The question “Would Ghost Medicine be the Swan Song for the Ella Clah series of novels written by Aimee and David Thurlo?” was foremost in my mind to ask the brilliant Mystery/Thriller and Cozy Mystery authors when I requested an interview with them.
I had read and really loved Ghost Medicine — and, I wrote a review of it which you can read here — and I was hoping that somehow, some way, Navajo Police Investigator Ella Clah would continue on in the books of Aimee and David Thurlo. Please continue reading the following interview, to see what the married authors have to say about this subject, their other numerous books, and much, much more!
Douglas Cobb: Thanks, Aimee and David Thurlo, for agreeing to do this interview with me! I know that you have written other books and series besides the ones about the Navajo Police Investigator Ella Clah, but as those are the ones I’m more familiar with, most of my questions will deal with that series of mystery/thriller/crime procedural novels.
I and fans of the Ella Clah novels have fallen in love with the series, and the excellent touches that you both put into your books about the customs, religion, and lifestyle of Navajos living today on the Rez, as you call it.
What was the very first Ella Clah book, what inspired you both to write it, and do you take turns writing the chapters?
Aimee/David Thurlo: We don’t take turns writing the chapters, our teamwork is much more integrated and overlapping, described later in the interview.
Our very first Ella Clah novel was Blackening Song, which was published in June, 1995. It received a starred review in Publishers Weekly and has been reissued ever since. We came up with the idea of Ella Clah during our drive back from David’s high school reunion in Shiprock, where he grew up. We’d already written Intrigue novels with women protagonists and a mystery edge, so we decided to use David’s background on the Navajo Nation and create a woman detective. Aimée could create strong women characters, David loved to plot mysteries,so we were working in familiar territory.
Douglas Cobb: How does the collaborative process work between you both? What mystery/crime did Ella have to solve in that novel, Blackening Song, and why is it called that?
Aimee/David Thurlo: We quickly learned our individual strengths – Aimée is great with emotion, characterization, dialogue, and understands a woman’s POV. David is the logical side, creating plots, writing action scenes, and handling the descriptions and settings. Here’s our process. We come up with a basic idea together, sometimes while on a drive through the countryside. David creates a story synopsis, which Aimée edits and revises. David creates a per-chapter for the story, and, when Aimée’s name appears first on the title page, she does the first and second drafts. David writes the third and fifth drafts. We are both free to add, delete, edit, and otherwise revised the stories, which are always character driven. Aimée will add notes to the text in bold, with comments like BUTCH THIS GUY UP, and will call David to write the initial action scenes. We’ve learned to trust each other’s skills and instincts, and rarely have those `my words are better than yours’ arguments.
In Blackening Song, the story begins when young undercover FBI agent Ella Clah learns that her father, a Christian preacher on the Rez, has been murdered. Acting on her own, Ella returns to hunt down whoever killed her father.
The task is difficult. She’s now alienated from tribal members and has an awkward relationship with her mother. Rose is a strong Traditionalist who, despite having married a preacher, practices her native beliefs. The ritualistic mutilation of her father’s body leads Ella to suspect her father was killed by skinwalkers, a secretive, dangerous group of Navajo witches unlike those portrayed in Western culture. To make things worse, Ella’s brother, Clifford, has disappeared and is considered a suspect. Clifford was always at odds with his father, and is studying to become a hataalii – a Navajo medicine man or Singer.
Ella always finds her feelings are conflicted, trapped between cultures. She left home afterhigh school because she refused to choose between her father and mother’s conflicting beliefs. Instead, Ella chose neither. A blackening song is a protective ritual or ceremony meant to protect one against evil – something Ella receives from Clifford as she deals with her father’s killer – and traitors in her community.
Douglas Cobb: I got into the Ella Clah series relatively late, having read just Never-Ending-Snake, Black Thunder, and your latest (and perhaps last) Ella Clah novel, Ghost Medicine. I really love the suspenseful, page-turning plots, and also how you make Ella Clah and her family life very easy to relate to for a wide variety of readers.
How much of your own lives do you both put into the Ella Clah novels? Do either of you have any Traditionalist grandparents that are similar to Ella’s mother, Rose, who is into Traditional medicines, crafts, etc., or a brother like Clifford, who is ahataalii or sort of priest/shaman?
Aimee/David Thurlo: Most of the settings in the stories are derived from places David visited while growing up – such as the Hogback. His uncle also ran trading posts on the Navajo Nation, and David’s father was born beside the Zuni Reservation.
Some of the Navajos that David had as classmates are great sources, and we’ve added many others who identified with our stories and their authenticity. While working on Ghost Medicine, we were invited to speak at several locations on the Navajo Nation, including Shiprock High School, where David graduated. During one of those events, we were asked to help judge the Miss Indian New Mexico contest, which we gladly accepted. We have no relatives who practice The Way – cultural Navajo beliefs – but Aimée is very interested in crafts and herbal medicines and is an expert with herbal teas, such as Rose, Ella’s mother.
