Email: email@example.com By Shirley Bryant
I became interested in the Lost Colony when I was living on Roanoke Island working on a completely separate project about the history of the Secotan Indian people. Especially during the winter when the island is deserted except for locals, there used to be a great, lonely, almost bleak feel that made the tragedies that occurred there that much more vivid. I liked that – it’s harder to get that feel there lately with so much development. I realized that most of the people who had worked on the problem were British historians/scholars of British history and not Indian experts – yet Roanoke became an Indian story once the colonists left the island and entered the territory of various nations. My expertise is the Indian southeast, so I wanted to tackle the problem to see if I could understand it differently by looking at it from a new angle. What I discovered was shocking! Which is that there was not one mystery, but two and that to claim to solve the mystery of the Lost Colony, fully three questions had to be answered: 1) Why were the colonists lost? 2) Why were they neverfound? 3) Where were they?
Question number one was never answered by historians, other than to brush the question away with illogical arguments that were too easily refuted.Yet the evidence was there…the colonists (116 men, women, and children) were in trouble from the moment they left England. What had gone wrong? We also know that Jamestown search parties were sent looking for them years later and found them. Jamestown officials and officials in England knew exactly where they were – yet no rescue was undertaken and instead there was a cover-up.Yet despite this evidence, for over sixty years, historians have preferred to tell us that the Powhatan nation of the Chesapeake Bay killed the colonists. It simply didn’t happen. So why have 85% of the original documents – the evidence, the clues – been discarded? Maybe that’s another mystery.
The third and final question took a bit of ethnohistorical detective work and really brings out a very complex picture of the Indian southeast – an area that generally gets skipped over in most history books or, at best, is portrayed in a flat, simplistic manner. But this was a vibrant, multi-layered region with very strong mercantile nations within it with their own systems of power and politics and agendas that were every bit as much a reckoning force as England.
I’ve since received a whole lot of fan mail from lawyers – and even a comment from someone in the FBI – that Roanoke is a great piece of detective work and were it presented as a case at the bar…would probably win. The praise has been great. But the Lost Colony has never before been approached like the detective story it is: it is America’s oldest mystery! It is a missing persons case on a colossal scale and primary evidence (primary documentation) cannot be ignored. From this point forward, solutions can no longer be offered that do not answer all three questions or ‘make sense’ only by throwing out most of the data.
I believe that you wrote another book called ” From The Heart” which was a companion book to the Kevin Costner CBS documentary “500 Nations”. How did you get involved in that project? Can you tell us about that book?
I was an Indian consultant and had been consulting for the Library of Congress in Washington and was hired by Kevin’s director for 500 Nations, Jack Leustig, to be the Head of Research for the show.I was, but I also helped shape and write it, and title the show. At first, the idea was to release two companion books. Mine was to be called ‘500 Nations, the Voices’ and the second was going to deal with our script minus the historical quotes. However, the publisher decided that both books should have quotes and history and so the project evolved quite differently.
My part of the two resulting companion books was my “From the Heart”, which deals a powerful punch by looking at Indian heroes, those who gave their lives in the face of genocide so that others might live.A very inspiring book, and one I wrote for Indian kids especially to let them know that people in the past cared enough about them to give the ultimate gift so that they might live and be strong in their traditions.That’s why I called it “From the Heart”.Its greatest strength is that SO MANY nations are covered – about 350 – giving voice, in many cases, to nations long without one, and long regarded as extinct. I wanted them to come to life and to let people know that there were Indian nations in every spot of hallowed ground in this country. The second book, “500 Nations”, edited by Alvin Josephy, is a text drawn from 900 pages of our script for 500 Nations. It was a hefty project, researching and writing, which took us four years to complete.
Have you written other books besides these two and, if so, have they always involved history and/or Native Americans, in one form or another? Have you written about native peoples from other countries? And, have you had other types of written works published?
After writing “500 Nations”, I published my first book, “From the Heart”. Next, I wrote a special for Fox TV about Egypt and published my second book, “Roanoke”, which took three years to research and write. My third book will be released this fall by Arcade (a publishing house I really like), and I am currently at work on a fourth.No, my books are not all about Indian subjects, my third is not at all, but deals with South America and eventually I would like to write fiction.
Have you always been interested in Native Americans and history? In other words, what interests, education, or happenings turned you in the direction of writing about this area?
Have you always written non-fiction books? Are you at all interested in fiction, whether writing it or reading it?
