Art Coulson on Native Stories, Working with Illustrators, and Finding Your Writing Community

In Conversation with Art Coulson

RQLA Agent Jacqui Lipton spoke with Art Coulson about his book, The Reluctant Storyteller.

Jacqui Lipton (JL): This book is effectively a re-release of an earlier piece that was targeted to the educational market. What changes were made in this version, and how do you think they differentiate the two?

Art Coulson (AC): The new version is a bit longer — we were able to restore some of the story that had been cut for space in the earlier edition. The book also has all new artwork by Carlin Bear Don’t Walk. And it is stunning: vibrant, colorful — almost electrically charged. I’m a huge fan of Carlin.

Reycraft also added a bonus story I had written for them earlier, “The Energy of the Thunder Beings.” It’s illustrated by Roy Boney Jr., a Cherokee artist I have wanted to work with for a long time. Both stories and their illustrations are quite different in tone and message, but I think they fit well together. 

Finally, Reycraft included a section about life in the modern Cherokee Nation by my friend Traci Sorell. I think it’s a really nice combination for young readers — a fictional story about a modern Cherokee boy, a story in the form of an old Cherokee tale that happened sometime in the distant past, and a nonfiction story about our people and community in Oklahoma.

Art was surprised to find himself advertised at a roadside gift shop in rural Western New York.
Art was surprised to find himself advertised at a roadside gift shop in rural Western New York.

JL: The illustrations in this book are gorgeous! Is there anything you can tell our readers about collaboration with or synergies between the two illustrators, and their work, with your words?

AC: I worked most closely with Carlin on the illustrations for the title story. He was great to work with and made some changes to his initial sketches when I offered feedback. The results are better than I could have imagined.

I also love Roy’s illustrations for the Thunder Beings story, but I didn’t get a chance to collaborate with him on those. They were already finalized before I saw them, but I wouldn’t have changed anything had I had the chance. I have been a longtime fan of Roy’s art (he is a noted fine artist) and even own a couple of his originals. And now I am a huge fan of Carlin’s as well. I’d love to work with either (both) of them again.

There are great, generous, smart native children’s writers out there…eager to help new writers connect and get established in the business.

Art (right) plays in the Fann Cup charity box lacrosse tournament with his team, the Minnesota Stingers.
Art (right) plays in the Fann Cup charity box lacrosse tournament with his team, the Minnesota Stingers. Box lacrosse is played indoors, often on an unfrozen hockey rink.

JL: What are some of the challenges in drawing on aspects of various Native American cultures in contemporary storytelling, particularly stories for younger readers? How do you address those challenges in your approach to writing for this market?

AC: Writing for a broader audience means you sometimes have to explain something in a story that a native reader would just get. I’ve also had to push back on editors of previous books when they attempted to cut or amend story details that arise from the lived experience of native people, but might be largely unknown to non-native readers. I think it’s good for non-native kids to see our world through our eyes for a change.

JL: What do you wish we would see more of in stories featuring Native American protagonists?

AC: I’d love more horror — books like Waubgeshig Rice’s Moon of the Crusted Snow or Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians. I also like all of the great mysteries that are being published now, like books by Marcie Rendon and David Heska Wanbli Weiden.

When you are trying to master a skill, there is no substitute for practice. And more practice.

JL: You’ve worn many hats in your career including as a journalist, but you came to writing for children a little later in life. How did your experiences in those other fields inform your work as a children’s author?

AC: During my journalism career, I wrote something for publication every day (often more than one story or column). When you are trying to master a skill, there is no substitute for practice. And more practice. Working as a daily journalist also got me used to working with editors, meeting deadlines and telling a good story.

Art and fellow native writer Marcie Rendon served as celebrity judges for the National Indian Taco Championship in Pawhuska, OK. Posing with Art are the winning chefs, from the Frybread Factory in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.
One of the highlights of Art’s career was when he and fellow native writer Marcie Rendon served as celebrity judges for the National Indian Taco Championship in Pawhuska, OK. Posing with Art are the winning chefs, from the Frybread Factory in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

JL: What are you working on now? What can readers expect to see next from you?

AC: I am working on several books that will be published in the next two years: a preschool picture book, a nonfiction middle grade graphic novel and my first full-length middle grade novel, Chasing Bigfoot (the return of Chooch Tenkiller and his uncles). I also have several work-for-hire books for the education market in the pipeline.

JL: What advice would you give a new author, particularly a Native American author, interested in entering in the children’s writing market? What piece of writing advice has been most valuable to you in your own career?

Picture book panelists at the 2019 Kweli Color of Children’s Literature conference in New York. From left are moderator Celia Lee, Vanessa Brantley Newton, Minh Le and Art.
Art poses for a group shot after a picture book panel at the 2019 Kweli Color of Children’s Literature conference in New York. From left are moderator Celia Lee, Vanessa Brantley Newton, Minh Le and Art.

AC: What’s really helped me as a children’s writer was finding my community. There are great, generous, smart native children’s writers out there, creating great books. They are eager to help new writers connect and get established in the business. When we can all gather in person, you’ll find most of us at the Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Conference in New York in the spring. That conference and the community of writers I found there has been the single biggest boost to my career.

As for the writing advice that’s been most valuable to me, it would have to be the dictum, often attributed to William 

Faulkner, to write what you know. That’s what makes #ownvoices stories so vital: writing from our authentic, lived experiences.

The Reluctant Storyteller is out now!

Chooch is reluctant about many things. He is reluctant to be a storyteller like the rest of his Cherokee family, and he is reluctant to spend spring break in the small town of Greasy, Oklahoma, with Uncle Dynamite. But Chooch will find out there’s more than one way to tell a story.

Art Coulson is Cherokee from Oklahoma and comes from a family of storytellers. Some of his earliest memories are of listening to stories and reading books on his grandmother’s lap. He has been a writer his whole life and published his first two books when he was in elementary school (he was a self-publishing early adopter). Art served as the first executive director of the Wilma Mankiller Foundation in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma after an award-winning 25-year career in journalism. Art is the author of The Creator’s Game, Unstoppable: How Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team Beat Army and The Reluctant Storyteller. His short stories will appear in upcoming anthologies from Benchmark and Heartdrum, an imprint of HarperCollins.

Before writing children’s books, Art was a writer at magazines and newspapers all over the United States. Art lives in Minneapolis with his family, but still plays traditional Cherokee stickball, an original version of lacrosse, when he is visiting friends and relatives in the Cherokee Nation several times a year.

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