Deborah Hufford is an award-winning writer and magazine editor with stories in the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, Connoisseur, Better Homes & Gardens, San Francisco Chronicle, many other titles. She is internationally known for her popular historical blog, Notes from the Frontier, with more than 100,000 readers, including many Native followers, history scholars and schoolteachers who use the blog posts as teaching lessons in in their classrooms. She also served as publisher of The Writer’s Handbook and The Writer Magazine imprint. She has a Master’s degree from the University of Iowa where she taught Writer’s Workshop students at the Center for the Book. She has also taught graduate writing and publishing courses at Northwestern University and Marquette University. She grew up an Iowa farm girl with horses and all kinds of critters and was a rodeo queen. She has volunteered extensively with the Chief Joseph Foundation (CJF) and brought in $300,000 in new grants for the Foundation’s youth programs. A portion of sales from Blood to Rubies goes to CJF youth programs. After 30 years of work on her debut novel while battling kidney disease, then a heart attack, then end-stage kidney failure, she signed with a publisher the same day her husband was approved as her kidney donor! Now, several months after her successful kidney transplant, Blood to Rubies is finally being published with wonderful literary reviews. Miracles DO happen!
“Rhapsodic and sensuous.” “Savage and tender.” Blood to Rubies is the scorching saga of injustice, love, and redemption in the western wilderness. A young frontier photographer goes West to escape the Civil War draft and settles in the Bitterroot Mountains, ancestral home of the Nez Perce Indians. There he becomes obsessed with a young Irish pioneer woman he spies swimming nude in a mountain lake. He comes to admire the Nez Perce and photographs the young leader, Chief Joseph, and a Nez Perce woman warrior (based on a real historical person). Their stories tangle in a ruthless convergence of fates. As he chronicles Chief Joseph’s desperate struggle to save his people and their harrowing 1,500-mile exodus to the Canadian border—the medicine line—to join Sitting Bull in freedom, he feels complicit in their demise.
Blood to Rubies has already garnered early praise from New York Times bestselling authors, calling the book “brilliant,” “heartbreakingly beautiful,” “unforgettable,” and “a riveting debut.”
1. Your book, Blood to Rubies, just came out. What inspired you to write this book? Why is it an important story to tell? I grew up as an Iowa farm girl, horse lover, and, later, a rodeo queen. I loved all kinds of critters and nature, was a voracious reader, and loved history, especially of the American West and Native Americans. I got my dream horse, Sundance, when I was twelve and rode him along Iowa country roads and river valleys, exploring old stagecoach trails, Indian mounds, buffalo wallows, pioneer cemeteries, and even an old, abandoned coal mine. Riding my horse, I imagined the land when Native Americans lived there, before Whites came. My favorite place in all the world was a sweeping lush river valley where a herd of Appaloosas and a beautiful leopard stallion grazed. Even though I lived in Iowa, not Idaho, the home of the Nez Perce and the Appaloosas they developed, my childhood imaginings were not limited by geography. I liked to imagine that those Appaloosas belonged to the Nez Perce and Chief Joseph. That was the seed of inspiration for my novel.
I attended the University of Iowa to become a writer. In graduate school, I taught writer’s workshop students the archaic form of letterpress printing at the center of the book. I designed and hand-printed posters for the writer’s workshop and the greatest authors in the world who did readings there. So, I was in close proximity to great literature and the creators of great literature. But, somehow, being so close to that greatness discouraged me from trying fiction. It seemed such a rarefied, unreachable realm. I became an award-winning magazine writer and editor, and later a publisher of The Writer’s Handbook.
It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with severe kidney disease when our daughter was born and mortality loomed over me like the Sword of Damocles that I decided to try to write the story that had been fomenting in me since I was a child. I started writing in short vignettes and character snapshots because I was so terrified I didn’t have the talent. Out of that slipshod approach, a plot and characters emerged. Then, one day, I realized that I had written about 100 pages—unruly pages, granted—but about a third of a book, nonetheless. And I thought, maybe, some of it was pretty good. So, I began plotting out a story, doing exhaustive research, and piecing it all together. In essence, I backed into writing a novel. Ha!
