Julia Benally is more than an author with an eccentric past; she’s an author with a great future. I was lucky enough to sit down and have a chat with Julia, and I learned more about her, her ancestry, and her life than I could have ever hoped. She’s full of wisdom, and that’s no surprise given her background in teaching, but more importantly she’s down-to-Earth. Julia’s interview really touched me – she’s overcome quite a bit adversity, and has subsequently used that in her writings, which has paid off with several publications over the last year or so. But, without more jabber on my part, have a read, and take heed to what Julia Benally has to say.
Q: It looks like you’ve been around the block a few times in general world experience, from being a budding writer in highschool, to becoming a teacher, and then back to writing. When life comes full circle like that, how does it influence your writing? How much motivation do you draw from your life experiences?
Well, when I first began to write, my characters were stereotypical, overpowered, overly smart, overly everything. Even while I was a teacher, my characters remained the same. I taught children with problems requiring psychiatrists and so there is one particular character I have who grew out of this. The side characters I gave him were overpowered and nothing could touch them, just as I wished those kids had. In college the students I met there had grown up in more or less ideal circumstances and I found myself from one end of the spectrum to the other. After it was all over and I took up writing again, my characters were still overpowered, and my story lines were still stereotypical. Emotionally, college was extremely hard for me and I didn’t like to think about it very often. When I finally got my mind in gear, I was able to look back on my life and piece it together from a writer’s point of view. People I did and did not like came into focus. Situations I had found unbearable, embarrassing and depressing suddenly became treasure troves of ideas; curses became blessings. And so, now wherever I go, I watch, I listen, I ask weird questions, because from a writer’s view, life is so interesting, and so are people, even the ones I don’t like. When awful things happen, I cheer myself up by wondering how I shall put the wretched thing into a story.
Q: Growing up on a Native reserve, you must have been engulfed with culture and stories. What role does your heritage and ancestry play with your creative process? Furthermore, what obstacles or stereotypes have you come across being of a Native origin, if any? I only ask because cultural differences can be met with unfavourable responses from the more closed minded of people.
I was engulfed alright, and mostly with horrific ghost stories that made me shiver in my bed til late into the night. I have never really thought of the roles my heritage and ancestry played until several people pointed them out to me. I guess I was so close to it I didn’t realize it. First of all, they mention my close knit families and one about listening to your elders. For me these things create the backdrop instead of the main focus. What I focus on are the personalities of my characters. I move away from the stoic Native American. I’m not stoic myself, and none of my friends are stoic. My heritage and ancestry are not stoic. If you run into any non-Native who has really been among the Native Americans, chances are they drink pop straight from the bottle, get ready for the day only when they feel like it and are generally laid back, easy going and full of jokes made up on the spot. That’s the Native influence right there. If you do run into a stoic Native, it’s a mask or just a case of serious misunderstanding. Some people think I’m being stoic for being silent and not laughing, when really I just don’t think their jokes are funny and I think what they’re talking about is asinine.
Other stereotypes aside from being stoic that I constantly run into is that people believe that I am a slut. At the moment I am single, but I have no children and sometimes people will outright think I’m lying. They give me this look that infuriates me, others are totally shocked at finding me childless. That’s been happening since I was fifteen and people would rather believe my baby sister is my daughter. Good guys won’t talk to me for it and bad ones find I’m not that way, hence my singleness. Another thing is music. Sometimes people will ask me what music I like to listen to and then answer for me before I can and it’s always rap. I have an eclectic taste which includes classical, opera, Loretta Lynn, Cher and Selena. I mostly enjoy listening to Enya. Her songs make my muse go wild. Another thing I run into is that people think I drink and do drugs. That’s rampant on the reservation along with the other things I mentioned, but you would think they could tell who is drinking and drugging. There’s a look and smell about them that just screams it. One time in college I ran into someone who actually thought I lived in a teepee. Another thing I run into is that people believe I can’t think on my own. They’ll treat me like a child and will do one of two things because of it: coddle me until I want to scream, or treat me with contempt. But this is all good for the writing and I’ve come to the point of watching these people like a hawk and then doing or saying things just so I can get a reaction out of them. It’s pretty fun.
Q: I would love to hear about the first time you got that acceptance letter to your very first publication; what can you tell me about that? The piece of work, the feeling you got from submitting it, and everything that went on in your mind between sending it out, and having it printed? Do you think that feeling will ever be topped?
