ABOUT THE STORY
Redrock wilderness. Isolation. Faith. Politics. Desperation.
Nearing the end of his final term, President Barack Obama established a new national monument in a remote section of the Colorado Plateau known for centuries to five tribes of Native American peoples as ‘the Bears Ears.’ Considered one of the most archeologically rich and culturally significant landscapes in the world, many felt it was long overdue for federal protection. Less than one year later, incoming President Donald Trump gutted the Monument in both size and management priority, creating what many have called ground-zero in a veritable war zone over environmental values, and perhaps the single greatest affront to public land policy in modern American history.
Against this backdrop unfolds a contemporary drama of conflict both internal and external. What begins as a story about one man’s search for his young son lost in the labyrinthine redrock canyon country of southern Utah gradually evolves into an intimate study of pride and prejudice, pitting its central characters against time, the elements, and themselves in a moving tale that explores themes of heritage, community, alienation, personal faith, and personal worth. Ultimately, it is a story about honor, devotion, and change.
After young Truman Eisenberg is left an orphan in post-World War II Germany, he emigrates alone to America, where he eventually falls in love with Debora Lauer, the Austrian-American daughter of his “sponsors.” Truman and Debora soon convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and move to join the community of “the Saints” in the West; specifically, the redrock desert town of Blanding, Utah.
For more than 30 years they rejoice in the landscape but feel socially marginalized amidst the provincial paradigms of that small, rural community. But their greatest wound is the inability to have a child… until the day Truman discovers a two-month-old infant swaddled ceremoniously and left to die in the high branches of a tree.
After great effort and a long wait, Truman and Debora are allowed to adopt that orphaned child, a Navajo boy they name Henry; a boy they love very much. But Henry lives mostly inside his own head, all too aware of his unfortunate beginnings, awash in the fear that he is of no present worth to anyone, but determined to find out if that is true or to die trying.
Shortly after his 13th birthday he leaves Truman and Debora a note and departs on foot for a Vision Quest somewhere deep in the slot canyons east of the sacred Bears Ears buttes, the sacred Ná honidzo of his blood ancestors whom he never knew.
At 69 years of age, on a horse one-third that age, Truman goes after him.
This is the story of that rescue.
WHERE IT CAME FROM
Louis L’Amour noted in High Lonesome (1962) that “No man is free of the image his literature imposes upon him.” Louis L’Amour is certainly one of those authors whose books and stories have informed my life, but probably one of the most influential books of my life is Jack Schaefer’s slim novel The Canyon (1953) and it plays a significant role in this novel. I first met The Canyon when I was around ten years old—just like Henry in Takes His Music with Him—and I reread it many times over the next few years. Just like Henry.
I have Native American roots, if one goes back far enough (1840s, Finger Lakes region of New York, two Seneca great-great grandmothers), but I also grew up surrounded by Colorado wilderness and both a genetic and an intentionally inculcated regard for the sacred stature of natural places. My particular history is related in much more detail in On the Road to Heaven, but along the way I also got “imposed upon” morally, psychologically, and literarily by such as Thoreau, Black Elk, Edward Abbey, John Muir, John Steinbeck, Jack London, Wallace Stegner, Aldo Leopold, and Tony Hillerman. Takes His Music is just the latest scrivenorial manifestation of that immersion, although it will likely be deemed the most “political.” So far.
Blame that on Donald Trump; I do.
But first, some background. This particular story first emerged in my consciousness sometime around 2003: something about an adopted Navajo boy pursuing a desperate search for personal worth in the redrock wilderness of southern Utah, and his adoptive father going after him to ensure his safety. For two years, that was about it. But the story and its possibilities (at that point called ‘One Man Anthem’) stayed with me, and I began to add the occasional note to its MS Word file on my computer.
