A Voice for the Overlooked: Interview with Julia Sullivan.
By Carin Chea
As a veteran lawyer and, recently, a published author, Julia Sullivan will tell you that her journey as a writer started approximately 21 years ago when she visited the historical and awe-inspiring Big Hole Battlefield in Wisdom, Montana, where one of the most brutal scenes from the Nez Perce War of 1877 unfolded. However, within minutes of speaking with her, it became clear that Sullivan’s journey really started much earlier, at the age of 10, when she witnessed a grave injustice committed against a close family member. While most bloom into adulthood without realizing their calling,
Sullivan knew as a child. You could say that, since the 4th grade, Sullivan has aspired to lend her voice to those whose paths have been thwarted by the darkness of injustice. Tell us about your background. How did you settle upon the profession of law? When I was about 10, a family member was falsely accused of assaulting a police officer. It was a very big deal. He was in the military, and he lost his security clearance, with devastating professional consequences. He went to trial, and he won. The jury believed his version of events rather than the officers. But in the meanwhile, my parents had to mortgage our house and hire a lawyer, adding to the strain. I could see how frightened my parents were, and that frightened me. The whole experience was quite traumatic. Ever since then, I’ve been very suspicious of power and its potential for abuse. Not resentful, but suspicious and cautious. And I knew I would become a lawyer. How did writing come about? I began working on Bone Necklace over twenty years ago, after visiting the Big Hole Battlefield. I remember walking down to the riverbank where the battle occurred, surrounded by high bluffs. It is a beautiful place where something unspeakable occurred. The disconnect really struck me. I’ve never been a person who gets attached to a place that much, but there was something about the Big Hole that just grabbed me, with sounds of the river and the wind and the bare teepee poles marking the spots where Nez Perce families were sleeping when the soldiers came charging across the river. I could almost feel the terror and the tragedy, like the land itself was telling me what had happened there. I’ve been obsessed with the Nez Perce story ever since. When I got home to Maryland, I went to the National Archives and started reading about the war. Pretty soon I had thousands of pages I’d copied from the archives and the Library of Congress. Then I started visiting historical societies all over the pacific northwest. Before long, I had a couple of bookshelves full of research. I traveled the length of the 1,100-mile Nez Perce trail and spoke with members of the tribe. Then I started to write.
How did your career in law inform your writing?
As a lawyer, I have tried to use my voice on behalf of people who had suffered injustice. I became interested in the Nez Perce because of the injustice that they suffered at the hands of the government. I was amazed by the tribe’s military genius. Chief Joseph became known as the “Red Napoleon” after the Nez Perce successfully held off four converging armies while nearly three hundred family members escaped to Canada. I liked the idea of telling a David & Goliath story where the Native American characters emerged, if not victorious, then certainly not defeated.
Is Bone Necklace your first book? It’s my first novel. Which is why it took so long. I thought, “How hard can it be?” It was really hard. It was two steps forward, one step back, for over twenty years. Why did you decide to finally publish it at this time? It took a lot of courage to send it out because there’s a lot of my heart on those pages. It’s scary, sharing something like that with strangers. But I feel like this is a moment when the world needs more stories about vulnerable people who have faced adversity and overcome it. In December 2020, as I was completing Bone Necklace, the tribe purchased 140 acres in the Wallowa Valley, Oregon, where their ancestors had lived for over ten thousand years prior to the war in 1877. It’s called the Place of the Boulders. They had a wonderful ceremony where they marched in on their horses. And it made me feel like this was the perfect time to release this book. What do you hope to impress upon your readers? Native American history is too often portrayed as a tragedy as if there was some fatal flaw in the character of indigenous peoples and cultures that doomed them to a terrible fate. It’s a narrative that places the blame for government perfidy squarely on the victims. I fundamentally disagree with that premise. The more I researched the Nez Perce, the stronger my disagreement became. By 1877, the Nez Perce were very well integrated with white culture. They went to school, raised stock, traded in white settlements, and frequently bragged that, despite every provocation, no member of their community had ever harmed a member of white society. There was no reason why the Nez Perce could not have continued to live side by side with incoming settlers, as they had been doing for many years, other than racism. All that blood was spilled for nothing. Who would play you in your Lifetime movie-of-the-week biopic? Laura Dern. Unlike me, she has a Hollywood smile and those gorgeous blue eyes, but from a distance, there’s enough of a semblance to be somewhat convincing. We’re about the same age and build. Her social activist resume is almost as compelling as her acting resume, which is something I really like about
her. I particularly admire her work on behalf of vulnerable populations, such as migrant families. As an actress, she tends to play complicated, quirky characters, like me. It would be a kick to meet her someday! For more information, please visit https://www.juliasullivanauthor.com