An Interview with N. Scott Momaday

Ana Suarez ’16, an intern in the Winter With the Writers program, talks with poet, novelist, and playwright N. Scott Momaday about his Native American background, the oral tradition, and childhood.

N. Scott Momaday signs copies of his novel for members of the Rollins community during his Winter With the Writers presentation on Thursday, February 7. (Photo by Amanda Miley) N. Scott Momaday signs copies of his novel for members of the Rollins community during his Winter With the Writers presentation on Thursday, February 7. (Photo by Amanda Miley) Last week, Rollins launched this season’s Winter With the Writers (WWW) with poet, novelist, and playwright N. Scott Momaday. A Pulitzer Prize winner and National Medal of Arts recipient, Momaday’s works include The Way to Rainy Mountain, In the Presence of the Sun, and House Made of Dawn.

What has influenced you to translate your experiences as a Native American Kiowa to paper? Why write as opposed to focus primarily on your art, which compliments your work?

Every writer writes out of his/her experiences because that’s all they have, and I’m Kiowa. I grew up in Kiowa country, my father was a full-blood Kiowa, and the Kiowa’s have a very rich oral tradition—a storytelling tradition. It came very naturally to me. I started writing and naturally drew from oral tradition. I have maintained that throughout my literary career. I write other things, but I always have a Native American strain in there somewhere.

Why did you choose to write The Way to Rainy Mountain in three voices? (For those of you who do not know, Momaday dedicates two pages for each story. It is then divided into three voices: ancestral, historical commentary, and his own reminiscence.)

The stories in The Way to Rainy Mountain are oral tradition. They are stories that my father told me when I was unable to understand things. I carried them around into my adulthood but took them for granted, as one does. At a certain point in my life, I realized they were very fragile, and they were only one generation from extinction, so I began to hoard them jealously.

When I went through my first teaching post at the college level at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I met a couple of people there who wanted to make a book from scratch. They wanted to print it on a hand press they had in the art department. They wanted to have an original text. They wanted to design the typeface. One of them was an illustrator, and he wanted to illustrate it from his etchings. So we concocted this wonderful idea of making a book. I had the text, which I called “The Journey of Tai-Me,” which are the stories that are in The Way to Rainy Mountain. So, we got a grant from the University of California, and we made a book. We made one hundred copies of it, bound in leather (a wonderful collector’s item). One of my colleagues at Stanford saw it (he had recently become a member of the New Mexico Press Association) and he said, “We have to publish this book. We have to. We have to make it a trade edition.” I said “No! It’s too short,” but he kept after me and kept after me. Finally I said “Alright! If I can think of a way to extend and expand it, I will let you do that.” That’s how I thought of the commentary, adding two to each page. And that’s how it came to be. It’s been my best-selling book.

You not only use the bear throughout your works as an element of the Kiowa's oral tradition, but you also claim it as your own spirit animal. Why do you feel so connected to the creature as opposed to any other?

When I was an infant, I was taken to a sacred place in Kiowa tradition called “The Devil’s Tower.” The Kiowa’s have a story about it, and it involves a boy turning into a bear. When I was brought back from this place, an old man in the Kiowa tribe gave me my Indian name, which is “Rock Tree Boy.” I am a bear because of my name. I have bear powers.

You have dedicated an entire section of In the Presence of the Sun to your “experiences” with Billy the Kid. His death, occurring 53 years prior to your birth, makes your insight into his times and troubles compelling. What experience has happened that has made you so connected to the infamous gunslinger?

I grew up in New Mexico, and every kid who grows up in New Mexico knows about Billy the Kid, so he was my imaginary friend when I was a little boy. We rode the range together when I would play, and I became fascinated with him. I had done a lot of research and reading about him and his life. Beyond that, I cannot say.

What are your favorite books and/or authors?

Oh, there are so many. It’s hard to narrow it down. I will have to say “Moby Dick”. Do you know “Out of Africa?” That’s one of my very favorites. The writing is incomparable.

For poems? Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stephens. Ah, now you’ve put me on the spot!