Mona Susan Power
An Award-winning Novelist
Rachna Singh, Editor, The Wise Owl talks to Mona Susan Power, the author of four books of fiction, including The Grass Dancer (a National Bestseller awarded a PEN/Hemingway Prize), Roofwalker (a collection of stories and essays awarded the Milkweed National Fiction Prize), Sacred Wilderness (a novel which received the Electa Quinney Award), and her new novel A Council of Dolls, (longlisted for the National Book Award 2023).
The Interview : Mona Susan Power
Rachna Singh, Editor, The Wise Owl talks to Mona Susan Power, the author of four books of fiction, including The Grass Dancer (a National Bestseller awarded a PEN/Hemingway Prize), Roofwalker (a collection of stories and essays awarded the Milkweed National Fiction Prize), Sacred Wilderness (a novel which received the Electa Quinney Award), and her new novel A Council of Dolls, published by Mariner/HarperCollins in 2023 (longlisted for the National Book Award). She's a graduate of Harvard College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She is also the recipient of several grants in support of her writing which include an Iowa Arts Fellowship, James Michener Fellowship, Radcliffe Bunting Institute Fellowship, Princeton Hodder Fellowship, USA Artists Fellowship, McKnight Fellowship, and Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Fellowship. Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies including The Best American Short Stories series, The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, Ploughshares, and Granta.
Mona is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (Iháŋktȟuŋwaŋna Dakhóta), born and raised in Chicago. During her childhood she was a member of the Chicago Indian Village movement, a group organized to protest the conditions of Native people lured to urban areas with promises of secure jobs and good housing, that seldom materialized. In 1979, a documentary following the experiences of this group was nominated for an Academy Award. Mona attended the Oscar ceremonies that year as a guest of the director, Jerry Aronson.
She currently lives in Minnesota, where she's working on other novels, including, The Year of Fury.
Thank you, Mona, for taking time out to talk to The Wise Owl.
RS: You have authored four critically acclaimed, award-winning novels and your work has also been published in prestigious literary magazines and featured in anthologies. Can you briefly walk our readers through your journey as an author. We would also like to know what made you gravitate towards writing.
MSP: Thank you so much for your kind words, and for inviting me to do this interview!
Perhaps because my parents met in the world of publishing in the 1950's, books and writing have been a passion of mine since earliest memory. Even before I could read, I filled up paper with a jumble of letters I'd learned, pretending that I was writing a story. I'm a shy introvert, so writing would later save me in years where I didn't feel safe, or welcome, sharing my voice in any other way.
I was always an Arts person—loving to dance, sing, write, and act in plays! But my mother was an activist in our community, and while she appreciated my talents, she steered me away from seeking a career in the Arts. Attending Law School was no doubt me trying to manifest my mother's dream, but by the time I graduated I knew it wasn't my calling and that it wasn't an occupation where I would thrive. That's when I became serious about my writing. I found a job that was purely "nine-to-five," as opposed to a demanding career position. I steadily read the kind of award-winning literary fiction I sought to write, and penned dozens of stories. My favorite writer and inspiration is Louise Erdrich, so when I noted that she had a Master's Degree in Creative Writing, I thought it might be a good idea for me to do the same. I began my degree work at the Iowa Writers' Workshop four years after graduating from Law School and was on my way!
RS: Your book ‘A Council of Dolls’ has been nominated for the National Book award. What intrigued me about the narrative and held me as a reader was the storytelling through dolls. Our readers would like to know what made you think of telling the stories of your protagonists through the prism of their dolls, Ethel, Mae & Winona.
MSP: To be honest, I'm not the kind of writer who consciously chooses projects, or even the entry-point into a piece of writing. Characters seem to pop into my imagination out of nowhere, and I have to figure out their story. In 2019 I wanted to write a short story to submit for a writing contest, intending to create a sweet tale of a young girl very much like myself in childhood, whose mother can be both fiercely intimidating and wonderful. In this story the girl is able to manifest a dream, but unclear whether it's the result of magic or her mother's intercession. That was the plan... But as I began writing, the story took a turn. Ethel, a Black Tiny Thumbelina doll from the 1960's, showed up on the page. She was a doll I'd owned when I was young, one I hadn't thought of for years. She was clearly the protector of the little girl in my story. I followed the pair where they needed to take me. A year after the story was published, a friend mentioned that it could become an entire novel. Once that idea took hold, I thought I'd remain within the era of the main character—Sissy growing up in the 1960's—for the entire book. But soon I felt the pressure of her mother's story tugging at me, and it became a multi-generational piece. Each doll showed up in my imagination as soon as the intention was set to explore what was happening in different generations.
