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A Reverence for Stories: Interview with Tommy Orange

The NBCC John Leonard Prize winner on There There

In March, The New School hosted this year’s National Book Critics Circle awards, which honor literature published in the United States in the previous year. The awards are presented in six categories — autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry — and are the only U.S. literary awards chosen by critics themselves.

Alex Vara, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Tommy Orange about his book There There (Knopf), which is the recipient of the fifth annual John Leonard Prize, established to recognize outstanding first books in any genre and named in honor of founding NBCC member John Leonard.

When asked about a small detail in There There, the kind of question high school lit classes will ask one day, Tommy Orange responded, “There’s been a lot of [moments] where there’s a temptation to try to sound smarter than I am. But the truth is, when you write a book, the book’s always going to be way smarter than you.” There There​ is Orange’s first novel and the winner of the National Book Critics Circle​ John Leonard Prize. Set in Oakland, California — Orange’s hometown — There There ​tells the story of twelve Native Americans’ lives culminating at Powwow in the Oakland Coliseum.

This interview was conducted by phone. Orange was in Angels Camp, California, where he lives with his wife and seven-year-old son. He described Angels Camp as “almost a mountain town. We just got snow but we usually don’t.” Warning: If you haven’t read There There and don’t want to know the end, this interview isn’t for you.

Alex Vara [AV]: From the Prologue and continuing throughout There There, you foreshadow the ending. Why?

Tommy Orange [TO]: I think it’s because the ending was the very first thing to come. Right after I found out I was going to be a father (I had been working in the Native Community in Oakland for a while), I thought of the idea, the basic premise: a cataclysmic lives-merging moment at a Powwow in the Oakland Coliseum. Knowing that’s where [the characters] were headed, automatically made me write [the book] in a specific way.

AV: As a reader, even though you told me what was going to happen, the Coliseum scene was still a shock. How did you ensure that reaction?

TO: It’s been surprising, the reception. I avoided writing the end for a really long time. By the time I had to write it and could no longer avoid the cataclysmic ending, there’d been so much build up. That may have influenced the reader’s experience.

AV: In Oval Red Feather’s final chapter, it’s clear you might not save any of the characters. Was that a hard decision to make or a decision at all?

TO: It wasn’t a decision. I knew people were going to die. That was the initial concept, a tragic story. But I also wanted to infuse it with hope at the same time. I didn’t know exactly who was going to [get shot]. I knew Orville was.

AV: I’ve heard you say in interviews that the Thomas Frank character is you, fictional you. Can you talk about the process of taking from your own experiences and turning it into fiction?

TO: When I thought of the idea to kill the characters at the end — that was what everyone was going to be headed toward — I thought it was only fair that I make a character that’s like me and kill him too. I got my family’s permission. There are certain details from our life, a darker part, that I reference in the Thomas Frank chapter. It’s not totally true. It’s me, but then I divert in places. All the other characters, they’re either taken from [my life] or they’re completely made up, just to be clear. I have a reverence for people’s stories. They earn the stuff that happens to them in their lives. They can use it or not use it however they please. In terms of using my own life, I have no problem doing it. And that’s part of why I like fiction. You can use things from your life and you can also make a mess out of thin air. And it can all blend into a weird mutant thing.

AV: The character of Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield is a crucial presence in the book, one that other characters orbit around. Can you talk about how you developed her?

TO: There were certain characters that came early and felt really distinct. Other characters, I have to develop and flesh out, change POVs three times to try to figure out who they are. But Opal came out distinct. I worked for The Native American Health Center in Oakland — I called it The Indian Center in the book — for a little less than a decade. At one point, we took — for a suicide prevention grant — youth over to Alcatraz. We had elders who had been there [during the occupation] come tell their stories. It was the first time I heard a lot [of what happened], especially the first-hand account. There’s a picture of me when I was ten. I went [to Alcatraz] with my family, and right behind [me] there’s the graffiti, “You’re on Indian land.” I think my fist might be in the air. So, I definitely knew from an early age what went down, but I didn’t know much about it. So, we took these kids and the elders told their stories, hero stories. And I thought it would be interesting to get a kid’s perspective because I knew kids had been over there with their parents. That was the concept. Then the little girl’s voice came.

