Tommy Orange in conversation with
Carolina De Robertis
In October 2019, Tommy Orange, author of There There, received the Gina Berriault Award (GBA), given annually in honor of the eponymous writer and former faculty of the San Francisco State University Creative Writing Department. During the ceremony for award, SFSU's Carolina De Robertis sat down with Tommy Orange to discuss his life, his book, and being a writer in tumultuous political times. A full video of their conversation can be found here. This interview has been editing for clarity and content.
Carolina De Rorbertis: Good evening everyone. I am Carolina De Robertis, an assistant professor of creative writing at San Francisco State. I'm so glad you read that piece that has the SF State reference, with a character that's actually been to SF state. How long ago did you write that?
Tommy Orange: I don't know. I have a lot of old stuff and all of my stuff is in Google Drive Google Docs because I have a history of a sleep erasing stuff from my computer and that version of myself who has destructively sleep erased a lot of writing is not sophisticated enough to erase and then erase from the garbage online.
CDR: It's like a child's safety gate for yourself.
TO: I've done it on the computer. I've empty the garbage after erasing the things on my computer, which is why I switched to writing only on Google Drive, but I've yet to erase—I've found all my stuff in the Google Docs garbage, but it hasn't been erased.
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CDR: You've found it there. You've been able to retrieve it so you don't totally mess up the technology.
TO: That hasn’t happened in a while.
CDR: Are there things that are lost like that?
TO: There has been, yeah.
CDR: Is that rough?
TO: There's a lot of time lost. Maybe the writing is horrible and it probably was, but at the time you feel this distinct experience of having devoted your time to something and all of that is gone. Like the work may not be worth it, but the time that you spent to even consider, is it worth it? It's all gone.
CDR: Right. And and you'll never get back that exact same flow. We were talking in a fiction workshop in the MFA program today about having pieces that you don't know where to go with next, or they don't quite get done, or they never make it to polishing; whether you don't have the vision for it, or you're working a lot of things at once. There is the possibility of circling back to them years later and seeing the potential. They get absorbed into a new novel, or you return to them, or you never return to them. They're in the compost heap or the graveyard or whatever metaphor works. Do you return to this old stuff?
TO: Let’s stop using the dead baby metaphor, have you heard this one?
CDR: No, which one is this?
TO: People use this dead baby metaphor, which is horrible.
CDR: That it’s just like a dead baby? The work that you don't return to is like a dead baby? I have this compost metaphor—for me.
TO: I’m sorry I brought it up. I thought people knew about it already.
CDR:It reminds me of Christina Garcia, who won the Gina Berriault Award in 2017, and wrote Dreaming in Cuban and so many other great novels. I was talking to her about how I was putting a part of a novel into a compost heap, it might turn into something. She says, “That's nice but to me. I have this second novel I never finished and I just go back and I cannibalize it.”
TO: That’s more of what I do. For this book, my editor—so a lot of characters died along the way but there's a lot of characters already in it—but there were fifteen going into my editor's read and she said she wanted three dead and a new chapter born.
CDR: Dead—like a dead baby—out of the book.
TO: I'm sorry I brought up the dead baby thing—just gone out of the book. So I killed two and I cannibalized one to make the new chapter she wanted. So I do do cannibalism.
CDR: Which chapter was that?
TO: The new Opal chapter, where she's older, was cannibalized from a younger person.
CDR: In the editorial process you have to think about balancing what is gained and what is lost by having fastness or having structured cohesion, especially in an ambitious work like this. Was there a lot of revision in making those things work together and cohere.
TO: For sure. And to move away from cannibalism into music. When you're working with something that tonally has similarities in terms of music, pulling a section from a piece of music that feels tonally similar makes more sense to transpose it or pull directly a passage that could work in another section of the music you're working, can make a lot of sense. To try not to do more work than you need to do. I've found when I've been depressed or uninspired, and I feel too self-deprecating or self-loathing to be in a space where I can make new work, I ask myself what did I already do that I can rework? It's a sort of survival instinct to grasp at straws for what I can put together, or for what's being asked for. When there is a time I feel particularly worthless and questioning why am I trying to write a book, I can look back to a point in time where I felt good, and the writing was inspired so let me try to work something out of that.
CDR: Right, so you can almost take refuge in revision when the generating part feels too hard or overwhelming or impossible. When working with what you have is a little more accessible.
TO: I think more than 50% of writing is revision. The exciting feeling of wanting to write something new is a great feeling. And the next day you feel like this is amazing. I'm great. But later you say, Oh my God, this is so stupid.