Over the New Years’ holiday in 2004-2005 I produced a short film called Man of Cold Reason, inspired by a Jack London short story (To Build a Fire) and filmed in the snow-blanketed high country of northern Utah. Watching my lead actor, Bob Hardy, perform his role gave me a strong notion for a lead character for the then-emerging book in at least two ways beyond the visual mimetics: Bob taught German for 32 years in the Salt Lake public school system, and he plays the German konzertina, an unusual musical instrument that emerges as an important artifact in this story.
There, again, the story dropped into deep background for another dozen years.
Meanwhile, outside of my head, late in his final term President Barack Obama established Bears Ears National Monument in a remote section of the Colorado Plateau my family had visited and loved for decades; one of the most archeologically rich and culturally significant landscapes in the world. Less than one year later, with the support of almost every member of the Utah political cabal, incoming president Donald Trump and his now-defunct Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke gutted the Monument in both size and management priority. I suddenly knew I had my setting and my larger circumstance, and the writing of this book began in earnest, particularly when the characters started talking to me at night. Seriously.
I’ve woken up regularly at 3 a.m. for most of my adult life, time in which—for a couple of hours—I create much of what I’ve ever created, including both books and music, (see, for instance Powerless and The Ends of Earth). It’s a good chunk of time in which to trust (or allow) pre-diurnal processes and entertain curious notions. But the particulars of this book—its plot, the nuances of subplot, the characters, their backstories, and their motivations—began to flow freely. Thus, this is a fictional portrayal featuring fictional characters set within a context that is very real.
But just so you know: Truman and Debora and the Michaels and Henry and Bill-i-gerent Bill really said and thought everything you read them saying and thinking. I just took notes by candlelight.
Thanks for reading!
Q & A
Following are the questions I am asked most often about
Takes His Music with Him, so I here attempt to reproduce such conversations.
Q. When did you begin writing Takes His Music with Him?
A. The raw idea for the story first emerged in about 2005 (see "Where It Came From," above), but it just languished as an idea... not even a short story... until the Spring of 2017. I then wrote it completely over the next 16 months or so.
Q. Sixteen months; meaning... how many hours of actual writing, more or less?
A. Well, writing incorporates a lot of pondering, taking notes in the middle of the night, et cetera. But actual, bum-in-the-chair writing I figure about 1700 hours. That's almost every weekday evening for a couple of hours (or early morning, or usually both) and three to five hours on Saturday mornings.
Q. Do you write for a particular audience?
A. Not at all; in fact, I don't envision or contemplate audience at all. I write with a story in mind, period. That may be why I sell so few books ;-)! Let me compare the process to writing a song (which I also do) with an audience in mind. Few songwriters compose a song thinking about the audience, short of the guys who write musicals or theater, I suppose. And then it's written as back-up. But as a pure songwriter-musician you focus on the sound of the thing--lyrics and music: how they blend, how they correlate with and complement each other. And somebody either likes that song or they skip to the next, but you're not going to rewrite it so it sounds like what they have in mind.
Q. When do you write?
A. As mentioned above, I frequently begin writing at three or four in the morning, give it a couple hours, then go back to bed for an hour or so before heading off to my "real" job--the one that includes a paycheck. During this same period of time (2017) I also wrote and recorded about 20 original songs (you can hear me on Spotify, iTunes, et cetera), so it was a busy year!
Q. How accurate is the geography of the book?
A. Pretty darn. With very few exceptions made for the sake of the story's chronology, I used both the boots-on-the-ground method and highly detailed maps (okay, I don't wear boots in fragile wilderness; I wear Teva sandals). I have walked some of the Hole-in-the-Rock trail, climbed into the Bears Ears, camped below them, and shopped, eaten, and slept many nights in the region. To the best of my ability, the geology, flora, and fauna are all contextually accurate.
Q. Your other books have been published by traditional trade publishers, including one of the biggest New York houses; why is this one self-published?
A. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that a few fragments of the story underlying Takes His Music were in my head for well over a decade. But I just wasn’t sure what the larger story looked like until the Trump administration started dismantling the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase national monuments in late 2016. I suddenly had the larger context I’d been seeking for, and the book started to come alive for me.
