The Kent Nerburn interview on ‘Letters to my Son’

BEFORE Kent Nerburn became the beloved author of Neither Wolf nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder

BEFORE that best-selling book went into production as an upcoming feature film …

Before all of that—Kent first was a promising young sculptor whose best pieces wound up in collections from the U.S. and Canada to Japan. Through his sculpture and his early writing, Kent expressed his passion for personal spiritual renewal. If we hope to lead satisfying lives, we must grapple with the values and spiritual insights that shape our world, he argued in Letters to My Son: A Father’s Wisdom on Manhood, Life, and Love. The themes in that book, published 20 years ago, later would echo in his research, travel and writing about Native Americans.

Now, New World Library is re-releasing this early book in an updated and expanded form—and today ReadTheSpirit is highly recommending this new edition.

Kent says, “Letters to My Son still has a special place in my heart, and I’m glad that New World wanted to republish and expand it.”

He admits, though: At first, the idea of expanding the book was a problem. A lot of readers had responded enthusiastically to the book over the years. What could he add to that? “I agreed to do this, then I had to figure out what I could add. The book was written so long ago at a different point in my life,” he says. “I had to think about this for a long time.”

What he added in just a couple of chapters is a deeper perspective about life’s most challenging transitions—moving from one home to another, aging and losing loved ones.

For Kent’s legion of fans who may be reading this interview: No, this is not a new volume in Kent’s best-selling Native American trilogy, which includes (after Wolf nor Dog): The Wolf at Twilight: An Indian Elder’s Journey through a Land of Ghosts and Shadows and the 2013 book The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo: A Child, an Elder, and the Light from an Ancient Sky.

However, this newly revised book does, indeed, talk to readers from the same source of passion that shaped Kent’s very popular Native American trilogy. In fact, one way to describe the theme of Letters to My Son is to say: It mirrors the so-called “Seven Generations” pledge in the Iroquois “Law” that peacefully bound tribes together in the early 1700s. Later, that Iroquois text influenced the drafting of our U.S. Constitution. The Iroquois Law says in part:

In all of your deliberations in the Confederate Council, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self-interest shall be cast into oblivion. … Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground–the unborn of the future Nation.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Kent Nerburn about the new edition of Letters to My Son. Here are …


DAVID: In this interview, I’m going to start by reading four short passages from your book. Then, I’ll ask you to talk about each passage. Here’s the first passage from early in your book. Recently, my own father died after a very long life and I’ve often thought about the idea you express here: We cannot predict from our countless interactions in life exactly which moments will influence us the most. You write …

Who can know which touches have meaning? A word here, a glance there, a time together, a time apart—which will be the moments that will rise up in memory and shape the child who looks without judgment on all that you do and say?

KENT: Those words you just read represent core philosophy in my life. If we put ourselves out there in the world, then we are of  the world—and what happens to us is out of our control. We can set the course but we can’t guarantee who we’re going to meet or what’s going to happen as a result of those meetings.

We know that some of our encounters will change our lives. But, we don’t know which encounters will change us—or will change others’ lives. And we can’t predict how those encounters will change us.

Now, when I meet someone and we begin talking, I’m constantly aware that what I say—and what we do together in this encounter—might be a moment on which our lives will turn.

That’s why our encounters with others have such spiritual power and why we should treat them with great care.

DAVID: Here’s the next passage—a little further into the book. You’re talking about choosing the kind of work we do as an essential part of shaping a satisfying life. You write:

What you need to do is think of work as “vocation.” This word may seem stilted in its tone, but it has a wisdom within it. It comes from the Latin word for calling, which comes from the word for voice. In those meanings it touches on what work really should be. It should be something that calls to you as something you want to do, and it should be something that gives voice to who you are and what you want to say to the world.

So a true vocation calls to you to perform it and it allows your life to speak. … A vocation is something you feel compelled to do, or at least something that fills you with a sense of meaning. It is something you choose because of what it allows you to say with your life, not because of the money it pays you or the way it will make you appear to others. It is, above all else, something that lets you love.

