On Sound and Inspiration: The SFLR Interviews Tommy Orange

by SFLR Staff

Tommy Orange is a graduate and current professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. An enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, Tommy was born and raised in Oakland, California, and currently lives in Angels Camp, California. His first novel, There There, has been praised by numerous contemporary writers, including Margaret Atwood and Sherman Alexie, as well as by editors at the Paris Review, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and countless other publications around the world.

Members of the Santa Fe Literary Review staff were honored to interview Tommy by phone on Tuesday, November 13, 2018.

Austin Eichelberger, Editor: As the Fiction Editor for the magazine, I’m going to start off with the first question. Did you always know you wanted to be a writer, and if not, what else was on your mind?

Tommy Orange: I definitely did not know until after college. Looking back, I was doing weird writing that I probably wouldn’t have even called writing. I just remember [writing] in the margins of books and the backs of pages – maybe it was poetry, I don’t know. I wouldn’t have ever talked about it with anyone, and I wouldn’t have identified doing it. I definitely wasn’t encouraged to do anything academic, never had a single conversation about going to college with my parents, but I was good at roller hockey, which was okay in the nineties. I played for a travelling team and then I dropped out of school, did a lot of drugs, ended up a musician when I was 18, and then I went to school for sound engineering. When I graduated from that school, there were no job prospects. I learned a lot of analog reporting as we were moving into the digital age, so all of it became immediately irrelevant. [Laughter.]

So, I got a job at a used bookstore, and I fell in love with fiction while there. And then, I figured out I wanted to be a writer after being an avid reader of fiction. That was in 2004 or 2005, so I guess I’ve known for about thirteen years.

Austin: What an amazing story! I’m going to pass you to our first student intern now, who’s going to ask the next question.

Olivia Parent, Student Intern: Hi there! My question is: Tell us about a few of your inspirations – which could have to do with writing or otherwise.

Tommy: I guess my first experience of creating art was music, and I listen to music every time I write. There’s not a single time I’m writing that I’m not listening to music. Music in general is a really big inspiration to me. I play piano, and it’s kind of a nonverbal form of expression that inspires me in ways that are maybe intangible. Writing-wise, [Franz] Kafka and [Jorge Luis] Borges are two inspirations, and I’ve been reading lots of philosophy and religious texts. When I was working at that used bookstore, [my co-workers] were the first ones to kind of turn me on to fiction, and then John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces was a really big book for me, because it was the first time I was moved by a novel. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar did the same thing for me, as far as novels go.

And then there’s a lot of international writing – I kind of avoided the American canon, and even the Native American canon, because a lot of that is reservation-based, and it just made me feel even more isolated from the Native community, reading it. I love the Native fiction now, but I didn’t come around to reading it until much later in my career, and even since I’ve been at the Institute of American Arts (IAIA). Then there’s Clarice Lispector, and the The Hour of the Star particularly is a really important book to me. There’s [writer] Denis Johnson – once I did start reading American novels – and Colum McCann and Louise Erdrich, obviously. More recently, Ocean Vuong – I just got an Advance Reader Copy of his novel, and I always want my favorite poets to write novels instead of poetry, so it’s like a dream come true. [Laughter.] That’s what comes to mind right now. There is a lot of great fiction that came out this year that’s really inspiring – and makes you want to write better.

Olivia: Right on!

Darlene Goering, Student Intern: Hi Tommy! What’s the hardest thing about the writing process, for you?

Tommy: I think as somebody who more often than not is in a state of self-loathing on the page, revising, it’s always kind of painful , but it’s the work you have to do to make your pages better, so you sort of have to fall in love with revision, and find as many strategies as you can to bear with what that feels like as you’re trying to make yourself better on the page.

Darlene: I like that! And I know we’re all pretty familiar with it, too.

Sharon Franklet, Student Intern: And what are some of those strategies for you?

