As many of you know, Native American / First Peoples history is one of my fave subjects! I have a really interesting interview today with Mary S. Black, who has researched extensively the prehistoric peoples of the Lower Pecos, in Texas! They left behind those wonderful rock cave paintings you might have heard about. In the interview you can learn more about the art, the people, Shamanism, and Mary’s research. Enjoy!
Hi, Mary, and welcome to Oh, for the Hook of a Book site! Prehistoric fiction is some of my favorite historical fiction to immerse myself in. Congratulations on the release of your new book, Peyote Fire: Shaman of the Canyons. What has been the best part about releasing your novel so far?
Mary: Hi Erin. Thanks so much for having me here today. I love talking to people about my book. I wrote it to hopefully bring more awareness of our ancient past. I really felt like I was listening to my characters talk at times, when the writing was most intense. I’m having fun now sharing this work with other people.
Erin: Come in and have a seat in my dining room. I have comfy chairs high-back chairs where we can relax, basking in the sunlight rays without being chilly on the outdoor patio (I’m in Ohio and it’s chilly here now!). I’ll bring in some tea, do you have a favorite? Sugar and cream? I’ll be having a seasonal Chai (though often I opt for Earl Grey).
Mary: Earl Grey sounds great for a chilly afternoon. You have a beautiful dining room.
Erin: Wonderful! I’ll pour and bring out the homemade apple spice muffins. Let’s begin!
Q: Your background in writing started with being a reporter (mine too) and then lead to teaching. Where did your interest in archaeology and history come from?
A: Growing up I was always interested in history. I had never even heard of archaeology at that time. Eventually I became a social studies teacher and got to really delve into all aspects of history. I toyed with the idea of getting a master’s degree in archaeology, but I quickly realized I couldn’t do that with a child at home. Archaeologists have to travel a lot and often gone for long periods. I just couldn’t do that. So I married an archaeologist instead and let him travel.
Erin Comments: I felt the same way about getting a degree and having a career in archaeology! But you’re right, hard to raise children that way. At least you can live vicariously through your husband!
Q: What was the motivation behind writing a novel and why did you decide to write fiction and not non-fiction? What makes your novel more fiction?
A: I was enchanted by the polychrome murals on the canyon walls in southwest Texas along the Rio Grande. These paintings are at least 4,000 years old. Like everyone else who sees them, I wanted to know who painted them, and why. What were these ancient people saying to us? I thought about writing Peyote Fire for at least ten years before I actually started it. The only way to really make the people come alive was in a novel.
Erin Comments: I think that is great. Many times books start by asking just those questions!
Q: Your book is highly based on factual times, how did you conduct all your research? Where did you begin?
A: It took me four years to do the research and write the book. Far too long, but I had a lot to learn. I wanted to capture as much truth about the ancient people and their culture as possible, and that turned out to be quite a challenge. My husband was the original editor of a great website called Texas Beyond History, which reports on archaeological research all over Texas. I studied articles on that site until I had them practically memorized. I made a number of trips to the canyons and had the good fortune to follow several archeologists around as they worked. I listened to the wind and felt the sun in that place. I learned about rock art from several experts and tromped around looking at many of these ancient paintings. And of course I read a lot and talked to lots of people who knew the area. What was hard was consolidating all this information in my brain. I had to be able to visualize daily life in detail in order to write about it.
Q: Why do you feel that archaeology in North America is important? What can the discoveries teach us, since we view ourselves as a relatively young country? What can be taught about who lived here before us?
A: Wow, that’s a big question. Have you got a couple of years? I actually used to teach a course on Archaeology for the Social Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. The course was aimed at teachers, and it was amazing what they didn’t know. Human beings have lived in North America at least 17,000 years, and they were pretty ingenious. Their brain capacity was as great as ours, and they had to solve complex problems every day. Mostly we don’t give our human ancestors enough credit. Learning about the people of the past teaches us about human invention and creativity, social organization and politics, tenderness and violence. These are not concepts we just recently thought up. They’ve been here all along.