KENT: Again, core philosophy in my life. Another way of thinking about this is to ask the question: What have I found that, once I begin doing it, I can’t stop? Or: When I wake up in the morning, what am I eager to do for another day? If you have found something like that, then you should try to build a life around it.

I didn’t start my adult life knowing that I wanted to be a writer. As you know, I started out as a sculptor, but as I worked and met people—I kept hearing stories that moved me. I discovered that I loved to travel. Anything that involved collecting stories and traveling was something that I was eager to do. Eventually, I found a form of doing those things for a living—by becoming a writer. And, yes, this did turn out to be an easier task for me than it might be for other people. But the process is the same: Find something that you’re eager to do when you wake up in the morning, connect it with other things that call to you in the same way—then see if you can build a life around that kind of work.

If you do find something you love doing, then your vocation does become a voice for your life. It’s how you spend your days. It’s how you put your feet on the earth. It defines your time on the planet.


DAVID: The next passage comes from later in your book and appears in a chapter called “Leaving.” This chapter really moved me, because I had been going through the slow death and then the funeral preparations for my own father, so I was thinking a lot about the departures in my own life as I read this passage:

I now look at every act of leaving—whether from a home, a relationship, a job, or any other situation where we have invested our time and heart—as having love at its core. It may be love for what we had, love for what we have lost, love for what might have been, or simply love for the familiarity of what we are leaving. …

The place, the person, the world you are leaving helped form you, for good or for ill. It made you who you are and moved you further along the adventure that is your own unique life.

The secret to a good leaving is to know how to turn toward your past and say, “Thank you.”

Being thankful for something is not the same as giving your approval for what it was or what it did to you. But holding anger toward it gives it power to shape your future and define your life.

Who among us has not been treated cruelly by another? Who among us has not had our heart broken? Who among us does not wish that we could have back at least one choice that we have made? These experiences are part of life, but they damage us only if we let them.

KENT: I’m glad you chose that passage to read. It’s from one of the two new chapters that I wrote when they asked me to update this book. I thought: What can I write about now that has a voice in keeping with the original book that was written so many years ago? And I concluded that I should write about this principle: Our life—whatever is given to us in life—is a gift. That may sound like a simple thing to say, but think about it for a moment. So many people look at their lives as a limitation, as a series of regrets, as a series of people we blame for doing this or that to us. And I do not doubt that there is real pain in our lives. But most importantly, we must realize that life itself is a gift.

Every day, every encounter is an opportunity to re-examine our lives and the lives of others. It’s true that for some people life may be a very dark gift. These encounters may carry emotions that we don’t want to deal with because they’re just too painful. But if we see life as a gift and each encounter as a potential moment of re-examination in our lives, then we are on a path to a much deeper appreciation of life.

You mentioned your Dad and I’ve written in this book and in others about my own relationship with my Dad and about various experiences I’ve had with leaving and with loss. When they asked me to write something new to add to this book, I thought: Everyone will experience leaving and loss. We need to talk more about this, so I wrote this chapter and I hope readers will find it helpful.


DAVID: The last of the four passages describes what I’ve heard other writers call a third stage in life. Richard Rohr and Brian McLaren have written about this process of aging and this idea of a later stage in life when we shift the way we approach our work and the world. Toward the end of your book, you write:

I am more patient now. Like the crops in the field, I know that there are times to act and times to wait. The seeds I have planted will blossom only when they will, and nothing I can do will rush them.

I am clearer. My youthful desires and dreams have settled into simple truths, and common kindness often seems enough.

I bear burdens more gladly. The joyous weight of family and fatherhood have softened my heart, and I more willingly embrace the obstacles and limitations of life.

But most of all, I am gentler with myself and others, because I know something of grace—how much our lives are the product of a touch, a glance, a letter never sent or received.

KENT: You made good selections. There is a thread here that runs through all of these passages and ties us back to the initial idea in that first passage. Who knows what the touch is, or the moment is, when our life will turn? That awareness can shape our lives so that we embrace the people and the things that we encounter. I’ve tried to live my life that way and it has led me toward quietism and balance.

