Debut Novel 14 Years of Ups and Downs: How CALLING FOR A BLANKET DANCE Survived, Endured, and Finally Came to Being

I’m always drawn to these stories. Of the writer who wrote for decades to finally find her way onto a bookshelf. I’m drawn to them because I feel for what the writer has endured and the level of gratitude that comes along with it. It’s rough out there. We’re all tough. You can’t endure the writing process without thickening your hide with a multitude of scars. There are many talented writers. When it all comes together, when your hard work finally meets opportunity, you can’t help but find yourself in a gracious meditation on the trials and tribulations of creating your work of art.

I’d like to start this with an homage to the educators. You see back before my entrance into literary writing, I wanted to be the Native Stephen King but I was also growing further away from the horror genre. During this period in my late 20s, I luckily found myself accepted into the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This was where I delved deep into literary genre’s themes around social justice. I also met my mentors, Evelina Zuni Lucero and Stephen Wall, at IAIA. Evelina was the Head of Creative Writing, and Stephen Wall was the Head of Indigenous Liberal Studies. Little did I know at the time that I’d walk away three years later holding a BFA in Creative Writing with a minor in Indigenous Liberal Arts. I’m indebted to Evelina and Stephen for the leadership, guidance, and willingness to mentor a stubborn and often egotistical young man.

It was during my time at IAIA that I developed the earliest chapters of my debut, CALLING FOR A BLANKET DANCE. I wrote a story titled, Got Per Cap?, in 2008 and this was where my Kiowa community voice came out. The story was later published in American Short Fiction as “Our Day,” and then eventually I changed the title to “Our Dance.” Now the story is the fifth chapter in the debut, which is titled “Quinton Quoetone (1993).” Soon after developing my Kiowa voice for the page, I then began developing my Cherokee voice, and this came to fruition the following year, 2009, when I wrote a story called “Time Like Masks.” This story would eventually be published in South Dakota Review, and is now the third chapter in my debut, titled “Hayes Shade (1986).”

“Psychologically, I couldn’t even slide a flash drive into my computer for the purposes of writing another story, chapter, novel.”

~ Oscar Hokeah ~

It was the process of developing these two stories that began a life long effort to disrupt the perception of Native American peoples as being a single homogeneous group. Since I grew up between Kiowa and Cherokee communities in Oklahoma, I knew first hand about the similarities and beautiful differences between tribes. I also knew about the ugly contention between these two communities–slights, judgments, and stereotypes all. I felt like I could show readers in subtle and obvious ways how these dynamics play out. How we as Indigenous peoples share a common history of colonial violence, which pulls us together, and at the same time how each tribe has beautiful and unique qualities to be honored and cherished.

By the time I graduated from IAIA in 2009 and went on to the University of Oklahoma in 2010, I had my ego bruised enough times to be humbled by the creative writing process. There is no better way to condition yourself to humility than pouring yourself onto a page and receiving the harsh realities of what is and what isn’t. In 2010, I had a sense of my direction as a writer. I was already calling myself a regionalist writer. In fact, I used the two stories mentioned above in my admissions paperwork to the University of Oklahoma (OU), and it was this very dynamic of seeking to disrupt the perception of Natives being a homogeneous group that had me accepted in the Master’s Program.

It was at OU that I found my next mentor, Dr. Geary Hobson. I had entered the Master’s Program under the Creative Writing program, but quickly found myself hitting a writer’s block. This would begin years and years of self-doubt and self-criticism that would cripple my ability to write. While the two stories mentioned above were both published (both before I obtained a Master’s Degree), I received harsh criticism that I felt was more of an attack on my drive to become a published author. One thing I’ve learned is that in writing programs we find our most cherished mentors, but we also find our most ambition detractors. For every person hoping for our success, there are a dozen others wishing for our failure. I quickly stopped writing. Psychologically, I couldn’t even slide a flash drive into my computer for the purposes of writing another story, chapter, novel. I thought of myself as failure who didn’t truly see his pathway to publication, and more of a delusional novice with perpetual misgivings. Eventually, I switched to a concentration in Native American Literature, and this is where I found Dr. Hobson. He was kind and considerate and took me under his wing, talking to me for long periods of time and sharing some of his secrets to staying in the creative writing space.

“Suddenly, the last strand weaved itself into place. I had figured it out. This was a decolonization narrative and the main character was healing through familial love and cultural grace.”

~ Oscar Hokeah ~

It wasn’t until after I graduated from OU in 2012 that I found myself writing again. It had been three years at this point. The stories I mentioned above were written in 2008 and 2009, and then I finally started to write again in 2012. I wrote the first draft of one story that would later be titled “Paper Towels.” Slowly, I wrote a story here and a story there (all first drafts), and then I started to revise, slowly again, until I had a good collection together. By 2014, I had my first book and titled it: Reflections on the Water. The collection centered a male character who had similar traits as his mother. Basically it was a compare and contrast. I remember sending out queries to agents and they all came back rejected. But I kept going. I submitted some of the stories, like the one titled “Paper Towels,” to literary magazines. Again, I received rejection after rejection. None of the stories were getting picked up, and the agents weren’t responding to the collection of stories. Finally one agent responded and asked for 50 pages, but after I sent the 50 pages I never heard back again–not even to get a firm rejection. So I gave up again. It was pointless. Why was I writing? No one was interested.

