EARLY BIRD Wunderkind novelists are fun to hoot and holler about, but late bloomers deserve a solemn moment of silence. Let’s offer one up for Angeline Boulley, a 55-year-old mother of three, who toiled over “Firekeeper’s Daughter” for 10 years — during her son’s hockey practices and in work meetings; through seasons of celebration (including her kids’ high school and college graduations); and periods of tumult (a move from Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., to Washington, D.C., a divorce).
Last week, Boulley’s novel about a biracial college student who witnesses a murder debuted at No. 1 on the young adult hardcover list. What did she do when she heard the news? She admitted, “I shrieked for a full five minutes.” That was her prerogative.
Boulley, who is a member of the Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians, said she was eager to create a character who claims her identity as an Ojibwe woman. She said, “I have a mantra: I’m writing about trauma, but I’m not writing a tragedy. I didn’t want to lose sight of the funny and loving and wonderful things about my community even though I was talking about meth and other unpleasant truths.”
The idea for “Firekeeper’s Daughter” started percolating when Boulley was a senior in high school, but she didn’t start writing until she was 44: “The story started out as a whisper and then it got louder and louder.”
She began waking up at 5 in the morning and working on the book for a few hours. Before Boulley started writing full time, she was the director of the Office of Indian Education at the United States Department of Education. At first, she was intimidated — she had no training beyond devouring guides like Elizabeth George’s “Write Away” — but then she had an epiphany. “As a grant writer, I needed to tell a compelling story about why the community needed money to address an issue,” Boulley said. “You’re competing against other worthy projects so I realized that I had great training in how to tell a story.”
Like many busy authors, Boulley is a believer in finding “stolen moments” where she mulls and tinkers — but those predawn hours were the key to her perseverance. She said, “I felt alive when I would write. In that in-between period between sleep and wake, I felt like I was giving my best energy to the story and I loved it. I would have these character insights that would come to me and I’d be like, Yes, he never loved her! I have to get this written down!”