"The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise": Dan Gemeinhart on the line between truth and fiction

Seira Wilson on July 18, 2019

CoyoteSunrise225.jpgMy favorite children's books for older readers tend to be those that make me laugh and tug at my heart. I love a character I can root for, one who learns something meaningful about themselves and/or the world around them over the course of their fictional journey. The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise is one such book. 

We made The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise our number one pick for the best children's books of 2019 so far, and I've passed it along to those with a young person at home looking for "something good to read" over summer vacation. In his original piece below, author Dan Gemeinhart introduces us to his remarkable characters and how their story came to be.

The line between fiction and nonfiction is not always as clear as we think it is. Sometimes stories that we read as works of imagination—and even stories that we write as works of imagination—end up carrying a lot of real truth inside their words. This is something I learned as I wrote my latest book, The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise.

It’s the story of a girl named Coyote, and her dad Rodeo. Coyote lives a very unusual life: She and Rodeo live on an old refurbished school bus. They ramble around America in it, never staying any place long, never putting down roots, never having friends, and, in Coyote’s case, never going to school. We find out that her life wasn’t always like this, though. Five years ago, she had a mom and two sisters and lived in a house that wasn’t on wheels. But then tragedy struck: her mom and sisters were killed in a car accident. Her dad, too heartbroken to keep living in their town or to hold down a job, sold their house and bought the bus, and they’ve been on the move ever since. They left their old life and memories completely behind.

Coyote's life is turned upside down, though, when she learns that a park back in their old town is being torn out. Buried in that park is a memory box that Coyote made with her mom and sisters before the accident, and it’s about to get lost forever. She is most definitely not okay with that. So, she has to race from Florida to Washington state in four days to save this memory box that means the world to her—all without her dad realizing where they’re really headed. Along the way they are joined by a ragtag crew of hitchhikers and fellow travelers, each on a quest of their own, each with something to teach Coyote on her own journey.

On its face, it is an entirely untrue novel. But its roots are grounded in very true soil.

The family at the heart of the story is based on my own, all of whom are thankfully still alive. I live with my wife and three daughters in a small town in Washington state, just like Coyote’s dad did in the story. The origin for this book was a dark daydream I had one night several years ago. I was home with my middle daughter—my wife and other daughters were out running errands—and I had a horrible thought: What would happen to me and my daughter if the rest of our family never made it home? How would we put our lives back together? How would we survive a loss like that, and how could we ever move forward from it?

I knew that I couldn’t keep living in our house or our small town, surrounded by memories and grief. But I didn't know where else I’d want to go…and thus was born the idea of a heartbroken dad and daughter, on the road and on the run from a loss and sadness they could never outrun.

When I wrote the rough draft, I wanted to keep the story grounded in that place of truth. So, I kept it entirely autobiographical. All the characters’ names matched mine and my family’s, the places and memories were pulled directly from our actual lives, and I tried to keep myself in the raw heartbreak of that morbid daydream. Even though all the events were fabricated, I didn’t write it as fiction—I wrote it as truth, just a truth that hadn’t actually happened. Because of that, it was a very difficult story to write. It was an emotional, at times almost traumatizing, journey of storytelling. My family got some extra-fierce hugs when they got home on many days. But it was also intensely satisfying, and in a way almost cathartic; by vividly imagining nearly the very worst thing that could ever happen to me, by confronting my heart’s greatest fear, I learned to know myself even better. By turning on the light to see the monster, I took some of the sharpness out of its teeth.

Of course, I eventually changed all the names and details. Writing a book depicting the deaths of most of my family was a bit too dark and dramatic by any measure—and explicitly vetoed by my wife. But the truth is still there, in the shape and soul of the story. It’s a story that came from the deepest parts of my heart, and feels as true to me as any diary entry or blog post.

An oft-repeated piece of advice for aspiring writers is to “write the story that only you could tell,” and with The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise I know I’ve done that. I’m so happy and honored to see it out there in the world, and in the hands and hearts of readers.

--Dan Gemeinhart

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