Meet Tommy Orange, author of the year's most galvanizing debut novel
If you haven’t heard of Tommy Orange yet, you soon will.
In a summer season full of anticipated debuts and new voices, Orange still stands out. His novel There There, out Tuesday, has been called “an astonishing literary debut” by Margaret Atwood, and the big praise only begins there. The book is a panorama of contemporary Native American life, a humane epic set in a previously unrepresented segment of Oakland, California. It traces a dozen characters, each on their own personal journeys, before bringing them together for the big Oakland Powwow: a community gathering which wraps up There There‘s many stories in alternately touching and heartbreaking fashion.
There are other reasons why There There is turning heads: its delicate, rhythmic prose; its detail and specificity; its remarkable prologue, a sweeping, despairing history of Native American life which contrasts sharply with the small, intimate character studies that follow. Yet chiefly, it’s the way Orange brings such an eclectic, nuanced ensemble of a historically marginalized population to life which is eliciting comments like “groundbreaking” and “essential.”
As to how Orange is feeling about all of this attention: “mixed.” Indeed, the author is hardly used to being in the spotlight in this way — and it’s only just beginning. EW caught up with Orange in a wide-ranging conversation, about his motivation for writing the book, his literary influences (including James Baldwin), and his thoughts on the sheer anticipation that’s met his literary debut. Read on below, and order your copy of There There here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You didn’t grow up a reader. Why turn to literature, specifically, to tell this story?
TOMMY ORANGE: I was born and raised in Oakland, but we didn’t exactly grow up around a Native community in Oakland. But there was a number of years where I was working with Native organizations in Oakland, and just came to realize how many stories and how much history there was in the city itself, and cities like it all over the country. I just had a lot of experience in the community.
With my own background and my dad’s background, I’d fallen in love with reading and writing really late. Right around 2004 or ’05 — I didn’t do well in school or know I wanted to be a writer. I was not a reader. At the end of 2010, this idea popped into my head, and I was convinced by it enough to work on it for the next six years. It was to have all the characters converge at a Powwow in Oakland; have all of their lives converge there. I wasn’t sure exactly of the nature of what was going to happen at the Powwow. I just knew it wasn’t going to be a great thing for everybody involved. After I got the idea, I just found out that I was going to be a father to a son, and I didn’t exactly start working on it right away, because he was born. And I was working a lot then. But the following year, I just started writing into that basic concept. I knew I wanted to write something from a whole bunch of different voices, because I just read stuff that’s done that, that I’ve loved. So having that seed of an idea and then writing into it from all of these different angles was the basic start of the process and writing the novel.
You’ve said that part of the reason you wrote from so many perspectives is that you come from a voiceless community. Can you expand on that?
As Native people, growing up, we already don’t see ourselves reflected in movies or literature — or if you do, it’s usually problematic. For Natives growing up in the city, you don’t even see it in other Native art. It’s starting to happen now, but growing up, the representation of Native people who were born and raised in cities — and what those communities looked like — just didn’t happen. I wanted to write into the void of that. I’ve learned enough to know about the Oakland community, and that major cities all over the country had similar communities. There was relocation in the ’50s and ’60s, where massive amounts of Native people moved from reservations to the city. These families go way back, and I’ve known many of them. The voiceless is about not seeing our communities represented anywhere, and wanting to express a range of voices within that community to give an idea of what people are like.
There’s a real musicality, a rhythm, to this book, and you also come from a musical background. Did that inform your process?
It’s only something that I’m finding out through others, like you right now. The director of my school helped to copyedit the book, and he was talking about it in terms of musicality, and I’ve heard it a lot since then. But it’s all unconscious influence. I don’t go to sentences in the same way that I approach the piano. (I write compositions for the piano as well.) It’s a totally different process for me, and I feel like that comes from different places. I know that there’s influence there, but it’s certainly not something that I’m trying to do.
The prologue stands out. What made you decide to start the book on such an ambitious note?
