Thursday, April 9, 2009

Birth of a novel

Because of a hawk and a white oak and my need to get away from big cities, in 1986 I purchased a farm in rolling horse country in the upper Hudson Valley of New York. I had no idea how completely this move would change my life. But there were clues from the very beginning, in the irruption of the dream-logic of a deeper reality into my ordinary world. The first weekend my wife and I saw the farm - much of it still primal woodlands where the deer drifted in great droves - I knew in my gut this was a place I needed to be. I sat under an old white oak behind the derelict farmhouse, feeling the rightness of the place but also that I needed a further sign if we were to make the move to a new landscape far removed from the people we knew and the fast-track life I had been leading as a bestselling thriller-writer.

A red-tailed hawk circled overhead, a female (to judge by the size), her belly-feathers glinting silver-bright in the sunlight. She proceeded to drop a wing feather between my legs. Sometimes you can't escape the sense that something from a deeper world is poking through the veil of consensual reality, like the finger of an unseen hand. Or a wingtip.

An early snowstorm in October the following year, soon after we had finished the renovations and moved into the farm, isolated us from the modern world behind downed maple limbs and huge snowdrifts. With power gone for three days, well water was no longer available and we heated snow in buckets over the fire in the great hearth of the family room in order to flush the toilets. We read stories by candlelight, and made them up, and joked about living like the first settlers on that land, the Dutch pioneers who had used my study as their "borning room" and whose pre-Revolutionary bodies were buried in a simple graveyard on the hill on the northern side of the house.

I had impressions of presences from earlier times as I walked that land. When I sat with the white oak, I felt I could see the passage of those who had come before, indigenous and immigrant, across seasons and centuries. I saw a strapping native warrior with a great tattoo like a sunburst on his chest. In my dreams, I observed and then sometimes seemed to become a powerful man who sometimes wore the red coat of an English general of an earlier time, but at other times appeared in a great feathered head-dress, like a native chief.

I decided to take an interest in local history and played with the idea of writing an historical novel set in my new neighborhood. I frequented used bookstores, and in one of them - the old Bryn Mawr bookshop in Albany - that benign shelf elf that Arthur Koestler called the Library Angel came into play. In the local history section, my hand fell on a thick blue-bound volume, one of a collection titled Sir William Johnson Papers. Sir William Johnson? Never heard of him. I opened the book at random and found myself reading a letter from this Johnson, involving Indian affairs. His prose flowed in rolling cadences. I heard the voice behind the text, and felt sure that I knew that voice.

Intrigued, I took the book home. I was soon deeply immersed in researching the life and times of an extraordinary Anglo-Irishman who came from County Meath to the American colonies in the 1730s in hopes of making his fortune on the New York frontier. Leaders of the Mohawk people, who were no slouches at diplomacy and war, recognized in Johnson a plausible, capable young man with a magnetic personality and set out to recruit him as their agent and interpreter to the British and the colonial whites after he started farming in the Mohawk Valley. Though Johnson rose to fame as King's Superintendent of Indians and one of the architects of the English victory over France in the French and Indian War - whose outcome ushered in the American Revolution - he started out more Mohawk (and of course more Irish) than English.

It was understandable that I had never heard of him. I grew up in Australia, and American history was almost completed ignored in my school education. I now discovered that Johnson is virtually unknown in the United States today, perhaps because the world he shared with the Mohawks is quite foreign to the post-Revolutionary experience. This story has nothing to do with the triumphalist "Whig" view of Anerican history, in which events are portrayed as moving in a steady forward progression through the Revolution to the creation and expansion of democratic institutions, or with the old chauvinist "manifest destiny" theory according to which European settlers were "meant" to claim the continent from sea to shining sea.

I acquired all fourteen volumes of the Sir William Johnson Papers, and later the 73 volumes of the Jesuit Relations, the extraordinary compilation of reports from the blackrobe missionaries of New France on the woodland Indians they were assigned to convert. I flew to Ireland to walk the scenes of Johnson’s childhood. He was born four miles from the holy hill of Tara, and raised in a stone house in Smithtown, County Meath. The mound of Newgange, containing a temple-tomb older than the pyramids of Egypt, is just up the road and was discovered by a farmer digging stones for a wall when Johnson was a boy. When I explored the site, the image of a double spiral incised on one of the guardian stones struck me forcibly.
Back at the farm in New York, the double spiral floated before me in the middle of the night in the drifty state between waking and sleep that the French call dorveille. I found myself lifting off the bed, leaving my dozing body behind. Soon I was flying under the night sky, seemingly on the wings of a red-tailed hawk. I felt the exhilaration of flight, the joy of catching a thermal, the discomfort when I brushed the dried-up needles of an old spruce somewhere near Lake George. I searched below me for traces of the battlefield where Johnson, at the head of an amateur militia and a band of Mohawk warriors, defeated a famous career general, Baron Dieskau, and a professional French army in 1755. I realized that modern developments and roads were missing from the landscape below. I was looking down at first-growth forest.