One year and one divorce later, I found myself back in my hometown of Tahlequah, Oklahoma in 2015. Having just left a job that was spiritually grueling and traumatizing for reasons I’ll not mention here, I decided I was going to write a novel about the experience. This one wasn’t going to be a novel-in-stories like my last defeat. This one was going to be a full length novel about enduring the hardships at this specific place of work. I’ve mentioned this experience on previous posts, but my brand of writing is what folks might call “semi-autobiographical fiction.” It’s fiction, but it’s closely drawn from my personal experiences or experiences of friends and family. I was taught “write what you know” at IAIA, and I took it to heart. So I spent the next year writing this novel. I wrote a complete first draft and then sat it aside in 2016.

Then I received an email from my old mentor, Dr. Hobson. He asked me what I was working on and I had mentioned the novel about my “workplace tribulations.” But it was this simple and generous question that made me start thinking about the collection of stories that didn’t quite make it. So two years later I decided to slide the flash drive into the computer and take a look at these stories again. I figured I had nothing to lose so I decided to tear it apart, to look for a different story line, to find a better angle. I discarded some stories and kept others. It was a little triggering. My self-doubt increased again, but I kept at it. I kept looking at the stories and searching for something that might work as a book. After months and months of stepping away from the stories and then opening them back up, I finally saw it. This wasn’t a compare and contrast novel. It was a transformation narrative. The central figure wasn’t a reflection of his mother, but instead he was an entire ecosystem–and this ecosystem was his family. I saw the thread where the main character was highly aggressive when he was younger and then eventually purged his aggression. So why did he transform? Suddenly, the last strand weaved itself into place. I had figured it out. This was a decolonization narrative and the main character was healing through familial love and cultural grace.

It was 2017 when I started writing new stories, started adding new characters, new family members, and the ecosystem just grew and grew. Soon I could see this one character from a multitude of angles because every family member had a different view point of his life. Literary fiction is character driven fiction. The greatest compliment a literary writer can get is that “these characters are real and alive!” With the chorus of stories, the main character was more alive than he had ever been. So it was somewhere in the middle of 2018 when I learned of #DVpit on Twitter. It was a pitch event for “diverse voices,” and I decided I was going to give my new collection in stories a shot. For two months, I wrote and rewrote a tweet-sized pitch. Then the day of the #DVpit pitch event arrived, and I started to post…post and watch…watch and post. To my surprise, the one and only Beth Phelan retweeted my pitch with eye emojis. So five different agents clicked on my tweet. I couldn’t believe it.

“I was a #DVpit success story.”

~ Oscar Hokeah ~

Long story short, I signed with Allie Levick of Writers House. I was a #DVpit success story. It worked. I couldn’t believe my luck, and my confidence shot through the roof. So when Allie came to me and said, “We’re going to need to add about 30,000 more words,” I didn’t flinch. I said, “I can do it,” and I completely believed in myself. And over the next few months I did exactly that. This was when Vincent Geimausaddle, Opbee Geimausaddle, and Araceli Chavez were born. I added new family members and strengthened the ecosystem that we all now know as Ever Geimausaddle. So Allie and I worked over 18 months tightening up the novel and getting it ready for publishers. It was now late 2019 and we came to the final moments of revision. Then early 2020 came and we started pitching to publishers. And we all remember what happened in early 2020: COVID. So the exact same time Covid hit the United States and shut everything down, I negotiated terms with my publisher, Algonquin Books. Later that summer the contracts were signed. It was official. I was going to be a published author.

Now the story doesn’t stop there. As all those published writers know: there is the process of revision with the editor. I started working with Kathy Pories and she did a phenomenal job of slicing and dicing. She knew exactly what to say to get me to take the novel to the next level. It was motivating. She asked me to cut certain things that made the novel exactly what I was hoping it’d become. Her talent for seeing the true essence of a story is amazing. Sometimes it’s just rearranging small dynamics and cutting the tiniest pieces that brings a character to an even brighter spirit. By time Kathy and I were finished, we had transformed a novel-in-stories into a full length novel. It was awesome to see and a great learning opportunity. I can say with absolute certainty that I’m a better writer for working with Kathy. I’ll be forever in her debt.

So it was the end of 2021 and Kathy and I finished with the last of the last copy edits. Finally, the book was complete and fully packaged and ready to go. Now, it was time for getting the word out. Writing is the hard part and it was long and arduous, but we can’t underestimate the value of marketing. Next, I began reworking a pitch that I thought I had a handle on. I soon realized that every time I was asked the dreaded question, “So what’s your book about?,” I had a different response. I didn’t know why. Through the events put together by the marketing team, I was given the space to work and rework a succinct pitch. I’ve had to learn what to say at the beginning of my response to get my brain to funnel toward the center of the novel. What I’ve learned is that there is always refining to do, and all this refinement started 14 years ago. My debut, CALLING FOR A BLANKET DANCE, landed on bookshelves on July 26, 2022. And it’s been a whole other learning experience in my debut year. So stay tight to my blog, and sometime in the not-so-distant-future I’ll recount the trials and tribulations of my book’s first year in the world.

5 thoughts on “Debut Novel 14 Years of Ups and Downs: How CALLING FOR A BLANKET DANCE Survived, Endured, and Finally Came to Being

  1. You’re welcome. In joy and sorrow, I hope to keep experiencing you. The book was worth all that time waiting. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Latonian. I’m very grateful. We’ve been corresponding here for a few years now. It’s amazing to think about how much the book has experienced since those early days. Thank you for your long running support.

    Like

  3. I have really enjoyed your writing. Taking my social media break and living true life offline helps me to remember why I liked your writing. You give true life feelings to your writing. And you completely encapsulate the human spirit that one who has developed a love for truth seeking can sense. That is what keeps me coming back! Take care.

    Liked by 1 person

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