Fancy Dancer and the Seven Drums, John Roskelley’s first novel, traces its origins to the 1967 Omak Stampede, when a similar but more streamlined story first came into his mind. Here, Roskelley (’71 Geol.) discusses the roots of the narrative, his writing process, other works, and more.
Where did the idea for the book come from? Is it rooted in or inspired by any true events in your real life?
The idea for Fancy Dancer and the Seven Drums morphed from an early personal interest in central Washington’s unique place in American history to a more realistic focus on the diversity and lives of the people in the region. Early to mid-twentieth century along the Columbia River and throughout the region was a time of significant change for the country with dam building, resource extraction, and agriculture, but not much for those who lived on the reservations. So, rather than a single family or character to move the story, I wove in generational ties that span earlier decades as well.
How long did it take to write this book?
Fancy Dancer and the Seven Drums took quite a bit longer to write than each of my four nonfiction books. A similar but more focused story to Fancy Dancer had been on my mind since I visited the Omak Stampede in 1967. Then, in 2013 while paddling the Columbia River from source to mouth, I realized central Washington is so unique in its history and peoples that it needed its own story. But it wasn’t until January 2019 before I sat down and started to write this version of Fancy Dancer. My initial four months of writing came to an abrupt stop when my son, Jess, was killed on April 16 in a climbing accident in British Columbia. I spent the next six months investigating the accident. In February 2020, I started writing again on the novel and completed the first draft in August 2021. I signed a contract with Di Angelo Publications in early 2022, and it took close to a year for it to be published.
Talk about your research process. What did it involve? And how was it different from writing nonfiction books, such as guidebooks and memoirs?
Fancy Dancer and the Seven Drums is a historical adult novel, meaning I referenced historical events, places, and people of the time period to enhance the storyline and make my characters more realistic and their relationship with the land more accurate. To do so, my research was detailed, exhaustive, and checked with multiple resources. I did this with assistance from books of the period, such as B Street: The Notorious Playground of Coulee Dam, as well as court documents, such as a lawsuit filed by St. Mary’s Residential School students against the Society of Jesus, Oregon Province, and internet sites and other sources to learn details, including the parts of a nun’s habit, World War II battles in the Pacific, old vehicle designs, and the power of various smudge sticks.
I wrote my nonfiction, first-person narratives from journals, letters, photographs, and interviews with my partners. For the most part, I wrote them in the time sequence as they happened. As I knew the characters and events intimately, they were not complicated. My guidebook, Paddling the Columbia: A Guide to All 1200 Miles of Our Scenic & Historical River was easier to paddle than to write, as it took quite a bit of research, mapping, and detail. Nonfiction usually doesn’t branch off from the story that happened. But novels, like Fancy Dancer, provide opportunities for the author to move the characters and storyline in different directions as these elements evolve.
What were some of the challenges of writing about a culture different than your own? And what were the most difficult parts of this story to write?
It was a huge challenge, not just from the standpoint from the Indigenous cultures, but also from the perspective of Latino migrants, Japanese Americans, and western immigrants, all of which are in the novel. It was something I was certainly aware of on every page. That’s where in-depth research helped me overcome this issue and gave me confidence in telling the story. I knew I had limited knowledge as to the intricacies of these cultures, but there are many similarities our cultures share that bind us. Those similarities enable authors like me to write and portray characters of many different cultures, genders, and ages appropriately.
I think the most difficult passages in the story to write were those involving priest sexual abuse of children at St. Mary’s Residential School on the Colville Reservation. There is no way I can put myself into the situation my character Sally was in with her abuser, but I can imagine her fear, loathing, and pain, and try to put that into words.
Describe the audience you have in mind for this book. Who is this book for?
Fancy Dancer is a historical adult murder mystery novel. The reader is someone who enjoys the process of solving crimes and historical content and, in this case, the crime takes place on the Colville Indian Reservation in the mid-twentieth century.
What do you hope readers take from this story?
Fancy Dancer is a novel, but its roots are in reality. Since the first Europeans landed on this nation’s shores, our prejudice, our greed, our inhumanity defined our relationship with the Indigenous populations. Our government did everything it could to kill them off: corral them on reservations and, at residential schools, execute cultural genocide. The reader will recognize that even in the mid-twentieth century, the time of this novel, that our relationship with these people had not changed—and the prejudice still resonates today.
What writing projects are you working on next?
My next project will be editing and finding a publisher for a compilation of personal stories written about my son Jess, by his family, friends, acquaintances, and climbing partners. It would be hard to make up a better character for a book than Jess.