N. Scott Momaday remembers 1969 Pulitzer, promises memoir

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N. Scott Momaday

In this Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, photo, Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for his groundbreaking novel “House Made of Dawn,” sits in his Santa Fe, N.M., home between writing sessions. In a rare interview with The Associated Press, the 85-year-old Native American author says he’s excited about a new PBS American Masters documentary about his life. But he remains surprised and humbled that other writers have said his work has influenced them. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for his groundbreaking novel “House Made of Dawn,” said he’s not done writing and vows to finish his long-anticipated memoir.

In a rare interview at his Santa Fe home, the 85-year-old author told The Associated Press he’s excited about a new PBS documentary about his work, and it’s allowing him to reflect on his life growing up in Oklahoma and New Mexico.

The former University of California-Berkeley professor also has two other books in the works.

“I’m staying active, and I still have a lot to accomplish,” Momaday said during a break from writing. “The memoir has been shelved for now, but I will get to it.”

Momaday said the memoir will delve into his childhood with his teacher parents and explain why he sees himself as a reincarnation of a bear. He also plans to write about the surprise he felt becoming the first Native American writer to win the Pulitzer, and about studying American poet Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts, getting followed by Soviet Union agents while teaching in Moscow, and meeting artist Georgia O’Keeffe late in her life.

“That story appeared in Reader’s Digest,” Momaday said. As he tells it, O’Keeffe disappeared for a long time during one of their meetings, and dismantled a locked door to a pantry that held the alcohol.

“Her maid had took the key,” he said.

The American Masters documentary series is set to air “N. Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear” on most PBS stations Monday. Director Jeffrey Palmer dove into Momaday’s career but also talked to Muscogee Nation member and poet Joy Harjo about Momaday’s impact on American Literature. Palmer also interviewed actors including Jeff Bridges and James Earl Jones, who said Momaday’s work touched them.

“I thought his voice was one of a storyteller. But because he had this poet ring to it, it took on a whole different tone,” actor Robert Redford said in the film. “I think that’s why I got hooked on Scott.”

Momaday’s “House Made of Dawn” has been credited with starting the modern Native American literary movement and influencing the likes of Chickasaw novelist Linda Hogan, Spokane and Coeur d’Alene writer Sherman Alexie and Laguna Pueblo novelist Leslie Marmon Silko.

“House Made of Dawn” follows Abel, a Jemez Pueblo man who is struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from his service in World War II. Abel seeks to find himself, first on his reservation and later in the city. Momaday said the novel is based on his knowledge of growing up on Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico, where his parents taught school.

After more than a half-century, Momaday said he is humbled by the fact that writers continue to say his work has influenced them. “I’m greatly appreciative of that, but it comes a little bit of a surprise every time I hear it,” Momaday said. “I think I have been an influence. It’s not something I take a lot of credit for.”

As a tribute to Momaday’s influence, the American Masters produced a special podcast with Harjo, the first Native American U.S. poet laureate, who talked about how Momaday inspired her.

“Momaday was the one we all looked up to,” Harjo said. “His works were transcendent. There was always a point where despite the challenges and losses … there was some moment that imparted beauty.”

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