James Welch began studying poetry in Missoula at the University of Montana and advanced to a Mastes of Fine Arts program in creative writing there, where he was mentored by the poet Richard Hugo. He is the author of six books, including Riding the Earthboy 40 and Fools Crow, for which he won the American Book Award in 1986. He wrote one of the early, groundbreaking novels in Native American literature, Winter in the Blood, and is currently finishing a final draft of a new historical novel based on a 19th century tour of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in France.
When did you first think it was plausible to make a living as a writer?
When I took Hugo's course, that first year of graduate school, I thought, "Wow, a person could really do this." His way of instructing was very down to earth and "pithy," as he used to call it. And just the way he looked and the way he dressed. He was kind of a fat, balding guy. He used to wear those old khakis and gabardines that were rolled up at the cuffs. He just looked like Mr. Blue Collar. And he loved to be Mr. Blue Collar. He inspired a lot of us. We thought if this guy could be such a brilliant poet, maybe anybody could become a poet. He wrote these really strong, muscular poems. It was just the kind of poetry that us red-blooded young men wanted to write.
You were in graduate school in the mid-'60s. Was it daunting that there wasn't much of a precedent in terms of contemporary Native American authors?
It was in a way; I can remember distinctly. After that first quarter, my poems were just kind of all over the place. They had no focus, no location, nothing. Kind of a series of images that could have been set anywhere. And Hugo said as much. He said, "These poems don't seem to have any basis, they have no roots." He said, "Where do you come from?" And I said "Northern Montana; I was born up in Browning, and I lived there at Fort Belknap." And he said, "So you're Indian? Why don't you write about that? Write about that northern Montana landscape. And about Indians and Indian culture."
And I remember saying to him, "Well, I don't think anybody would be interested." That seemed way out there in far-left field, but he said, "Just try it." So then the quarter ended, and that's when I went on my poem-writing binge. And a lot of the poems started dealing with that, although a lot of the poems were just exercises for myself.
By the fall, I was writing pretty much exclusively about Indian culture. I still had no idea that anybody would be interested. I finally came back, and I had two poems that I turned in at the same time. Dick just loved them, and he went around down the hall reading them to his colleagues. In fact, he read them to my [future] wife Lois before we even knew each other. And then he said, "I think we ought to get these published."