An Interview with Alan Kessler – Author of “Ghost Dancer”

About Alan Kessler

With Ghost Dancer I am a white male writing about a teenage girl, Native and African Americans, and a same sex, female relationship. Am I also  “… a white liberal interloper, a cultural [gender] carpetbagger…” the criticism leveled at William Styron for writing The Confessions of Nat Turner? (William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond.)

My mother was sadistic, my father beat me. A murderer and sentenced to the electric chair, he died in prison. I know about childhood abuse and marginalized people. Because of my own childhood struggles I could write about Eleanor’s with an empathy that hopefully, transcends gender.

My last novel, The Butcher, was a semi-finalist in the 2018 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Writing Competition and a 2019 Montaigne Medal Finalist in the Eric Hoffer Writing Contest. Also, the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University added a copy to its library collection, finding the story helpful to the Center’s students and faculty doing research.

My first novel, A Satan Carol, was a Kirkus monthly pick. 

When living in Florida, I had a novella selected as a finalist in the Florida Governor’s Screenwriting Contest. (I also, for a short time, practiced law there).

Before COVID, I taught the martial arts to children and adults on the autism spectrum. I am married, have four children, two cats and a dog.

Hi Alan, thank you for joining us today at Reader Views! Tell us a bit about your novel, Ghost Dancer.

In 1958, at the intersection of the supernatural with the racial intolerance of a small Midwestern town, Eleanor Wilson, a lonely, insecure teenager, discovers in the realm of spirits, not only the secret about herself, but how to save our dying world. 

Ghost Dancer is historical fiction interweaving mystical elements in a coming-of-age story. There is also a serious subplot, racial hatred as white citizens try to prevent Native Americans from fishing, as guaranteed by treaty, in an ancestral lake.

It is a story about an intriguing outsider; a protagonist grappling with her identity, who, though once a sorrowful girl, trapped in her parents’ marble mansion, has the courage to search for the meaning of a nightmarish vision and become a young woman who no longer lets others define her. The novel is non-polemic but does have an attitude. The book explores personal issues: loneliness, rejection, body image and societal ones: the toxicity of racism and, on a global level, environmental degradation.

Books have been written about awkward teenagers, the Red Scare, and this country’s policy of using Indian Boarding Schools to assimilate our Native American population. All three of these subjects are interwoven in Ghost Dancer, a novel set in the 1950s with themes relevant to the important issues we face today.

What inspired this particular story?

Two events:

• My sister told me a story. Her hairdresser visited a museum near closing time. When alone in a room displaying Native American artifacts, the woman turned on her recorder. Playing the recording at home, she heard only white noise, until this: “We are not alone.”

• One afternoon, when close to Thanksgiving, I asked the young students in my karate class what happened to the Native Americans in this country. A little boy answered, “They’re all dead.”

How extensive was the research for Ghost Dancer? Can you share some of the research involved in plotting this story?

When wanting to write about a culture not your own, a writer must proceed with caution. I read extensively on various subjects relevant to our Native American population, all the books non-fiction.   

Which area of research did you find most fascinating?

Our government’s policy toward Native Americans fits the United Nation’s definition of genocide. The Indian Wars were intended to destroy, in whole or part, this group of people. Indian Boarding Schools carried on the destruction by separating children from their parents, in many cases forcibly, with the intent to eradicate Native American culture through assimilation. 

How did you balance your research with creativity to come up with your unique story?

What I read inspired ideas for scenes and these scenes led to other ones. Characters in the book developed personalities that indicated not only how they should act but the situation/scene they should act in, my job to integrate the parts into a cohesive whole. The force of the narrative pulled in many directions and may give the book an eclectic feel, but I think—hope—I kept the story grounded.

Are there certain parts of the story where you took more creative liberties than others?

The Ghost Dance. I researched its mechanics but what the Prophet tells Eleanor she will experience when dancing it is my imagination reforming and expanding with my imagination what I learned.

How did you create your characters?

It all started with Eleanor and her mother. Each character thereafter fit a part of Eleanor’s life that led her on her journey. Once a character is needed, I think about the personality and let the person define herself. When writing dialogue and action, how the character speaks and acts then flows out. All this sounds methodical and planned, perhaps even inspired. It’s not. Actually, I’m not sure how I really do it.

Who was your favorite character to develop (and why)?

Eleanor Wilson. I care about her. Although fictional she is authentic and I am grateful I could give her a voice.

How long did it take you to write Ghost Dancer? 3 years

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your book?

I’ll be very candid because I want to answer honestly. Abnai in the book became pregnant in college and unable to find a doctor who would perform an abortion had the procedure done by someone with no medical training. As a result, she became infected, suffered in a hospital’s septic ward (remember this was the 1950s) and could no longer have children. When I started this scene, I had no idea where it was headed or anticipated it would affect my own beliefs.

I was, and am, pro-life, but for me that doesn’t mean making abortion illegal. I would never want a woman to suffer as Abnai did.

What is one thing you wish you knew when you started out?

I had time to finish the novel.

Read the Reader Views Review of Ghost Dancer

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