Paul VanDevelder
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About Paul

I love to hear writers and musicians and painters and actors tell the stories of how they Paul VanDevelderdiscovered their passion for expression. Mine came one evening when I was seventeen years old, when I read the words "...And I walked back to the hotel in the rain."

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This is the final line in Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. I was stunned. I knew at that moment, that I wanted to be a writer. Or rather, I wanted to be Ernest Hemingway. I had no idea what that might entail, but I certainly had no intention of being Paul VanDevelder.

Nothing could have been farther from my mind that night than spending my life as Paul VanDevelder. I wasted no time becoming Ernest Hemingway. I took out a sheet of paper and started writing. That very evening. It only took writing every day, for the next five years, to learn that I had nothing to say. On the other hand, I learned to say nothing very well. I spent hours each day learning what James Joyce called "the sound of shape and the shape of sound," what Hemingway himself called "the plumbing" of written language. But I must have had something to say, a smidgen of experience worthy of my artistic aspiration. At the ripe old age of 25, I won a prestigious award from the National Endowment of the Arts for a story entitled "Crysallis." Agents wrote me and made dizzying offers for representation, promising lucrative contracts. The phone rang with congratulations from friends and family. I was dizzy with fame.

The celebratory hangover lasted 10 years. I wanted so badly to write, but just as strong was the silent conviction in me that I didn't have anything momentous to report to the world. Either I had nothing to say, or I didn't know how to say it. I wasn't ready. So! Now what?

Good fortune smiled on me at birth. Both of my parents were teachers. My earliest memories are strewn with books. Those memories seem to acquire real edges, colors and shapes, in a small village in Bolivia, where I lived as a boy. Regardless of where we lived, whether in Bolivia or Mexico City or Washington D.C., my parents saw to it that the life of the spirit and the mind formed the gravitational center of our family. Their children all grew up to become artists and teachers. My father is a hermeneutical scholar, and my mother, the first-born child of a Tennessee coal miner and his Irish/Cherokee bride, overcame the inertia of childhood to become a gifted, and much loved, teacher of literature. Faulkner, Cather, Twain, and Steinbeck, O'Connor, Emerson, and Thoreau, animated the very air that filled our house.

In Ivan Doig's extraordinary memoir, This House of Sky, he tells of harvesting wheat on the Montana high-line the summer after he graduated from high school, and seeing a stranger walking toward him across the freshly cut field. Nathaniel Blumberg, the dean of the School of Journalism at the University of Montana, had driven two hundred and fifty miles to recruit the young Doig for college. Fifteen years later, as I was recovering from the celebration of my brief fame, Nathaniel Blumberg would do the same for me. After he made his pitch, I knew this was my answer. I enrolled in journalism school following quarter. I was in for the surprise of my life. There, I discovered the raw power of visual language, as it is captured in the mystical alchemy of the silver nitrate and ground glass. I discovered the power of the camera.

For the next twelve years, covering everything from conflicts in Central America to presidential campaigns, natural disasters and manmade holocausts, I burned more than a half a million rolls of film. It was the camera that taught me how me how to tell a story, and it was the discipline of writing cutlines, thousands upon thousands of cutlines, on deadline, that taught me the nuts and bolts of the craft of writing. Only the senior editors at National Geographic write the captions, or cutlines, and that is no accident.

By 1990, after covering thousands of assignments and news events, I was ready to work without a net. I had no idea where that highwire might take me, but I wasn't worried. Questions that taunted me years had been silenced. Now, I had loads of raw material, a honed craft, and enough fear to keep me hungry and motivated. Mark Twain once said that he left home at the age of 16, thinking his father to be the dumbest man God had put on the earth. When he returned to Hannibal for a visit five years later, he was amazed at how much the old man had learned.

The world of daily (and monthly) journalism had been a tough, exacting training ground. It was heartless, thrilling, brutal, relentless. I loved it. The world was my classroom and everyday was filled with lessons. But there were bigger stories out there, stories that seemed only to begin where newspapers and magazines left off, and the time had come to tell them.

But where to begin? Ah, now there's a question. What the ancient ones tell us is true. The crossing is worth the storm. But there is one little catch. You can't see the far side until you leap.

Without even knowing it, I started the research on Coyote Warrior in 1993. At the request of Sierra Magazine I began investigating the conflict between the extraction industry (fossil fuels, timber, mining) and Native American tribes. To my amazement, there were fierce conflicts in Wisconsin, Arizona, Alaska, California, New Mexico, to name a few, but mainstream magazines were not covering these stories. Simultaneously, the emerging issue of "environmental justice" had moved to center stage in the political arena. The Internet was so new that almost none of the tribes or Native environmental groups had ventured into cyberspace. That has changed, dramatically. Today, hundreds of tribes and tribal organizations have developed sophisticated web sites. I have used many of these, at one time or, for tracking down an individual, or a piece of information. Type any of following into Google, and the sites themselves will give you hyperlinks to many others.

The Indigenous Environmental Network
International Indian Treaty Council
Dineh C.A.R.E.
Seventh Generation Fund
Native American Journalist Association
National Congress of American Indians
Native American Rights Fund
Three Affiliated Tribes
White Earth Land Recovery Project
Indian Country Today
American Rivers
Elouise Cobell
Native American Studies

We all have our favorite books, whether or not they happen to be related to the story you are currently working on. When I travel away from home, there are a couple I take with me for inspiration, amusement, or for the simple beauty and power of the language:

Dispatches, by Michael Herr, Collected Poems of Richard Hugo, Nobody's Angel, by Thomas McGuane, and John Nichol's The Milagro Beanfield War. If I could name four books that prepared me for writing Coyote Warrior, they would be Robert William's extraordinary treatise, The American Indian in Western Legal Thought, John McPhee's timeless portrait of David Brower, Encounters with the Archdruid, David Herbert Donald's Lincoln, and David Abram's Spell of the Sensuous.

Favorite web sites:

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Little, Brown and Company. New York, Boston
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