Tommy Orange - Beyond the Pages: Exploring Identity and Inheritance

Jeniffer: Hey, there. I'm Jennifer Thompson, and today we have a special treat for

you. I will be doing an interview for Warwicks of La

Jolla. Warwick's is one of the oldest bookstores in

the nation, and it is fantastic. If you have a chance to go

visit, I recommend it. In fact, buy all of their books.

Every book they have is good, including this one.

All right, let's listen.

Tommy Orange is an enrolled member of the Shawn,

Cheyenne and Arapahoe Tribes of Oklahoma.

He was born and raised in Oakland, California.

His first book there there was a

finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer

Prize. He lives in Oakland, California. And

today we're going to talk about your second book, Wandering

Stars. And I just want to say thank you because

I've been listening to Bordessud play

over and over again in my head for the last two

weeks as I've been looking at your cover and reading it, and I

was so delighted to hear that that's

actually where the title came from, is from a Portishead

song, wandering star. Can you

take us to that moment and just tell us how

that happened?

Tommy Orange: Yeah, yeah, I think I feel like that song has

aged well.

Jeniffer: Yeah. Right. I listened to it today.

Tommy Orange: Like, it sounds like a song that could come out, you know, at

contemporary times and not like sometimes there's a nineties

feel to songs and it's like it just lives. It will

always live there, but that song feels like it's

still. Yeah. so I

was. It was March 2018,

and I was. This is the most unromantic

place to think of a book, in a

way, or it's annoying, maybe, to hear I was signing

5000 books at a warehouse, of wonder

of there before. Before it came out.

And the sales reps

team who are helping me to sign all these

books, they put on a Spotify playlist with the

root, they're there by Radiohead.

And I had known this song,

more. So I think I got into Portishead

because I used to go to

this, open mic night, and there was this

beatboxer who recreated

Portishead's wandering star,

all with a loop pedal and the sounds from

his mouth. And, that was where I really got

turned on to Portishead for the first time. And that was, like, in the early

two thousands. So I didn't know the song at the

time. And, for whatever reason,

in that moment, I hadn't planned on writing a sequel. I'd already

finished there, there. And there was no thoughts about a

sequel, in that moment when I heard the song,

I was convinced, like, completely

that I was going to write a sequel to there, there, and it was going to be

called wandering stars. I think I was

fluctuating as to whether it was. No, it

was wandering stars. And I think she says

wandering stars, even though the song's called wandering


Jeniffer: She does.

Tommy Orange: yeah, so the title was always wandering

stars for me. and I didn't know what

mysteries were be uncovered in the, you

know, after making that decision and really going for it,

all these crazy things came about that had to do with

stars that are in the book. and that, you

know, I couldn't have known in my conscious

mind, how well the title would have

fit. A lot of the stuff that I ended up doing,

and even the historical piece was not going to be in the novel

originally. I. I was in

Sweden a year later and

I was at a museum. I was there for the translation of there,

there. And, I saw

the curator, was giving me a tour because the swedish people

had cheyenne and Arapaho stuff at their museum, and

they were like, we know we're not supposed to have it, and we're trying to

fix that. And all this, preamble before

we saw it, and,

there was a newspaper clipping that had, southern

Cheyennes, because I'm southern Cheyenne specifically.

There are also northern Cheyennes, southern Cheyennes

in Florida from 1875 to

1878. And I just fell down this rabbit

hole. And, it ended up

meaning the book would have this whole historical section,

which I didn't even know how it would fit. I just

knew that there was something there. And

doing research for that, I ended up, finding out not only that the

prison castle, which was basically the root

of the boarding school system in the US,

the prison castle was shaped like a star.

And one of the prisoners at the prison castle, his name

was Star. In addition to another

prisoner, his, name was Bearshield, and

that's a family from there there. And that's how I knew I was going

to write a generational line that started

way back in time and eventually met up, after

the aftermath, or at the aftermath of

what happened at the end of their there.

