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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Roskelley discusses his first fiction book, ‘Fancy Dancer and the Seven Drums’, at Northwest Passages

An author has to be respectful and unafraid to do research if they’re going to competently write about a culture they don’t belong to, author John Roskelley said to a crowd of about 100 at a Northwest Passages event on Tuesday night at the downtown Spokane Library.

Spokesman-Review columnist Shawn Vestal spoke with Roskelley at the event about the author’s newest book, “Fancy Dancer and the Seven Drums,” his first work of fiction.

“When I started looking at publishers and agents, that’s the first question that came out of their mouths: ‘You’re not exactly Indigenous. What makes you think you can write a book about Indigenous people and their culture?’ ” said Roskelley, a mountaineer, outdoorsman and former Spokane County commissioner. “Of course, I was at a loss for words at first.”

It’s an issue the author said he takes seriously.

“As an author, we can’t be put-off by putting (ourselves) in the positions of others,” he said. “I did everything I could in research to make sure I was trying to sit in their place.”

“Fancy Dancer and the Seven Drums” follows the story of a 9-year-old Nez Perce girl living on the Colville Reservation who is struck and killed by a drunken driver while walking home from school in the 1950s. The scene of the crime appears to be tampered. Evidence points to a white rancher from Omak.

“There is pushback for people like myself writing about different cultures, and there is some legitimacy about that,” Roskelley said. “As an author, you have to put yourself in these peoples’ places and do the best you can to respect their culture.”

Part historical fiction and part mystery, the book is an homage to Roskelley’s longstanding love for central Washington and the Native tribes that call it their home. The idea for the story came to Roskelley in the 2000s, but the seed was planted when the author hitched a ride with a group of young Native men to the Omak Stampede, a rodeo and powwow, in the ’60s.

Roskelley, 74, began his career as a mountaineer more than 50 years ago, with ascents of 23,000-foot peaks in Asia and many other places through the ’70s and ’80s. In 2014, Roskelley finished his guide book, “Paddling the Columbia.” His other writings include “Nanda Devi: The Tragic Expedition,” a first-person tale about his journey up a 26,645-foot peak in India, published in 2000.

Fiction proved a more challenging task as a writer, Roskelley said. When he began writing, he knew how the story would start and how it would end, but everything in the middle was “a work in progress.”

“It’s scary to do a novel,” he said. “You suddenly have to come up with ideas. You have to branch off, you have to go places you don’t want to. It was a real eye-opener for me where it went at times.”

“Fancy Dancer and the Seven Drums” is available at Auntie’s Bookstore and online.