Author: Wayne Winterton
The following interview was conducted by: NORM GOLDMAN: Editor of Bookpleasures. CLICK TO VIEW Norm Goldman's Reviews
To read Norm's Review of the Book CLICK HERE
Today, Norm Goldman, Editor of Bookpleasures.com is pleased to have as our guest, Wayne Winterton, author of Whistler’s Gold: The Secret At Nizhoni Toh.
Good day Wayne and thanks for agreeing to participate in our interview.
Please tell our readers a little bit about your personal and professional background?
Thanks Norm, for taking the time to interview me. When I was twenty years old I had the opportunity to spend a full year living among the Assiniboine and Sioux Indians of Montana and South Dakota, an experience from which I gained a deep respect for their ways, their resiliency, and their thoughtful approach to life. Later, after graduating from college, I wrote to the Bureau of Indian Affairs inquiring about the availability of a teaching position. The short of the story is that I was hired to teach on the Navajo Reservation in the American Southwest.
Over the next sixteen years I taught school, served as the principal of two schools, was transferred from the Navajo Reservation to work with the Pueblo Indians where I served in various capacities, including superintendent of the Albuquerque Indian High School, school superintendent for the Northern Pueblos Agency, and as interim president of the Institute of American Indian Arts. Somehow, during those sixteen years, I found time to earn a PhD from the University of New Mexico. Incidentally, my doctoral dissertation was a study on a particular teaching technique and its effect on the learning process of Pueblo Indian children, so you can see that I’ve had a love affair with Native Americans for a long time.
Following my work in Indian education, I went on to work for two other federal agencies, the Office of Surface Mining and the Bureau of Land Management, retiring in 2004 after a federal career that spanned over forty years. Retirement has given me the opportunity to do something I’ve always wanted to do. Write.
When did your passion for writing begin? What keeps you going?
I’ve always enjoyed writing. I was the only one among my college friends that looked forward to writing the weekly theme for freshman English. I don’t know how it is these days, but back in the dinosaur era, the instructor assigned a different topic each week, the student wrote on the topic and turned it in, and the instructor hemorrhaged with good intentions all over the paper before returning it to the student the following week. I didn’t keep those early writings, but when my mother passed away, one of my sisters discovered she had saved many of those old freshman themes complete with their numerous red pencil comments. They’re now fifty years old, yellowed, and they are so bad – but I loved writing them.
In 1993, I became a volunteer beta tester for Microsoft during the development of Windows 95. With each new set of beta releases, I began to write The Best Beginner’s Book for Learning Windows 95. My book was ready when Windows 95 was introduced. I was able to place it in many non-franchised computer stores in Phoenix. Every couple of weeks I made my rounds, replacing sold books with new ones. Somehow, the owner of a local computer manufacturer saw the book, loved it, and we worked out a deal where he would reproduce the book and bundle a copy with each computer sale. My job was to stop by his office once a month and pick up a royalty check based on the number of computers sold. I loved it and it made money until Microsoft started talking about Windows 98. But more importantly, it gave me confidence that I could write something that people would pay for, a good revelation indeed. I also learned that books on computer operating systems enjoy a very short life.
What keeps me going? I guess it’s the knowledge that all things will end some day, including life, and to me retirement provides the opportunity to seek new vistas, not to disappear from view. None of us were given life – just to be forgotten, that’s a little personal philosophy. And except for some oddball out there that collects Windows 95 memorabilia, writing a Windows 95 “how to” book isn’t enough for me. Whistler’s Gold is my first novel, and it’s probably not going to be enough for me either, and that’s what will keep me going.
How did you come up with the idea for Whistler’s Gold: The Secret At Nizhoni Toh? What methods did you use to flesh out your idea to determine if it could be turned into a novel?
The answer might seem a bit roundabout, so bear with me. My first principal’s job was at the government school at Lake Valley (Tsaya in the story), New Mexico. That was in 1966 and the community was just as it’s described in the book, very much isolated. The closest town, Farmington, was over fifty miles to the north over barely passable dirt roads. The water in the community was naturally high in fluoride, so much so that drinking the water as it came from underground wells caused a discoloration of the teeth, and in some cases, caused them to become abnormally brittle as well.
