Okay. Not even Seattle. But in Heather Lockman’s fictional small Washington town, all manner of upheaval occurs when a big country and western star chooses a historical house museum to shoot his new video.
The Indian Shirt Story is one part funny, one part romantic, one part whimsical speculation on the past and all parts beautifully written. In the interest of full disclosure, Heather is a colleague of mine, whose book was recently released at Musa Publishing, and she kindly sent me a review copy of her novel. Like Jack, Heather’s book was given an Editor’s Top Pick designation by our publisher.
Without further ado, here is my interview with Heather about her debut.
You seem to be a real history lover. How do you come by this passion and what do you do with it beside write fiction?
I think history is interesting—that’s the short answer. I’ve always been drawn to the basic questions of “What happened?” and “Why did it happen?” (And, when I got older, “Why does it matter that it happened?”) It’s probably not a coincidence that my parents found history interesting, too. My sisters and I all remember tramping around in a remote cemetery in eastern Washington State on a long-ago family vacation, searching for the grave of the great Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph, when I was about five years old. That sort of thing makes an impression.
For most of my career I’ve written nonfiction, and a lot of that has been history related. At some point I graduated from magazine stories to museum exhibits and outdoor historical markers—those big signs you see in public parks. I also give a wickedly good historical tour of the Washington State Governor’s Mansion.
Your other book is a local history of a small Washington town. Did working on that inspire you to invent the fictional town history in The Indian Shirt Story?
What a funny—but logical—question! I’d already completed the novel before I was asked to write the text for a pictorial history of Tumwater, the town once famous for brewing Olympia beer. So no, the nonfiction book didn’t influence the novel. But the story of fictional Port Heron definitely draws on the history of real towns along Puget Sound.
Where did you get the idea for the Indian Shirt Story itself—the story within your story?
I once helped rescue an old Northwest homestead and reinvent it as a historic house museum. As you might imagine, one of the biggest challenges in interpreting a pioneer-era home is balancing the Oregon Trail emigrant story against the perspective of American Indian people. There was one particular family story associated with the house that was, by modern standards, appalling in its portrayal of Native people. Yet it was an important story to the older generation of the family and likely had its roots in something that actually happened. That got me thinking about what might really have taken place between the white family and their Indian visitors—and what would the Indian version of that same encounter have been?
I’m curious as to what you think the novel’s heroine, Bess, would think if she knew all the different iterations of the Indian shirt story. She seems like a stickler for authenticity and yet, if anything, the message of your novel is that such authenticity is a constantly moving target.
Bess would love to get her hands on all those different versions of the shirt story, both to answer the question of how it originated and to watch how the story changes through time. Each version of the tale has significance for the culture and generation that tells it. Bess would totally get that.
Bess is not a country music fan, but you are. How did this happen to a multi-generational Northwesterner?
I didn’t know anything about country music when I started plotting this novel. I was interested in the question of what would happen to an authentic historic site if it became associated with a big pop-culture celebrity. Originally I thought the star would be a sort of Kurt Cobain/Northwest grunge kind of guy. But then I realized there were all sorts of Red State/Blue State possibilities if he were a Nashville star instead. So I started watching CMT and buying issues of Country Weekly and listening to country radio in the car, which—trust me—is not seen as cool in the granola-crunching, kayak-paddling, espresso-drinking part of the Pacific Northwest. I kept saying, “It’s just research. I need to know what I’m writing about.” Then one day I was driving to the grocery store with the windows down and the radio cranked up, singing Hillbilly Deluxe at top volume along with Brooks and Dunn, and I thought, “Screw it. I don’t care what the neighbors think.”
Who are a few of your favorite country artists?
Ever since country music first hit the airwaves in the 1920s each generation has complained that the new stuff on the radio isn’t country enough. Folks tend to like what was popular when they first started listening. I’ll probably always prefer the songs and artists who were on the radio while I was writing The Indian Shirt Story. Lately every song seems to be about getting drunk for fun, which isn’t actually very country. In traditional country music, getting drunk is what happens when things go bad.
I know a lot of writers think you should always be talking about the next project in the pipeline, but I’d rather write now and talk about it later—when I can say for sure it’s worth reading. Right now I’d rather coax readers into sampling The Indian Shirt Story. That one I know is good.