Jeniffer: That's just pretty crazy. Yeah, it must have

just felt like the whole time you're like, oh my

God. The words that come to mind is, this is

kismet. Like this is supposed to be

happening is just unfolding.

Tommy Orange: I know the novel writing

process, has. I had

that experience with there, there and with this where things just happen

in a way that feels crazy.

Tommy Orange: I mean,

they're there. One of the characters pulls spider, legs out

of his leg. and this isn't kismet, but it's

just a weird. The novel being a

porous process thing, because I

pulled spider legs out of my own leg,

in a west Oakland target bathroom, the exact same as the

character. And ended,

up putting it in the book because I didn't know what to do with it in my

life. It was just this insane, like,

grotesque moment.

Jeniffer: Maybe it's grotesque, I don't know. I, think it's kind of

cool. I happen to love spiders, but I definitely don't want them inside of


Tommy Orange: The lakes were pretty big. It was like this long.

There was what?

Jeniffer: Oh, my God, that's crazy. Yeah. How does that


Tommy Orange: there was, there was no explanation online. You know, I scoured the

Internet just like the character, ended up calling

my dad because I thought it could be a cheyenne

thing. and he told me he thought I got

witched. And I was like, well, what do I do?

And he was like, I'll pray for you. And that was, that was

all of it. So I was like, I don't, I don't want

this. I'm going to put it in fiction where it belongs.

Jeniffer: I feel like truth, is always stranger

than fiction. And maybe that's why your books,

read so, so

easily, because so much of it just

feels real.

I mean, I found out that, you know, you're a

musician, and as I'm reading it in the music, and your writing

has a musicality to it. And I have heard you talk about this

in other interviews. Talk to me

about how music helps you write and

how I think you even talked about

reading it aloud. Like, listening for the

musicality. Can you speak to that?

Tommy Orange: Yeah. well, I listen to music, like,

95% of

the time that I'm writing, and the other 5%,

I'm not listening to music because I'm reading out loud and I'm

listening to myself, read it.

yeah, so I was a musician before I was a writer. Went, to

school for sound engineering.

I just slipped in the back door of literature

somehow, because you were.

Jeniffer: Supposed to, you didn't have a choice


Tommy Orange: And I think I was doing a lot of

this instinctually, this listening

to the sound of sentences. in the editing process,

I didn't even really verbalize it until

I started talking about writing when touring for they're

there and like, for the first time, talking about the

process. so it's a huge part, both

listening to music while writing, but also listening

to the sonic, you know, the sonics of the

sentences as a way to

figure out how far along the

sentences are or how far in I am on a

draft. so reading out loud is like super important

to me and that's part of why I love writing, writing in hotel

rooms, because I'm like completely alone

and can just sort of

step into the work and not be thinking

about who might be hearing me read

these drafts at various stages.

Jeniffer: I wanted to ask you about your writing practice and

what that looks like for you.

Tommy Orange: it's different, all the time. I

don't have a super,

steady routine. And this, you know, I never

did. I wrote it

initially, like, started writing there,

there, at five and six in the morning before going

to work. And, eventually did

a bunch of traveling for the job I had before I

quit to be an author, which was a digital

storytelling work. And I was in a lot of hotel rooms then

writing and then I was in school and,

at my MFA at the Institute of American Indian Arts,

and I have a 13 year old and now, ah, an

almost two year old. So with no

congratulations raising kids, I

think you have to just fit it in when you

can. I'll do like hotel residencies,

to get like solid chunks of writing

done. but it's, you know, I don't have a

consistent writing routine. I do know that I write best in the

morning for sure, and at night and like

certain hours of the afternoon where I never can.

but otherwise it's just whenever I can make it happen.

Jeniffer: Nice. Nice.

One of the things I wanted to talk about was the narration style in this

book. And what's fascinating to me is I

didn't even realize that you were switching up the

narration until almost toward the end.