CDR: Aren’t those great moments?
TO: But what revision can do when you realize you're working on is not that good, is what is really cool about writing. Most people can't write first great sentences. Wasn't it Allen Ginsburg, or that group, said, first thought best thought, or whatever? It’s usually not true.
CDR: Maybe not even for them.
TO: For sure not.
CDR: One of many things you've achieved in this book is textual variance, everyone's voice has its own cadence on a sentence level. The style of each character, they're voice, they're consciousness, is so alive and so particular, and it happens the way the translator Emily Wilson talks about it: at the microscopic level of the word. Stories matter, how we tell them matters and it happens at the the microscopic level of the word. You have said in an interview that you partly wanted to write a polyphonic novel because you come from a voiceless community, and you wanted to build as much voice as possible—there was an urgency there. Looking back is that still what's true for you?
TO: I think when I first started talking about the book, I wanted to sound smarter about it than it actually was.
CDR: So this was an early interview?
TO: Uh-huh. I mean I wanted to sound more intentional. When I was writing it I wasn't thinking, "I come from a voiceless community, let me do a polyphonic novel to remedy that particular positioning as a community". To be involved in a big long work you're working with the unconscious which can do things mysteriously that answer some of these problems. At the time of writing, I thought, I like books with a lot of voices, let me try that.
CDR: Isn't that a good reason to write a particular style? I've drawn to this, I'm going to take the plunge.
TO: And knowing there was a vacuum in this particular community added to the want to pour in voices, so it wasn't totally unintentional.
CDR: That’s understandable cause we don’t always know why we write what we write and one of the hardest questions can be: what made you want to write this book? And there's 16,000 reasons, because it's such a deep thing to write a book, and maybe they're all true. I love what you said about the unconscious also working. We don't always know why we're pulled to write in that particular way, and it seems like you also followed your intuition a lot.
TO: A lot this gets a little bit woo-woo. and I don't like that direction in general.
CDR: We don't have to take that direction
TO: But I just want to take it there for a second.
CDR: Good, okay, we can take that direction.
Photo by Elena Seidbert
TO: I think a lot of people work from an unconscious place more than they are comfortable admitting, and the ego does the work of being like, no this is all my doing, and I don't think that's true.
CDR: How does reading factor in to your process in terms of listening to intuition and knowing how the story wants to be told, or who is going to be in the story, or shaping the world of your fiction. Whether it's in revising on a sentence level or generating the world. I know you're a deep reader and an intrepid reader, that's clear from the book with all the intertextuality, the beautiful quotes and references to Gertrude Stein and Brecht. So you have a rich reading life. Can you talk about how it flows with your writing life?
TO: Yeah. I feel like I'm constantly reading a ton of books at once. Since I decided I wanted to write, I've always been reading contemporary fiction because I wanted to see what people are doing. How it influences my work now—it's less less so than it did before. After a certain point research influences more of my work than reading does. I try to find moments where I'm reading to enjoy reading as much as I can, which is hard. I really love reading and eating. There's something about going out to eat with a book.
CDR: Do you have strategies for propping the book open?
TO: It's very intricate, like the whole thing is sort of a dance. I've gotten really deft with my left hand because I eat with my right. And there's certain foods that work better to eat when reading.
CDR: Yes, absolutely because there's hand foods like burgers are rough.
TO: Oh, I don't do burgers.
CDR: I found butter knives work to hold the page down.
TO: Certain things I wouldn't necessarily eat with a fork, I do eat with a fork when I'm reading and eating because of the messiness. I don't want to mess up the page too much. All my pages end up sort of destroyed, I don't treat my books well, but I try to minimize it so I don't look like a complete slob.
CDR: Maybe it's a visceral kind of love that you have for your books.
TO: It is.
CDR: Maybe that's a way of treating them well. An exciting avenue of conversation, I think, is the physicality of reading, the physicality of those moments of pleasure—imbibing a book as you imbibe food, nourishing on all these levels.
TO: Relationships are messy.
CDR: Why can't reading be? Why can't your relationship with books be?
TO: They should be.
TO: Reading has influenced me as a writer and I've read a lot over the years. And reading out loud—which is a side-subject—is a huge part of my revision process. I like to work in hotel rooms, where I know no one's listening, when I get to a certain draft stage, and I'll read out loud to know if a sentence is where it should be because of the way it sounds out loud.