But that also put some dates on the calendar—I wanted to get the book out while the many lawsuits challenging that move were still active, and the involved players still in place. The typical process of publishing a book takes a trade publisher at least a year after the book is written, which process itself took me a year and a half to complete. I didn’t want to wait another year (or more) once the book was written, so I decided to bring it out directly through Amazon and Ingram, cutting a good year off the traditional process.
Q. Of your seven published books, which has been the most successful?
A. There is no short answer to that. My first to be published--Dying Words, in 1990--was of course a thrill, but it only stayed in print for about two years and sold around 500 copies. The biggest money was Latter Days, which came out back in 2000 and sold around 40,000 copies before going out of print about six years later; the longest-lived has been Cow Chips Aren't for Dipping, which was written in three weeks and has now been in print for more than 23 years (May, 1996) and is now in its second edition (in 2010); the biggest awards came with my autobiographical novel On the Road to Heaven, which won "Novel of the Year" awards from both the Association for Mormon Letters (AML) and the Whitney Academy in 2007. The most satisfying, personally, has been Takes His Music with Him, due to a number of things, including, in my view, the quality of the writing, the geographic setting, and the fact that it is pure fiction, straight out of my head. I'm hoping the next one will be even better.
Q. Speaking of which, what is next?
A. I’m well into my next novel, called Blue Moon Silver Highway. It’s a boy-meets-girl love story set in the Colorado Rockies. And it features a dog instead of an old horse. Should be out in the summer of 2020.
Q. Any regrets regarding Takes His Music?
A. Yeah; unfortunately, there is no Dairy Queen in Moab.
Q. OK, finally: the book, or at least the characters in the book, express some pretty strong political leanings; how did you personally vote in the last presidential election?
A. Using a ballot.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Coke Newell is a fourth-generation “Westerner”—eight, if one counts anything west of Iowa—raised in the high mountains of south-central Colorado, grateful to have been immersed since childhood in the environmental ethic of John Muir, Black Elk, Aldo Leopold, and Wendell Berry. He became a committed environmentalist at 10 years of age (walking remote western highways wearing a backpack he filled with trash and crushed beer cans while his dad fly-fished for trout), a vegetarian at 14 (really missing that trout), and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at 18.
He received formal training in the natural sciences through 4-H as a youth, then in college studies at Ricks College (forestry) and BYU (geology) and then, unable to pick just one, ultimately completed a Bachelor’s degree in technical journalism (Phi Beta Kappa, Scripps Howard National Scholar) at Colorado State University and then a Master’s in strategic communications and the cultural interpretations of environmental thought at Montana State University.
His fiction and non-fiction have been published in more than 1000 U.S., Canadian, and Mexican periodicals. He has also worked in film and television, corporate media relations, and academia in both the U.S. and Mexico (he is fluent in Spanish). His original songs (guitar-centered rock, country rock and “coffeehouse” folk) can be heard on multiple streaming services. Takes His Music with Him is his seventh published book.
“Takes His Music with Him is continuing evidence that Coke Newell is one of the LDS tradition’s most gifted writers. The dramatic landscapes against which he paints this story lend his trademark authenticity to a highly compelling read.”
Neal A. Maxwell Senior Fellow, Maxwell Institute (BYU)
Author of A God Who Weeps, By the Hand of Mormon, and People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture
“A superb new novel.
In a narrative that sets contemporary political controversies into play against a backdrop of abiding spiritual concerns, Newell challenges readers to think—and feel—deeply. A powerful story.”
Visiting Fulbright Professor of English, National Taiwan University
Author of Divided We Fall and The Portals of Sheol.
From Amazon Reader Review:
"This is a riveting and beautifully crafted story exploring themes of heritage, belonging, and belief. You won’t be able to put this book down! Part thrilling rescue and part deep exploration of what it means to believe and belong, this is one to read and recommend!
For media inquiries and media review copies,
please contact Jon Kovach, Jr.
Tel: 970-231-9860 |