The Dog & the Backstory

I don’t remember when I first met the Cooper family, central characters of the novel I just sent to my New York agent, but I remember how: their dog introduced me. The germinating moment for my ten-year novel project occurred when my corgi Glory died in 2010. I missed her constant watchfulness over me and others.

Glory & me: Oct. 2008

Glory was a public dog, often present in the circle trainings, writing classes, and wilderness work we were doing at the time. After she passed away, people wrote condolence notes that began, “You probably didn’t notice this but… Glory came round the circle… Glory slid against my leg… Glory seemed to know I was feeling vulnerable.” Yes, I noticed: she did the same for me, and I had watched her tend the social field in remarkable and intuitive ways.

Her departure raised questions about the nature of witness in our lives. Even if trauma, pain, and grief cannot be stopped, does something/someone come alongside to help us bear it? Is it up to us to notice? Is it possible, with their presence and attention, that “dog is God spelled backwards?”

As part of my grief, I began writing from a dog’s point of view… It was to be the story of a woman whose life is witnessed through all the different dogs who companion her. This woman was born in the 1940s, into a family named Cooper, who had a dog named Preacher Boy.

I took the first 50 pages to a weeklong seminar called “Writing the Breakout Novel,” led by Donald Maas and Lorin Oberweger. Their critique said, “Intriguing idea, but I don’t think the dog can carry the story. Don’t lose the dog but let loose the story.” I began several years of questioning. What is essential? What wants to be said? What am I dedicating myself to? Pages and pages of journal notes, scraps of dialogue, scene, post-it notes on my office wall, and very little creative time.

Amazing Gracie, who was here for the most of it.

Ann Linnea and I were depositing our life work of The Circle Way into a next generation of practitioners and teachers. We traveled. We worked with an emergent board and new identity that took shape and handed off decades of work and resources. I continued teaching memoir and autobiography seminars, and we still offered a wilderness fast, the Cascadia Quest, until 2021. Occasionally the novel surfaced in my priorities. I made character lists, studied novel development, plot design, the eight beats of a screenplay (which ruined the movies for me for a few years!), the hero’s journey, how to outline your story, create conflict, etc.

2016: I turned seventy. I committed to the book. Tagline on my personal email: Writer in her own residence. Writing a novel is a collaboration between what the writer has in mind and what the characters have in mind. They surprise me, these Coopers; they announce their own backstories and tell me things that change the plot. We make our way together. I write.

The 1940s remains the timeframe: but this is about the homefront during World War II, not the battlefront. My father, born in 1920, lived nearby and we began hours of conversation about the realities of life in the years before I was born. I become more and more intrigued about what was going on with ordinary people, far from the drama of battle, at a time when the requirement for change was unavoidable: then, as now.

I borrow my birthplace and family lineage as a stage set: west-central Montana, the valley where I was born, 3rd generation settler on the lands of the Blackfeet Confederacy.

The novel features the Cooper family: Leo, the patriarch, is a widowed Methodist preacher and beekeeper who wishes people would behave as orderly as bees behave. He and the country doctor are a team that tries to hold the valley together. Leo’s son, Franklin, enlists to prove himself in the eye of history. He sends home his pregnant immigrant wife. Leo’s other son, Jesse, who ran away as an angry teen, comes of age on the Blackfeet reservation. Carrying a secret of his origins, Jesse returns to challenge the white farmers to work together with the Indians for the war effort.

There are Native characters, and I am a white woman. I spent three years seeking a Blackfeet Cultural Advisor. Our relationship is a journey of profound learning that goes way beyond the book (see my blog: “What shall I do with my old white skin?” as one indicator). I hope I have learned enough to educate white readers and honor Indigenous experience.

The Beekeeper’s Question is a love story, a war story, a family story in which ordinary people find their moments of triumph and truth amid chaos and sacrifice. Preacher Boy remains, but he doesn’t tell the story: he’s a good dog, like my dogs, who have sat patiently under the desk all these years and insisted on walks and adventures beyond the page.

And there are bees.

To be continued.

Vivi, who approved all the dog scenes in the final manuscript.

 

13 replies
  1. Bonnie
    Bonnie says:

    I can hardly wait to read this work/joy of yours! Having had the privilege of sitting with you in circle, i remembering marveling at how profoundly you understood the path of story. How gently and deliberately you were able to guide us all forward. Thank you for this tidbit, this shining example, this glimpse into your process. And thank you for loving dogs as you do. We just learned our little one has a heart murmur and all of life feels more precious today. 

    Reply
  2. Jeanie Robinson
    Jeanie Robinson says:

    I am reverberating with every piece of this story, Christina. Trying to write my own memoir (still) about ancestors who lived near the Blackfoot reservation in Montana,
    I will be delighted to read your book. All those years of faithfulness to the writing–now that is what impresses me. And of course, as one who experienced Glory’s TLC, I am grateful for her part in it.

    Reply
  3. Roswitha
    Roswitha says:

    What a message. Congratulations dearest friend, Christina! I Hope you feel well and proud after writing your novel. I am looking forward reading your book. And I am sure, I will feel you in almost every line. Have fun with your new free time 😍

    Reply
  4. Tenneson
    Tenneson says:

    Yes to this deep integrity and creativity that you are Christina. I’m gonna enjoy welcoming this book to my reading chair and to my heart.

    Reply
  5. Laura Collins
    Laura Collins says:

    Congratulations on sending your novel off to your agent! I look forward to becoming acquainted with the Cooper family.
    Lovely photos of Glory, Gracie and Vivi.

    Reply
  6. Gretchen Staebler
    Gretchen Staebler says:

    O yay, O yay, O yay! And you stopped for coffee with me on the way to that Donald Maas plot-twisting seminar. I can’t wait to read the book . . . again. And see what darlings you killed. I am so lucky for the past ten years with you and this gorgeous story. xoxo

    Reply
  7. Mary McLeod
    Mary McLeod says:

    Congratulations on completing your novel. You really peaked my interest and I look forward with great anticipation to reading your story.

    Reply
  8. GG
    GG says:

    Thank you for sharing the backstory. I love your writing and can’t wait to read the book. And thank you for helping educate us toward honoring and respecting indigenous peoples. I’m having a sensitivity read done on by questing book, too. Here’s to your sweet canine companions along the way! xo

    Reply
  9. Connie Fenty
    Connie Fenty says:

    Congratulations C. I know what you’ve gone through! I’m in the process of revising the memoir I’ve been working on for 10 years. It sounds like a very interesting story. As Americans, we need to hear more stories about the courage and sacrifices that were made by those on the home front.

    Reply
  10. Dan Shapiro
    Dan Shapiro says:

    Hooray for scribbled notes on scraps of paper, rows of notebooks, and The Muse!
    I’m eager to read the book.
    P.S. Davey says, “High!”

    Reply
  11. Sharon Faulds
    Sharon Faulds says:

    I too can hardly wait for the reveal of this novel. I remember your first shared you were going to write a novel as transitioned the CircleWay work. I know it may be a bit of time of yet before we read it as you navigate the processes for it to arrive. I wait in anticipation and thank you for the memories of Glory.
    Much love Sharn

    Reply

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