Douglas Cobb: Why did you choose to call your latest Ella Clah novel Ghost Medicine? In the review I wrote of Ghost Medicine, I mention that Ella and her cousin, Justine — who is also on the police force — investigate the murder of Harry Ute, who appears to have been murdered by one or more skinwalkers.
For readers of The Guardian Liberty Voice who may be unfamiliar with the Ella Clah series of novels and/or what “skinwalkers” are, would you please go into that a bit more, and also into who Harry Ute is/was?
Aimee/David Thurlo: Avoidance of the dead, and the danger a living Navajo may face at the location where another has died, have always been part of a traditionalist Navajo’s belief system. When a person dies, it’s taught that the evil part of every human remains near the body. The name for this evil presence is chindi, and this word is rarely spoken aloud. One shouldn’t call chindi by saying it’s name. These chindi can create problems for anyone who ventures too close or doesn’t bring protection against evil, everything from bad dreams and bad luck to illness. Protection from this evil is usually called `medicine’. This `ghost medicine’ includes items feared by the chindi, such as flint, blessed items such as prayer sticks, soot (blackening), and so forth. Tribal officers often wear two pairs of latex gloves while handling the dead or their possessions, avoiding direct contact.
A `killed’ Hogan is one where someone has died. They are usually abandoned after the body is removed from the Hogan through a hole made in the north wall – the direction of evil.
Skinwalkers, as described earlier, are evil humans who try to hurt, influence, frighten, and otherwise create problems for other Navajos. They tend to practice those very taboos that are abhorrent to other Navajos, including digging up the dead and using their remains as weapons. Some are said to wear coyote or other animal skins while practicing their rituals – hence the term skinwalker.
Harry Ute is a former member of Ella’s special investigation team, and they had a relationship that eventually led to Harry’s marriage proposal. Ella turned him down. Later, Harry left the tribal force, became a US Marshal, married, and had a child. When the story opens, Harry had resigned from the marshal’s service and returned to the Rez, working for Bruce Little (Teeny) as a P.I.
Douglas Cobb: What are some of the changes that have been going on in the Navajo police department Ella Clah works for that prompt her to consider — gulp — retiring?
Aimee/David Thurlo: This plot element in Ghost Medicine is derived from our observations concerning real-life reductions in force among first responders nationwide – now inflicted upon the tribal police. There are political aspects as well, including an effort to drive out Police Chief Atcitty – `Big Ed . He’s Ella’s boss and one of her strongest supporters. Restructuring to save money and drive out expensive, experienced officers is another plot complication in the story. Ella is now considered `too old’ at 42 to work in the field, and a desk job is the last thing she wants to do.
Douglas Cobb: Though Ghost Medicine is, in a way, the Swan Song for the Ella Clah series of novels, there is a slight glimmer of hope for fans of the series, isn’t there, in that Ella could continue doing investigative work and solving cases but for a private firm, like Tiny’s, right? I’m putting you both on the spot, sort of; but, do you at this point think that it might be possible you will at some future time write other Ella Clah novels?
Aimee/David Thurlo: It’s been suggested that we could write short prequels to cover some of the earlier years for Ella on the tribal force, but we’ve incorporated such a mix of transitional and series-long characters that many of our newer readers might not recognize the relationships and dynamics. Also, we’ve evolved all the major characters, especially Ella, and to go back and undo those changes in their lives might destroy the character driven nature of our stories – not to mention having to take away cell phones.
Of course she could become a private investigator working with Teeny, but that’s an issue that is currently out of our hands. So the best answer can’t be yes, not at this time. Sorry.
Douglas Cobb: Not counting Ghost Medicine, what is your favorite Ella Clah novel so far, and why? Is the favorite one different for both of you, or the same one?
Aimee/David Thurlo: We both really like Changing Woman, which really brings forward the women in Ella’s life – her mother Rose, probably the strongest of them all, and Dawn, Ella’s two year old daughter. While Ella is working undercover to end the takeover of a local power plant, Dawn is kidnapped and Dawn’s father has disappeared. In Changing Woman, all the plot elements seem to come together and merge perfectly – in our hearts at least – with the characters themselves. For Aimée, the characters are at their best, and for David – the action and adventure that reaches such an exciting resolution is a favorite.
Douglas Cobb: I’ve mentioned in passing the secondary but very interesting characters, Rose and Clifford. What are your favorite secondary characters in the Ella Clah series, and why? Which ones have you gotten the most reader questions/comments about?