CDR: Can we talk about being a writer in these political and cultural times. There's a lot of different things going on in this world, and what it's like to walk in the world as a writer, as a Native American writer, as a writer of color. What challenges or opportunities you see in being part of cultural conversation in a time like this?
TO: My book's been tied to this political moment from the very beginning.
CDR: How is that for you?
TO: It ends up with me attributing a lot of the success of my book to Trump. It’s sad. But there's truth to it that's uncomfortable. I read at a writing conference, and another writer Claire Vaye Watkins heard me read and she said she would send my manuscript to her agent. This was October 2016 and I was like cool that's amazing, but then nothing really happened. The day after Trump got elected, Watkins and her husband both sent my manuscript to their respective agents as a call to action—because for literary people, what do you do?, you can write toward it or you can like try to promote other authors. Watkins' agent was up with anxiety three nights later—she had to leave the country and there was a Muslim ban, she has Arabic origins and she was afraid she couldn't get back into the country—she was up at 4am reading my manuscript sent as a call to action to Trump being elected. She called me the next day, said it gave her hope in that dark time, and she signed me. Also, Standing Rock had just happened. Native literature has a history of being paid attention to in big political moments. The occupation of Alcatraz was followed by a renaissance of publishing attention for Native literature. Dances with Wolves won a bunch of Academy Awards, and a lot of Native literature was being published at the time. Now there's another Native renaissance happening. It's all connected to a political moment. I'm not trying to say my writing is worthless and only related to a political time, but I can't look away from that.
CDR: Maybe that is part of the opportunity of this time. There are some people who are horrified by what's happening in our politics, and who are awakened in ways that they might not have been before, and that opens opportunities for works by marginalized writers to be seen. That doesn't mean that you're success is attributable to Trump. I'm sorry f--- that guy, he doesn't get to have it, it's yours.
TO: What you're saying is true, none of this would be possible. Trump's election is like a cancer showing up, and someone gets something treated that would have killed them, and gets healthier. It's ugly for a long time, and you'd hope the treatment you get because you saw the cancer would eventually lead to recovery. We're still in the moment wondering: will it kill us, or will it be okay?
CDR: There is some awakening that comes out of being in an era of racist backlash and bigotry, and that backlash can trigger awakenings. If your book got swept up to the surface through that awakening then that is fantastic. There are people in this room who are emerging, or aspiring, or hopeful writers, and I think it's important to consider how can we participate in shaping the future of culture in a time where we can see so much backlash, so much repression, so much unapologetic racism. But we can also see some really powerful voices getting lifted, and staying strong.
TO: I have a chip on my shoulder. I have a history of getting into things that are prestigious , and expressing honestly to white people: "I'm always afraid that I got in because I'm Native." More than once people responded: "Isn't that why you got in?" And I think there needs to be a line drawn, because it's not tokenism, and it's not just for the quota. We're better because we had to fight harder. It's not just a political moment. We're better because we had to be and we will continue to be.
CDR: Can you tell us about the creative work that's percolating?
TO: Sure. Only because my agent recently okayed it. I'm working on a new novel which is actually a follow-up to this novel. It feels like a bad word, but it's a sequel.
CDR: That’s exciting! So we get to hear from these characters again?
TO: Yeah. In addition to the follow-up to this novel, I'm also trying to sell a short story collection which goes in a lot of different directions.
CDR: Very cool. Is there anything else you want to say before we turn it over to the audience.
TO: No. Just thank you all for coming out, I appreciate it.
Tommy Orange has a story forthcoming in Fourteen Hills issue no. 26, scheduled to be published in May 2020. He is a graduate of the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where he now teaches. He’s an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma; he was born and raised in Oakland, California. His debut novel There There won the PEN/Hemingway Award, was longlisted for a National Book Award, and was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize.
A writer of Uruguayan origins, Carolina De Robertis is the author of the novels Cantoras, a finalist for the Kirkus Prize, a New York Times Editors’ Choice, and winner of a Stonewall Book Award and a Reading Women Award; The Gods of Tango, winner of a Stonewall Book Award; Perla; and the international bestseller The Invisible Mountain, which received Italy’s Rhegium Julii Prize. Her books have been translated into seventeen languages and have received numerous other honors, including a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She is also an award-winning translator of Latin American and Spanish literature, and editor of the anthology Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times. In 2017, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts named De Robertis on its 100 List of “people, organizations, and movements that are shaping the future of culture.” She teaches at San Francisco State University, and lives in Oakland, California, with her wife and two children.