And then I was starting a chapter and I

realized I didn't know who was speaking. And then I looked at the title of

the chapter again and normally when people switch

voice, not just narration style, but voice,

they'll have the name of the person at the top of the chapter

and you didn't do that. And it took me a

beat, like literally just a beat to go, oh, this is who's

talking? And that's when my brain went, oh, wait a minute, he's been

changing narration style this whole time. But I didn't

realize it because it's so smooth. So

I just want to hear, was that a process?

Did it happen pretty organically or when did you realize

that this was going to be. I think I heard you say polyphonic.

A polyphonic book at one point.

Tommy Orange: Well, I was always trying to write

a different book than there, there.

Even though it's deeply connected to there there. I

didn't want to do the same thing. And

in some ways I feel like titling

the chapters. The first and last name of the characters

may be a little bit lazy or so.

When it came to thinking about chapter titles, it was.

It was further along in the process. I

had different names the whole time, but

I wanted to pick out moments

or phrases or words within

the chapters to be the chapter

titles. In the same way that

when you work in the title

of the novel into the work itself, it sort of has this

boomerang effect of like, oh, this is. This is what this

is about. I wanted a

miniature version of that to happen in the


Jeniffer: It did.

Tommy Orange: It totally did. Somewhere along the way,

I decided that's the way I wanted to do the chapter

titles. But I always had shifting,

Narration, character and pov.

Intense. because that's part of the way I like to

revise. It allows me to

keep working. When I don't feel like I can. I'll just

change a character's pov or the tents and see what

it does. And I may end up changing it back, but it really

allows me to keep going back to the work. Because I can do something

really technical. If I'm not feeling inspired or if I'm feeling

really bad about myself or the writing. I

can do like technical work and just make sure I keep

working. Cause that's one of the hardest parts, is to not get

stuck and to not get distracted or

make excuses to not keep working.

Jeniffer: Yeah. Did you ever feel like giving up on

wandering stars?

Tommy Orange: Yeah. I mean, I think the whole endeavor

to write it has everything to do with not giving

up. And I think with a lot. With a lot of

creation. I think the

other side of the coin for creatives

is destruction. And, I

think destruction, the tools

of destruction are like doubt. And that's why

block and paralyzation happens a lot with

writers and with other creative people.

So it's a constant.

Like, am what

I doing? Is what I'm

doing worth anybody else's time? Is it

worth my time? Is the writing

any good? Is the story any good? These are

constant. Just constance. And

I think I'm far. I

spent twelve years on two books, six years on

each. And I know enough

now just to accept that that's going to be

there. but I know it's not

going away. I'm writing a third book, which I

sold at the end of last year, and,

the same stuff is there,


it's easier to have there if you know it's

supposed to be there. It's part of the tool that makes

your writing better is doubt. if you just

accepted that your sentences are good as they come out, then you're

probably not going to make great sentences.

Jeniffer: So true. So true. And I know you give a lot of credit to

your editor, Jordan. I assume

she is still your editor for this third book.

Tommy Orange: Yes. Yeah. I love Jordan and working with

her and, the way that she edits is, really

not intrusive. on a sentence level,

she's really, like, big picture visionary,

and gives me things to think

about rather than this

or that needs to change definitively.

She directs me toward a greater

vision of what I've already tried to


Jeniffer: That's pretty incredible. Wow. Yeah, that's pretty

incredible. Your writing has,

To me, it feels like poetry. Even the hardest

parts to read still come out in this very beautiful

prose, and it does have this musicality to

it. There's something, that I wanted you to read, and I

asked you earlier to read it. So, I'm not hitting

you up. Do this thing.

