Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Story of a Navajo Code Talker: Interview with Nonfiction Author Judy Avila

The Sisterhood would like to welcome Judy Avila, author of 
Code Talker: The first and only memoir by one of the original Navajo code talkers of WWII.

Judy Avila grew up in New York and New Hampshire, before graduating from Duke University in North Carolina. After Duke, she moved to New Mexico and wandered through a number of careers: artist, social worker, air traffic controller, computer consultant. Then she discovered writing, and was hooked. She quit working for someone else, lived off her savings, and threw herself at her writing. She has written four unpublished novels and Code Talker: The first and only memoir by one of the original Navajo code talkers of WWII, which is published by Berkley/Caliber (a division of Penguin). Judy is thrilled with the glowing reviews of Code Talker. The memoir has maintained a first-percentile rating on Amazon and bestseller status at Costco.

Her husband, Jim, died in 2004. Judy now lives in a cottage among the evergreens near Albuquerque with her two dogs, Blue and Red. New Mexico is a land of rich, diverse cultures. It is the perfect retreat for a writer.

  • How did you get started in the writing industry? Was it something you always wanted to do or did it come later in life?

I have always been a voracious reader, but I viewed writers as Gods and Goddesses, knowing I was not one of them. However, I always enjoyed writing assignments at work. (I worked as a computer consultant.) Then once, when I was in my late forties, I sat down at my home computer and wrote about an issue that was upsetting me. I dashed off 50 pages without stopping and thought, “Wow!  Maybe I can do this.” 

  • Which do you find more challenging -- writing fiction or nonfiction?
I can’t make a clean call on that one. Both are challenging, but in different ways.
Non-fiction challenges because it must hold the readers’ interest without straying from the truth.  Tension and a thread of continuity must be developed and maintained without breaking the veracity of the narrative.  Also, in the case of “Code Talker” I felt personal pressure to present Chester as the fine man he is, but not to be gushy or overdone.
Fiction is challenging because – of course – it must all come from the writer’s imagination. And some days my imagination goes on strike.  In writing fiction I feel more personally accountable for its value or lack thereof, since it all comes out of my head. The characters, their passions, and the dilemmas they face must be manufactured – an often daunting task.

  • When it comes to Chester Nez's memoir, what prompted you to take on such a story? 
I had the extreme good luck to meet Chester through a friend.  Once I heard a small portion of his story, I was hooked.  Although I had never before written non-fiction, I had to write his book. The story was compelling from all angles – the history, the many things I learned about Navajo culture, and the mystery of the code.

  • In the book you state that Chester Nez is the only surviving Code Talker of the original twenty-nine. Articles in the past year or two claim that seventy Code Talkers are still alive today. Could you clarify what makes Chester Nez’s position in the Code Talkers different from others still alive today?
The original 29 Navajo code talkers were the men who first volunteered for the Marines’ “secret project.”  They developed the doubly-encrypted code based on English and Navajo.  They proved to the Marines that the code would work, then took it into battle in the Pacific Arena of WWII. They are special because they were the pioneers of this code that saved our butts in the Pacific. The code developed by those 29 men (or 32 men in Chester’s opinion as expressed in the book) was the only code in modern warfare never to be broken.

The approximately 400 code talkers who followed in the footsteps of the original 29 learned the code and then enhanced it, making it more complex. Of those men, between 40 and 70 are thought to be alive today.

  • Is this why you choose Chester Nez’s story? During your writing of his memoir was there something in particular that either surprised you or really intrigued you concerning either Nez’s story or Code Talkers in general?
I think I would have been compelled to tell Chester’s story whether or not he had been an original code talker. After meeting him, I couldn’t get his story or his voice out of my head!
Chester always shrugs off the slights he endures at the hands of whites. His equanimity is both surprising and inspiring. His attitude has taught me a lot.

Chester and Judy

  • When it comes to writing someone else’s memoir, are there times when it’s challenging to either collect the information or put it on the page in a great storytelling fashion?
I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to Chester and to his Navajo people.  I struggled to represent him accurately as a man, and to represent his culture accurately.  Expressing someone else’s most private thoughts is a unique challenge. Chester and I reviewed every paragraph of the memoir together, probably four or five times.   

  • Can you tell us a little bit about your road to getting published? What are some roadblocks you've encountered along the way?
Initially, I tried unsuccessfully to find an agent to represent Chester and me.  Then, a university press said they were interested in publishing “Code Talker.”  After I waded through their review process for a year, they informed me that publication was unlikely.  That was devastating! 

At that time, the book was a biography of Chester. But Chester is still alive, and I realized that our book would have more clout if it were a memoir. We rewrote it as a memoir. After that, it took only two days to get an agent. He sold the memoir to Penguin in four days for a six-figure advance.  In the space of less than a month I traveled through abject misery to elation!!!

  • Do you believe you've developed a "thick skin" from the process?
I have learned a lot about the publishing industry along the way, and I realize that even though I consider something to be fascinating, not everyone will agree. I try to be brave, but find I am still pathetically thin-skinned.  I take every criticism (good or bad) to heart.

  • You've written four novels. Is there one you're particularly partial to, perhaps one you would consider your favorite?
None of the four is published.  My favorite is “Love, Murder and Mama’s Tortillas.”  It’s the story of America Davila, who graduates from Columbia thinking she has escaped the clutches of her over-protective Hispanic family. Then 98-pound Mama pulls her back to New Mexico by pretending to be sick.

