Features / Fiction / Interviews

Q&A with “Dana Hand”

Dana Hand is the pen name for co-authors Will Howarth and Anne Matthews.

Bloom:  You’re both historians and have written nonfiction prior to Deep Creek. Why the switch to historical fiction for this particular story/topic? Was this project ever conceived as a nonfiction one, or was it originally conceived as fiction?

Howarth & Matthews: In 1981, Will learned about the Snake River massacre during a float trip in Idaho, on assignment for National Geographic. The tale of the local marshal who went undercover to bring the killers to justice was appealing, but the surviving documents were too fragmented and contradictory to produce a history. Will researched the crime for several years, then put all aside until 2004, when he wrote a first draft, which read too much like his lectures. Anne asked if she could add some touches, and she created a version so improved that we agreed to write the novel together.

In every previous account of the Chinese massacre, the dead miners are anonymous victims, faceless and voiceless. We wanted to honor them by getting all the details right. Documents and published research helped us imagine the hardships of an 1887 winter gold camp in Hells Canyon; reasoned inferences helped us populate that outpost and build a portrait of the miners’ lives over the seven months before the killings. Idaho has never faced the moral depravity of that crime: over 30 immigrants tortured, mutilated, and killed in terrible ways. Why? Because the killers were greedy, bored, and did not see Asians as fully human. We wanted to make readers see how people can be so cruel, what it takes to hunt them down, and how an all-male, all-white jury could still acquit.

Bloom: As historians and now novelists, what are your thoughts on whether fiction can tell the “truth” more accurately than non-fiction?

H & M: All histories are subjective and fragmented, and so are novels. Yet both share a core question: What was it like to be there, in that moment, at that place? Show us, throw us back there, let us feel it. Mark Twain once wrote, “Truth is stranger than fiction … because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” We draw on deep research—our list of sources is 30 single-spaced pages, far longer than most histories—and then play inside the lines of that knowledge—mostly. The supernatural elements in Deep Creek surprised us both, the Chinese ghosts especially, but we kept them in, even made their fury into one of the book’s pivotal moments. The canyon of the Snake River is very strange country, as is the past. After that terrible night upriver, why does Grace’s hair contain aspen leaves? Answer that, and you’ll understand our book.

Bloom: When you fabricated events and characters for the story, what prompted those particular fabrications? Were there moments when you questioned whether to present something in an historically accurate way, or a more fictional way?

H & M: Research takes you only so far. We had actual models for Joe Vincent and Lee Loi, the small-town lawman and the San Francisco agent sent by the mining company to investigate the murders of its employees. To make them interesting and credible (and because the crime was real, not made up) we wrote back stories for all the major figures. We changed Joe Vincent’s age and reimagined his marriage to make the Joe-Grace love story come alive. (The only readers to complain were two literalists from Idaho.) Lee Loi became a young Yale graduate because Yale was a 19th-century leader in promoting Chinese higher education.

Sometimes the departures from fact are subtle. The first doctor in pioneer Lewiston, Idaho, was an Oxford graduate named Henry Stainton; his photograph appears on our Dana Hand website. We dropped one letter from his name, kept everything else true to the historical record, but made him the foster father of Grace Sundown—an imaginary figure. The real Henry Stainton sold out the local Nez Percé by allowing white settlement on tribal land, breaking a number of treaties in the process; our Henry bitterly regrets that action, which our Grace finds hard to forgive.

Sometimes one tiny detail, deep in an obscure document, can uncover a character or galvanize a moment. A collection of 1877 letters by an Army wife stationed near Lewiston mentions the moving shadows cast by hop leaves along a veranda. We borrowed the leaves, turned a fort into Dr. Stanton’s front porch, added some townsmen eager to evict Grace, and thus gave her an important emotional turning-point, and a theme that runs through the whole book: what does it mean to be not a race, tribe, or region, but American?

Bloom: You’re both interested in “place” as fundamental and powerful in human experience. What were you hoping to convey about “place” via Deep Creek?

H & W: Geographers call space an abstraction and place a sensation, a locus that evokes memories and feelings. “Come out to our place” means that we see it as a home, not a house. Our novel evokes many places in the Northwest, from Idaho to Oregon and memories that range from London to Canton. But the places with most meaning are Hells Canyon, the two killing sites of Deep Creek and Robinson Gulch, and Mount Idaho. The last is now a ghost town, but there Joe and Grace finally find each other. One reader said that in Deep Creek the landscape is a major character. Fiction is serious pretending, and works best if you have studied the terrain and become native to it, through memory and imagination.


Bloom: What was the most difficult part of writing Deep Creek?

H & M: Working out the narrative structure. At first we wrote all the sequences in strict chronology, but that was too textbook-like, cautious and predictable. We prefer to hint and forecast. So now we begin with bodies washing up downstream at Lewiston and then flash back seven months earlier, when the miners first rowed up the Snake in search of gold—and of secrets. Next we alternate chapters between present and past, so that the trackers find the killers just as the miners meet their doom. As Carolyn See said, it’s storytelling very close to the way we all live, learning the truth piecemeal and out of sequence. Readers who want “a fun easy read” are often baffled, but we can live with that. Older readers, in particular, appreciate this way of storytelling, because it echoes the way our memories work, enriched by life and experience. In the trio of investigators who go after the killers, one (Lee Loi, the Yalie) is a young man, privileged, impatient, and a bit cocky, but Joe (at 55) and Grace (at 38) have the experience and cunning that only time can give.

