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As a kid, Morgan Talty hated reading and writing.
But hearing and telling stories was different.
Listening to stories was part of his childhood in Maine, growing up as a citizen of the Penobscot Indian Nation. He enjoyed telling tales and seeing the reactions of his audience, and he heard traditional oral stories that were Penobscot at school on the reservation.
But he says some of the best lessons in storytelling he received came from closer to home.
“I feel like my mom was a great storyteller, just the way she would tell you something or tell somebody on the phone what had happened,” Talty told Boston.com. “But she was also really good at either purposefully or accidentally getting details wrong.
“I could be with her when something happened, and she would go and call my aunt and tell my aunt and she’d get like half of it wrong,” he continued. “And I never really knew if it was for effect or if that’s just how she saw it. So I feel like that was a pretty good lesson in storytelling.”
The series of 12 linked stories, set in Maine on the Penobscot Indian Nation, illustrate with stunning compassion the lives of families navigating economic insecurity, mental illness, addiction, and trauma.
The book includes a dedication to his mother, who died last year, and “all the women who raised” him.
He recently told Boston.com that the support he’s received since the book’s release has meant so much to him.
“Everywhere I go, but even on the Penobscot Nation, they’re excited for me, and I think that’s been the absolute best part,” he said.
Below, Talty shares more with Boston.com about his book, what he hopes readers will take away from the collection, and how he approached writing the stories that both stand on their own and are connected.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Boston.com: How much did you draw on your own experiences, your own biography, in shaping ‘Night of the Living Rez’?
Morgan Talty: I drew on my experiences when I felt they were necessary for the story. The collection isn’t an autobiography by any means. But there are elements of reality in the stories. From very little, tiny details that are true and then larger details that are actually the whole origin of the story. I’ll give you two examples.
In “Earth, Speak” for example, nothing in that is real at all or something I experienced. The only thing that has its basis in reality is the opening where the narrator talks about the fog hovering above the pine trees like the webs of “fall webworms in the crooks of brown branches.”
That was an image I saw driving on the highway back home one day. The way the fog hovered above the pine trees, it looked like there were little webs that were in the crooks of trees in the fall. And I just jotted the image down, and I used that as a means to get into the story, which is Fellis and Dee wanting to rob the tribal museum for root clubs that they saw were really valuable on “Antiques Roadshow.”
And so all of that is fictional except for that tiny, tiny image that I had seen.
And then you have a story like “Safe Harbor” where pretty much everything from the start all the way to the part where David’s mother is taken to the hospital is all real. My mother would go to a crisis stabilization unit because she suffered from severe depression, and I used to go visit her and eat lunch and hang out and draw or do puzzles. And bring the cigarettes. That was the big thing, “Can you bring me cigarettes?”
I was there one time and she had a seizure and I witnessed it. That quote that was written on a board — “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for” — all of that stuff was real. And I wrote it out when I got home because I felt like there was something there. I was maybe going to do a nonfiction piece, but I couldn’t get it to work.
It was only later that I was like, “Well, let me see what I can do if I push it, if I start to fictionalize some elements and maybe change some things.” And ultimately where the story goes is entirely made up after that point.
I want to ask you about the themes that are woven through the collection. The stories grapple with several serious subjects — addiction, trauma, violence, mental health — how did you balance or approach exploring those experiences? What did you want your reader to really understand with the portraits you created with the characters who are encountering those intense struggles?
I wanted readers to see the reality of some people’s lives in a very intimate way. I wanted to show addiction and violence and all of these things, not as some sort of hook for readers — because we all know that’s what sells, trauma sells. That wasn’t my approach.
I wanted to one, to be like, here’s the reality. Here’s the reality for these people. Not for this community, but for these individual people, who are part of this community. And I wanted them to see it, but I also wanted them to see the sort of love and compassion that these individuals have and need from one another.