AV: Opal’s final scene is this climatic emotional moment. Then you go back to Tony. And he is who you started with. Can you talk about why you used him as the bookends for the novel?

TO: Tony’s voice came out really whole. That chapter probably had the least revision. It was just like a haunted voice inside me. And I always had him, his chapters, framing the whole thing. He represents — because of the way he looks and how people don’t want to look at him — Natives, the Native world, and Native life. It’s a really ugly history that nobody wants to acknowledge and everybody wants to look away from. At some point, I knew this thing was going to happen at the end, that Tony was going to end up doing something heroic and not just trying to rob the place. That ending, the actual last four pages came out way before I was done writing the book. It came out and I was like, “Oh, this is the end of the book.” I just felt it.

AV: I’ve heard you say you run and write to feel sane. How many miles and words make for a good day?

TO: I use to be a big word counter because I came to writing late. I tried to study other writers and their habits. How much did I need to write to catch up to everybody else who has known they were a writer since they were five? I was doing 1,000 a day. Then at one point, it was two and then three. Now, I think it’s a quality over quantity thing for me. As long as I get some time in to write, have a good idea of what I want to get down, and I get it down, it’s more based on that. Then, while I’m running, I’m actually writing down notes. Things occur to me, some deeper solutions that are harder to find when you’re at the page. Like I’m working on a short story right now, and just this week, I’ve had all these mini breakthroughs while on runs. The story wouldn’t have come together if I didn’t have these little breakthroughs while running. Ever since the book came out, I average seven miles a day. But sometimes I’ll go thirteen. Or just four if I don’t have enough time. It’s gotten a little more extreme with the anxiety of being a person with a book out. That kind of exposure and vulnerability has given me more anxiety. So I run more.

AV: When you began writing There There , did you have an expectation of what the final product would be?

TO: I didn’t. I knew I wanted to write a novel with a bunch of characters and try to braid them; just on a craft level. Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin was an early model for me. I read it and was like, “Oh, I want to do that.” There’s the novel that you love to read and then there’s the novel that makes you want to do something like it, inspires you to want to take on that form. For the first three years of [writing the book], I was writing in a vacuum. I would read parts to my wife on our back porch in Oakland. She was the only person who heard it. So I definitely didn’t know what I was doing or have any expectations about what might be on the other end of it. I just knew I wanted to write a novel because I love writing and I wanted to try to take it on.

AV: Now that it’s out, what have you learned about your readers?

TO: There’s a lot of different kinds. For the most part, everyone is so kind and gracious. I’ve gotten a really good reception from the Native community, the Oakland Native community specifically. If there’s one thing I’ve learned is that there’s a certain kind of reader, a certain kind of white reader who reads my book, and says, “It’s so sad.” Or, “It made me feel guilty.” I don’t like talking about my book with those readers.

AV: Jumping back to Opal. In her younger chapter, why does she call her baseball bat “Story?”

TO: When we were living in Oakland last, we ended up with a bat in the house. We didn’t know where it came from. And on the butt of it was [written] Story. It was a real thing. It was a bat that we kept by the door just in case. I never thought of it outside of, “Oh, that’s so cool. It’s a story that can hit you like a bat.” That was the idea I had in my head. Then when we moved to Copperopolis, we lived several houses down from a family with the last name Story. Then I was like, “Oh, that was somebody’s last name on the bat. Not as cool.”

Tommy Orange is a graduate of the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. An enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, he was born and raised in Oakland, California.

Alex Vara is an MFA Creative Writing (Fiction/Nonfiction) student at The New School in New York City. She is a graduate of Hampshire College and lives in Manhattan. This interview was first published on the Creative Writing at The New School blog.

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