The story of Chief Joseph spoke to me since I was a child. He was so dignified and brave and faced unimaginable injustice, including losing his ancestral lands and ancient civilization. Chief Joseph’s story is central to the American story because the Nez Perce and Joseph’s ancestor, Chief Red Grizzly Bear, helped save Lewis and Clark from starvation and freezing to death. They also showed them the Northwest Passage. Ironically, this opened the continent up to Manifest Destiny, which nearly wiped out hundreds of Native cultures and millions of Native Americans. Seventy years later, Joseph and the Nez Perce were the last tribe to take a stand against the US, in the last major Indian war. It is one of the most important and bitterly ironic stories in American history. The world should know his story. In my novel, I try to not only present the facts and accurate history but also make the characters and story come alive through fiction in a way that textbooks and nonfiction cannot. I hope I’ve achieved that.
2. What was the most challenging part to write? What was the easiest part? Character development was the easiest for me because my characters just took over and practically wrote themselves. Some fiction writers have this experience, and it’s powerful. It feels as if you’re channeling characters. You can’t type fast enough to get their words down.
One character, Willie McGee, an Irish livery stable owner, was like that. He is good-hearted but foulmouthed and very funny. I couldn’t shut him up! I swear Willie was channeling my father-in-law, Harry, who was a staff sergeant in World War II in Italy and commanded a squad of howitzer artillery. He picked up some very creative profanity. Stuff like “useless as a crocheted piss pot” and other sayings I can’t print here. They show up in Willie’s dialogue.
Writing about the land, too, came very naturally because the land and nature are such a profound part of me and growing up. Writing about animals, who play a big part in my book, also just flowed out of me.
The hardest thing was researching for historical accuracy, the timeline of events, and braiding fictional characters into a historical context with real historical figures. My book was deeply researched over many years. I spent years vetting my book with Allen V. Pinkham, an esteemed Nez Perce elder who was chair and chieftain of the Nez Perce tribe and a nationally recognized scholar and author of tribal history. I also worked with Dr. Steven Evans, a thirty-three-year professor and a nationally recognized scholar of Nez Perce history at Lewis and Clark College.
I think historical fiction is one of the most challenging genres because an author is attempting to build a fictional story but based on a real historical construct that needs to be accurate and true to the time. And weaving fictional characters in with true historical characters is an art and meticulously sensitive.
3. Editing can be grueling (writers call this “killing/murdering your babies”). What was that process like for you? Honestly, it was a dream, and I was shocked and very pleasantly surprised. I had heard so many horror stories from writers about the editing process that I went into it mortified and loaded up with so much emotional armor that I felt akin to an armadillo driving a Sherman tank. But all that girding of loins wasn’t necessary, as it turned out.
Greg Fields, an acquisition editor for Koehler Books, is an internationally renowned literary fiction author of three award-winning books, a protege of the great Pat Conroy, and a featured speaker at the International Dublin Writers Festival. When my book began the publishing process at Koehler Books, my manuscript was . . . ahem . . . a bit long. I had cut the original manuscript from a sprawling and feral 250,000 words down to around 120,000 words. But it still needed trimming by about 10,000 words. I was nervous, but Greg edited the manuscript so deftly, and with such sensitivity, I was amazed. I could not have had a better editor, especially since Greg is a literary writer and appreciated the literary quality of my writing. He also writes about Irish characters, which was very helpful since my book features several Irish immigrants in frontier America. Greg also gave me the choice of vetoing some edits and offering my own. It was a comfortable and cordial give-and-take process, and we achieved the desired cuts very quickly. The MS was improved because of the cuts.
The next step was a line edit with Senior Editor Hannah Woodlan. I was nervous all over again, but my worries were unwarranted. Hannah holds an MFA in creative writing and, like Greg, has a keen literary eye and is extremely sensitive to preserving the integrity of the writing but cutting out the excess—making the work cleaner.
Hannah was also very mindful of the timeline of events and called attention to some inconsistencies, which was a relief to me. Better an editor points them out before the book is published than readers pointing them out after it is in print! Her diligence and scrutiny gave me confidence that my complicated plot involving a dozen characters would have integrity and not confuse readers. Again, the process was a comfortable symbiosis and resulted in a more powerful novel.