Aimee/David Thurlo: Aimée loves Rose, an older, yet very intelligent woman who has a mind of her own. Rose was created and has evolved from Aimée’s own personality and interests, yet Rose has some hidden strengths and assets that some people would call intuition, others magic.
David likes FBI agent Dwayne Blalock, who, like when David was growing up on the Rez, is an outsider forced to learn how to live and work as a minority. Blalock works with people that he eventually learns to respect, love, and eventually understand. He develops, over the stories, as an integral character, a smart, tenacious investigator, and a true ally for Ella and her team. At the same time, he can be a pain in the butt.
Douglas Cobb: I just have a few more questions — I have loved your answers so far! What happened to Ella’s father, and are there people who claim to be skinwalkers on the Navajo reservation today?
Aimee/David Thurlo: Ella’s father was killed, his body mutilated in only the way a skinwalker could. The most likely motive is that he was a Christian preacher not afraid to speak out against Navajo witchcraft. He made a lot of enemies who resented his growing congregation and his aggressive attempts to bring his religion to the Navajos. The killer is revealed, and – fair warning to readers-read Blackening Song before the second novel in the series, Death Walker. There are spoilers and a connection between stories.
Skinwalkers, or those suspected to be practicing Navajo witchcraft, have been killed in the past to defeat their hold over people. The further you get onto the Navajo Nation – an enormous place larger than some states, the more likely there are to be those following traditional practices, even those that go counter to the good. No skinwalker reveals their presence unless they have a hold over someone, even if it’s from superstition alone.
Douglas Cobb: Besides the Ella Clah novels, you’ve both written the Lee Nez series of novels and the Sister Agatha novels.
Would you please give our readers an idea of what these two series of novels are about, and who the main characters of them are?
Aimee/David Thurlo: The 6 Sister Agatha novels are what have been termed `cozy mysteries, SA is an amateur sleuth, formerly a journalist before becoming an extern nun. Extern nuns provide contact with the outside world. The fictional monastery where she resides is near Bernalillo, New Mexico. SA works closely with the local sheriff, Tom, who was her boyfriend in college. Tom is married now, and this can sometimes create jealousy and awkward moments.Bad Faith, the first in the series, received a starred review in Booklist.
The 4 Lee Nez books cross genres and feature a Navajo half-vampire who happens to be a New Mexico State Policeman working, naturally, the night shift. The first of the series, Second Sunrise, tells how Lee Nez became a half-vampire while preventing a Nazi vampire from stealing plutonium destined to comprise one of the first atomic bombs. In our take on vampires, this is a natural affliction caused by a rare sub-virus, which gives the person certain abilities and limitations that have, over the centuries, evolved into the fictional vampires in books and movies. There are also shape-shifters in our stories, `skinwalkers’ that become wolves due to a related illness. Lee’s sidekick is Diana Lopez, a woman FBI agent sent on the trail of Lee, mistaking him for an enemy terrorist when he’s discovered hanging around the military base of his creator. This is the same Nazi vampire who is now a German fighter pilot training in New Mexico, searching, on the side, for the buried plutonium Lee hid from him in 1945.
Douglas Cobb: Are you currently working on a novel together, or are you taking a short break from writing to publicize Ghost Medicine? Do you have plans to continue each of the series, or to perhaps begin a new one?
Aimee/David Thurlo:Break? What’s a break? We’ve just completed the sixth Copper Canyon novel, Eagle’s Last Stand, for Harlequin Intrigue. These books feature six troubled Navajo youths, now adults, who became the foster children of a Navajo hataalii – medicine man, named Hosteen (Mr.) Silver. This final story leads to the discovery that their foster father did not die a natural death.
Last month we completed Grave Consequences, the second in our new Charlie Henry series, where David is the lead author. These action filled books for Minotaur feature Charlie Henry, a former Special Ops soldier who’s trying to settle back to civilian life. He and his former Army team member, Gordon Sweeney, have just purchased a pawn shop in Albuquerque. After the former owner is killed and Charlie’s friend Gina is wounded, the guys go looking for justice using their own special skillset. The first mystery/thriller in the series is The Pawnbroker, which was published this January in hardcover.
We’re very busy, of course, and are nearing the completion of revisions for the second Trading Post romantic suspense novel for Forge, Looking Through Darkness, which should be published in 2015. The first book, A Time of Change, was published last year. These stories capture the lives and experiences of the employees and friends of the men and women who run a trading post beside the Navajo Nation, just down the road from where David grew up.
Douglas Cobb: Thanks, Aimee and David; I had a great time doing this interview with you and meeting with you! I hope that in one way or the other, there will be more Ella Clah novels from you both in the near future; but, I’m sure that whatever you both might write will be entertaining and page-turning reads. I look forward to reading and reviewing whatever novels you might be writing in the next few years!
Written by: Douglas Cobb