“Just ordered my copy. I so enjoyed Sundagger.net: such vivid depictions of place & time and such interesting characters. I lost many hours of sleep staying up late to read because I just had to know what happened next. — Sarah F.
Order Spiral for $17.95 and, for a limited time, receive a free ebook of Sundagger.net, the sequel to Spiral.
Spiral, a novel of magic realism and epic adventure set in the ancient American Southwest
At the end of a culture that built structures as big as the Roman Coliseum when medieval Europe was still in the Dark Ages, on a high desert landscape of brooding wind and dark storm clouds that never drop rain, the Elders threaten to sacrifice an infant boy to placate the sun dagger and thus end the drought.
Meanwhile young Willow waits by the dry, dusty Chaco riverbed for her lover. But when he finally comes, it is to say goodbye. Betrayed and desolate, Willow becomes an expert pot maker, turning for comfort to a gentle hunter of her own Coyote Clan, with whom she has a son. When the Elders kidnap him, Willow has a plan.
Against the backdrop of the Anasazi Southwest, Spiral plunges the reader into a whole gripping, enchanted world spiraling in crisis.
See the music video!
Follow author Margaret C. Murray on a road trip to research Spiral,Road Trip to the War Gods of Chimney Rock, CO, with original music by Chris Goslow.
Praise for Sundagger.net
Before the sun dagger, there was the spiral.
“In her Sundagger.net, Margaret Murray gives us a mystery novel in a new dimension, moving us from Post 9/11 Silicon Valley to the Ancient Anasazi of the Southwest.” — Tony Hillerman, famed Southwest mystery writer
When I stand in my backyard and look up at the night sky, I feel both very small and very big. The small part is my physical body, the big my spirit, from which I am able to imagine any story. Each night it’s a different sky I see and a different story.
All my stories begin with what I see from where I’m standing. It’s the forested hills, valleys and rivers of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in Dreamers. The Oakland Hills, San Francisco, Death Valley and Chaco Canyon, New Mexico in Sundagger.net.
With my upcoming novel, Spiral, I take the old story family of Sundagger.net on the same migration route as the prehistoric Native Americans took in their struggle to survive in a dying culture, one that built Great Houses as big as the Roman Coliseum at a time when medieval Europe was still in the Dark Ages.
Spirit and story begin with the land and the sky. The ancient people of the Americas knew this too.
Many readers of Sundagger.net have told me they were awestruck by the sense of the spiritual upon visiting the ruins of Chaco Culture Natural Park. Here’s a short video of the ruins of Chaco Canyon with music by my son, Chris Goslow, that recreates this awesome feeling. Notice the sun dagger at the end.
The primitive people saw, felt and witnessed the deep spiritual connection between earth and sky too. In the bottomland of a desert canyon sometime near the end of the first millennium, a native American climbed a butte and cut a spiral in the sandstone behind four 2000 pound boulders that just barely allowed the sunlight in.
This artist positioned a 19-circle spiral so that, on the one day of the summer solstice, the center of the spiral was split by sunlight in the shape of a dagger. Furthermore, this spiral pecked out of sandstone was of an exact diameter so that, at the winter solstice, sunlight framed its outmost circle by two smaller daggers of light. Likewise, the equinoxes were shown with smaller daggers.
What an artistic feat to show such brilliance and balance between earth and sky! And that’s not all. Great Houses and kivas, incredible feats of engineering, were constructed over centuries with their outer walls matching the path of the sun and moon light across the land at solstices and equinoxes.
Visiting Chaco for the first time, I first “saw” the story I would come to call Sundagger.net when I stopped before a nondescript ruin of a small house, a house that called out to me with an ancient sad face and spoke of sweet dreams and great disappointment.
I had just come home from Chaco where I had taken many notes on the land and its history. The first scene I wrote describes a man–he didn’t have a name yet–walking in a circle on the desert floor. It didn’t make much sense, except that it did. Sitting at my desk in Pinole, CA, I created my novel around this troubled man like you might if you drew circles without lifting your pen from the center point.
The man became Rowan, a big boss at TekGen, a network communications corporation in Silicon Valley. Why is Rowan obsessively circling? He’s been taking photos of the wild turkeys in the Canyon, talking to them. He’s rethinking his business venture scheme and worrying about the young woman he convinced to come with him, who’s waiting back in the rented car at the Visitor Center. When finally he looks up toward the sky, he spots his ancestor, a primitive man in skins and feathers, RoHnaan.
