Q&A with Amanda Skenandore, author of Between Earth and Sky
- How did you come to writing? I loved writing, even as a young girl. I’ve always lived quite a bit in my head. A habitual daydreamer, I guess you could call me. In college, after flirting with several majors, I chose something sensible—nursing. And I hated it. I dreaded going to work. Just before my 30th birthday I took a short story class that rekindled my love of writing. That fire, that dream persisted. Life is too short, I told myself, not to chase your passion. Luckily, my husband supports such bight-eyed insanity. I quit my job and wrote my first novel, not knowing anything about agents or publishers. But I learned. I got a part time nursing job (in a field I much prefer) to pay the bills and wrote another novel. This time my endeavors with editing and querying stuck. I count myself among the luckiest in the world—for all the support and encouragement I received during this process—and for getting to do what I love each day: create.
- What drew you to this story idea? My favorite story as a child was Naya Nuki by Kenneth Thomasma about a young Shoshoni girl. I must have read it five times—and for someone who struggled with reading, that’s a lot. That was the start of an enduring love of Native American history and culture. The idea for this particular story took shape in the Lac du Flambeau Casino in Wisconsin. In the back, away from the cigarette smoke and chiming machines, hung several black-and-white pictures of Native American children in military garb. Boarding school students, my mother-in-law told me. Even growing up in the West, I’d never heard of these schools and the children taken from their reservations to attend them. The more I researched, the more engrossed in these children’s stories I became. Some went on to achieve success, by the white man’s standard. Some returned to their homes on the reservation and became leaders of their people. Some never fit in either world. But all had been robbed of part of their cultural selves. In writing Between Earth and Sky I wanted to share a part of these stories that seemed absent from the history books.
- Who is your favorite character in the story? It’s hard not to love Askuweteau—for his bravery and conviction. Yet he’s vulnerable too—a little boy so far from home and all that’s familiar—and he’s imperfect, the way we all ultimately are.
- What kind of research did you do for this book? I spent a lot time in the library reading histories, memoirs, and language studies. I visited museums and historic sites, spoke with language experts, and watched documentaries. To get a flavor for the vernacular of the time, I read novels and magazines published around the turn of the century like Godey’s Lady’s Book and Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth. I even spent a day in downtown St. Paul retracing Alma’s steps, imagining what it must have been like with gas lanterns and carriages instead of florescent streetlights and automobiles.
- What do you hope readers will take away from your book? I hope they learn something of the complexity of the times. Many of the people who established Indian boarding schools did so with honest, benevolent intensions. And yet the harm they caused is inescapable. I hope my book provides a glimmer of this conflict, and raises questions for the reader about self-agency and cultural identity. I don’t have the answers, and I don’t think the book has the answers either but I hope it sparks a moment of contemplation in the reader’s mind.
- What are you working on next? My next novel is about a former slave turned embalmer’s assistant who comes to New Orleans in the waning years of Reconstruction in search of clues about her past.
- Who’s your favorite author and why? My favorite author is Zora Neale Hurston. I love that she writes about strong women—not women necessarily born strong, but women who come to their strength through life’s adversities. Her prose are so rich and poignant. When I first read Hurston at 17, I thought I could never love a story as much as Seraph on the Suwanee. There Eyes Were Watching God proved me wrong.
- What do you do when you’re not writing? I work part time as an infection prevention nurse at a local hospital. I no longer work directly with patients, but still feel like I’m making a difference. I bike, garden, and swim in the backyard pool when the Vegas heat would otherwise chase me indoors. I love to travel and eat delicious food, preferably in the company of my wonderful husband.
- If you could live in any historical time period when would that be? Since I work in infectious disease, it’s hard for me to pick any time before the invent of germ theory and penicillin—but let’s assume contracting dysentery or the plague isn’t an issue. I would love to experience the Renaissance in Italy, La Belle Époque in France, or the early post-Revolution years in America. I’m drawn to periods of both stability and innovation. How magical would it be to see Michelangelo chip away at the David statue? Or witness a light bulb flicker on for the first time? Or listen to the Founding Fathers debate the best form of government?