With Robert L. Hunton’s second volume in the Borderlands Trilogy set to release this month, I sat down with the Arizonan to discover more about his schedule, plans for the trilogy, and how a teaching career turned into the writer’s life.
Questions by Eric Altemus
1. When did you start writing?
I have always enjoyed writing, and felt compelled to write, mostly in a small notebook or journal, since about age 10 or 11. It was never for sharing though—just personal reflection or maybe a chance to vent. It’s been a great emotional outlet.
2. Who would you consider your writing influences?
Teachers, in the public schools—so many who held the writing process in high esteem, and were successful in passing on that passion to me. Also, my mother, who loved writing letters, always very mindful of her choice of words and perfect penmanship. I remember too, receiving letters from my father, and how special those were. It always seemed to be about the power of those words and letters to pull at my heart.
3. What is your average writing schedule?
When I am into the head of my character or focused on plot, pace, etc., I write for 5 +/- hours each day. On a given day, when my subjects and verbs start to disagree, I know it’s time to quit. I keep my eye trained on the prize—a completed first draft. You really don’t have much until you have at least that. Then the hard work of revision begins. I write six days a week usually. I try to get away for an afternoon, mid-week, and again on Sunday. Heck, reading the New York Times takes half the day anyway.
4. What is the most exciting thing about writing?
Escape—sitting down in a comfortable theatre seat to watch a good movie. And that’s because writing for me is a movie running in my head. Once the projector is turned on, there is no stopping this flick! I’m not exaggerating. This is how I write. This is how real the process is for me.
I’m also excited about the prospect of how a particular scene I’m crafting might turn out. That may sound inconsistent, but so is human nature. I’m talking about the human nature in my characters. Are they real? If they are, they might well do something unpredictable—something you never would have conceived of at first. In that respect, I don’t think good stories come in neat packages.
5. How has your career as an educator impacted your writing now?
Well, it’s certainly provided enough reminders about how important writing is. I would look into the eyes of my students—when they were listening to a story I was reading them, or when they were thinking and writing in combination, and realize that as adolescent learners, they were pretty much going on faith alone—that, and my enthusiasm for the subject. Believe me, as a teacher, that’s a sobering sort of ‘come-uppance.’
Also, I know ‘kid’s speak.’ I hung out with them for thirty-two years, and I still do as much as possible.
One negative I can think of—a teacher’s tendency to ‘tell’ too much, and not ‘show.’
6. What was the inspiration for the Borderlands Trilogy?
A couple of things—a deep love for Native American, indigenous culture. A study of local native tradition was always a major academic unit in the middle school where I taught, and also at the district, county, and state levels. I like to think I had something to do with that degree of coverage and acceptance. Another piece of our annual unit centered on Indian resistance leaders, like Chief Joseph, and Geronimo here in the Southwest. Contemplating such tragic events as befell them isn’t easy for most Americans, but teaching it to adolescents is even tougher to accomplish.
I see the Borderlands Trilogy as a way for me to add a voice in recognition of American Indian contributions to our society—all that is good and honorable in those contributions, gifts if you will. I also want my readers to see native people as universal human beings. No different from anyone else. There are both good and bad elements in every corner of world society.
7. The desert is an important setting in the Borderlands Trilogy. As a former resident of Vermont, how has Arizona changed you?
Living in the desert is a truly unique life experience. The geography and other environmental factors here couldn’t possibly be more different than back in New England. I will say though that there are the same good, hard-working people living in both places; people who treat each other with honesty and fairness. But the Sonoran desert is a very special ecosystem. Yet, it is as fragile as any of our natural systems nationwide, and deserves the same amount of concern and dedication to protect as say, the Great Smokies or the Green Mountains. Walking in a forest of giant saguaros is definitely an out-of-body, out-of-mind experience. I worry a lot more about water usage here though.
8. How would you compare the writing process of Gift of the Desert Dog to Secrets of the Medicine Pouch?
Writing this series has been easy for me. No doubt my affinity for the subject matter has a lot to do with it. I do see the process as being more about consistency. I sometimes wonder if I can reach or surpass the bar set for the previous project. I’m tough on myself, but I do try to take deep breaths on occasion. Also, I’m a serious creature of habit, so I follow an established routine in my writing. I keep doing what works. I write about what I know. I definitely have one voice—readers say: ‘Yeah, that’s him all right. I’d recognize that style anywhere.’ I’m flattered when I hear that. Published work is an imprint, you know?