Spiral, my upcoming novel, takes on RoHnaan’s story, beginning with the young Willow, his mother, waiting at the deep, dry, jagged bank of Chaco Wash, frantically scanning the horizon for her much-older lover.
The Anasazi too had their love affair with the sky beginning with the land. Their first structures were circular pit houses, underground mostly, entered through a hole in the roof by ladder, but by 800 A.D. they were building above ground, raising up to 5-story Great Houses with hundreds of rooms and no evidence that anyone lived in them, round kivas likely used for spiritual ceremonies, as are the kivas of the present-day Hopi and other Puebloan tribes.
This past summer on my third trip to Chaco Canyon, when I came out of the only entrance to the biggest Great House, Pueblo Bonito, the interpretive ranger remarked that I was in the exact spot to watch the sun rise at its southern-most point on the winter solstice. She also pointed out that the east-west wall of Pueblo Bonito precisely divides day and night at the equinoxes, marking the middle of time.
What happened to these pre-Puebloans called Anasazi (“Enemy Ancestors”) by the Navajo arriving three centuries later?
Earth, Sky, Spirit. Story. Before the sun dagger, there was the spiral. Each time the Anasazi migrated, they left behind a spiral to show they were leaving. Why? There are so many questions to ask, so many secrets remaining.
“It’s a mystery in another dimension”, as famed Southwest mystery writer, Tony Hillerman, said about Sundagger.net. So might he say about Spiral.
Here I am at my son’s wedding, sitting at a table, listening to a friend across a centerpiece of lovely flowers review my book. “I don’t understand why Annie keeps coming back!” my friend says, gesturing for emphasis across the round table set with white china and brilliant bouquets–my favorite flowers, I muse. She’s an inveterate reader and we haven’t seen each other in months.
“Why does Annie keep coming back?” my friend keeps asking. She’s referring to the main character in my newly published novel, Dreamers, a coming of age love story of the ’60s. Annie’s a white girl who falls in love with Thomas, a black actor. It’s the height of the Civil Rights movement and they’re both in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I can think of many reasons of why Annie keeps coming back, but what does it matter if my friend doesn’t see them? The truth is I’m thrilled Dreamers is having such a powerful effect on her.
How wonderful that I get to acknowledge my characters at my son’s wedding! What an opportunity to hear her feedback. I gaze at the scarlet flowers in front of me thinking how fortunate I am to have such a discriminating, exceptional friend who loves to read. How real the story is for her! How deep her involvement is with the character of Annie! She understands how attractive Thomas must appear to Annie she says, but still–here’s the reality test–she herself would never stick around like that. I gaze at a single perfect petal before me and nod, recalling how my book begins with Annie reflecting, “I was in love with trouble.”
“I would love it if you’d write a review of Dreamers on Amazon or Goodreads or on my website,” I say. “Would you be willing to do that?” She agrees.
Later I think about our conversation. I ask myself if I really want her to write a review. After all, what she’s saying about Annie isn’t that positive. It’s not that good in fact. It could be a big flaw in the book. I might end up with a bad review.
Then I think of another book I have at home on my table. Last fall the author asked me to write a review of it and I readily agreed. For one thing, he had just bought my first novel, Sundagger.net, at a booksellers’ show we were both attending. I was very grateful. Plus I wanted to help out another small publisher and novelist like myself. But most of all I was excited at the thought of reading his coming of age story of the ’50s.
But I haven’t written the review. I wish he had given me his second to the last draft. As it stands, in my view, his published story cries out for attention, his dialog for editing, his characters for focus and direction. I’m not the person to criticize that publicly.
Every author knows what I’m talking about. Take the novel draft I am working on now, Spiral, a prequel to Sundagger.net. In Spiral, the characters from Sundagger.net live out their karma of years before. Daily I struggle with my many dubious, rock-hard sentences. Like weeds, I keep pulling them out and digging deeper for new ideas, scenes, and characters–in short, story-building words. How slowly they emerge from the grit and grind of my mind. But sooner or later the book begins to grow and bloom.
I glance across the room at tables covered with all those fragrant bouquets. Yes, I do hope my friend reviews Dreamers. Be rigorous I want to say. True, writing is a delicate matter, like flowers. So are writers. But still, the only review any author wants and needs is a good one, the one that makes the next book better.
