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SHUTTER: More than a forensic crime novel
Multi-talented filmmaker and debut novelist Ramona Emerson wins multiple award nominations for a book Big Publishing overlooked
Granted, the mystery aspects of Shutter’s plot make it a compelling and more commercial read. But even had those parts been excised, I still would have been drawn in by alternating chapters that bring us into the childhood and adolescent years of Rita Todacheene, an indigenous woman who has the ability to see ghosts (much to the disappointment of her community members) long before she becomes a forensic photographer tangled up in corruption and crime.
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As a book that combines a gripping plot with authentic cultural context, this seems like a story bound to be snapped up by editors without delay. Not so, the author tells us.
Only days before she was nominated for a 2023 Edgar Award (Best First Novel category), which followed her nomination for the National Book Award, Ramona Emerson spent a few minutes telling us her novel’s origin story.
ARL: For many writers, “Write what you know” is debatable and possibly limiting advice. But in your case, what you know—from your identity as a member of the Navajo Nation to your sixteen years documenting crime scenes as a forensic photographer—makes for an absolutely fascinating novel. In your Fresh Air interview, you mentioned that this book started out as a potential memoir. Can you tell us how you decided to write a suspense novel partly based on personal experiences and how you came to the conclusion that a novel format would serve you better than nonfiction?
RE: When I started to write the short stories that became Shutter, most of the stories were about my experiences with my grandmother, mixed with some stories about mysterious or strange things on the Navajo reservation. When I began my MFA program, I realized that I really didn’t want to write about myself or be a memoirist. So, I had to find a way to tell the story fictionally so I wouldn’t have to tell anyone about what was real and what was not. Rita is who I would be if I was more exciting and cooler. Ha-ha. But then I really began to think about death and how we as Navajos deal with death – a very taboo subject – and what would happen if a Navajo could see the dead!? Oh, there would likely be hell to play. That was it. Shutter was born. I had the title immediately.
ARL: In the acknowledgments, you thank Soho Press VP Juliet Grames for “being so patient and supportive” and mentioning that she “waited years for me to come back.” Many writers take a while to sell their stories, but I have a feeling you experienced the opposite—years of editors urging you to write. Am I far off?
RE: Juliet was the first editor to ever see Shutter after my MFA program, so she literally saw the first draft, read it over the weekend and called me and talked for an hour and a half. It was exciting. Then I got an agent, who didn’t see the novel at a smaller press and Juliet was pushed out of the bidding process. After 28 rejections from every big publishing house and more rewrites, I was let go by my agent. It was a traumatic time for me, but I sat with my re-edits for a few months then called Juliet again and asked her if she was still interested. It was like we just got off of that phone call… three years later. We never looked back.
ARL: Magical realism is often associated with Latin America, but it seems to me that every culture in the world has some form of respect for and relationship with the supernatural. Ghosts are one example we see cropping up in lots of strong literary novels lately, from yours to The Sentence by Louise Erdrich and Hell of a Book by Jason Mott. Do you have any ideas about what function ghosts serve in literature, and why we are seeing a lot of them lately in award-winning books, including many written by people of color?
RE: Ghosts have been a part of literature for a long time, but you’re right that they have made a bit of a resurgence. I think there is some real reckoning going on about our histories, our pasts and our roles in changing the mistakes of the past. Ghosts serve as a reminder of our own consciousness and our connection to who we are and what we believe. Maybe that is why we are all connecting with ghosts – to see where we have gone wrong and how we can remedy our own histories.
ARL: Given your involvement in film, how do you decide which story ideas will work best in which formats, and how do the two worlds interact? I’m curious if you applied any lessons from one to the other, and how they speak to you differently, if they do.
RE: Great question. For me, fiction has been a very liberating artform. When you work in film, the overlying constant cloud is funding. So even writing a screenplay was never a free and limitless exercise in storytelling because I was constantly concerned about how I was going to pay for it. I originally thought of Shutter as a screenplay, but my mentor Joan Tewekesbury encouraged me to move into fiction since she had been hearing me read at her workshop, and wrote a letter of recommendation for my MFA under the stipulation I move to fiction. I’m so happy she did that because fiction has been a real blessing to me.
These days most of my work is in documentary film. As I write book number two, I am also involved in four different documentary film projects at various stages of production, which are completely separate from the fictional projects. My documentary work aims to bring awareness and change to Native/Navajo communities or to introduce audiences to Native communities and individuals that they otherwise would have never met. I guess they are very similar to each other in that sense, introducing people to characters/events/locations that they would never be able to experience otherwise. I guess that is what all of this work does – bring understanding.
Ramona Emerson is a Diné writer and filmmaker originally from Tohatchi, New Mexico. She has a bachelor’s in Media Arts from the University of New Mexico and an MFA in Creative Writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts. After starting in forensic videography, she embarked upon a career as a photographer, writer and editor. She is an Emmy nominee, a Sundance Native Lab Fellow, a Time-Warner Storyteller Fellow, a Tribeca All-Access Grantee, and a WGBH Producer Fellow. She currently resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she and her husband, the producer Kelly Byars, run their production company Reel Indian Pictures.
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