I’ve always loved what prologues can do, the way they can contextualize. And I also love that they’re optional, so if people don’t want to read them, they can just skip to their first chapter and not miss any part of the story. But I think as native people we have a history of learning bad history — and not only not hearing our stories, but hearing it told wrong. Either it’s covered up or it’s a downright lie about how things went down in American history. To a large extent, the collective American consciousness still buys into somewhat of a heroic past. Wanting to express what it feels like from a Native perspective, going all the way back to when contact first happened — but I wanted to do it in a way that felt contemporary and had voice. Anybody could look up history on the internet or in textbook; I wanted to be able to write about something that was historical in an interesting way, in a way that I feel only novels can do. Creative nonfiction is doing a lot of stuff too, but what I love about what literature can do is how it can convince with the power of the way words are put together.
You also quote James Baldwin’s comments on the “trap of history.”
At some point when I was writing at the Indian center in Oakland, I started to understand the concept of historical trauma. Anybody that works in a mental health field and Native communities knows the word now — people don’t even really use it anymore because it’s been overused. Similar to calling Native people resilient, it’s become its own problematic thing. But understanding the concept was an important moment for me, because of the way I’ve seen my dad and myself and other people — the way history affects through the generations, the echoes of violence. Where does the deep sadness come from? Why are people struggling? I wanted that to play out in real characters, in real time — the effects of history, where you start from and what your people did to get you there. It’s all part of what makes a person. I just wanted to make that feel real, by putting it into all these different lives and having them act it out, so to speak.
Did any of these characters reflect your own experiences?
All of them have me in them, and details from my actual life were put into them. There’s the Dean character, who’s trying to do a storytelling project; there are some very real details there. I got a cultural arts grant from the City of Oakland, I went in front of a panel just like he did. I got the grant for two years and I never did the project, except for the fictional version of it, so I thanked them in the acknowledges for never having done what I said I was going to do — but I did do a fictional version of it! And it did help me a lot getting the funding all of those years.
You mentioned this process took six years. For you, writing over that time, what was the emotion and process?
At the beginning it was pretty exciting, because it felt like I was auditioning voices to see who felt like they had lasting power, and whose voice could really last and made sense together. There were a lot of other characters that did not make the cut, and a lot of different story lines that I just cut out.
Once I got to the middle and I figured out what I wanted to do, to get everyone to the end, it was pretty tough — to get all of these stories to make sense together. I really wanted to earn the right to call it a novel and not have it just be a collection of linked stories that I’m calling a novel. I wanted to earn the right of everyone sharing an arc and bringing the whole thing together. So the middle was the hardest, and I felt like I had problems in there that I didn’t know how to solve. Lots of despair there in the middle, and struggle. I was going to the MFA program I graduated from at the time, and that helped to not only think about craft, but it helped to be there at the time because I had to be on task. I was turning things in towards an MFA, so it helped to have structure in the middle of it.
I also realized that going on runs — some of the deeper solutions to the novel and how everything fit together would come to me when I was running, and only then. Running actually became part of my writing process because it became so essential to figuring out some of the deeper solutions to the problems.
You’ve been positioned as one of the summer’s authors to watch. Are you comfortable with that attention? How do you feel now, talking about the book as it builds buzz, and reflecting on it?
The feeling is mixed. A writer intends to express something in private for other people to experience in private — not for this level of attention. There’s an irony to succeeding at something that was always supposed to be private, that then becomes super public. I’m not the kind of person that really wants the attention. At the same time, I worked hard on the book and I believe in it, and I’m willing to do anything to support the book and its getting into readers’ hands. There’s a lot of anxiety, with the book tour and all of this publicity and attention — I don’t love all of that. But I want to support the book in the best way that I can. And be grateful toward the publishers who have been amazing; obviously they want me to do whatever it takes to promote the book so that it sells well. It’s a weird thing; there’s no precedent for it in my life, and I’ve never experienced anything like it. I approach it differently all the time.