4. Your journey to publish your book was long and very challenging. How did you come about publishing with Koehler Books? As I mentioned, I didn’t start writing fiction until much later in life. I was a career magazine editor and writer with numerous credits, including the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, Connoisseur, Better Homes and Gardens, etc. I was also a topflight editor of several national magazines—Country Home, Birder’s World, McMagazine (for McDonald’s Corp.), Celebrate! Midwest, and Country Handcrafts (at the time the largest craft magazine in the country), and, finally, publisher of The Writer’s Handbook. Even so, I was intimidated by fiction.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, Sophia, and diagnosed with kidney failure, I was finally scared into writing fiction and the story of Chief Joseph that had been dormant in my mind for decades. The grim reaper came knocking yet again when I had a kidney disease-related heart attack. I suffered no damage to my heart, but I became frantic to finish my book.
I had very stressful management jobs in publishing that resulted in terrible chronic insomnia. I decided to take advantage of those restless nighttime hours to write. Between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. every night, I sat at my computer and wrote my novel. My cat and two dogs were at my feet, usually on my feet, and it was a lovely time alone in the wee hours, with my furry family and my muse, and the words just galloped out of my head.
I was determined to publish through the traditional publishing model. That meant submitting to literary agents who get hundreds of submissions a week. I’ve talked to many successful authors who submitted to hundreds of agents before finally landing one. And they were the lucky ones. I got ten bites from big literary agencies and was very encouraged. Then, finally, one of the top three literary agencies in the world called me at 8 a.m. Sunday morning. They wanted to represent my book! The first line the agent said was “You know your book could be the next Dances with Wolves.” That was one of the happiest days of my life!
Then, months later, my agent called with catastrophic news. He had experienced a traumatic humiliation when he was on a panel and other agents accused him of “cultural appropriation.” He told me that I would have to find a Native coauthor so he and my book wouldn’t be accused of cultural appropriation. I was crushed. But I refused to get a coauthor. I felt as if plopping a Native coauthor on the cover after the book was already done was disingenuous. I had worked with leading Nez Perce elders and a nationally known history scholar for years to vet my book. The foreword was written by a former chair and chieftain of the Nez Perce tribe. Other highly esteemed elders had endorsed the book as well. I had more than done my due diligence. Furthermore, I was contributing a portion of my book sales to the Chief Joseph Foundation for their amazing youth empowerment programs working with Appaloosas.
Within a couple of weeks, I got even more devastating news. My kidney failure had finally progressed to the end stage. I was put on a donor list and began going through exhausting tests. The average time for kidney failure patients waiting for a kidney is seven years, often a cadaver kidney. Many die before that. I made my husband and daughter promise me that they would try to get my novel published posthumously if I didn’t make it.
My wonderful, wonderful family stepped up to try to save me. Five members volunteered: my mother, my two sisters, and my husband, but, one by one, they were rejected. My nephew volunteered too and was a miraculous five out of six genetic match. But then he had a freak accident being a Good Samaritan and lost both his legs. It was a nightmare.
I felt like time was running out for me and my novel. I decided to switch gears and submit to university and independent publishers directly. By then, I had no energy, and my body and mind were requiring fifteen to sixteen hours of sleep a day.
My husband had already been rejected as a donor because he had high blood pressure. But he didn’t give up. Through Herculean effort, he adopted a plant-based diet, began exercising, and gave up drinking. In Wisconsin, the state with the highest alcohol consumption rate in the country, THAT is true love! He lost weight and brought his blood pressure way down.
On October 24, 2022, my husband was approved as my kidney donor. That same day, I signed a contract with Koehler Books to publish my novel, Blood to Rubies. Miracles do happen!
I was flying sky-high that I’d get a new lease on life! And I was over the moon to sign with Koehler Books. They have literary giants in their stable of writers, including the iconic author Clay Jenkinson, as well as Jeffrey Blount and Leslie Carroll, and Koehler’s authors have won a very long list of literary awards. Many top-line literary agents have signed their authors with Koehler, as well as—in a little twist of smug irony—my former literary agent. I felt I had landed in a perfect place.