  • When it comes to writing fiction, what inspires you to choose the characters and settings you use in your novels? Do you go through a certain process before sitting down and writing the story (for instance, do you create an outline, do initial research, interviews of any kind, etc.)?
In general, I am first attracted to a hypothetical situation that involves a dilemma and invokes characters who are embroiled in that dilemma.  One I’m tossing around in my head now is an elderly lady who realizes she is losing her ability to think clearly.  She is responsible for caring for her granddaughter, and the two of them get into a lot of scrapes because of her challenged faculties.

I never create an outline before beginning a novel, but I have occasionally created one when I’m already deeply involved in the story. That helps to keep all of the complexities sorted out.

  • Do you have any tips for writers trying to break into nonfiction (or fiction) that you believe are important for them to know?
Code Talker
by Chester Nez with
Judith Avila
The creative process is different for everyone, but here’s what works for me.  My non-fiction work, “Code Talker,” is a subject that completely fascinates me. That all-consuming interest is essential. I was so enthused about my topic that others caught my enthusiasm.

In writing fiction, I must first know my characters inside and out. I live with them in my head for at least a few months before beginning to write their story. After that, large sections of the story pour out as though the characters are telling me the events.  Of course, I still hit snags that I have to plow through, but really knowing my characters expedites a lot of the process.

The most important thing, however, is to never, never, never give up.  If you persevere, you will succeed.

  • If a writer who is interested in writing both fiction and nonfiction had to choose between which one to work with, which would you encourage them to pursue and why?
From my own experience (and from extensive reading I’ve done on the topic), I believe that non-fiction is a much easier sell than fiction.  For a writer who is interested in publication, I suggest non-fiction.  However, any type of writing can be cathartic.  If it’s the catharsis you want, and if publication is not an immediate issue, then write what speaks to you, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.

  • If you could give one final word of advice to many of the aspiring writers out there, what would it be?
Never, never, never give up.  Listen to criticism, evaluate it, implement changes when warranted. But NEVER give up.

Thank you, Judy, for your wonderful insight into the world of Code Talkers and getting published. Feel free to visit her author's website at


  1. First of all thanks to Judith Avila for granting an interview, thanks to Sister Mary, Mary for interviewing her, and thanks to Chester Nez for serving his country and sharing his memoirs with the general public. I’m sad to know that even a fascinating non-fiction book has trouble finding a publisher. I would like to know about Miss Avila´s other unpublished novels. What are they about? Does she write for a particular public or age? Now that she has a book in the market, does she think it will be easier to get her fiction published?

    1. Thanks for your interest, Violante. All four of my novels involve strong women with big challenges. (There are some great male characters, too, but the women are generally in the forefront.) You know about one story from my interview, above. Another is a YA fantasy about five orphans living in a tree house. Third is the story of the evolution of three adult siblings (one is a man) after the sudden death of their mother. The fourth is my "starter" novel. I learned a lot from that, but it's not one that will see the light of publication - at least not without dramatic changes.

      I do hope that the success of Code Talker will lead to further publication for me. I am currently working on an e-special for Penguin. That's something I'd never heard of before - an addendum to Code Talker that will be brief, and published only in electronic form. Chester and I are having a great time delving more deeply into some of the topics touched upon in our memoir.

      My agent was not interested in the single novel I sent to him. I have since sent another, with fingers crossed...

  2. Thanks for your prompt answer. I had never heard of an e-special either. Would you be willing to write another non-fiction book? I jus hope with all the good publicity you are getting doors will open for you to publish your fiction.

    1. Code Talker would be a tough act to follow. If I find a subject that is as fascinating to me as Chester's life is, I would consider another non-fiction book. That seems unlikely, but I try to stay open to all possibilities!!

  3. Fascinating subject and interview. Thanks to both!

    Judith, can you tell us more about the process of writing someone else's memoir? I imagine there must have been extensive interviews, but how about the actual writing? Did you write the first draft or you did it together? As a historical fiction writer, I can understand the pressure of getting all the details right. But having the actual person there with you must have been an even bigger pressure! Congratulations on getting the book published!

    1. You're right, Lorena. When you write about a living person, the pressure to present them accurately is always there. Plus I felt a great obligation to Chester and his family to actually get the memoir published.
      Regarding how I wrote the memoir: all drafts were created by me, then reviewed by Chester and me together. I made the decision to start with Guadalcanal, then flash back to his childhood, and he agreed to that. He was so easy to work with. The entire process was a true pleasure.

  4. What a fascinating interview! Thanks to Ms. Avila for her perspective. I'd never heard of someone writing someone else's memoir before ... how interesting. I'm thrilled we are getting the perspective of this generation (especially a voice as rare as Chester's) before we lose them forever. Those fiction premises sound really intriguing as well. Can't wait to read them when they are published -- which I bet will happen!

  5. I'm glad everyone enjoyed the interview! Thank you, Judy, for stopping by and answering questions!

  6. I am reading Code Talker as a ENGL reading assignment. The entire college campus is flooded with students buying, reading and carrying the book from class to class. What a wonderful story. Thank you for writing the book with Chester. We are looking for to both of you on campus soon.

    1. I think that's really cool! I think it's great that this book is being used in college classrooms. It has a fantastic story to tell!


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