Tommy: Sure! So, one of the things I learned and that is now part of my writing process is that I’ve discovered that writing is a lot about getting away from the page, and a lot of times I’ll get solutions or ideas away from the page that I wouldn’t have thought of at the page. Also, while I’m writing or doing chores, I have a voice stream app. It’s called Voice Dream, where robots will read your work to you in lots of different voices. I usually use the one with a southern drawl named Micah. That helps me to get perspective that I couldn’t get on my own. I also read out loud. I print out work. I spend time playing with point-of-view and transposing. Sometimes I’ll be doing a really technical job, like transposing from past tense to present, and that to me doesn’t involve even reading my work – I can just be sort of an intern for myself, doing a task I wouldn’t want to do if I were really feeling inspired. Those are all some of the things I do to get a fresh perspective. There are various different stages, from being inspired fully to doing everything else to avoid writing, so you have to find different tasks to keep you coming back to the page.

Sharon: Thank you. So, I’m Sharon – and I was your hall-mate at IAIA during one residency. The question here is, how has your work changed over time?

Tommy: The writing that really made me want to write was often really weird – work by authors like Robert Walzer, who’s had a revival in the past several years. I think a lot of my earliest stuff was more internal, experimental, and less accessible to the outside world, and I wasn’t sharing it with anybody, so that worked out. I realized at some point along the way that I really want to be acceptable, to respect the reader’s time – if someone’s willing to read something I’ve has worked over, I just kind of respect the relationship inherent between writer and reader. So I try to think about things like pacing more, getting real scenes in. I try think about pacing and scene building to respect the reader’s time. Readers love well-paced stuff that has scenes, and that’s just a fact. That’s how [ my writing] has changed over time, and I hope it continues to change over time. Maybe I’ll become experimental again one day – and I won’t be accessible anymore. [Laughter.]

Austin: Tell us a bit about your recent rise to fame. I know you love talking about this – it doesn’t make you uncomfortable at all, right? What have been the highlights, and what has surprised you?

Tommy: Well, it’s all surprised me, because I think you’d have to be sociopathic to envision anything like this happening to your book. It’s all been very surprising. The hard part is there’s a level of over-exposure that makes me feel really vulnerable, and that’s not I would say fun. There was a part in the middle of the tour when I was in a different city every month, waking up mid-panic thinking that I was going to have to do another public speaking event in front of, like, 100 people – and that was after doing it for fourteen days in a row already. But, you kind of get used to everything, and eventually it became less hard. I’m never going to like it, but it became less hard to do, and there have been some cool surprises along the way. Before my first event in Brooklyn I got an email from my editor saying Iggy Pop was going to be there. He ended up getting sick and he wasn’t there – or his kid got sick, and we didn’t want that. I recently got an email from (filmmaker) Darren Aronofsky saying he’s a big fan. And that poet I mentioned, Ocean Vuong, wrote something really nice about [There There] awhile back, and that meant a lot to me. Getting Louise Erdrich’s blurb, and Marlon James’ blurb, were big moments for me, and then meeting readers is really cool. That part I don’t mind at all. The things where they want you to stand up like you have a lot to say, and they give you open space – I don’t like that at all. I like conversations onstage, or Q&A sessions with the audience, but meeting readers has been really rewarding.

Austin: That’s awesome – that’s the best answer I’ve ever heard to a question like that.

Olivia: Back to me! My question is: Might you tell us a bit about what you’re working on now, or what projects you have in mind for the future?

Tommy: As soon as I finished my last version of There There for my agent – that was December 9, 2016 – I was in complete despair for about ten days because I didn’t realize how dependent I’d become on having a project to be involved with. Out of that came a new novel, because I just needed to work on something. It’s an autobiographical novel about all these members of my family – but also all the objects in the house kind of “tell on” the family, so there’s this R.C. Gorman Native woman painting that I grew up with in my house, and that becomes a voice, and the salt shaker does too, and then it goes into the history of salt and Native people, and settles on childhood secrets about the dad. Anyway, there are a whole bunch of voices. And if there was one consistent criticism I got about There There, it was that I had too many voices, so I decided to double down.

Another novel started coming in March of this year – and I do feel superstitious about that one, because I have a deadline with my agent for December 9 – it’s kind of like every December 9 I turn in a big chunk of work to her – so anyway, I don’t want to talk about that one.