Bloom: Where did the pseudonym “Dana Hand” come from?

H & M: Separately, we’ve written 18 books under our own names. But the four names of two co-authors are hard to remember, especially when book-buying. So we needed a pseudonym that is short, memorable, unisex, and hard to misspell. We turned to our two families: Anne supplied Dana, and Will gave Hand.

Bloom: Have either of you ever co-written a book previously?  What was the collaborative work process during the writing of the book? Was it more a division of areas/tasks/chapters, or working together on everything?

H & M: Deep Creek is a first in our careers. The chapter “Red Journal” describes Joe poring over documents and maps to create a briefing for his trial presentation. It also tells how we put the novel together: deep research, massive annotation, then looking for patterns, forming an outline, and writing draft upon draft. We took four years and up to six drafts. The drafting process is like tennis: serve, volley, play out the point. Whoever takes the lead, the other follows, as in a great conversation, and yes, we work together on everything. Many collaborators do, but then often one hides. Not for us.

Bloom: What surprised you while conducting your research on the people and events of this period?

H & M: The modernity of the period 1887-92, even in the remote and unpopulated Northwest. Hollywood makes us think that “the Western” must be set in a desert with rocks and cacti, strongly resembling southern California. Our West is cool, green, mountainous and, in the settlements, cosmopolitan. River steamers from Portland and Seattle often called at Lewiston, and local shops sold Swiss chocolate, French champagne, English furniture, and Japanese teas to a pleasant town of gas lamps, telephones, and (via telegraph) daily baseball scores from Boston and New York. Yet only blocks away, over 800 Chinese lived in riverfront squalor, robbed and beaten by gangs of bullies, and denied even rudimentary justice from a legal system bent on exclusion and segregation. “A Chinaman is no more a citizen than a coyote,” the local newspaper editor wrote just before the Deep Creek murders … and Congress and the Supreme Court agreed.

Bloom: Did it feel risky to venture into fiction at this stage of your careers? Exciting? How so? What were some of the personal challenges?

H & M: We’ve had long careers as teachers and writers, and ours is a late-life partnership: Anne was 53 when the book came out, and Will was 68. But to write together felt easy and exciting, especially since we could apply the methods of our professions—scholarship and journalism—to a real-life murder mystery, then add the innovative elements that mark our previous work. Will’s lectures always told stories; Anne’s pieces had literary style and form. Together we make more than we could alone. Some of it’s slog, much is sheer fun, but all is a privilege.

Bloom: Is Dana Hand planning or working on another project, fiction or nonfiction?

H & M: Deep Creek is part of a loosely-linked series, each novel taking as its starting point a long-forgotten crime and cover-up. The characters in Shadow Falls, our work in progress, descend from those in the first novel, 125 years later. Shadow Falls is set in our hometown of Princeton, NJ, and features two time periods, 1947 and the present. If Deep Creek is a ballad, Shadow Falls is definitely a noir. Our characters include a broad mix of town and gown figures, from a local cop to students, professors, femme-fatales, and villains.

Bloom: Is there a question that interests you that no interviewer has yet asked? (If so, please answer.)

H & M: We’re puzzled as to why we hear so little from Chinese-American readers. William Wong wrote a wonderful positive review for the San Francisco Chronicle, and two prominent Chinese-American judges sent appreciative letters, but after that, nothing. The story is not one of bad luck and shame. In our retelling the miners have the last word, and their vengeance is profound. They take a strong place in the life of the West, and in the ongoing experiment called the United States—often difficult and unfair, but in the end, guided by the rule of law and the daily gifts of human decency and good will.

Click here to read Alison Gazarek’s essay on “Dana Hand.”

Bloom Post End

Image credit: Chinese Gold Miners, via Wikimedia Commons

3 thoughts on “Q&A with “Dana Hand”

  1. maybe a reason dana hand doesn’t hear from many chinese-americans is the fact that they don’t mention the current remembrances of the massacre and the efforts of people to keep in mind what happened.nor does hand seem to support efforts to maintain the chinese temple in lewiston. another reason is people don’t like to remember the bad parts of the past. another reason is that hand seems to treat the hells canyon area as an eastern flyover zone, beautiful and romantic but not much there. the previous post on deep creek was just shot full of mistakes. its one thing to use historical characters and incidents and play with them in fiction and another thing to completely distort the past reality. no, the nez perce weren’t massacred-150 warriors fought off 5 us armies.what chief joseph surrendered was the women, children, old people and the baggage that still survived the flight. did you know that the entire nez perce tribal council was arrested protesting the shipment of fracting equipment through nez perce land?the event made the new york times. otherwise i’ve enjoyed nad learned from the bloom posts. please keep up the posts

    • Mr. Greene seems to understand neither this (excellent) book nor the very well-done article on it. “Remembering the bad parts of the past” and understanding how and why the Deep Creek tragedy could go unpunished is the whole point. This, too, is America.

  2. Thank you for another stimulating feature; the interplay of fiction and fact is both fascinating and important. I read and enjoyed the novel, and admired the authors’ ability to subtly weave sophisticated research into a gripping popular narrative whose themes of justice denied and truth suppressed remain all too relevant. Could this American tragedy occur in today’s Idaho? Oh, yes.

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