Law, shape the timeframe (1970s) in which you set the story?
MR: Cash is the one who set the time and place for the story to occur. I, as a Native writer, was not exploring the phenomenon of foster care when I was writing. I was just writing a story, what to my mind was a murder mystery. It was during the editing process when my editor started asking questions about the foster care story in the background that I also realized, yes, that story was there. It is a story that is so much a fabric of the existence of Native people during that time in history that I wasn’t even aware it was something I was writing about. This was “normal” during that time.
ET: Would you say that the editorial process made you more “audience aware”? And if so, how else did that awareness shape the editing/revision process.
MR: In the editing process I became more cognizant of cultural differences, knowledge bases, and perceptions. Years ago I wrote a play about Sacajawea. During the research necessary for the writing of that play I realized that Sacajawea never had her story told. The story that is told is Lewis and Clark’s story—and as white men who had a written language, everything that has been written about Sacajawea has been written from their white, male perception, not from the mind and heart of a 12 year old girl-child, stolen, raped, beaten and then used as bait to cross the continent. We would know a totally different version of her story if She had had a written language, a way to record Her story. All that to say . . . as my wonderful editor Lee Byrd worked with me, she was able to direct me to places where I was writing from a Native-centric worldview that not all non-Native people have been exposed to, and there were places to expand a bit so the non-Native reader would have a better understanding of the overall story.
ET: Do you generally think about or concern yourself with who you’re writing for?
MR: My primary goal as an Ojibwe woman writer is to create mirrors for my people. My hope is that I am writing stories that everyone can enjoy.
ET: Although Cash is a work of fiction, she, like her creator, has an interest in poetry. Are there any other similarities that you and Cash share?
MR: I used to shoot pool, love shooting pool. And as mentioned previously, I grew up in the Red River Valley.
ET: Is it as uncommon as it seems in the novel for a female to be so good at and involved in pool culture where you grew up?
MR: I think in the Native community there are fewer gender stereotypes. Women shoot pool, play baseball or softball. There are a good handful of Native American boxers. In this story Cash is the pool shark. If Cash spent more time on any of the nearby reservations I am sure she would encounter other Native women who would give her a run for her money at the tables.
ET: You’ve talked about the importance of making sure Native youth see current Native images, rather than only seeing reflections of themselves that exist in the past. How much does that desire shape your writing projects? Were you exposed to literary images of present-day Native Americans in your youth?
MR: As a child, it was next to impossible to find a book that featured Native people who were not the stereotypical Indians on the Plains, riding horseback and wearing a headdress. And that is who was featured in movies and on TV. With the exception of learning false stories about Pocahontas and Sacajawea in Social Studies classes Native women weren’t mentioned at all. So one of my primary goals in all my writing is to create mirrors for Native people to see themselves.
ET: In addition to being a novelist, you’re also a poet, playwright, and author of children’s books. Do you feel more drawn to one form over another?
MR: I do write a lot of poetry and someday will find a publisher for a book of poems. To date most are in various anthologies featuring Native women poets. I do wish I had more time to devote to writing plays. To see characters brought to life on stage is very fulfilling. But I love to write—I love the stringing of words together to create image, story, and life.
ET: Could you tell us a bit about your writing process? Do you have an established routine where you write at a certain time every day or is it more catch as catch can? Do you prefer to write by hand or on a computer?
MR: In this day and age, I only write at the computer. I am contemplating, but haven’t tried it yet, dictating into the computer to see if that would be a faster process than my fingers. When I am deep, mentally deep, into a story, I aim for somewhere between 1000 and 2000 words a day. I often will stop writing mid-sentence. In Stephen King’s book “On Writing”, he talks about an author who wrote for exactly 30 minutes every day and then stopped—even if in the middle of a sentence. This works for me. I can pick up the idea where I left off. And I write on that story, book, article until I’m finished, or feel like I’m finished with it. I know authors who have a favorite time of the day to write. I think because I have spent so much time as a freelancer, doing work on deadlines, I no longer have a “favorite” time to write. I do need quiet. No TV, no radio, no lawnmower next door. And I absolutely love the opportunity to leave my home for 2-3 weeks, go to an apartment or cabin away from everyone I know and everything that can pull at my attention; and then I can really crank out the work.
ET: Our readers are especially interested in writers who publish their first books after the age of 40. You’ve said you especially encourage other Native writers and writers of color to follow their passions when they emerge and not wait as long as you did to become a writer. You, for example, initially thought you were going to be a therapist. Could you tell us a bit about your professional journey and what compelled you to pursue writing?
MR: I have been writing since I learned how to write. But no one ever told me that I could make a living as a writer, or that writing was a legitimate career choice. At the time when I was going to college we were told to get degrees in law, medicine, social work or teaching so that we could “go back home and work for our people.” So I got a degree in Criminal Justice (pre-law) and American Indian Studies and worked for years in Native prison programs and worked as a therapist. And I would write short stories, poems, etc and stuff them in a drawer. I reached a point where I said to myself, “What I really want to do is write” and I set out to do that. After a year of writing I thought, “I have three children, I better make some money at this.” And that is when I set out to get paid to do writing. I have supported my family since 1991 on my writing. This has included children’s books, writing-work for hire, newspaper journalism, plays, poems, some teaching of writing. Basically, any or all writing that would pay the bills.
We need to tell our stories—because if we don’t tell our stories our grandchildren and great-grandchildren are going to read stories written by others about us—and the nuances of who we really are as a people will be lost in the translation.
What I would say to folks over 40 – It is never too late, never. If you have a story inside you burning to be written, write it! And then submit, and submit and submit. Don’t obsess about rejection or perfection—just write and submit. To quote my dear friend and author Aurora Levins Morales, “…my mother encouraged me, advising me to not be perfectionist, and go ahead and write a B book instead of an A+.” Take those risks, never tell yourself no, or that it is too late, just get at it.
ET: Given your own journey, are you involved in mentoring young writers at all?
MR: I teach poetry in the county jails in the metro area here in the Twin Cities. About 4 to six times a year, a writing partner and myself go into the county jails for two weeks, every evening and teach poetry and help the women create a book of their work. That is the most direct, hands on mentoring I do. The other is mostly encouraging folks to write and to seek publication. I always share writing opportunities and information about them with other aspiring Native writers and women writers.
ET: What writing are you working on now?
MR: I am working on the second Cash book; a teen book and hopefully will get to finish my play about a serial killer very soon. Thank you so much for reading my work and answers about my work.
Ericka Taylor has served as the Assistant Fiction Editor and Assistant Managing Editor for the literary journal, Willow Springs, and is currently working on a novel.