But the thing about this

writing that I think is so amazing, and I think why

people love you so much is you take incredibly

devastating topics, really important topics. We're talking about

addiction. We're talking about historical trauma. and

then you make it beautiful. It's more

palatable, I think, that way. And the characters

are beautiful and they're real and they have so much

depth. And that's why I think you can write

about things that would be so otherwise, so difficult to

read. And so I wanted you to read this one passage. Cause I

think it's a really good example of something that just hits you and

makes you. Makes you stop and think. Like,

reading there, there. For me, I read it through really

fast, but when I read

wandering stars, I had to keep stopping and, like, kind of

sitting with the language and

reading it again and, like, wanting to write things down

and, like. So, so good.

So well done.

Tommy Orange: So thank you. Thank you.

Jeniffer: Let's read this for our listeners.

Tommy Orange: So I have to share this, sort of brag

because it was like an insane

moment for me. I was sharing a stage with Louise

Erdrich on this tour for wandering


Jeniffer: Congratulations on that. She's amazing.

Tommy Orange: I can't remember if she asked me this

before or on

stage, but I think it was before

she said she asked if. So the

character, the part that I'm reading, the character is going through chemotherapy

and, has cancer. And maybe

that's a tiny spoiler,

but she said you must have been really close to

somebody, who's gone through this,

because she had gone through it. And she said

the way that I wrote it was perfect.

Like, perfectly fit the feeling.

And, while I do pull generously

from my own life and experience for all of my

work, this just came out of,

I, don't know where. Just my imagination. It really was

not based on any person or even

research. It was just, imagining

into it.

Jeniffer: Wow.

Tommy Orange: It was one thing to be grateful for the ancestors

and another thing to know them on the page.

I always felt like we didn't do good enough.

That our family line was in some way weak

and yes, weakened by the effects of history, colonization,

historical trauma, but also not strong enough to

pass down the traditions or language successfully

because we lacked something. I hadn't

considered everything that had happened, how far back

it had been happening to us. We come from

prisoners of a long war that didn't stop. Even when it

stopped, was still being fought. When my mom

helped take over Alcatraz, I was

part of the fight too. So were my

grandchildren. But surviving wasn't

enough to endure or pass through.

Endurance test after endurance test only ever give

you endurance test of passing abilities.

Simply lasting was great for a wall, for a

fortress, but not for a person.

Jeniffer: So m powerful. Yeah. I mean, it's an

example, but it happens over and over and over again in your

book, and you talk about really hard things and

these hard lives, and I'm thinking about all of

the research. I mean, seven generations,

that's a lot. So I'd like to

know a little bit about the research and how much. I mean, it's not surprising it

took you six years to write this book, but talk

about the research and the experience for you

just discovering over and over again these traumas

that were happening.

Tommy Orange: So, yeah, it's a mix of research and

I'd never written historical fiction before, so that

was a RealLy new


so the book opens with, a, ah, young man

escaping, from the sand creek

massacre. And this part was not reseaRch. This

was a story that my dad, that I grew up my dad telling

this story, and he'd heard it from his grandmother

and great grandmothers, and this

story told from people that were pretty close to

it. and so

I just sort of imagined into that whole part, and that

was not research based at all.

I'm sorry, can you hear something in my m


Jeniffer: Not at all. Oh, yeah.

Tommy Orange: Okay, good.

Jeniffer: You're good.

Tommy Orange: My, my son's rolling something upstairs.

Jeniffer: He's rolleRblading. I know it.

Tommy Orange: but for the. For the. The prison castle at Fort

Marion part, you know, I

read a couple books for that. I read a

couple books about Pratt and Carlisle.

so all the history stuff, I found that

even though I don't include a ton of, like,

facts from history or there's not a ton of

research you'll find in the book, I needed. I

found that I needed to, like, really immerse myself in

just people talking about that time period or

writing about people from that time period to convince myself

that I could. Because a lot of the characters, it's very

character driven. A lot of the narrative

is internal. and it's

about how they're feeling, what they're thinking about.

so that was a super new thing because they're

there. I really didn't do very much research either.

I worked in the community for almost ten years.

