author of The Night Birds
The Night Birds, set in 1860 Minnesota after a storm of locust have decimated the land, may not appear at first to have much to explore in it’s setting. However, Thomas Maltman’s debut novel is rich enough in plot to make up for the scarcity of life on the ground. The central character is Asa Senger, living in the Midwest with his family, immigrants from Germany. The Senger family has plenty to deal with when Asa’s father’s sister, Hazel reappears after a stint in an asylum. With Hazel’s appearance come secrets.
Maltman's work is skillful enough that it handles the delicate nature of a family in crisis in a land far from their own home and bold enough that it readily tackles the travesty that was the Dakota Conflict with all of its blood and betrayal.
Kelly Hewitt: I read that you first discovered the Dakota Conflict, a violent battle between the United States and the Santee Sioux, also known as the Dakota people, from a children's book when you were teaching seventh grade. What was the name of the children's book?
Thomas Maltman: The name of that book is Welcome to Kristen's World, 1854: Growing Up in Pioneer America. It's part of a splendid historical series published by American Girls. Each one uses concise storytelling and vivid graphics to capture dramatic moments in time in American history .
Allow me to add here that potential readers shouldn't be frightened away by the term "historical." Historical fiction must be rooted in a particular time in order to succeed, but it must also be timeless. In the end, what I hope I've written is a good story that will transport a reader to another time and place while also resonating on an emotional and personal level.
Kelly: I guess I find it hard to believe that a book for children could handle the largest mass execution in the history of the United States that took place in Mankato, Minnesota when 38 Dakota men were hanged. How was the subject broached in the book?
Thomas: This book does not shy away from portraying a dark moment in history, including the hangings. I was twenty-nine years old and had never heard of the Dakota Conflict before since it is so often overshadowed by the Civil War. As a storyteller, what I most appreciated was the focus on individual stories as part of a larger conflict. Some children's books have a surprising depth. Spare in quality, they can still trigger the imagination.
Kelly: You have said, and quite beautifully, that writing this book was about using history as the skeleton and your imagination which "provided the blood and skin, the quickening". Which of those two things, the skeleton or the quickening, did you find most difficult or surprising?
Thomas: Stephen King says that stories "fossils" that we discover buried deep in the subconscious. Think archaeology combined with the imagination. Research feeds the imagination and it's so much fun that it can become a distraction. The best research I did took to me to local archives where I found stories that appear nowhere in the history books. There I touched maps with names of towns that no longer exist. I held the handwritten journals of settlers, the pages yellow and brittle as leaves. I touched a living portion of history, which in turn touched me.
There is nothing difficult about research, but it does mean hitting the road. Yet, the account of settlers is often starkly expressed. What always surprised me is how the imagination turned these details into the flesh and bone of narrative. You are making a world unto itself, a world that the reader can get lost in. It's lovely to watch that world take on shadows and textures. What imagination provides is the voice and light and that part was always a surprise. None of it is difficult, except that you have to revise many, many times to find these voices.
Kelly: The Night Birds is your first published book. Was it the first one you wrote or the first to be printed?
Thomas: The Night Birds is the first book I wrote and the first novel I published. I did have a chapbook of poems, Hour of the Red Tide, published about five years ago. The reason I believe I was able to publish my first novel had to do with revision. I went back to graduate school at MSU, Mankato and studied the craft of writing with great teachers like Terry Davis and Roger Sheffer. For each of the three years I was in the writing program I wrote a draft of The Night Birds and the book grew right alongside me. Each draft was very different from the last, but over the years the novel accrued layers and resonance until it grew into something publishers were willing to take a look at.
Kelly: Now that you're a published author will you continue to teach?
Thomas: I think I’ll always be a teacher. Teaching is still what pays the bills for me and I love it almost as much as I love writing. I often find it ironic that I do my best writing during the fall and spring just when I’m most busy in the classroom. Why is that? I believe it’s because teaching triggers my imagination, inspires me try new things in my own narrative. However, a caveat. I could not write when I taught high school or middle school. Those jobs, while fulfilling, took every ounce of creativity I had within me. College teaching has it own share of challenges, but my schedule is light enough that I can get writing done, too.
Kelly: What future projects of yours can readers look forward to?
Thomas: I am currently at work on a contemporary mystery set in the same river valley as The Night Birds. This mystery will also touch on history. I’m reading Dante’s Inferno as part of my research and my ambition is to explore the idea of the afterlife as the ultimate mystery within the world of the novel. We’ll see!
Kelly: I am one of those people that always find their shelves loaded with books, movies, and CDs. What loads down the shelves of Thomas Maltman?
Thomas: I recently read Amy Bloom’s splendid Away. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road remains the best book I’ve read in a long time. Since I’m the midst of teaching my shelves are also loaded down with books I’m using in my classes currently. These include a long way gone, Perseopolis, The Professor and the Madman, and Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom, among others. I plan on showing "Blood Diamond" and "Paradise Now" during the semester in my composition classes. If you want to be both fed and entertained, try any of these movies or books!