I kept flying north, following a tug of intention that became stronger. It pulled me down into a cabin in the woods somewhere near Montreal. I found myself sitting with an ancient indigenous woman with a face like a wrinkled apple. She spoke to me for a long time in cadenced speech, her words lapping like lake water. As she spoke, she stroked a wampum belt that depicted male and female figures holding hands near a she-wolf. This was not one of those dream visions in which you understand everything at once. The native woman spoke to me in her own language, and all I could retain were a few fragments, including a word that sounded like on-dee-nonk. And the image of the belt with the she-wolf.

Soon after this night visitation, in a serendipitous way, I met an Onondaga scholar who was working for the New York State Archives, which at that time held the wampum archives of the Confederacy of the Six Nations of the Haudenosonee, or Iroquois. When I told him the dream, he unlocked a steel cabinet and produced a wampum belt that depicted a she-wolf and two human figures holding hands. “We believe that these are the ancient wampum credentials of a Mohawk clanmother – the mother of the Wolf Clan. It would be appropriate for a woman of power to display her credentials when she spoke to you.”

Truth comes with goosebumps. My shivers of recognition were telling me that when I sought to reenter Johnson’s world, something of his world came reaching out to me. My encounters with the Wolf Clan woman continued. I sought the guidance of native speakers to help translate her words. One of them told me, “This is Mohawk, but it’s not the way we speak it today. It’s the way Mohawks may have talked three hundred years ago, and there’s some Huron in it.”

My research revealed that the grandmother of Molly Brant, who became Johnson’s Mohawk consort (and whom he called Tsitsa – “Flower” – at home) was taken captive as a child by a Mohawk war party from a Huron village. I decided to develop a character based on her, and my nocturnal visions, in my fictional recreation of Johnson’s world. In my novel The Firekeeper I call her Island Woman. She is a healer and a shaman, one of those truly power-full women who call themselves the “burden straps”, those who carry the burdens of the people. As an atetshents (“one who dreams”) part of her work is to scout across space and time to seek the means of survival for her community.

That strange word that sounded like “on-dee-nonk” is central to her practice. I found its meaning in one of those volumes of the Jesuit Relations, in a report from Father Brebeuf during a harsh winter in Huron country in the 1600s. The ondinnonk, he observed, is the “secret wish of the soul, especially as revealed in dreams”. Among these “savages”, it was believed that it was a prime duty of the community to gather round a dreamer and help him identify and honor the wishes of the soul, as seen in dreams. If this was not done, the soul might become disgusted and withdraw its energy, leaving the dreamer prone to illness and despair.
In my quest for an Irish adventurer, something from the world he inhabited had awakened me to a primal practice of dreaming and healing that was deeper than anything I had learned from mainstream Western culture. Dreaming shows us what the soul wants, and how to bring the vital energy of soul back into the body where it belongs.

While The Firekeeper is full of great men and battles that changed world history, opening the way for the American Revolution, it is also the story of a native people’s struggle for survival, and of how dreaming can bring the soul back home.

A new edition of The Firekeeper will be published by Excelsior Editions, an imprint of SUNY Press, in trade paperback in July 2009.


Grace said...

Looks like a great gift to give and to read. Sometimes even for myself, I must remind myself of the worth and reality of my dreams. Like I believe I have heard you say Robert, this is big, and it is time for the world to know the value of dreams, waking and sleeping. I think this book could open some people up to dreams and your work in a different way. Sounds like a book that would be great to read this summer as I manifest my dream of having plenty of time at a lake or ocean doing just that!

Robin O'Neal said...

Hi Robert~
This must be truth at its best. I have goosebumps.

Naomi said...


I loved reading this book. I'm really happy that it is being reprinted. I'll bet that this book will receive a renewed group of readers because of your most recent books....