To truly understand what I felt, I have to tell you first about the nightmare year I had before the letter came. It started in April when I broke my foot and from there, my world crashed around my ears. I felt like I had been torn to pieces. My life was shattered, my writing was going nowhere and every friend had abandoned me. And still I plodded on now with the only thing I could do: write. And all my pieces were getting rejected. I cried a lot that year more than any other year. Somewhere in June I wrote “The Bridges” and then forgot about it. It’s about a white teacher on the reservation who has the typical derogatory viewpoint of Natives and he scoffs at their superstitions until he comes face to face with one of them. There are two bridges here that cross a canyon. You don’t go on it after midnight because people see things and freaky things happen. Around December, I had this feeling to go over “The Bridges” and so I did. This time I edited it with a “whatever” feeling and didn’t try as hard on it as I had on the others. It was going to get rejected, I just knew it. Anyway, I had signed up for Literary Magazines. They send me new magazines to submit to every month and tell me if it’s legitimate. I had the story but no magazine. And then about two days later, Literary Magazines sent me the Sanitarium Magazine. It sounded like my story would fit and so I sent it off and didn’t think about it again. I was too low to hope. January rolled around and I was stuck at home sweeping the kitchen. I was sitting on the floor picking things out of the trash pile like the miserable wretch I was when my mom called me. She was at the library and had gone into my e-mail. She said Sanitarium had accepted my story. I didn’t even know if I was hearing right. Suddenly the depressing weights lifted off my chest and that tiny kitchen suddenly looked like a palace. I started shaking all over, I was stunned, I couldn’t think straight. And then it came rushing in on me and I jumped to my feet. It was my first acceptance letter! All my pains vanished and I ran around the living room with tears coming out of my eyes. I began to dance and sing, and every song I directed to my Heavenly Father whom I could not thank enough. I spent the rest of the day singing and cleaning like a madwoman because if I sat still I might’ve exploded. I spent that month in agony waiting for my story to be printed. I had to go to the library to check my e-mail for my copy and when it finally came I couldn’t scream because I was in the library. But I made noise enough. It was beautiful, it was so beautiful to see my words there! I don’t think that feeling will ever be topped. It’s not every day you go from darkness to light in an instant as if you had been shot from a cannon.
Q: You’ve recently had a story accepted for A Shadow Of Autumn, so congratulations on that! What can you tell me about the story you submitted, and what it was like to work on something that featured multiple writers?
Thanks! The story I submitted was called “The Hairy Man.” It’s about two brothers and their niece who go hunting and then get chased by Bigfoot even though one of them actually shoots the Bigfoot down. It takes place here on the Fort Apache Reservation and my three main characters are Apaches. It was so fun to be in an anthology. I was curious about what the others were writing, I knew they were probably all awesome and seasoned, and yet I was going to be included in the same book with them. If I said I was honored it would be an understatement.
Q: To touch on the last question; short stories appear to be your forte – what is it about the shorts that you enjoy? Do you have goals for a full length novel in the future, or is there something else that tickles your fancy in the creative world? What are your goals and plans for the future of your work?
Thanks! I get bored quickly and I revel in change and experimenting with decorating and make up and all that good stuff. And so, short stories make my mind constantly wander and change from one story to another, from different characters, settings and places. With shorts, I am never bored and that gives me joy. Currently, a novel is in construction. It involves the character that appeared while I was a teacher. He’s been under heavy editing along with all the side characters because they came from my era of overpowered, inhuman characters. It’s coming along better than I thought possible. Personally, I would love to be mentioned in the same breadth with the great writers like C.S. Lewis. It would be nice to have a hit, but not a one hit wonder. I would like to have dignity attached to my name, not “she’s the third richest woman in the world but she can only write one thing!” No, being a one hit wonder is a nightmare. To have people wanting me to write only one thing about one character would bore me to tears! What would be pretty fun is a cult following. They might sound scary, but shoot, if they belong to you, that’s different. It would be cool to see my story in a movie. It would need to be one that people say is well made and well written with practical effects. A movie people can see without fear of butchery and flashing lights.
Q: What sort of community involvement do you have, or if you haven’t yet ventured out into the world in that sense, what interest do you have with it, and what would you like to do? You have a background as a teacher, which wasn’t your cup-of-tea, but you must have a knack for helping people hone their skills, or teaching them new things, where would you like to use those traits later on in life?
I can’t really have much community involvement. You make something pretty on the rez and people make it a point to tear it apart. You try to help someone and next thing you know they think you’re their slave. You go to a community meeting and people overrule you with stupidity. But I have this vision of improving the park: clean it up, put more equipment, make it a real garden spot where people can gather for community picnics in the summer and have contests and such with booths to sell pretties so we could raise money for our community. Every holiday we could have some kind of party, like during Halloween I always imagined having a party the way the Van Tassel guy did in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow cartoon and everyone could come. We would raise money to put up gorgeous, old fashioned street lights, fix people’s fences, do a big thing where we would clean people’s yards. I don’t know how, but someday this dream will become a reality.
I hope I have a knack for teaching. There was a time when I didn’t want it because to me teaching meant babysitting. Now I’m in a position where I don’t have to teach anyone who won’t come. Sometimes I think I might make a good college professor. No babysitting involved. Currently, I do teach a genealogy class. I have two students at different levels and that’s pretty fun. It thrills me when they find an ancestor that they never knew about. I would like to teach people how to write, how to find the joy of reading, but most people don’t want that from me for some reason. They act really weird, especially when they find out my main genre is horror. I suppose I’ll reserve these skills for my own children whenever they decide to show up and that’s the main thing for me. What I learn and achieve will be passed on to them.
Julia is the epitome of never judge a book by its cover, even if we are technically talking about books… It’s about the content – the journey that the book holds within. Like any story, Julia’s life has lead her down different paths, and though her tale isn’t over, it’s definitely headed on the right course now. So, please, check out her works below!