Debra Magpie Earling — Creative Writing Program
Not long after Debra Magpie Earling discovered her calling as a writer in James Welch’s classroom at the University of Washington, a fire destroyed the 800-page manuscript of her first book. Undeterred, she gathered its pieces in her memory, sat down and wrote the novel again. “It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” she says. The second writing of “Perma Red” won her 10 awards and national acclaim.
Earling, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, became the first public defender in the Flathead Reservation’s tribal court system at age 18. She later studied economics at UW, with plans to attend law school afterward. “I had no idea that you could make a living as a writer,” she says. After her class with Welch, a renowned American Indian writer, Earling took a serious interest in the craft. “Through telling stories, you have a big voice in the world, and it’s not easily silenced,” she says.
Earling applied for graduate school at Cornell to study creative writing. She had found her niche. Years later in 2007, Earling’s writing earned her a Guggenheim Fellowship, which gave her the time and peace to go further with her writing. “It was a great stamp of approval that I won an award not just because I’m Indian,” she says.
Earling says she feels called to write the stories of extraordinary Indian women. She is working on a novel about the life of Sacajawea and the stories are flying from her pen. “It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve worked on in my whole life,” she says. “It’s like a fever dream.”
As a professor in UM’s Creative Writing Program, one of the top in the nation, Earling invests that same passion in her students “to try to see what they are seeing through their eyes.”