Not wanting to drink the local water, I rigged the family pickup to carry two five-gallon water containers and whenever we went to Farmington for groceries we would stock up on water. A half-year after moving into the community to run the school, I was complaining to the local trader about the nuisance of hauling drinking water. He pointed to his truck, said, “Get in,” and he drove me to a place several miles away at the foot of a sandstone cliff. We parked the truck, climbed over the barbed wire fence that protected his leased land, and walked along the base of the cliff until we came to a sandstone archway. At the back of the archway was a pool of water being fed from the constant plinking of drops from a mossy roof. He allowed my family to access the fluoride-free water whenever we wanted. Our 120-mile round trip for drinking water became an eight-mile round trip overnight.
The trader, Kay Ashcroft, now in his late 80s can still be found at the trading post, but these days his son runs the place. Kay spends his time in a well-worn chair visiting with the locals in their native language. I sent Kay one of the very first copies of the book in appreciation of his friendship over the years. In Whistler’s Gold, the spring that I named Nizhoni Toh, is halfway up the cliff and accessible only by climbing switchbacks and traversing the cliff on a narrow ledge, but the inspiration for the story came from Kay’s wonderful fluoride-free spring inside that sandstone cliff.
You asked how I fleshed out my idea to turn it into a novel. What methods did I use? That's a hard one Norm. I suppose the answer is that I just started writing. I'd get an idea, try to expand on it, and if it didn't work, I'd start over with another idea. I just kept going until it felt right. But everyone has to start somewhere. I started by writing the ending of the story first – the last two chapters. Is that legal? Then, I had to figure out how to get the people to the ending, and how it would happen, and who would be involved – and how to give the story a natural flow. Of course, even those last two chapters went through several metamorphoses by the time the book was finished. As a result, I probably ended up writing four times more story than I ended up with.
Can you explain some of your research techniques, and how you found sources for your book?
The geography and character sources for the book came from living on the Navajo. We had to cross the Chaco Wash every time we went to Farmington. I didn’t commute to work from an off-reservation community. I lived across the street from the school, about three miles from the trading post, and less than ten miles from Kin Bineola, the ruin described in the book. In other words, I lived on the reservation and felt as though I was a part of the community. With the exception of the bad guys, I think that somewhere in real life I’ve run across Uncle Harry, Eva Notah, Kee, Grace, Susan, and other characters from the book.
Aside from the local geography and the characters, the writing did require research, and I found the internet to be an ideal source of information. A couple of examples: I needed to know about places where Navajo Code Talkers served and where they died, what was coinage called that was minted by the Spanish in the 1500s, who was Chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council when the story was taking place, and although I’ve been to the Museum of New Mexico (the Palace of the Governors) many times, my memory has fogged over the years. A search of the internet quickly provided information and pictures. Another source was the printed page, books. Since the story has a tie to conquistadors and the early Spanish occupation of present day New Mexico, I ended up reading several books on the subject, the best of which was, The Last Conquistador by Marc Simmons (University of Oklahoma Press -1991). Excellent reading on the subject for lay person or scholar alike. And as I think about it, the two conquistadors that appear in the story are the only persons in the book who were actually alive at one time. I hope they don’t mind my taking liberties with their adventure.
What has your experience been like with self-publishing? Do you recommend it over traditional publishers?
Self-publishing has pros and cons. I knew that going in. But it provides a method for a new author to try his or her wings. I have a friend, a former Special Forces soldier, who has written a very readable story about a Special Forces rescue that takes place in Guatemala. He finished his book well ahead of mine. He has an agent and he’s confident that a house can be found to publish and promote his work. But so far, it has been a dry well, and while it may yet find a home, it has also been discouraging.
Self-publishing has helped me to get from a manuscript to something that looks like a book. But that has come at a price and promoting the book rests squarely on my shoulders. But, even with that said, I have had some success, but mostly through my own energies rather than through the marketplace. Books are being sold through Lightning Source, Inc., and Amazon Wholesale Discount, sources for self-published books for Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Borders, and other outlets. I know those sales are happening because of reports furnished to me by the publisher, but a greater number of sales have come through my own hand. For instance, in a few days I’ll be driving to Albuquerque where author-friend (Slim Randles, author of Sun Dog Days, published by the University of New Mexico Press, and other books) is arranging a couple of book-signings for the two of us. From there, I’m driving to the four-corners area of New Mexico where my novel takes place and I’ll be calling on bookstores in Farmington, New Mexico, and Durango, Colorado, and other places before retuning to Phoenix.