Yes, I have always written non-fiction. I am a voracious reader and read a strange assortment of the classics, mysteries, and some current fiction and non-fiction. As for writing it, I would love to and keep ‘threatening’ my publisher that when the next non-fiction is finished… then we’ll see.
Do you have a Native American heritage, yourself? If so, what tribe, and are you active in tribal affairs or life?
I am active with an adopted nation, but it’s difficult to do much beyond writing these days and I have an even larger commitment to environmental affairs. I’m creating a nature preserve, and working on reforestation projects, which keeps me too busy!
How did you first decide to become an author? How difficult was it to get your first book published? Did you have an agent for that first book?
I decided to become an author after my stint on Roanoke Island. I wanted very much to write what I knew about the Secotan, and not simply as a dry piece of scholarship. I decided I should try writing a historical novel, which I did. I knew nothing about writing then, and it was rejected but, as I laughingly say, the rejection was so encouraging that it motivated me instead of causing me to give up. I knew then that I wanted to keep writing.It is extremely difficult for first-time writers to get published. My expertise led to my work on 500 Nations. The director, Jack Leustig, gave me a wonderful gift by giving me a chance. They said, “Yes, but CAN you write?” And I said, ” Let me try, I’ll show you. “It’s hard to get that first opportunity. Jack’s kindness was my break and my writing carried me through. “From the Heart” was published in the U.K. by Random House and in 1997 when I began work on “Roanoke”, I flew to London and met with my editor. I pitched the idea and he said, “Brilliant! Write it” (or something to that effect), I did and they published it, which is why it came out in the U.K. first.
I understand that you have become good friends with Andras Bereznay, historical mapmaker, who you are interviewing for us for this newsletter.Tell us a bit about how you and Andras became acquainted, and if you think the two of you will cooperate on future endeavors.
Andras had worked on maps for Random House UK previously and they recommended him for “Roanoke”.We had to email quite a bit to talk about how we wanted the maps to look and Andras is one of those people whose personality can’t help bursting through even on the most mundane subjects -so while we’re discussing how far west to extend a swamp, he’s regaling me with ludicrous anecdotes about beating the Communist system in Hungary or people’s behaviors.He’s a great study of character, as well as a brilliant historical cartographer, so it’s been an enjoyable experience and anything but dull! Yes, I do think he will make maps for my books in the future. I much prefer his work to any others in his field who I know about.
I understand that one of your favorite reading areas is books on trees? Now, how do you get from Native Americans to trees? :>) Have you ever written a book about trees? Tell us about this interest, please!
I don’t read books on trees–I’m an experimental planter. I’ve been working with our own woods, which are quite diseased from heavy logging by the previous owner. I’ve been looking at traditional Indian forestry methods and applying them here to combat the many problems we see. It is, without a doubt, the single most fulfilling ‘hobby’ I’ve ever had and if I had my way, I’d be doing this full-time. I suppose most people feel like this about their hobbies.The proceeds from all of my books, however, go into land -ultimately to buy and preserve land from development and to reintroduce endangered species on it. This includes endangered trees as well as animals. I also have a small nursery, which I plan to expand over the next several years into something quite a bit larger and eventually into a full tree farm.
Aside from being a voracious reader, what are some of your other interests and activities?
I think I answered this above: trees and animals and land preservation. I’d like to get my wildlife rehabilitator’s license before very much more time goes by. I also have a foundation called the Native Learning Foundation whose purpose is to create culture emersion summer camps and schools for Indian kids. I work on all of these projects simultaneously…though the trees have been taking most of what little spare time I seem to have. I deem the environment critical and yes, I do plan a book about it.
Any advice for aspiring authors?
When I wanted to become an author, I got two pieces of advice.One was the ever optimistic – if you work hard enough, you can do it! And the other was the more jaded – make sure you have a great day job because it’s too hard to get published. I suppose that advice somewhere in between unbounded optimism and crippling pessimism is the right note because the truth is, it is very, very difficult to get published and once that has happened, there are whole new slews of worries which make it a very precarious career. We could use more patrons of the arts, as it can be a long, slow process.It is much like the Olympics – requiring long, hard hours, day after day, of putting nearly everything aside in a single-minded purpose to achieve, the knowledge that even having done all that, victory may not be realized. If that drive is still there (for the Olympic skater who wins the medal got there by falling hard many, many times), then write! To get published, get your name out, pursue a skill that gives you an ‘in’, and meet people. Have the optimism to push ahead and, like the athlete, be ready for the defeat. And then pick yourself back up.
Lee, please tell us anything you wish about you, and thanks so much for allowing us to interview you!
You’re welcome. My thanks go to you, too.