Darlene: Well, we can’t wait to read it. Tommy, my next question is: If an editor or publisher has ever asked you to make changes to your manuscript, would you consider talking about a couple of those asks, and your responses to them?

Tommy: Sure. I can remember a few early copyediting asks, and one in particular, which seemed really small but is pretty big at the same time: They wanted me to capitalize internet and decapitalize Indigenous. [Groaning.] So, I didn’t have to fight hard for that, I just was like, nope, that’s not happening. And there was a whole book cover drama: At one point there was just a headdress on the front of the
book, so you can imagine that that didn’t go over well with me, and would not have gone over well with a single Native person. [More groaning.] But again, I didn’t have to fight too hard with those – [editors] have been really good to me. The big one came from my actual editor, Jordan Pavlin at Knopf. She’s an incredible editor – but this feedback came like a punch to the stomach, because it was a big edit. There were even more characters in earlier drafts of There There, but she cut out three of them and asked me to write a new one. One of the [deletions] kind of changed things at the end, so basically, I had a lot of work set out for me. I don’t mind thinking about a lot of work, but [the edits] felt drastic at first. But they were also talking about a Spring 2019 publication date, when it seemed like nobody would even make it that far—this was spring 2017, and it really didn’t feel like the world would make it to 2019. I said, “If I work really hard, can we move that publication date up?” They said, “Yeah, but you never know with writers how long things are going to take.” So I said, “Well, give me a month,” and I did everything in a month, and they accepted it, and that’s how I got the June 2018 publication date. So after I sat with [Pavlin’s] changes and saw what she had in mind, I totally agreed and it’s a better book for it, and I’m so happy that I get to work with her – and I hope to get to work with her again.

Sharon: Hi again – is there a question you wish someone would ask you?

Tommy: No. [Laughter.] These are great writer questions and craft-based questions. Sometimes out there in the world, because I’m Native, I’m sometimes automatically politicized, so I get asked lot of questions that have nothing to do with writing or craft. But we’re also in a time when we probably shouldn’t not be talking about political things, so I sort of have a love-hate relationship to it.

Austin: We just talked about questions not related to writing or craft – so I’m going to ask you a question that’s not about writing or craft. [Laughter.] This one relates to IAIA and Santa Fe Community College (SFCC): A lot of our students at SFCC end up finding their way to IAIA, and we were wondering if you had any advice for students like that, or examples of what people could gain at IAIA that they might not elsewhere.
Tommy: I think on a cultural competency level, even though it’s a Native-specific program, I think there’s sort of a worldview that’s different for a [Master’s in Fine Arts] program. Even though MFA programs are changing with the times, and diversity in publishing becomes more and more validated, and books that we’re studying become more diverse, and not just old white men anymore, I think MFA programs are getting better, but IAIA is really ahead of the others. It was started four or five years ago and the faculty has always been amazing. The mission statement, aside from encompassing a Native-based program (which is very cool for Native people), also makes it clear that IAIA is a really good place for people trying to think about culture and different ways of teaching writing. Many MFA programs are steeped in a certain way to teach that has to do with the “old white man guard,” and so I think that’s a really important aspect of IAIA. As far as what [prospective students] should know going in – I think it’s an excellent program, and it’s not just because I teach there. I went there as a student, so I’m speaking from that experience.

Austin: On the same note, how did you find your way to an MFA after going out of academia and taking this different route for a few years?

Tommy: I hadn’t planned on doing an MFA, and I actually was kind of anti-MFA for a lot of the reasons I talked about. But, if I started writing in 2005, I went about nine years just reading and writing on my own, reading craft books and making sure I wrote between one and three thousand words a day. That was my goal, because I knew how far behind I was. Some people know from when they are kids that they wanted to be writers, and they’ve been reading since that age, too. I was doing it on my own, and I didn’t have too much interest in an MFA. Also, I knew that writers have been becoming writers not based on MFAs for many years before.