I was on a powwow committee, and that was part of where

the whole idea came from. and then I grew up in Oakland

as a native person of mixed

ancestry. grew up in

Oakland around other

native people my whole life. so the historical fiction

and research part was super new for

this. and I didn't really find it to


heavy. I feel like, just as

with writing stuff that

clarifies complex feelings,

that it unburdens me because I understand

it better. The same with research. If

I'm finding out more, that makes things

make more sense. Even if

it might be heavy or dark or

depressing to know about the pain that's

there, ultimately it

helps, it clarifies.

And that is sort of the key

to, being able to work with this material,

is knowing that I'm not taking

on a burden. I'm trying to unravel


Jeniffer: Totally. That's really well said. Well, and

that actually leads perfectly to my next question.

So, Sean, one of our characters, and, we don't want

spoilers. We gotta be careful. But there's something

that's happening with the character that I wanted to ask you about.

You know, he finds out that he has native.

He's part native, and he's adopted. So he didn't know his

history. He was told he was italian.

And he's sort of struggling with, like, how much

can I own? And can I say I'm indian? And

I just wanted to ask you, like, how much personal,

experience went into writing

that challenge for that character of, like,

it's not me, it's not my life, but how much of it can

I own or should I or do I need to know about? And then

Opal, who's protecting her grandkids from

something that she thinks is going to make their life harder, but

really protecting them from their history is

what makes it harder.

Tommy Orange: Yeah. well, you know, in the case

of Sean,

I don't know where Shawn came from. And this is part of what

I love about writing fiction is

that, I can become convinced

that a character

has enough layers to feel

real to me, and I just have to uncover

them. and

Sean, I wanted to write a character like Sean

because Oakland is such a diverse place.

and I'd also covered a certain gritty

part of Oakland, east Oakland, deep east

Oakland. but I wanted to talk about

this rich hills side of Oakland

and have Sean be, like, weirdly implicated

in that community while not

being white and having this totally

mixed background. so Sean,

while it might sound like I'm trying to do

things with him to make some point, he came as a

character, as a voice. And with all these

details, before I was able to

think, this is the function that Sean is.

Whatever utility I think I'm using him for to get ideas

across. He came as a character,

with Opal. So my

dad, is from Oklahoma.

He's full blood cheyenne. His first language was

Cheyenne. he didn't speak English till he was

five, and he didn't even see a white

person until he was five. and

he did things like picking cotton with his

grandparents for ten cents a day, just, like,

lived this authentic,

life in Oklahoma. But he

raised us in the city, and he also

wasn't raised by his parents. So he

had a lot of, pain around his

childhood and his childhood home,

and there's a lot of dark aspects of where he

grew up and the people, my people, and their

experience. And I think part of him wanted

to raise us away from

that, to protect us from it. But that came at

a price, because while he did speak

Cheyenne to us growing up, and

it was always very clear who we come

from, there was some aspect of

silence and not teaching us,

that left this

void of. And this curiosity

about, like, well, what does it mean? And,

you know, I have a white mom, and so being mixed

race, in the native world,

it's already like a challenge to feel authentic.

but then if you're also, like, not full

blood or whatever, some of these

dumb things that we hold on to, or if

you don't have the knowledge, or if you don't speak the language,

it leaves you with this idea, like, that you're not

enough. yeah, so that was

just, you know, came from a very personal experience.