The human history of North America is much shorter and quite different from that of Europe, for instance. A hundred and fifty years ago the U.S. government made a concerted effort to wipe out remaining native peoples, and they almost did it. It’s a genocide we don’t like to talk about in American history classes. Native people have been systematically dismissed from the history of America, and as a result, many people today don’t know much about this continent until the Pilgrims arrived in 1620. It’s been estimated that there were over 400 languages spoken by native people in America at that time, so the place wasn’t exactly empty. Personally I think we need to recognize this history and reflect on our place in it.
Erin Comments: I totally agree. I absolutely love their history and revere them. They were at one and at peace with nature. They were thankful in a way for things that most aren’t in our present society of throw away and don’t care. Fortunately, in receiving my history degree, I had a teacher that taught Native American history, and it was something I really admired. But there needs to be more done.
Q: Even though I live in the U.S. too, being in Ohio is like another world–the west, the places you have visited, and the history you are speaking of to be foreign to me. Can you tell us about the Canyonlands and the people who lived in there?
A: If you look on a map, find Del Rio, Texas, right on the Rio Grande. Then follow Highway 90 west about 50 miles. That’s the Lower Pecos Canyonlands I write about. You will come to the Pecos River, which forms an incredibly steep, stone canyon at that point. There are many canyons like that in the area that drain into the Rio Grande. The land is arid. It’s the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert that runs deep into Mexico. If you drive by fast on the highway, you might think it’s just a wasteland. But get down in the canyons and you find a remarkable world. There are over 300 currently known rock art murals in this area. Archaeologists know that people have lived here over 10,000 years. How? How did they live in such a harsh land? It’s fascinating.
Ohio has some pretty cool archaeology too, with the mound builders. Serpent Mound is amazing!
Erin Comments: Oh, yes, absolutely! There is a lot of Native American history here. It’s too bad that the whole of the Serpent Mound can’t be taken in from land view, and most people can’t easily go aerial, but just the premise of how and why they built those is fascinating.
Q: If you haven’t, can you tell us a little about the painted rock shelters of the Canyonlands?
A: There are many large rock shelters in these canyons that people used to live in. The rock overhangs gave protection from sun and rain, and are not uncomfortable. Some of these shelters are painted floor to ceiling in red, orange, gold, white, and black. The figures are very abstract and hard for modern minds to understand. I’m giving you some photos so you can see more what I mean.
And a lot of them are damaged, so sometimes you can’t even see the whole thing. Even though we know of over 300 such sites, only two are actually open to the public. If you want to visit, go to Seminole Canyon State Park or visit the White Shaman Preserve on Saturday only. Contact the Rock Art Foundation for that at www.rockart.org. Many of the murals are on private ranches in very rough, inaccessible places. Protection of the murals is another reason visitation is limited. They are irreplaceable cultural treasures and are very fragile.
Q: Your story is based on the first shaman of North America and your protagonist is urged to be a shaman too. What was the importance of this shaman, and shamans as a whole? How did you present shamanism in your novel?
A: Shamans are like a medicine man or even like a priest. They are the intercessors with the gods on behalf of the people. Shamanistic cultures have been found all over the world and are indicative of early forms of religion. The shaman helps explain the world, helps ward off evil and bring prosperity to the people. Often a shaman goes into a trance or seeks a vision as part of the ceremony. In Peyote Fire, the people use three native plants to produce these visions. The plants are even depicted in the rock art. So one of my challenges was to figure out how the people might have used the plants and how that might have changed over time. In my book, peyote wins out, as you might guess. Peyote is a little hallucinogenic cactus that has a limited natural growth area in the region of the painted canyons. For sure the ancient people would have known about it and used it.
Q: Besides historical time and place, what themes did you choose to address or utilize in your book?