I was teaching a digital storytelling workshop in Berkeley, and there was a poet who had just gotten her MFA, I don’t remember where. We were kind of talking before a recording, because I was recording her voice for a voiceover for a short film that I was using to teach others how make short films used by non-profits to get messages out. At the time in that class, she kind of overheard me telling my co-facilitator that I had gotten into the MacDowell [writers’] colony. It was a year and a half after I’d starting writing There There, and I’d seen the MacDowell colony on another writer’s resume. On a whim, I was like, I’ll try that, because they accepted this one Native person. So I got into the residency, and this poet sort of knew of MacDowell, and she was telling me how amazing it was that I got in, and asked me why I wasn’t in an MFA program. I said that I had family and work, I couldn’t just move my life. She said, “Well, there are low residencies; let me look some up for you.” And she Googled “low residency MFAs” for me, and IAIA came up in that Google search. I saw that it was affordable, and low-residency, and I applied while I was at MacDowell, and I got in that year—2014. If not for that chance encounter, I never would have ended up there.

Sharon: I wanted to ask you about sound in literature; it’s obvious when I read There There that there are rifts inside it that are rhythmic and totally poetic. Those two things – sound and literature seem to be interwoven in There There; did they come together in some kind of convergence, or how did that work for you?

Tommy: When I got my degree in sound engineering, even though it was sort of useless afterwards, I think it was really important. I think everybody should study sound for two years. It’s such a cool world to know about. I’ve been making music since I was 18 – very different kinds, from really bad electronic to solo piano stuff that’s minimalistic – I think that music is just so important to me, and I bring something to writing that’s maybe more instinctual, because I don’t necessarily think about music or sound when I’m actually writing, other than I read out loud to myself a lot, paying attention to rhythm and how a sentence feels – how it sounds – in the room with me. My best place to work is in a hotel room. I don’t like when anyone can possible hear me read my stuff out loud, so hotel rooms are perfect for that. I read it in a way that I’m really hearing it, even if it’s just through my own voice. It really is important. Thinking about how each sentence sounds is definitely part of my revision process.

Austin: We read some short lists of authors who have influenced you, to whom you turn and return. We noticed that of these authors – you have [Jorge Luis] Borges, [José] Hernández, [Clarice] Lispector, [Roberto] Bolaño– and they’re all from South America. We were wondering: are there common elements identifiable in their work that nourish or attract you?Tommy: Yes. And we need to add Javier Marías from Spain, and Jose Saramago from Portugal. I think they’re not afraid to be really cerebral but also somehow have excellent pacing at same time. That combination I find makes something very readable and still very “think-y.” If you’re not taking care of the reader, it can be really annoying to read something cerebral. I also think they take more risks in some cases; there’s more flavor and risk happening stylistically. I’ve never thought of that before, why so many South American writers have inspired me, but at some point I realize I love South American writers and just kept finding others, but, I mean, there’s good writing happening all over the place.

I had a devastating moment. I was in a short-lived writing group at one point when I was “performing” as a writer, and I told the group about all the writers I love, and one woman said, “That’s all work in translation; you’re not even really reading.” [Groaning and laughter.] It crushed me. I just felt like a total fraud for years after that. I was so insecure as a writer, and because I didn’t go to school for it, and this person had an MFA. [Laughter.] She was the authority. I think I actually ended up reading a lot of American fiction after that comment – just to feel like I was really reading. Since then, I’ve become my own authority, and I’ve stopped being that insecure as a writer. I’m pretty ruthless as a reader now; I’ll just read anything that I love and nothing that I don’t.

Austin: That’s awesome. And it occurs to me that translated work is like music; you have these different people fulfilling these different roles to create one product in the end. Well, thank you so much, Tommy. We deeply appreciate this – and we are really happy for you and your book. Before we go, is there anything else you want us to make sure and include? Any final comments before we sign off?
Tommy: I’ll end with a New Mexico thing. I lived in New Mexico for two different years, pretty much just to read, write, and play music – and wait tables. That’s how I was getting along – and that’s a New Mexico fact about me. I lived up in Taos, and my parents met up at a peyote commune just north of there, a commune called Morningstar. These are just New Mexico facts that might be interesting – I don’t know.

Austin: Totally. That’s perfect.