Jeniffer: It reads like it. And I heard in an interview

once that someone asked you if you were native. You said

yes. And then they asked you, yeah, but

how much? And I just was

horrified, frankly. And I imagine,

that came out into the characters because that's what

I see Sean is experiencing. Like, he feels

he doesn't fit in either world, and he's not sure what to do with


Tommy Orange: Yeah. Recently, this year,

I was at, a university for a

speaking event, and, this

old white guy stood up in the crowd during the q and

a, and he said, from where I

sit up here, and this isn't the first time

this feeling, this type of thing

has happened. He said,

you look white to me. So when did you

decide that you wanted to be a Native

American? Like, I made a decision along the way that

I'm going to identify a certain way, as opposed to, like, that's who I

am. it's just like,

it's people, a certain kind of

american. Because we're only

taught the real Indians are related to the pilgrims,

and then literally nothing else is taught in our

institutions. Of course, somebody who

doesn't fit the thing that you think they makes them

a real indian. Of course you're going to question

somebody who, has a more complex and

nuanced and human,

is a more human version of what a native person

actually is. Of course it's going to

do that to you. Of course, you don't have to be

rude and awful. but

I also understand it because of the way we teach

or don't teach native history.

Jeniffer: And I hope that changes. I really do.

we have to demand it, though. We have to demand

change because it's not going to. It's just not going to happen.

Rewriting history to have more truths, I

hope that's in our future. but I think, you

know, writing such an honest couple of

books that you've written is a big start. And

so even though that may not be your intention.

It's what's happening. So


Tommy Orange: I mean, I think I love that about

fiction. yeah. What it can sort


secretly do to the hearts and minds of people

without, like, be the word.

Jeniffer: Yeah.

Tommy Orange: Yeah, exactly. Without, like, saying, like, I'm here to. I'm here to

say this and to

have it happen in story.

Jeniffer: Well, it's kind of like what you said about Jordan and

how her editing style, it's like, it just makes you think. It's

not telling you how to think. It's just giving you something to chew on.

Something. Something to think about that maybe you can take with you

and change your behavior and change how you look

at the world and how you treat others. I would like to think,

I watched a lot of your interviews, and

we're all asking you the same questions. We all want to

know the same things.

Is there something that you want to talk about that no one's


Tommy Orange: I mean, I think with wandering stars,

there's a couple of wild,

historical things that are real that I

feel like people just read through it and don't think about it.

But there's two things that I think about.

so Jude Starr, that's the first character we meet in

wandering stars. He is a

prisoner of war at a prison castle.

And, he becomes a bread maker. And this is

the real star. Became a bread maker and eventually a chief of

police. These are real things.

and there's a thing that happened

where they brought somebody in, to,

like, put casts on all of

the native prisoners to measure the

size of their heads. because the

thinking then was like, why are they inferior? It must be the size

of their heads or their brains. and, they called

what they were doing. They called them life masks. If

you look up Fort Marion life masks,

you can see pictures of it online. they're still

at the Harvard museum, the Peabody museum at


So you have these native people

putting on these life masks that

basically make white casts of


Jeniffer: Yeah.

Tommy Orange: And this is a time where the beginning of

assimilation. So the boarding

schools were institutions of assimilation.

And you have this real thing that happened where you're being

covered with white, a white

cast, while you're trying to be assimilated.

It's just like the crazy fact that I don't feel like

one person has noticed that this. I don't

know if they're thinking it's just fiction, and so

therefore, not as interesting. but it really

happened. And these things still exist, and you can see them.

and then the other piece is the camel,

There's a scene at the sort of like the end of the

first character, Jude Starr.

he comes across this camel. And, you know,

people don't think about camels in America, but we had

all these camels shipped over from Saudi Arabia

during the civil war to traverse these desert

like spaces. and at the end, when the

civil war ended, they just sort of set a bunch of them free.

And, so this was

also like a real possibility that you could

come across at this time period, you could come across a

wild camel, in an american

desert or desert adjacent

area. so those are just things that

I'm like, I don't know. I don't know.

Sometimes it feels like

what I'm trying to do with the book is to like, tell

everybody about atrocity and historical

trauma. And that's like the main thing I'm doing.

And it's like that's something

that just exists in history.

And I happen to be writing about this part of history. I'm

not intending to, like, put that mantle on the

reader. Like, this is like my tribe's history.