A: Unexpectedly, one of the themes is feminism. I didn’t start out to do this; it emerged as I was writing. The people honor four gods: Father Sun, Mother Rain, Grandmother Growth and Grandfather Fire. Well, if you honor Grandmother Growth, or the life force itself, then it seems to me you’d have to honor women. The reproductive cycle is very important to the people in my book, and that results in matrilineal families and great respect for women. I notice you did a series on Celebrating Women. The female shaman in my book is one who protects the protagonist from the evil shaman and o-then shows him how to find peyote. She is very powerful and able to meet every challenge.
Erin Comments: Native Americans did have great respect for their women. Something else I admire. I am glad that you featured that in your book.
Q: Are you working on a sequel to Peyote Fire? How about other writing?
A: The next book is called Peyote Rain and is set five years after Peyote Fire. It concerns a huge flood in the canyons which wipes out many home sites. And yes, floods like that really have happened.
Erin Comments: I believe it! The elements have been so damaging over thousands of years of history, wiping out entire races or species even. Look at the floods we’ve just had in the United States over the last 10-2o years even!
Q: What other adventures do you hope pursue in order to find information for your books?
A: I’d love to visit the Huichol people of Mexico. They are a small ethnic group that has managed to keep much of their traditional culture intact. Some experts think they may be related to the people of the ancient Texas canyonlands because of some of their symbolism, which may correspond to that of the rock art.
Q: What have you found you like most about writing now that you’ve been through the process of one?
A: I do like figuring out the puzzle even though sometimes it is very frustrating. My process for the second book is flowing much easier, at least so far.
Q: What is a favorite piece of art or artifact that you’ve seen or come across in your research?
A: Well, I’d love to know more about the rock art. That could be a life-long study in itself.
Q: What other interests do you have when you aren’t writing?
A: I swim and do yoga. Care for family. It’s a full-time job. I had to retire from working for money in order to have enough time to write. I love it!
Q: Who are some authors that you like to read now or enjoyed in the past?
A: Folks should read Kathleen and Michael Gear for the prehistory of North America. They have at least 20 novels about various Native American groups. The Gears are archaeologists themselves and the books are very well researched.
Erin comments: Oh yes, they’ve written actually like 50 books! They are amazing people, writers, and very nice too. I hope you enjoy their books as much as I do.
Q: Where can readers and writers connect with you?
A: You can find me at www.marysblack.com, and on Facebook and GoodReads. Also, please join the group “Prehistoric Fiction Writers and Readers Campfire” on both those sites to interact with various folks.
Erin: Thank you, Mary, for discussing your work and writing with us here today! Native American/ First Peoples culture is a real interest to me and I enjoyed learning about the Pecos region. Best of luck to you with your writing (and researching)!
Mary: Thanks so much, Erin. I was great talking to you! And oh, these muffins are delicious.
Publication Date: October 25, 2014
Formats: Ebook, Trade Paperback
Genre: Historical Fiction
Deer Cloud is painting the stories of the gods when tragedy changes his life. He is called to walk the shaman path and bring the buffalo through his visionary power. The evil Stone Face will do anything to thwart Deer Cloud’s growing strength. Jumping Rabbit, a lusty female shaman, decides to mentor him and ends up taking him to bed. She introduces him to a powerful spirit plant to counter the effects of the dangerous wolf flower. When buffalo are spotted, Stone Face challenges Deer Cloud to call the beasts with his new power. With Jumping Rabbit’s help, Deer Cloud changes Rain Bringer society forever.
This book brings to life people who lived over 4,000 years ago in the southwest Texas canyonlands known as the Lower Pecos, near the confluence of the Devils and Pecos rivers with the Rio Grande. These ancient people painted over 300 currently known rock art murals, some of which can be viewed today. Archaeologists have also found evidence of a huge bison jump in a small canyon in that region that points to a catastrophic event in the lives of these people so long ago. This book is based on extensive research and is the first novel to examine these events.
Author Mary S. Black, Biography~
She has an Ed.D. from Harvard University in Human Development and Psychology and lives in Austin with her husband, an archaeologist, and two cats.
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