The famed mystery writer of the Southwest wrote the above advice to me the last year before his death in 2008. We had been corresponding since before I published my novel of the ancient Anasazi of the Southwest, Sundagger.net. 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.
“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.
I was on the seventh day of my road trip. After days of driving and camping—interspersed by a stay in Flagstaff with my friend Joyce—I had finally arrived at Chimney Rock, Colorado, the site of my upcoming novel, Spiral.
I had been working on Spiral, a prequel to Sundagger.net, for five years now and I just had to go see for myself. I had to take the same pilgrimage my characters Willow and her son, Little Hawk, take after they flee their home in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, and set out for Chimney Rock, the furthest outlier of Chaco culture.
Driving from California on Highway 40 to Flagstaff and from there to New Mexico, I was intent on first spending a few nights at Chaco Canyon World Heritage Site where Spiral begins.
The Pre-Puebloans (otherwise known as the Anasazi, a name given to them by the Navajo, meaning “enemy ancestors”) likely came the same way, from the South.
Like me, these ancient migrants would have passed by the same red rock mesas. They too would be inspired, awed, by the deep color of the high desert, the vast vistas and endless sky.
Maybe they too were anticipating a great spectacle–those ceremonies in honor of solstices and equinoxes held in the Great Houses of Chaco Canyon.
Bumping along on an unpaved dirt “washboard” road, I slowly drove through the Navajo Reservation, stopping my car in front of the only sign for 23 miles:
ROUGH ROAD May be Impassable Travel at Your Own Risk
The ancient people would have experienced rough travel without cars, wagons, wheels, horses or any other means of transportation.
A thousand years ago, this same road would likely have been full of people migrating to and from Chaco to witness the sun’s return or thrill at the lunar alignment.
What a surprise when I turned a rocky bend and saw Fajada Butte. How close and massive it seemed from the dirt road, like a cathedral carved from sandstone.
I’d been to Chaco Canyon two times before but never approached it from the South.
I felt a strange kinship with this great rock.
At Gallo Campground in Chaco, the wind blew my tent away before I even got it secured in the ground. With the help of the campground host (from Vallejo, Ca!), I tied it to heavy metal rings. I slept that night surrounded by mesa walls, greasewood and blowing sage.
The Pre-Puebloans would have come through the South Gap into the Canyon. On the far side of the gap are more than 50 pit houses. Are they “motels” the migrants camped in while at Chaco?
Across Chaco Wash is Pueblo Bonito, the grandest of the Great Houses, where I stood while taking this photo. Debbie, the interpretive ranger who took me on a tour of Pueblo Bonito, said the arriving visitors likely might have been thrilled by the noisy celebration, the singing in many languages, dancing and music from flutes, conch shells, rattles, foot drums and more.
So many people to see the show! Was it like our rock concerts? Disneyland ? Or like High Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral? Who knows? The only evidence are ruins and potsherds. There’s so much mystery here.
Leaving Chaco Canyon reluctantly (and missing the Full Moon ceremony), I drove to Navajo Lake where I camped a few days and then headed northeast over the Colorado border to Chimney Rock.
And now, finally, I’ve arrived. Even from so far away on the road, I am repelled first sighting the mountain. It’s chilling just seeing bulbous Companion Rock and high narrow Chimney Rock on a dark mountain of chert and lava rock. I’m amazed at how close my feelings are to the atmosphere of terror pervading Spiral that Willow is so desperate to flee.
Still, looking out of my car window, I take comfort in all the mailboxes along the road, proof that ordinary people live beneath this mountain that appears so isolating and ominous seen from afar.
After setting up my tent at Ute Campground, I drive to the park entrance and learn I’m not even permitted to go up Chimney Rock alone. So instead I and five other tourists take a fascinating guided tour with Wayne, an interpretive guide and volunteer.
Today Chimney Rock is the powerful landmark and spiritual center for the Pueblo People–the Taos, Acoma, Zuni, Hopi, Tewa and more.
The two towers signify the Twin War Gods of the Taos Pueblo who slay monsters to help their People. The war gods are also revered by the Navajo who know them as Monster Slayer and Born-for-Water.