There are several things throughout the book that I feel like I wanted to create this kind of tenderness that was juxtaposed with the rough and sort of heartbreaking aspects of the book. If we think about “Burn” for example, at the end of the story, after all the stuff that’s happened, Dee has this line, he says something like, “I walked with Fellis up the steps even though I don’t think he needed help.” Or something like that.
That’s me thinking about, “How can I make it so these characters are there for each other?” That was really what I wanted readers to see. I wanted readers to come away from the book with a greater sense of compassion and what it really means to be there for someone who is suffering, who is a victim of some form of injustice.
And for balancing the themes and navigating them, I think it was kind of — I don’t want to say second nature — but I’m familiar with these themes having grown up with them, having seen them. I was no stranger to them, so I felt like I didn’t have difficulty replicating it on the page.
I think the balance came in making sure it wasn’t all suffering. There’s a Jane Austen quote, I think that’s like, “One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it, unless it’s been all suffering, nothing but suffering.” So I leaned into the former of that quote, trying to make sure that there was enough love and care to cancel out the terrible stuff.
Can you talk a little about how you approached this structure for the book? What is it that you think having these standalone stories allowed you to do that maybe a typical structure for a novel wouldn’t?
I think if you took the stories out, they could stand alone and they could be read by themselves. Where, I don’t think you could do that necessarily with a novel. … So with this, it’s a story collection from the very beginning. It opened up in a lot of ways, and I could rework so many different things. And I had to figure stuff out. It wasn’t until I encountered the characters Dee and Fellis that the book became a story collection, but also became this strongly interconnected, almost like a novel.
So many people on Goodreads and Amazon and stuff are like, “Don’t be fooled, this isn’t a story collection. This is a novel.” And then some people are like, “This isn’t a novel, this is a story collection.” Nobody really knows what it is. I guess I don’t even know what it is. I suppose I was trying to do both.
But I was trying, with the structure and the order, to make it so that the stories could stand alone. If you read it from end-to-end, you have this greater experience, emotionally. I think the thread that connects these stories isn’t so much a sequence of events. They are — the sequence of events matter, but it’s really this question — and it may have been a question you asked when you were reading — but the question is, “What happened to David?” What happened to this family was the plot of the whole book. But I didn’t want to make it all about that. Because the moment I tried to do that, [that’s] the moment the book started to lose power.
I had agents be like, “If you turned this into a novel, we’d be able to sell it.” And I would try. But every time I would do that, the book sort of just fell apart and lost its magic. So I couldn’t put more pressure on it than what was already there.
So I was like, “I’ll just keep it as a story collection, I’ll keep it as it is.” It presented me with the question of what happened by just putting it in this order and letting the reader find out by the end, but not in a way that would bother them — or I don’t think bother them. To withhold too much would have just annoyed the reader. And with this story collection, every story had something going on that is simultaneously connected to this larger question, but individually isolated from it.
You’ve talked about wanting to write against some of the images and ideas of what people think of when they think about Native American literature and having an awareness of the ways that Indigenous fiction can be performing or performative for a white readership. Can you talk a little about how you approached this with your stories, with the construction and illustration of your characters?
For me, I always put the people first, put the characters first. And in the background, behind them, was their culture. And throughout their days, when they’re just going about their normal lives, looking for opportunities to drop cultural elements. Not for the sake of authenticity but for the sake of the authentic situation for these characters.
I bet if you asked somebody to be like, what’s a list of Native identifiers, people would put down stuff … alcoholism, long braided hair, maybe describing things as sad and tragic and all this stuff. And for me, it was really just people. And I’m not going to put their culture before them. It’s always going to be behind them.
Early on in my writing, before I wrote this book, I always would practice not putting culture on display or putting it for performance. And in this book, it was important for me to focus on the characters. I never felt a burden at all.
This book features Indigenous characters with substance issues, and some people would say that’s a trope. But I would say, yes, it’s a trope but to solely call it a trope would be to minimize the actual extent to which Indigenous communities do suffer with this type of stuff. And then there are communities who don’t at all, who are very blessed to have overcome a lot of that stuff. But substance abuse is still there.
