Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Q&A with D.M. Rowell




D.M. Rowell is the author of the new mystery novel Never Name the Dead. Part of a family of Kiowa storytellers, she spent many years working in Silicon Valley. She lives in California.


Q: What inspired you to write Never Name the Dead, and how did you create your character Mud?

A: Since I was 12 devouring Trixie Belden mysteries, I knew that if I couldn’t be Trixie solving mysteries the next best thing would be writing mystery books. It took me over 50 years, but I am doing what I always wanted to do, write a mystery series.


Mixing insights about my Kiowa tribe’s history and traditions into the mystery came naturally. I come from a long line of traditional storytellers and was greatly influenced by my Kiowa grandfather, C. E. Rowell. He was the tribe’s historian, a traditional artist, and a master storyteller. His art and storytelling instilled a deep love and respect for my Kiowa heritage.


As I started Never Name the Dead it was natural to make my main character Mud similar to my background; a professional woman with a traditional American Indian background and calling. The story was a fun way to educate people about the Kiowas. We’re a small tribe getting smaller.


While I do focus a lot on the Kiowa side of my family, I wanted to also bring a piece of my mother’s side into each story as well. I used my mom’s name Mae and my grandmother’s childhood nickname Mud for the main character. It was fun developing Mud’s nickname through her Kiowa Naming Ceremony.


Q: In your author's note, you write, “Although this is a work of fiction, the Kiowa customs and oral traditions shared are real....It is my hope that by adding a touch of Kiowa to my stories, it will help keep the culture alive.” Can you say more about this?


A: I am extremely proud of my Kiowa heritage. I was fortunate to have my grandfather and several of his sisters and brother alive through my childhood. They were the first generation born on what had been the Kiowa, Comanche, Apache reservation. Like most Plains Indian tribes, we did not have books documenting our history, we had stories shared from one generation to the next; an oral memory chain.


My grandfather, his sisters and brother shared Kiowa stories and songs with me from my earliest memories. The rhythm of the Kiowa language captivated me. The elders all used the old Plains Indian-style sign language unconsciously while speaking in Kiowa or English. In either language their hands flew in accompaniment to their words adding a hypnotic show to the already rhythmic sounds as they taught me about being Kiowa.


My grandfather, C. E. Rowell, Adalhabakia was a Kiowa artist and recognized Tribal Elder; this meant that he was a man of distinction within the tribe, he knew the Kiowa history. Grandpa was the Tribe’s historian. Most of my grandpa’s art and stories came directly from the Kiowa deerskin calendars that chronicled the Kiowas from the late 1700s to early life on the reservation.

Our tribe was one of four on the Great Plains that complemented oral history with a written record; pictograph drawings of a significant event effecting the tribe sketched above a winter or summer marking. Grandpa would bring out the calendars and captivate us with stories from the past. The tribe, the people, the individuals came alive through my grandpa’s stories, calendars, and art.


After a storytelling, Grandpa pointed at me with his chin in the style of the old ones and decreed, “You. You will keep these stories alive. You are next.” Our eyes locked, my body trembled with the truth of it. I had a responsibility. Even now at 63 I remember that moment vividly.


It is my turn, my responsibility to share our stories. Blending Kiowa culture with my mystery is one way I am trying to share Kiowa stories.


I hope readers find Never Name the Dead a fun read while they learn a bit about the Kiowa Tribe, our language, history, traditions, and customs.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I discovered the ending as I wrote. I’m not a planner, for me the story plays out as I write. My starting point is determining the murder and why. After knowing that, I can begin to write. It’s fun for me to discover where the characters take me each chapter. 


I captured the core story in my first draft. In the following drafts I added twists and turns to deepen the mystery. I really enjoy a good mystery and wanted mine to be a puzzle as long as possible. I hope readers don’t realize who did it until the last chapters.


Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: My Name is Mud was the novel’s original title. I liked the dual meaning, Mud is always in a muddy mess, but the publishing team was concerned that the title would be seen as a children’s book instead of a murder mystery. Working together the team came up with Never Name the Dead, taking the words directly from a line in the novel.


In the Kiowa culture once a person dies, you’re not to say their name in fear of keeping the spirit bound to earth rather than transitioning on to meet the Creator, Daw’Kee. The title works well with the story since a Kiowa elder is killed and the characters are trying to show respect to the dead man and their Kiowa customs and beliefs.


While I resisted the title change initially, I have come to like Never Name the Dead as the title. For me the title brands it a Kiowa story. It’s a fitting start to the series.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m doing final edits on the second novel in the Mud Mystery series. The story picks up minutes after the first book ends. Mud is immediately thrown into another murder mystery lasting through the night and morning of her second day of her four-day quest.


The third story is brewing. I’m waiting for the murderer to step forward and do the deed so I can start writing. ;-)


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: This is all an unexpected and wonderful experience. I dreamed of being a writer, but never thought it would happen. It wasn’t until I was 60 that I allowed myself to let my words out and pursue my dream.


I started UCSD Extension Creative Writing Program with the intent to write the mystery novel trapped within. I struck it lucky getting Carolyn Wheat as my first instructor. She encouraged me to let the story out and helped bring it alive with thoughtful critiques, notes and prods. I followed her through Novel I, II, and III and at the end had my first draft.


Carolyn continued to work with me as I progressed through to a third draft. She was instrumental in getting my story to paper then encouraging me to submit it for publication.


We are never too old to achieve our dreams!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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