And we are at the, like, beginning of the

origin of, ah, boarding schools. Like southern

Cheyennes were literally the, the blueprint

for boarding schools. And, so sometimes

I feel like there's a certain way

of reading it where it feels

like the whole point is to tell you to feel bad

about american history. And it's

really. I would never want to put that on the

reader. I think it's an interesting and

important part of history to think about.

Jeniffer: Well, and as an interviewer too, happens to be a white

woman, I'm very conscientious of

the optics. And asking questions about

a history that I see is completely unacceptable.

And I see a future that's going to have the same stuff because we're

not demanding change, and we're not


Tommy Orange: I don't always love the history repeats itself if you

don't look at it kind of thing, because I don't think,

well, you know, not enough people do look at it.

But I, think,

it's just something that. It feels

so unrealistic to imagine that

enough Americans are going to want to think

about what this country is and what it came

from for it to

be meaningfully changed for the future. This

is going to sound super pessimistic, but it's,

But I will say they're there

has, been taught in like so many

high schools. And I have to hope, even though it might sound

naive that reading

something like this could change

people in the decisions they make, in whatever

ways their life takes them, for the

better. So maybe I'm being pessimistic

and maybe naively optimistic at the

same time.

Jeniffer: Listen, when I think of. They're there. I love

that book because of the character development, because of these people who

I come to know in this inner city life

that I don't know. I grew up

in the country, actually. And

that's why that book is so important. It's the character development, it's the

writing. It's what's possible. And there's a certain hope

in it, too, in your writing. I think, that

really comes through. We don't want to

read something that's just going to depress us and tell us how awful our

history is. It's so much more than that,

and it's well done.

So I'm glad you're working on your third book. And I want to ask

you, is it going to be named after a song?

Since you'd like to do that.

Tommy Orange: It's not. And it's not related to the first two

books at all.

Jeniffer: Okay. Okay.

Tommy Orange: it's contemporary, and it's in

Oakland and there are fewer

characters. I think there's just going to be three characters.

Jeniffer: Oh, my gosh. Does that feel harder? A little bit?

Tommy Orange: M. No, it feel. It feels like a relief.

Jeniffer: Okay.

Tommy Orange: It felt like I have the whole thing structurally already

mapped out. And the mapping, when you have more

people is much harder to get at. So I'm hoping to

finish this one a lot faster. It's going to be a shorter

book. and I'm excited

about it. I don't know how much I can say about it


Jeniffer: I know you can't, so I won't ask you to,

but I'm trying.

Tommy Orange: To finish it this summer, a

draft anyway that Jordan

will give me. helpful, but hard to

digest notes about, I'm sure.

and I'm also, working with

a studio on an original screenplay that,

is moving along as well. So that's exciting,

too. And also different, the totally different

tone and, still native

people. and thinking about identity and stuff

like that.

Jeniffer: Nice. Yeah, because, ah, I think your books are

universal, too. I just want to say it's about the immigrant

experience is universal, and

there's so much in it that's so layered and

so complex and yet easy

to read. So I just want to put that out there

that I'm so glad you became a writer and that

I've had the pleasure of interviewing you here


I do have one final question. We'll bring Julie back in to join us.

Tommy Orange: Yeah.

Jeniffer: what about your music? Are you still pursuing music at


Tommy Orange: So I don't get

to play as much as I would like right now, but I.

Jeniffer: You have a two year old, so that makes sense.

Tommy Orange: Yeah. M but I played a lot during the

pandemic. and, so

I've sort of quietly,

done this, and I haven't. This is why it's.

This is making it less quiet. But I

have posted songs that,

are on Spotify and itunes under the name

Orville Redfeather that are sort of like,

as if he recorded them along the way to

give kind of, like, a real dimension to his

character. And they're just like, they have, like,

sketch in the title because they're just, like, ideas that would have

came to him, like you describe in the book.


Jeniffer: Okay.