So begins The Sinister Pig (2003) by the late Tony Hillerman, famed mystery writer of the Southwest. The beginning is very simple–a man hands an envelope across the table of a small cafe. The setting is Navajo Country but it could be anywhere, anytime. How mundane. How ordinary. How easy to read. This vintage Tony Hillerman beginning fascinates me–it’s deceptively simple. By the end of the first page, we are in the midst of a high-level corruption and mysterious intrigue. In my book readings at the Sonoma County libraries on October 14th, November 2nd and 5th, I’ll be talking about this and other beginnings of Tony Hillerman mysteries.
How apt, how perfectly Tony Hillerman’s titles reflect the themes too–By page 9 of Sinister Pig we learn that the term comes from “porc sinistre”, a French phrase for “the boss pig in the sty–the one that would guard the trough and attack any animal that tried to steal a bite.” So how does the title fit in? The man who takes the envelope is someone Slate plans to hire, an ex-CIA agent whose job will be to sniff out who is syphoning oil from a pipeline system, thereby bypassing paying the $40 billion dollars in royalty money into the Interior Department’ trust fund for the Indians.
Ahh, now we know what’s in the trough and who profits by it–the federal government and those underlings who work it. We also know who doesn’t profit–another telling Hillerman theme–Native American history. Not to mention his knack for describing the big picture and the lay of contemporary United States of America where power (and crime) reside with the wealthy and their dishonest corporation underlings, and where the “War on Drugs” means war on its victims and “Protecting the Border” means hoarding the trough of addiction.
The envelope the man hands across the table is full of papers documenting a forged identity for the soon-to-be ex-CIA agent. We only know him by his assumed name. But don’t worry, we needn’t remember it because, even with his past experience and the fifty thousand Slate transferred to a forged bank account to bankroll him, it isn’t enough to prevent this agent from being murdered by the end of the first chapter.
Which brings me to another characteristic of Tony Hillerman–murder is executed in the blink of an eye, a turn of the sentence, almost a bloodless and ghostly affair. I’ll be talking about his depiction of crime, murder and its victims too.
Now let’s look at his characters. They’re all familiar to us–Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police, the retired “legendary lieutenant” Joe Leaphorn, and Chee’s down-in-the mouth girlfriend, Bernadette Manuelito, who has recently taken a job as a Customs Control Officer, posted on the Border to Mexico just to get away from Chee. Hillerman’s characters are like family–quirky, stubborn, true-to-life, and long-suffering. Mostly they’re downright sympathetic. After all, we know them well and we’re rooting for them. We believe he is rooting for them too.
In an organic way, The Sinister Pig promotes Native American values through the characters and also through the action; but how many of us know what these values are? The climax of my novel Sundagger.net happens during a vision quest in New Mexico, but I myself didn’t really understand how Native American tribes of the Southwest would view a vision quest ceremony until Tony Hillerman advised me in his letters. At the library event, I’ll be reading scenes from Sundagger.net that illustrate how I made use of his advice.
Then there are all those other Tony Hillerman themes: his sonorous desert landscapes, the technical specifics of industries such as natural gas and oil, all those pipelines, and his stylistic brilliance in using metaphor, understatement and cryptic dialogue to further an increasingly complex plot. We can talk about this in The Sinister Pig and other Hillerman novels.
So come join me at a Sonoma library and bring your favorite book or excerpt. Read a paragraph or two aloud. The anniversary of his death is coming up this month. Let’s all enjoy and commemorate Tony Hillerman together.
If you‘re like me, you loved all the Tony Hillerman books. To honor this famed mystery writer of the Southwest, I’m having library readings at Sonoma County libraries and I’d like to invite you. As you see, I already had one reading event on September 16th–thank you to everyone who came. It was inspiring!
Tony Hillerman (May 27, 1925–October 26, 2008) was an award-winning American author of detective novels and non-fiction works best known for his Navajo Tribal Police mystery novels set in the Southwest. I was very honored that he agreed to endorse my first novel, Sundagger.net, an endorsement that appears on the cover of my book.
When I had finished writing my first draft of Sundagger.net, set in the Four Corners area of New Mexico, I wrote to him to ask his opinion and thus began a correspondence that lasted until he died. I think of him as my teacher, my mentor, and my ally. As a writer in the world, I want to be how Tony Hillerman was with me–funny, open, giving, generous, very knowledgeable, encouraging, and insistent on practice as the key to success. “Keep on writing” he told me in his letters more than once.
Tony Hillerman influenced me long before I wrote Sundagger.net. In particular, I was drawn to his stark, evocative descriptions of the Four Corners area where the four Southwest states converge–New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah. There he set his Jim Chee-Joe Leaphorn mysteries, dipping in and out of Navajo and Hopi landscapes to unveil and eliminate crime.
