Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Ask the Author: Mike Sirota, Part One

Q: How did you get the idea for The Burning Ground?
A: One of the most used and abused books in my collection is A.L. Kroeber’s Handbook of the Indians of California. (“Handbook” is a misnomer; you can barely hold this thick tome in one hand.) I used it to research the Washo tribe in my novel, Demon Shadows, and the Modoc tribe in The Well (now The Modoc Well). When I read about the burial customs of the Maidu people—they actually called their cemetery a burning ground and set fire to brush spread across the graves to help the dead pass on to the next world—and then learned that most of the Maidu had been slaughtered during the Gold Rush, the old “what if” kicked in. What if, because of the violent way in which they died, the spirits of those from one particular small village remained trapped in their burning ground? Then, in more contemporary research, I read about the (still ongoing) desecration of Indian burial grounds by people digging for artifacts. What if the graves of the Maidu from this village were desecrated, releasing the spirits—who are really pissed off by this time? And so the plot evolved.
Q: What research was involved in fashioning the life and culture of the Maidu?
A: Just about any and every book about California Indians that I could get my hands on (not too many), though again, Kroeber was the primary resource. A cultural anthropologist, Kroeber spent seventeen years among California’s indigenous population in the early twentieth century. The scope of his research is remarkable. (His daughter was Ursula Kroeber, better known to readers of science fiction as Ursula LeGuin.) Three lengthy chapters are devoted to just the small Maidu tribe. TMI for most people, but I loved doing the research.
Q: How do you feel your work as an editor helped or hindered your writing?
A: Well, I would think that you, as my editor, probably appreciate the fact that my manuscripts require minimal work, as evidenced by the handful of changes that we made in both Fire Dance and The Burning Ground. As a perfectionist, I probably go overboard in being anal. As an editor, I don’t want any typos or other errors. As a writer I want every detail to be correct. This doesn’t always work out 100% of the time, but I do my best.
Q: What writing habits do you keep?
A: I take a long walk in the morning and then start writing about mid-morning. Late in the afternoon, four, maybe five o’clock, the “creativity” button in the brain shuts off, and I stop. The usual output is 1,500 to 2,000 words. That’s the day-to-day routine. The bigger picture: I prepare an outline and do extensive preliminary research before I write word one. Then I write the first draft, beginning to end, not stopping at all for research. The second draft consists of grunt work—trimming the fat, filling in the many blanks I leave while focusing on getting the story down, that sort of thing. The third—and final—draft is my favorite, for it always follows a trip to the locale of the story. For The Burning Ground I traveled to the active ghost town of Downieville, population 300, in the Sierra Nevada foothills. This “living research” breathes life into my stories.

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