I loved dolls as a child, and one of my favorite books back then was A Little Princess, which features a doll character. My dolls and stuffed animals were very much alive to me as a kid, so it made sense that fictional versions would show up for a story so close to my lived experience.
RS: The dolls in your book have different characteristics and personae: Ethel is a Black Tiny Thumbelina, Mae is a Shirley Temple doll and Winona is a traditional Dakota doll. Could you please throw light on the significance of the dolls you have chosen.
MSP: Again, I don't feel I chose the doll characters so much as they chose to join the story as guides for me to follow. For example, while some of my mother's experiences growing up on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation during the 1930's inspired bits of the story in Part 2, in real life she'd briefly owned only one doll in childhood—a baby doll donated to her from a Church group at Christmas. Yet the doll who showed up on the page, tapping her foot impatiently at me, was Mae, fashioned after film star Shirley Temple. She demanded my attention! Similarly, the Dakhóta-style doll, Winona, was one I imagined in mind's eye as soon as the grandmother Cora began narrating her story. However, Winona took a long time for me to get to know and understand; she was more reticent than Ethel and Mae. Eventually I realized this was because she was more traumatized than the other dolls, having witnessed several generations of loss and attempted genocide.
RS: All your books, be it The Grass Dancer or Roofwalker or Sacred Wilderness or A Council of Dolls, emerge from your experiences as a Native American walking the tightrope between tradition and modernity, between Indigenous beliefs and modern-day values. Were your books a way to bridge the chasm between the two different worlds and embrace what you are today, a beautiful mix of two different cultures or was it just a cathartic experience or was it a bit of both?
MSP: All of my writing stems from my experience growing up Native American—reflecting the ways I found to navigate clashing value systems and spiritual beliefs. There is less of a struggle writing about this experience than living it, since the writing flows organically from what is familiar to me. What can be more challenging is dealing with how my work is sometimes misunderstood, mislabeled, by readers raised outside my cultural context. For example, what is considered to be "Magical Realism" in my books is pure "reality" to me!
RS: I have read that after your first book The Grass Dancer, you underwent the pain of depression and anxiety, and A Council of Dolls helped you to heal and recover. Please tell us a little about it. If you think the question is intrusive & encroaches on your privacy, please ignore it. I ask simply because these problems have become endemic to modern day living and what you say may help readers to believe that healing and recovery is possible.
MSP: I appreciate the question since I'm hoping to be of help to others who are suffering from mental health challenges. While I was incredibly privileged when it came to the educational opportunities afforded me in this life, there was also a lot of trauma I experienced from earliest memory, which couldn't help but impact my mental and emotional health. I developed Anxiety at an early age, and eventually Complex PTSD. Depression didn't descend until age eleven, after the sudden violent death of my beloved father. After his death I became suicidal—a struggle that continued for thirty years. In my younger years the formidable energy of youth was able to propel me forward. I steadily made my way through school and eventually launched a promising writing career. But as we age, I believe that whatever we haven't had the ability to examine and heal, rises up to swamp us, demanding our attention. Being raised by parents who were tragically filled with toxic self-loathing despite so many admirable qualities, I couldn't help but inherit the same poisonous inner script that made me doubt myself, hate myself. Each achievement in life was seen as pure luck, certainly undeserved, and any mistake I made was proof of my inadequacies. One of the most radical changes in my life which turned everything around for the better, came about because I read books by Buddhist authors such as Thich Nhat Hanh, on retraining the mind. For years and years I sought to gently correct that ugly inner voice, the all too effective saboteur. Brené Brown's work on the toxicity of shame, was also instrumental in turning myself into my own best ally. Having shed so much inherited shame brought me back to life!
RS: Your books are never static. There is a constant back & forth movement in time. They are at times circular in pattern, in that they go back in time and then loop forwards. Did you consciously adopt this narrative pattern, or did it come naturally to you considering your books move between Indigenous beliefs and modern-day values?