Tony Hillerman was the master of crafting a fascinating story. For me, all these 29 books were an “easy” read, pure enjoyment, that put me in touch with the pleasure of life. His Native American characters especially were quirky, comfortable, the kind of down-home people you could relate to–at times grumpy, jealous, self-serving, duty-driven, burdened with work, love lost, but in the end, bigger than all that and always very human. And women held a place of honor and respect.
All the Tony Hillerman mysteries unveiled a Native American point-of-view that opened my eyes to a different, deeper world. Touching on reservation life, they described traditional Navajo ceremonies and medicine men, attitudes toward death and burial, as well as political and social issues that affect us all in the bigger community, for example, the stealing of antiquities, illegal aliens, drug dealing across borders, and the embezzlement of billions owed by the federal government to the Indian nation.
Each book embraced a dimension I can only describe as quietly spiritual, based on venerating the magnificence of sky and earth. This was recently illustrated in a new coffee-table photography book, Tony Hillerman’s Landscape, written by his daughter, Anne Hillerman, that I refer to in my reading events.
Here’s a letter Tony Hillerman wrote me that I display on an overhead projector. In it, he points out different attitudes of the Navajo about modern individuality based on their Changing Woman origination story. After receiving this letter, I revised a chapter in Sundagger.net where a group from the San Francisco area set out on a camping trip to experience a vision quest of their own and end up in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, home of the ancient Anasazi. During my event, I talk about the letter and read sections from the chapter.
Please join me to honor a master of story-telling.
You are invited to bring your favorite Hillerman book–and to read an excerpt aloud to our audience.
Summer Solstice Reading
June 14th, 2010, 7PM
Hercules, CA 94547
You’re invited to a book reading I’m having of my novel, Sundagger.net, “a mystery in another dimension”, at the brand new Hercules Library. Please come! It will be held on a bright Monday evening, one week before the actual solstice on June 21st.
What is a summer solstice? It is the longest day of the year and occurs when the earth is tilted closest to the sun.
My novel begins and ends with a solstice ceremony. The title is based on an actual phenomenon that occurs at the solstices. In Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, the sun “pierces” a spiral petroglyph carved by the Anasazi at the top of a butte. The stone slabs through which the sun shines shape the light into dagger(s). One dagger shines down the center of the spiral at the summer solstice and two flank the rim at the winter solstice.
The reading will also include drumming and Native American ceremony. It will be held in a beautiful large white room in the Hercules Library with all the latest electronic equipment one might ever need. I’ll be showing slides of the amazing and colossal Chaco Canyon ruins.
As we approach the summer solstice, our energies will be high and our intention strong. Together we will manifest ourselves. Come celebrate. Bring your drum!
The famed mystery writer of the Southwest wrote that advice to me the last year before his death at 83 in 2008. In a note to him, I had been complaining, whining really, about my writing life. “Keep writing, stay heathy,” he wrote back. This is my mantra when I feel confused, at loose ends, or discouraged with my work.
I wonder if renown writer J. D. Salinger had taken this advice, he would have experienced life differently. When he died at 91 in 2010, Salinger was possibly the world’s most renown and most successful literary recluse. “Hermit Crab,” Time magazine dubbed him. Here was somebody who was up there with the Grammy winners in star power and prestige, yet seemed cursed with the dismal personality of old Scrooge.
Back in the ’60s when I read Catcher in the Rye, my teenage heart beat along with Holden Caulfield’s. I was the catcher, those sheep; I was the rye too. J.D. Salinger was my writing hero along with Dylan Thomas, Oscar Wilde and Dostoevsky (No females in that short list, alas, but that is another story.)
Unlike Tony Hillerman who wrote 29 mysteries set in Navajo country, Salinger wrote one novel, a phenomenal success that he disdained, and three small volumes of short stories–then nothing else for 45 years.
By all accounts, J.D. Salinger was a phenomenal writer who refused his success. Was he was sick with self-loathing of his own genius, his own work? He must have felt he had no choice. He must have done his best from inside the worm of his illness.
But he did take one piece of Tony Hillerman’s advice. His wives and daughters say he wrote all that time. What did he leave us? I am dying to read it. Maybe that’s all he wanted–fans dying to read him. Maybe that’s why he shunned his fame and adulation. To keep us hungry.
Life is strange, wouldn’t you agree? Keep writing, stay healthy.
Thank you, Tony Hillerman.