On December 8, 2022, I had a kidney transplant with my husband’s shiny new left kidney. We are both doing very well. He was able to leave the hospital the next day! On September 19, 2023, my novel was published to rave reviews by New York Times bestselling writers. Within days, it reached the Amazon Top 25! I am truly one of the most blessed cowgirls on the planet.
5. Your novel is very unique in fiction in that it features seventy archival images as chapter headers. Why did you choose this approach? The fiction novel is a relatively modern art form—only about 300 years old. Daniel Dafoe’s 1719 literary creation, Robinson Crusoe, is often cited as the first novel. For more than the next 200 years, novels customarily included images. Jane Austen’s and Charles Dickens’s works, for example, were elaborately illustrated. Sometime around World War II, images in fiction were abandoned, then, it seemed, forgotten altogether. Only a handful of novels in the last twenty years have been published with images. It’s unheard of. So, it was with bewilderment and some trepidation that I considered using photographs in my upcoming historical novel.
During those thirty years of research and writing, I pored over hundreds of books with wonderful archival photographs. They became inextricably linked to my story, visual markers that inspired characters, chapters, and plotline. I immersed myself in volumes showcasing the work of Edward S. Curtis, William Henry Jackson, George Catlin, Ansel Adams, and other frontier photographers. They informed my main character, a young frontier photographer named Frederick Cortland, who goes West to escape the Civil War draft and ultimately befriends the Nez Perce and comes to admire Chief Joseph.
But the book that affected me most was The West, An Illustrated History, the companion book to Ken Burns’s seminal documentary about the American frontier. The first image in the frontispiece of his huge tome was the famous portrait of Chief Joseph, by Edward Curtis. Ken Burns has perfected the storytelling method of integrating archival still photographs into his historical narratives. His PBS documentaries have become wildly popular, world-changing, and award-winning. He’s proven resoundingly that the approach works. His success, perhaps, has been counterintuitive for many media experts in this age of hyper-phantasmagoric-flashing images and frenetic social media. Burns has done the impossible: cut through our contemporary cacophony and saccharin eye candy. Slowed us down to listen and absorb history, to appreciate it, to love it.
Inspired by Ken Burns’s model, I launched a historical blog called Notes from the Frontier (@NotesfromtheFrontier). The blog, copiously researched and image-heavy, was an exercise in telling stories with words and archival photographs. Within two years, Notes from the Frontier had garnered more than 100,000 readers, and my most popular post had one million readers. Its success proved that readers would find my image-infused approach to fiction appealing. The images enriched my own perspectives so much; I wanted my readers to be as inspired by them as I was.
When I signed with Koehler Books, another miracle plopped in my lap. One of their art directors, Christine Kettner, had asked to work on my book when she read what it was about. Christine is a veteran book designer who, in her illustrious career, has spent at least ten years apiece at the three big book publishing houses. She had done the covers for the hugely popular Narnia series. Her dramatic cover, featuring a unicorn with blood dripping from its horn, took the world by storm. The reason she had asked to work on my book was this: her final MFA art school project had been the creation of a handmade book about—wait for it!—Chief Joseph! It was as if the universe had brought us together for this project. I could not have found a more perfect designer!
It was Christine’s idea to use Victorian-style marquees to enshrine each photograph and to begin each chapter with a decorative 1800s-style initial. Her coup de grâce was in setting my opening prose poem against the magnificent backdrop of Ansel Adams’s famous Snake River in the Tetons as a full-page spread. That image was taken in Nez Perce country and captures the land and why the Nez Perce cherished it so.
When the great American author William Kent Krueger gave me his mind-blowing cover quote for Blood to Rubies, he told me that the writing was not only amazing but so was the book design. If what Kent predicts comes true—“Mark my words, Blood to Rubies is destined to become a classic”—Christine will have contributed to the book’s popularity. Her design makes reading Blood to Rubies a visual joy as well as a literary one.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Read more about my book, download a book club discussion guide, and find perks and prizes for book clubs reading Blood to Rubies at my author site. See also my article for Historical Times magazine about why I chose to include images in my historical novel.