I don't know how you could tear yourself away from this land and the old house. But I guess things change.

Definate goosebump time there! Do you still get communications from these people?

Robert Moss said...

Dear Grace and Robin, thanks so much!

Dear Naomi, I moved on from the farm because of a new cycle of dreams and synchronicity, described in "Conscious Dreaming". Yes, I have continued to encounter the personalities I brought to life in "The Firekeeper", especially in dreams, and some of these dreams seem to be calling me to further forays (literary and otherwise ) into their realms. I also live with the very clear consciousness that whatever the fascinations of the past (or future) and whatever we suppose our connection with characters in other eras might be, the time is always NOW - except when it's GO.

Naomi said...

Except when it's GO? Explain.

Robert Moss said...

Naomi - GO as in go, girl! Get on with it! Get moving! Or as real angels (as opposed to the crystal shop sort) so often say - Get up, wake up, MOVE IT!

Naomi said...


Sooo funny. Yes, I get it. I undertand....I was looking for some deeper meaning! Har, har.

I guess it's like the black dogs in my dreams, peeing on the floor to get my attention.

Did I mention that one of the black dogs had blue eyes? When you start looking at all of this it's worth a good laugh! And I will take it to heart.

Robyn said...

I'm happy about the reprinting of The Firekeeper---it's timely and so worthy! I'm also looking forward to the renaissance of The Interpreter and Fire Along the Sky. They are all superb books with wisdom to offer NOW.

Robert Moss said...

Thank you, Robyn! Yes I do believe the other two novels in my Iroquois trilogy will also have their requickening. And though I haven't planned on this in my conscious mind, my dreams have been telling me that the trilogy may want to become a tetralogy. Last New Year's eve - a good time, in many folk traditions, for dreaming the year (or years) ahead) - I was reading to a group from one of my historical novels in a wry and sonorous voice very much like that of Shane Hardacre, the fictional nephew of Sir William Johnson who is the narrator of "Fire Along the Sky". He was describing the fall of the cards in an eighteenth-century game and a "flaxen-haired" woman he regarded as "mistress of the game". When I studied my dream report, I realized that the scene I was reading is not from "Fire Along the Sky" but from another novel that does not yet exist in the regular world.

Karen said...

How wonderful to get a more in-depth and personal description of the exact sequence of events that led you to your next steps teaching deamwork. You have written of these elsewhere, but now we can enjoy sharing your journey as it unfolds and walk this path with you.

This entry really grabbed me! It is a wonderful tale and inspires the rest of us to listen to the messages from the inner worlds with more attention.

Helen Adams said...

A wonderful story - so inspiring.

Donna K said...

Robert -
SO wonderful that this book is having its re-release! It's one of my favorite Robert Books!

Robert Moss said...

Thank you Karen, Helen and Donna! In my dreams last night I was happily engaged in a very lively series of new lectures and presentations in support of "The Firekeeper". I suspect you'll see this reflected in my events schedule, along with all the dream workshops, as we move towards the fall.

The first line of "The Firekeeper" reads: "It was the time of dream-telling." There's a lot of dreaming in the book, and much (thanks to Island Woman) about the shamanic dream practice of the Iroquois. But I must say that what seized me most, as I re-read the novel with some distance (nearly 15 years after I completed it) is how it grabs you and transports you right inside the lives of women and men of different communities in the world from which America was born.

Naomi said...


How are you going to "find" the rest of the story that has not yet been written?

Jeni Hogenson said...

Great news Robert! That and a re-printing of "Three Only Things" is fantastic. I have "THe Firekeeper" but need to order the other two in the trilogy. I'm looking forward to more!

Gil said...

How can we trick Robert into presenting a workshop at Billy Johnson's house on the FireKeeper. I would love to meet Island Woman, Kat and Hendricks. So many great spirits that have important messages to give us. I think we'd discover a lot if the time were right.

Robert Moss said...

Hi Gil - I am sure I'll speak at Johnson Hall again. In the meantime, if you check the events calendar at my website, you'll see I am giving lectures on Johnson and the Iroquois this fall in Albany on Sept 12, and in Johnstown NY (though not a Johnson Hall, since we need a larger space) on Oct 30.

mpettograsso said...

absolutely amazing reading this birth of a novel article for firekeeper......I am preordering this from Suny Press immediately. who knew a seemingless late seating on an airplane would lead to meeting such a great novelist. now all we need to do is get you some ink!