Debut novelist Julia Sullivan is here today to talk about her historical fiction, Bone Necklace.
Julia Sullivan is an American lawyer, an English solicitor, and an international arbitrator. Bone Necklace is her first novel.
Welcome, Julia. Please tell us about your debut release.
Bone Necklace is a novel inspired by America’s last “Indian War,” in which a small band of Nez Perce hold off four converging armies while their families escape to Canada. Other books have been written about the 500+ Nez Perce who were captured or killed in the war. Bone Necklace is unique in its focus on the nearly 300 who escaped.
Bone Necklace is a tale of survival in which the Nez Perce not only overcome staggering odds but also win the grudging respect of a war-weary nation. While deeply rooted in American history, this remarkable story continues to resonate, illuminating modern debates around institutional racism, journalistic bias, and the call for courage in times of moral crisis.
What inspired you to write this book?
More than twenty years ago, I visited the Big Hole Battlefield in Wisdom, Montana. It changed my life. For reasons I still can’t explain, I became obsessed with the story. I was practicing law in Washington, D.C. at the time, and I started researching the Nez Perce War of 1877 at the National Archives in my free time. The more I learned, the more curious I became. Soon, I had two bookcases filled with books and papers about the conflict. Writing was a way to organize all that information in my head, and to express it to others in a way that I hope they will find both engaging and informative.
Excerpt from Bone Necklace:
from Chapter 1
At the sound of Chocolate Bar’s deep-throated growl, Jack scrambled to his feet and grabbed the Hawken rifle leaning against a scrubby white bark pine. He found the dog crouched at the foot of a massive basaltic boulder, baring his teeth at a buff-colored mountain lion. The cat had been stalking Jack and his dog all day, all the way up a steep ridgeline overlooking Hells Canyon, but Jack was surprised at the predator’s boldness now, venturing so close to his camp.
The cat let out a hair-raising howl, high-pitched and apocalyptic, the kind of sound Jack imagined he’d hear the day he finally arrived in actual Hell. The dog’s growl was a low, dull rumble, like distant thunder gathering momentum. Jack’s mule, Hammertoe, shuddered and bucked at the end of her picket line. Her instinct was to run, but the picket kept her moving in frantic circles.
Jack wedged the Hawken’s worn maple stock between his shoulder and his cheek, aiming at the mountain lion’s chest. He felt the rifle’s cold trigger against his finger, but he didn’t pull. The cat was such a beautiful thing, so sleek and daring and dangerous.
Jack had loved mountain lions ever since the day he saw one sitting on top of a giant saguaro cactus. For all their beauty, all the elegance in their movements, all the heat in their fiery eyes, cats sometimes made spectacularly bad decisions. Jack, whose life had been one bad decision after another, understood the astonishment, the bewilderment, the futile regret of that cat on top of the cactus, almost as if they were kin.
He hollered—“Hey! Hey! Hey!”—and fired the gun in the air. The muscular cat took the warning and bounded away. She flew to the top of a rocky outcropping, fifteen feet or more in a single leap, and disappeared in the fading light just as silently as she’d arrived.
Chocolate Bar, about the same size as the cat, chased after her, snarling and full of bloodlust, but the dog couldn’t hope to match the mountain lion’s retreating speed. He ran back and forth from Jack to the base of the high, bony shelf where the cat had escaped, moaning and sniffing every footmark she’d left. Hammertoe trembled, brayed, and reared against her picket line, which only tightened the knot.
Jack stood in a patch of wild buckwheat, holding the hot-barreled rifle, breathing in gun smoke. “You’d have died gloriously if you’d caught her,” he told the dog, “but you’d have died all the same.”
Chocolate Bar yowled and whined and refused to come when Jack called him.
“I’m not drunk,” he told the insolent dog. “I missed her on purpose.”
Chocolate Bar stared at Jack doubtfully, but it was the truth.
Jack sat down on a dusty boulder, surrounded by mountains with names like He Devil, She Devil, Ogre, Goblin, Devil’s Throne, Mount Belial, and Twin Imps. Vertical walls of rock, covered with pictographs and petroglyphs, plunged thousands of feet from the high shelf where Jack had stopped for the night to the Snake River crashing through the narrow gorge below. He wondered how the ancient Indians had climbed those sheer canyon walls with their pots of ochre paint to record births and deaths and plagues on the face of the rock. He wondered how a spider could hang on there.
Jack took his supper from a pretty silver flask. Eventually, the truculent dog settled down beside him. Jack pulled pine needles, sticks, pebbles, and bits of grass from the dog’s bushy tail and used oil to remove gobs of sticky sap from the thick black fur around his neck. Forgetting his grievance, Chocolate Bar rolled over so Jack could scratch his tummy.
“Sometimes I think God put cats and women on this earth for the specific purpose of humbling men like us,” Jack told the dog, picking up their earlier conversation. “He knew full well how they’d taunt us.”
The dog stretched and yawned.
“You mustn’t ever let them see your desperation, though,” he said. “No whining. No moaning. No panting if you can help it.”
Chocolate Bar yawned and closed his eyes.
What exciting story are you working on next?
I’m not quite ready to say, but I’m very excited about my next book! Hopefully, it won’t take me 22 years, like Bone Necklace did!
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
When I signed my publication contract.
Do you write full-time? If so, what’s your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
In addition to writing, I work as a commercial arbitrator. Both writing and commercial arbitration generally require an intense level of effort for a few months at a time, followed by long pauses. When I’m writing, I do my best work in the morning. When I get stuck, I go for a run, or ride my horse, or work in the garden, then try to work for a few hours more. It’s a good lifestyle for me and it allows me to be home with my family.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
As Larry McMurtry once wrote, “I never met a soul in the world as normal as me.”
I suppose many writers share these habits:
I can only write in a particular chair (green leather), with a particular pillow (green velvet), preferably with the dog lying beside me and a mug of tea in my hand. I spend an awful lot of time staring at a blank computer screen. I get stuck. I procrastinate. I have arguments with people who don’t even exist. It’s hard. It’s scary. It requires great patience and an imperviousness to criticism that I most decidedly lack. But it is also the most engaging, rewarding work I have ever done.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a lawyer or a writer. Now I am both! I also wanted to be a concert pianist and an Olympic gymnast. Do you think it’s too late?
Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
The history of the American west is too often portrayed as a tragedy – as if some fatal flaw in the character of the Native American race doomed them to a terrible fate. It’s a narrative that places the moral blame squarely on the victim. Bone Necklace confronts that lie.
I hope readers will enjoy the book and please leave a review on Goodreads and/or Amazon!