As far as recommending self-publishing over traditional publishers, I think a lot has to do with how hard the author is willing to work to promote the book, and even at that, I’m not sure – since I’ve not had a book published by a traditional publisher – if an author can get by with any less work by going the traditional publication route. I’d say if you have connections to a traditional publisher, by all means go that way. If not, try self-publishing, but remember that either way you go, writing the story is only part of the process of getting paid to do it.
What challenges or obstacles did you encounter while writing your book? How did you overcome these challenges?
Looking back, I really enjoyed weaving the story – mental blocks, sleepless nights, discouraging sessions at the keyboard when nothing happens, and all. I lost both of my parents during that time, first my mother, then a few months later, my father, and those two events were very disruptive. Other challenges are probably more typical. The need for self-discipline, the willingness to scrap something that doesn’t work even if it means throwing a week’s worth of work in the trash, and those kinds of things. I’m also certain that if I had not retired I would never have found the time to get much beyond those two final chapters, the place where I started. I discovered that writing a novel is considerably more demanding than I thought it would be.
I overcame the challenge of time to write - by retiring. I think I overcame the other challenges because my desire to produce a readable story was greater than my distaste for failing to do so. I’ve never handled failure very well. I’m a poor loser. I really wanted to write something with a good enough beginning and a satisfying enough ending, and enough good story between, that people would want to remember my name and be willing to buy a second book, if and when.
Did you have anyone edit your book?
Yes, and for a couple of reasons. Although I think I’m a pretty good editor, I felt that I needed a fresh set of eyes. I also came to believe in the story and its potential and I wanted to give it the best possible chance for success. I looked at the book as one of my children in the sense that a child might become an accountant without formal education; but putting the kid through college is certainly going to increase his or her chances for success. But even after paying a copyeditor, I’ve found a few places that were missed or might have been adjusted, but overall, it was definitely money well spent.
Did you have a difficult time fleshing out your characters, particularly Harry, Grace and Kee, and how did you proceed?
I think I’ve alluded to this somewhere earlier in our conversation, but no, I didn’t have a lot of difficulty in fleshing out the characters. As I’ve said, I think I’ve met most of them at one time or another during my career. I just kept their personalities, changed their names, and made up new stuff for them to do.
I did discover a most interesting phenomenon in writing a novel and one I ever expected. I learned that characters grow and change during the course of writing. For instance, in my earliest version, I had Grace as a very aggressive person throughout the story, not just at the beginning where she throws her tantrum. I even had her as the aggressor during the love scene, which resulted in pregnancy, and a small shotgun wedding in the Garretson living room. But, as I came to know her over the course of months of writing, Grace changed, and by the time she and Kee were in love in the final version, she had mellowed out – and the part about the pregnancy was dropped, and the shotgun wedding became a multicultural affair to remember. During those same early days of writing, I once had her killed during the robbery, shot in the back as she was running toward the trading post. I had written several follow-up chapters to deal with that event when it occurred to me that it wasn’t necessary to do her in at all, and in fact, it would have been a serious distraction to the real story. And besides, I was really getting to like her and I just couldn’t go through with it.
Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?
Only this, and it might be helpful to someone just getting started. I don’t pretend to be any kind of expert on writing, but I discovered that for me, writing is a full time job – of sorts. You have to discipline yourself to sit down and stay in that seated position until you can get some words to flow. Once the flow begins, you’re probably good for a paragraph, or a page or two, or more. You have to stay with it for as long as you can. Then take the rest of the day off. Then it’s back to work the next day, just as if someone is paying you to show up. If I couldn’t have treated my writing as something with responsibilities and structure, I would have ended up firing myself, and the book would never have become reality, at least not reality as a novel?
Norm, there’s one other thing. I’d like to thank you for allowing me to share some things about myself and about Whistler’s Gold with your readers. It is greatly appreciated.
Good luck with your book!