This cartoon of me was drawn by my friend R.C. (Bob) Harvey, famous cartoonist and historian. I think if he liked me better, he would have given me more hair on top. But then he would have been jealous.
Readers sometimes ask me questions like the following, because they wonder what made me interested in the stuff I write about.
Where am I from?
Through no fault of my own, I was raised among kindly, poor, and church-going people in the hills northeast of Fairbanks, Alaska. If you started walking northward through the big woods from our little house, you might reach the Yukon River, or even the Arctic Ocean, without meeting another human. (Theoretically, that is. You’d probably bump into my dad.)
What was I like as a child?
I could recite the “Shooting of Dan McGrew,” “Gunga Din,” and whole chapters of the Bible before I was twelve. Snowshoes, guns, furs, and hand tools were as common to me as Legos were to you. For a while, I had a dog team, but I did a bad job of training them and we parted ways. I did fine in school, but I wasn’t smart enough to push myself. Also, I'm shy, so I made my share of social mistakes. You know. In romance.
Where do my writing ideas come from?
See, the thing is, there’s nothing special about where ideas begin. It’s what they become that’s important. You begin from your own experience (what else is there?), and you mix it with as much imagination as you can.
What’s my writing process like?
It’s a lot like fun, but then it’s also a lot like work. You know. Creating anything gives you real pleasure—even if you know it isn’t perfect—but it takes patience and discipline and humility to keep going.
When I’m writing anything very long, I try to work on it every day, and just make progress. I write slowly, and I go back through the writing again and again. Gradually, I get things into a shape that I like. With fiction, I tend to think in scenes—a big one here, a little one there—and I let them stay separate for a while. Then I go back and string the scenes together like points in a spiderweb. When everything’s connected, then I know I’m done.
What other stuff have I done?
I've done some other stuff.
One girl asked me "In your books, do you know what these foreign words mean?" Yep, I do. I can speak Spanish. I can read French pretty well. I have traveled in Latin America. I can teach ESL.
Other things. I have a brilliant wife. I have kids (also brilliant). I have some college degrees. I was in academic publishing for a long time, and I've written quite a lot of academic articles and stuff, for a guy like me. I like to sing old old folk songs. I love music, especially opera, bachata, bluegrass, folk, and blues. I love jokes, puns, malapropisms, and swearing. Wine and cigars. I love computers and campfires. I love fabulous food and all kinds of comedy. I love my friends. Also, I love writing.
All of this is why one of my Mexican friends calls me an "estuche de monerias," which means a box full of monkey business. She means it in a good way. Ha. Another of my Mexican friends calls me "pinche Miguelito," which . . . well, actually she means it in a good way and a bad way. Jajajaja! You'd have to know her.
What was my family like?
My parents were good Christian folk in the days when that was a gentler and simpler dogma than it is today. As cold-climate people, they were stern but well-meaning, and they believed—as a character in one of my books says—that children were put on earth to do chores and to memorize the scriptures. I’m not saying they were wrong about everything, but yeah, on some stuff I have different views.
In Alaska, if you’re lucky, you can have Native American friends, as I did. Plus, on my father’s side, some of my cousins are Ojibwe, and from these connections I learned a love for Native American stories and cultures, some of which appear in my books. One of my Ojibwe cousins was more like a grandmother to me. Together, she and I wrote two picture books based on traditional stories that her grandfather taught her. (The second of these books bit the dust in a corporate shootout in 1997. Long story.) She was a peach, and I loved her dearly. She may be the only one of my family who agreed with me in both politics and religion.
Nobody is just like their parents. To call my family conservative would be an insult to conservative people, but I turned out to be a tax-and-spend liberal. That's just the way it goes in families. So, yeah. I come from good people, but along the road, I just developed some ways that ain't quite right.