So you can’t stop writing about it just because it is a trope or a stereotype. But, we can write about it in a way that doesn’t perpetuate or push this false image of Indigenous people, which I feel like isn’t really being seen too much anymore. Or at least I’m not encountering it too much. And I think that’s because — I think for so long publishing was like, “Readers want this. They want the bad, easy, comfortable tour of Indian Country.” And readers were like, “OK, yeah that’s what I want.” Not really knowing any better.
But I feel like readers now are more open to reading stuff that goes against what’s trying to be sold to them. Because there’s so much media coming at them from every direction. So I feel like it was easy to do it this way because I feel like it had to be done.
One of the other things that was really striking to me was the way your setting is active and present in every story, really immersing the reader with what it is like to be in Maine, in northern New England, beyond images of fall foliage or Maine being “Vacationland.” The wet, the cold, the rain are so often present, and smells are constant — smoke, the river, the caterpillars, the turtle. Most of the book, it feels like, captures the hardness of the environment and its impact on life. Can you talk a little about your approach to crafting the setting that the characters are existing in and reacting to?
I love place so much. So much so that I can write a story where all it is is setting and I go back to it and I’m like, “I’m not doing a good job here.” But I just love it.
Growing up, I was always outdoors. My friends and I were always outside building forts and stuff. We had the river next to us so we could swim, we could canoe, we could go out on the ice. I also grew up knowing how hard weather can be financially for a household. We had to be sparing with the oil we used for showers and stuff. We also had a wood stove, and we’d get wood we had to cut and stack it and all that stuff.
But for me, place in fiction, I’m very interested in looking at place as a person in a way. Like it’s both a place, but also a character in a sense. Because place reacts in the same way people do. Not, maybe, as quickly.
Think of fracking for example. Fracking is basically exploding the earth, cracking it open, and then the earth reacts with an earthquake, right? If you do something to it, it responds. In the same way that if you do something to somebody, they’re going to respond.
So I try to make place be a setting for the characters to move through, but I also think of it as this thing that you can give and take from. And that it can be good to you, but it can also not be good to you. I think in “Get Me Some Medicine,” when Dee goes to check on Meekew by the river, he finds that Meekew’s not there. And you’re kind of like, “Well, did the river take him?” You know what I mean? There’s all these different elements of that.
Nature enacts on people, and I just always felt obligated to show that.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this collection?
I think trying to turn it into a book. I had I don’t know how many stories written from David’s point of view and Fellis’s point of view. If I looked in a folder I probably would have 15 from David’s point of view and maybe 12 or 13 from Dee and Fellis’s point of view.
And it’s like trying to craft a story collection, but at the same time trying to craft something that is not just a story collection. It’s interconnected — it has this through-line through it — but doing it in a way that’s not jeopardizing the story form, nor jeopardizing the novel form.
That was the hardest thing. And I still don’t know. Maybe 10 years from now I’ll look back and be like, “I had a missed opportunity here, this would have done it.” I wonder if the book had been published and it had just been called “Night of the Living Rez” and there had been no mention of “stories,” I wonder what people would have called the book.
But that was the most difficult thing, really trying to balance out the two genres that I saw, not fighting each other to be the number one thing, but rather trying to coexist.
What would you want readers to think about as they are picking up your book for the first time?
I’d love them to think about a number of things. One, if this feels like your typical, run-of-the-mill Native fiction — it’s not. Maybe there’s a different way you’re supposed to read the book. I don’t say that with any sort of criticism towards people’s reading habits, but I really feel like this book steps away from — I feel like it’s unique.
I feel like the way you feel the characters and the situations, even though they may at times feel trope-y, are unique to these people. And they also are not representative of Penobscot people. They are representative of these people. And that’s what I’d love readers to take into the book.
When you read the book, my biggest hope would be for them to have a greater understanding of what it means to love and care for those people in our lives who may be suffering from these problems.
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