Now, I can still get as mad as anyone at that crazy dangerous driver who we all will encounter on the road. Things happen that make us mad. People do bad things to us. But I have come to appreciate the Native American idea of balance.

When some crazy driver cuts us off on the road and nearly causes us to crash, we get angry, we may choose some colorful language to shout at that guy, and we may want to get even with him. But, that’s not the way Native people try to think about bad things that happen. They are more interested in restoring balance.

That’s a different way of responding to bad things that happen to us. Native people have a way of approaching this that isn’t all about righteousness or revenge or trying to even the score. They talk about wanting to put life back in balance.

That’s something we understand as Midwesterners. My wife and I have moved west to Oregon now to be closer to our grandchildren, but I think of myself as a Midwesterner after all of our years in Minnesota. Midwesterners understand this process because we experience the cycles of the seasons year after year. We understand cycles and seasons and the idea of life’s balance.

I’m not a fatalist. And I’m certainly not saying: We can’t do anything about injustice in life, so don’t even try. What I am saying is: Our feet are in the clay and we have limitations in what we can do in life. So, accept our limitations and wake up each morning and appreciate the gift of this life with all of its cycles, its seasons and its balance.


DAVID: Your fans are eager to know more about the movie. IMDB says the movie is slated for 2015 and we know that Christopher Sweeney plays you in the movie. We also know that the director paid attention to finding Native Americans to play key roles in your story. Richard Ray Whitman, who has appeared in a number of Native American independent films, plays your friend Grover, who readers of Neither Wolf nor Dog know so well. Can you say just a word about that movie?

KENT: I hope that my story has new life in this film. The characters in the book were developed from real people I knew. I took these real people and transmuted them into the characters in the book. Now, I hope that the actors and the director will transmute the characters in my book into this film.

There are a few small changes. If people are very familiar with the book, they will notice a few of these things. In my book, Grover has a crew cut and he doesn’t in the movie. Things like that. But I appreciate the authenticity that has been brought to this film. The man who plays Dan is a legitimate Lakota elder who carries around in his life all of the pain as well as the deep core values of the Lakota.

So, overall, I’m fascinated by how the original story and the film are interweaving and producing something new for the audience.


DAVID: The last thing I want to ask about is your relationship with your huge and loyal fan base. I’ve interviewed hundreds of authors in recent years and I’ve found very few with the kind of enormous, affectionate readership that you have attracted.

Here’s just one example: A year ago, you published The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo and I just checked the Amazon reviews for that book. You’ve got 126 reviews, which is a lot, but more significant is the fact that 121 of those reviews give your book 4 or 5 stars. Five reviewers did give your book 3 stars. But you haven’t had any reviews with 1 or 2 stars.

How do you interact with your readers beyond the books themselves?

KENT: One of the early encounters that shaped my life was back when I was a graduate student at Stanford. And I began to feel that I didn’t fit in the mix of what was going on at Stanford in the early ’70s. I already had started doing some writing and I was reading, too. I was quite taken by a book from Norman Mailer. So, here I was this earnest young man and I wrote to Norman Mailer.

He wrote back. His letter was short and personal. I still have his note. It meant a lot to me that he took the time to write back. Because of that response I received from Norman Mailer, I decided: I am going to answer letters that I receive. And, I still do.

Today, I have to keep the exchanges short. Sometimes readers want to engage for extended periods and I’ll have to say: I’ll respond once or maybe twice, but I can’t respond more than that. But, because I have spent all that time writing to people over many years, I’ve established a very strong connection with my readers. I care about my readers. I care about their lives. I can’t write extensively to them, but I do enjoy the interaction.

That’s one reason I have a good relationship with readers. A second reason is that my books are first-person narratives and my readers identify with me. They’ve taken journeys with me through my books.

In my books, I invariably write about myself as the traveler, the learner, the one who is sharing stories from someone else. I go out into the world and encounter people who might be my teacher for a time.

So, if they’re reading my books in the right way, my readers don’t see me as the teacher. I guide them in going out and finding teachers. Readers look at me as a model of ways that they can travel and look for teachers, too. My relationship with my readers is a real joy to me and I hope that they will find something helpful to them in this new book, too.


(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)


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