On writing MY OTHER MOTHER
How did this book begin?
Pywell: It began, actually, not as a book about mothers and daughters but about the Hunkpapa Sioux medicine man Crazy Horse. I was obsessed with him as a kid. It was his visions, and the way they actually carried him through his life. I was a very worried Catholic kid, so mysticism in any form made sense to me. At first the confidence he had in battle if he only wore the regalia that he wore in his dream appealed to me. It worked, too. He volunteered as a decoy more often than any other warrior in his tribe. In his first battle, at fourteen, he charged directly into a hail of bullets and didn’t get scratched. He was sure it was because of the lightning bolt on his cheek and his pony’s rump, the small stone hanging behind one ear, the feathers. . . the image of himself in his vision that his father told him would protect him in battle.
How did you get from fourteen year old Sioux charging into battle to a book about parenthood?
Pywell: Through Crazy Horse’s love story, I think. He’d always been in love with a young woman who was married off by her family to a Bad Face—they were a “better” family than Crazy Horse’s apparently. But a few years into her marriage she abandoned her husband and two children to run away with Crazy Horse. A Sioux woman only needed to push her husband’s stuff out of the teepee to announce that she was done with him, and the husband was supposed to accept it and move along. But in this case, her husband followed them and shot Crazy Horse in the face. The tribal elders ruled that Crazy Horse had disrupted the peace of the group and should lose his place as a Shirt Wearer, a spiritual and political elder of the group. And they ruled that his lover should return to her husband. She did, but she set up a separate teepee and refused to live as the Bad Face’s wife again. Nine months later she gave birth to a baby girl, who died in childhood.
So the connection is lost children?
Pywell: Yes. And matriarchal inheritances.
But the object that’s inherited in this novel is a Scalp Shirt, which is a man’s war record. How is that matriarchal?
Pywell: Most of these shirts were sewed by women, who also decorated them with beads. But the actual scalps that were used on the shirts were supplied by men, and the pictographs painted on them were done by men, usually depicting battle scenes. The shirt in this book depicts a woman’s loss—Crazy Horse’s lover, actually, watching her own child disappear.
So it’s a realistic artifact?
Pywell: Nope. No such thing has ever been found. But a Native American artifact specialist helped me determine how such a shirt would be constructed and decorated if it were made in the year I needed this particular shirt to be made. Except for the fact that the painting is of a woman’s life instead of a man’s, and the subject is the loss of a child instead of a battle scene, it’s entirely historically accurate. The guy who helped me actually assessed for the Antique Road Show. That’s how I found him.
Really? So how much was it worth?
Pywell: I couldn’t resist that question. With a story, meaning a photograph or written documentation tying the shirt to a family, about one and a quarter million. Without a story, about three quarters of a million dollars.
So where do I go to find one of these that hasn’t been snatched up by a museum yet?
Pywell: Nowhere. Most were buried with their owners, who regarded the shirt as a sentient being made up of the spirit of the animal whose skin was used and the man whose sweat permeated it. Bill Mercer told me that a few are probably in attics in England—in the mid- nineteenth century a lot of English nobility thought it would be fun to play cowboy and some took these shirts home as souvenirs. Most of what’s still in this country would have been traded out of the market, mounted in a museum or buried. They’re deeply expressive objects, very personal and very important to the family group that generated them. It’s not so much a shirt as a member of their group, a written history of the battles they engaged in.
But the shirt in this novel has a love story painted on it?
Pywell: A failed love story.
Do those appeal to you more than successful ones?
Pywell: I think sexual romantic love is the hardest thing to write about because the subject is a powerful cliché magnet. It pulls storytellers, especially modern storytellers who live in a world saturated wtih graphic sexual data, into real narrative swamps. Most story audiences now are more accustomed to film, where no real argument for love needs to be made. All you have to do is have a shockingly beautiful actor on screen, everybody falls in love on sight, and the dialogue goes by the wayside.
What about the entire romance novel genre?
Pywell: My point exactly.
So the love story you focus on is love between parents and children.
Pywell: Yes. For better or worse, I think it’s the more enduring, mysterious, overwhelming bond. It’s the one that the later bonds—romantic or otherwise—rest upon.
Thanks for your time.
Pywell: Of course. Loved talking with you. Thanks so much.