When Angeline Boulley was working on her young adult fiction debut, The Firekeeper’s Daughter, she decided she needed to know how to make meth. “I learned how to make meth from the State Police Academy,” she tells Rolling Stone. “I was able to take a workshop at the Academy and it was about learning how to make math and learning how to identify clandestine meth labs. I was the only non-law enforcement person in that workshop.”
That dedication to detail and passion for story led to a bidding war over Boulley’s debut novel — out Tuesday — and, eventually, an option by President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground, to bring the book to Netflix as an original series.
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The FireKeeper’s Daughter follows 18-year-old Daunis Fontaine, a half-native, half-white former hockey player/aspiring scientist who never feels fully settled in either her reservation or the outside world. She finds herself even more torn when she witnesses her best friend’s murder and is pulled into an FBI investigation centered on a lethal new drug running wild among her friends and family. It doesn’t help that she’s falling for the mysterious Jamie, a new player on her brother’s hockey team who (spoiler alert) turns out to be an undercover FBI agent who asks her to be an informant on the case.
Boulley, 55, has spent the last 10 years working on her first novel — a concept she first came up with at age 18 — delving into everything from the intricacies of illegal drugs, to law enforcement, to hockey, to the ways of her own tribe, the Ojibwe people. Much like Daunis, Boulley is the daughter of a native father and a white mother and spent ample time on her family’s reservation in Sault Ste Marie, Michigan. She first got the idea for the book when a friend suggested she go out with a guy from a neighboring high school; she didn’t end up dating him, but the young man turned out to be an undercover narcotics officer, leading her to wonder what would have happened had she ended up falling for him. That germ of an idea grew as she did, through her work as former Director of the Office of Indian Education at the U.S. Department of Education. When her own daughter was in school, she decided to finally write what she called her “indigenous Nancy Drew” novel — focusing not just on a girl who falls for an undercover agent but who becomes an informant herself. “It took me 10 years, [but] everything just kind of informed the book once I was ready to write,” she says.
Boulley’s journey to publication was a bit of a whirlwind. Armed with an intriguing concept and pitch, she signed with an agent rather quickly and after sending the submission to publishers in 2019, ended up with an auction on her hands that included 12 publishers. She ended up selling the novel to MacMillan for seven figures. “It had an immediate response, and it was beyond anything that I had dreamed of,” she says. The Obamas’ Higher Ground acquired the book for cinematic adaptation this past February. Mickey Fisher (Reverie, Extant) will adapt the book with Wenonah Wilms, who is also from the Ojibwe tribe.
“Higher Ground Productions were just so in sync with the same core values that I had and the same vision for the project,” Boulley says. “Like, for example, I made it very clear to every potential partner that I spoke with that it was as important for me that there’d be native talent not only in front of the camera but behind the camera, in the writer’s room, and at every stage of production. They were just completely on board all the way and already had ideas about that.”
Boulley hopes that the visibility of her book encourages publishers to seek out new voices. “Native storytellers, we do have a lot of stories to tell,” she adds. “Because native people aren’t a monolith. There’s so much diversity between tribes and within tribes. I just think the more stories that are out there, the better representation and accuracy that we get.”
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