Frances Washburn got her literary start reading the neighbor boys’ unwanted comic books.

Now an associate professor of American Indian studies and English and director of graduate studies at the University of Arizona, Washburn grew up in South Dakota on and around the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in a poor family.

She had little access to books. With the nearest library about 30 miles away, Washburn read about Superman and Mickey Mouse in secondhand comic books.

The neighbor boys bought them on weekly trips into town, then passed them on to her after reading them once.

“That’s when I first started becoming a reader,” Washburn, 64, said. “The more I read, the more I thought, ‘Well, I could tell a better story than this.’”

In her newest book, “The Red Bird All-Indian Traveling Band,” Washburn follows a young, American Indian woman and her band as a mysterious murder rocks the reservation.

Of her four books (three novels and one biography), this is the most autobiographical, drawing on her own yearning for a too-expensive college education and a post-high school life with a band.

Marriage, two children and a divorce shoved writing into the corners of Washburn’s life after high school.

In those years, she held down multiple jobs to support her children, selling vacuum cleaners and mobile homes, working in factories and restaurants, and doing “any job that wasn’t illegal, immoral or fattening.”

“In all that time, I never stopped writing or reading,” she said.

Washburn wrote poems on envelope backs while feeding her children at 2 a.m. and short stories on brown paper bags during factory lunch hours.

“My writing, I think, was earnest and well-intentioned, but unsophisticated,” she said.

College changed that.

When a back injury threatened her ability to work, the New Mexico Division of Vocational Rehabilitation gave Washburn two choices: pick a new job compatible with the injury or go to college for four years.

“The woman who was there must have thought I was nuts,” Washburn said. “I sat there at the desk across from her with tears pouring down my face, because she had just handed me the dream I never thought I could have.”

At 45, Washburn enrolled at the University of New Mexico to study creative writing and Spanish. Her children were 15 and 20.

For the next nine years, she pressed through bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. programs, pursuing scholarships and taking out student loans.

She started working at the UA in 2004, a little more than a year after graduating with a doctorate in American Studies from UNM.

Today, she writes mostly during the summer breaks, planning stories throughout the year when insomnia strikes.

“Out of the seeds of something horrendous, you get something good,” Washburn said. “As we say in Native-American societies, it’s the trickster at work.

“He starts out to pull some rotten stunt on somebody and it backfires and turns into something good.”

Contact reporter Johanna Willett at or 573-4357.

Writing about Tucson's heart and soul — its people, its kindness, its faith — for #ThisIsTucson.