By BRUCE DENNILL
When, and under what circumstances, did the idea for your latest book come to you?
I was fortunate to secure employment with the Yellowstone Park Company during the summer of 1977. It was an ideal job for a college student. I was initially hired as a dock helper in Bridge Bay Marina, but I was selected to give tours while driving a 50-passenger boat on Yellowstone Lake. On my ‘off days,’ I hitchhiked around the park and explored the remote backcountry. It didn’t take long to fall in love with this mystical, magical place. It is a land of geysers and grizzlies. A land of wolves and waterfalls. A land of hot springs and very cold lakes. The Crow Indians referred to this region of hydrothermal activity as “The Land of Burning Ground”. As a young tour guide, I learned about the history of the park’s founding. I knew I wanted to write a story that incorporated my contemporary experiences in Yellowstone with the seminal events and people who contributed to its creation. I wanted to highlight how people can overcome handicaps and be successful. Some attributes and experiences of the protagonist Graham reflect my own. I am profoundly deaf in one ear. When he travels back in time to the nineteenth century, Graham is ‘blessed’ with perfect hearing – something I have never experienced, but I imagine would be wonderful. I also wanted to realistically portray the ‘dark side’ of western expansion. You can’t gloss over the ill treatment of the US government on Native American tribes. All tribes were forced onto reservations. Their lives and livelihoods were destroyed by the slaughter of the bison herds. Sadly, the lieutenant who led the cavalry unit that escorted the Hayden Expedition through the Yellowstone wilderness had participated in the massacre of many Blackfoot women and children on the Marias River. Life went on after that summer of ‘77. Decades passed. But I carried a love of Yellowstone with me. It only took 44 years to start writing!
How did you conduct your research or other preparation before writing – was it more experiential or more academic or desk-based?
It was a combination of my personal experience as a tour guide and a good deal of research. I take great pride in the accuracy of the dates, locations, descriptions of thermal features, clothing, lifestyles, firearms, slang, and personalities of the Hayden Survey team of 1871 described in the book. Many of these details were made possible because some expedition members kept a diary while they traveled through the park for 38 days. The survey leader, Ferdinand Hayden, filed an extensive report for Congress and is available in the National Archives. Thus, I was able to place my protagonist among these explorers and imagined conversations and events that may have occurred. It was a joy to have my protagonist interact with two expedition members who would become famous for their contributions. William Henry Jackson’s photographs and Thomas Moran’s paintings “sealed the deal” for Congress to set aside this region as a national park the following year (1872). It took eight months of research before I wrote my first words.
When considering influence, do you find yourself wanting to write like someone (in terms of their style, tone or use of language), or aiming for a kind of perspective or storytelling approach you admire or enjoy?
One of the most impactful novels in terms of style was Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. The 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist wrote about the battle of Gettysburg using storytelling. Rather than write in entirely third person, Shaara used historical research as a foundation for imagining dialogue among the battle’s key participants. As a result, he made history come alive! After Michael passed away in 1988, his son Jeff picked up the mantle and has used his father’s writing style in telling the story of other battles – not only in the Civil War but also WWII. My goal was to use a similar approach: start with sound research. Then bring the events and characters (and therefore history) alive through imagined interactions, thoughts, and conversations.
What’s in your to-read pile?
The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea by Hyeonseo Lee, Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War by Daniel J Sharfstein and The Eagle’s Claw: A Novel of the Battle of Midway by Jeff Shaara.
Do you have a favourite character that you have created? Or if you’re writing non-fiction, do you have a specific topic that you find endlessly fascinating?
Rides Alone, the Crow warrior who was initially an enemy (but later an ally) to Graham in Burning Ground, was a fascinating character to bring to life. He was the 19th Century equivalent of Redfield, Graham’s mentor in the 20th Century before he traveled back in time. Burning Ground is dedicated to Redfield, a Crow Indian I met while a teen in Pennsylvania. He was a remarkably wise and kind man who had an outsized influence on my life. Indeed, the personal relationship between Redfield and Graham (sans the time travel) reflects the memories of my teen years working on the fruit farm with a man I admired greatly.