MSP: Thank you so much for your familiarity with my body of work! Just one quick side note: It's my stance that those of us who were raised within Indigenous belief systems and still live within that cultural context have brought them with us into "modern" times, making them also "modern-day values." They may not be shared by everyone, but they're alive and well. So I see the division between value systems more as Indigenous beliefs and values vs. the Western model.
Back to the question: Many of the choices I make in terms of novel and story structure definitely reflect the way I was raised—taught that our stories don't begin or end with us, rather are part of a continuing chain of stories and responsibilities. So I'm never interested in a set of characters from a single generation, but want to know about their ancestors, as well as what they believe they owe future generations. Having been raised with stories of my own ancestors and how they're still influencing me today, I don't see myself as living only in a forward direction—I'm also reaching back, glancing ahead. This attitude is reflected in my non-lineral structure, not so much a conscious choice in early drafts, but something I eventually note and then attempt to perfect and clarify so the reader hopefully won't get lost.
RS: Could you tell us a little about your creative process when you are writing a novel.
MSP: Each "baby" is different in what it requires, but there are some practices that seem to be a necessary part of my craft. Each novel was launched by a waking "vision"—a character suddenly overtaking the internal screen of my mind to show me images I find intriguing: an elder in a Dakhóta buckskin dress dancing on the moon; a young woman with a wampum belt slung over her shoulder gliding gracefully from the sky as if she rides an invisible elevator; a little girl combing the hair of her Black baby doll as the doll watches her, eyes lit with insight. I take quick notes on these images so I won't forget a single detail. Then I ask questions: Why is this woman dancing on the moon? What does this baby doll know that her young charge doesn't yet comprehend? Etc... Research is always involved because my characters move me through time, different eras, and I have to follow them where they take me. The research and musing stages can take years. With my most recent novel they took only weeks, and I wrote the first draft in four months. I used to write early drafts longhand—couldn't compose on a typewriter or computer. Thankfully I'm able to pound out my first drafts on the computer now, which saves me so much time! But I always have to stop and read the work aloud as I'm composing, to listen to the rhythms of language, the narrative voice. I edit best via ear rather than eye.
RS: Our readers would be keen to know if you are working on any other book? Could you share details please.
MSP: I've returned to a novel I'd been working on for several years before the unexpected interruption of A Council of Dolls, which nudged everything else out of the way. The working title is: Harvard Indian Séance at the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast. Since I was thirteen years old, when I watched a TV movie about the horrific murders Lizzie Borden was accused of in 1892, I've been fascinated by this event that took place in Fall River, Massachusetts. I lived in the Cambridge area of Massachusetts for fourteen years, so it's one of several "home places" to me, and I spent many years at Harvard (both for my undergraduate and Law degrees). The story centers on five Native American students of different tribal nations who are all part of the same graduating class at Harvard. For their last "hurrah" together, the only one in the group who comes from wealth decides to rent out the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast (something I did myself in 2017 as research, paying for it with the aid of a writing fellowship). The students bring their own unresolved traumas to this historically haunted place, and it becomes a tale of horror. That said, the academic lives of these five students is also an important part of the story.
RS: A lot of upcoming writers are a part of our readership. Could you please give them some quick pointers about how to hone their craft and novel-writing skills.
MSP: I could write pages and pages about this topic, but will try to boil my advice down to what I find are the essentials: first and foremost, read read read! We absorb and learn so much craft purely by reading work that inspires us. I also recommend reading one's work aloud at some point in the process, so you can hear when language is perhaps stilted or repetitive, or a voice doesn't sound believeable. Finding a trusted reader as a first sounding board can be so helpful. I have a dear friend from Law School days who has served as a first reader of early drafts of my work for decades. She's a lover of literature, a perceptive and careful reader. She's also kind, tactful. She'll tell me what engages her most in my new work, and where there are lingering questions. I always want to know about early drafts: where's the juice?
Thank you, Mona, for taking time out of a busy schedule to talk to us. It was indeed a pleasure to talk to you. We wish you the best in all your creative endeavors and hope that you write more and more books that connect with the soul of the reader and win you awards and literary accolades.
MSP: Thank you so much for your interest in my work, and for your all your generous good wishes!