Tommy Orange: Yeah. So you can check those out, on

iTunes, Spotify,

or Soundcloud. And there's a few others on Soundcloud than there are

on the others. so I

am. But, I always will.

Music is very personal to me, and I

probably won't be doing very much public music

stuff. but I'll always be doing it for


Jeniffer: That's awesome.

And since Julie's not here, I do have another question.

Speaker C: Oh, wait a minute.

Jeniffer: No, I want to know. I'm,

like, worried about blue. I want to know that she's


Tommy Orange: So blue. And a slew

of characters from there, I

definitely wrote them in. And,

Jordan, very kindly and

gently guided me away from them.

Let's just say,

And I know I ultimately agreed with her. That's the whole thing is,

like, she wanted to focus on the family and have

it be tight, and I wanted that,

too, in the end. So I don't. You

know, there may be something in the future that includes certain

characters that I've,

Jeniffer: Short story.

Tommy Orange: Yeah, I don't know. I don't know what that looks like. there's

definitely a ton. I had to write, like, three

or four books to get to the one book in both

cases. So there's a lot of material that I haven't

touched that I, imagine I would

revisit if I'm, like, in a dry spell,

of some kind.

Jeniffer: Yeah. Thank you, Tommy.

I've really appreciated your time, and thank.

Tommy Orange: You so much for all of your generous, questions that

had really nice compliments. Embedded in them. I

appreciate that.

Speaker C: It was a great conversation, and we have got some great questions

from the audience. So we've still got a lot of people watching with us.

So, we'll get to as many of them as we can


Speaker C: Okay, Tommy, here's one.

Would you say your writing style is less conventional now,

this one came in early, so you might have already touched a little bit

on this. Would you say your writing style is less conventional in the

second novel? If so, why? Is it a

function of the context?

Tommy Orange: I think the second novel

is more introspective and


and I think there's sort

of like a.

When you tell the reader at the beginning of the book that

there's 3d printed guns and

a robbery and everyone's going to this

powwow, it sets a narrative

engine going that it's not

always, even in the writing, not always something that I'm

doing, but it gives the reader this little

engine that gets them moving through the book faster

sometimes. Like I said, it's not even me doing

it. It's a function of the

structure and the way I designed the first

book. So there's nothing like that in this book.

You're way back in history,

and if you peeked

ahead, maybe you know we're going to end up in the present. but

you don't necessarily know or given an

expectation. so

I think that's a big difference. And part

of the

interiority piece, I, think I

tend to naturally write on a

more interior, plane than a

plot driven one. and I think I

allowed myself to do that with this book because

it didn't have a structure that required us to keep

moving forward in a sort of a

way that required a certain kind of pace.

conventional or not, I don't know.

I try to write books that are readable.

And is that conventional? I really

don't know. I think

there's a certain way of looking at what is

conventional and what is not that has to do with

false ideas about what narrative is.

There are certain people that hate the stream of consciousness style

itself. And maybe,

would call that style unconventional. But I think

we have enough books written in that

style and sentences written in that style that you

couldn't call it. You couldn't honestly call it

unconventional. and I think I do a little more of

that in this book. Longer sentences and a

little bit more like stream of consciousness style.

so some of that may have been

based on the content or the context

of the characters, but I think

ultimately, I was trying to

not write the same book and

whatever that meant. there were new challenges

and new styles that I'd never written in

before. so, you know, I don't know, I don't

know how I answered the question.

Speaker C: the next one coming in is, do you think it's

important to, you did a little bit of the second part of this question, but I'm

still gonna throw it out. do you think it's important to read there,

there before reading wandering stars? And how

would you compare the two books?

Tommy Orange: I don't, I don't think that,

it's necessary. And I, working with

my editor there was very much like, let's

make this standalone and not, rewrite stuff and

not make the reader need to

know too much. And, I

liked that advice and I followed

it and so, no, you don't need to have read there,

there. I think it would enrich the text.

There's another way of reading the book. and

I like to imagine that one day there could be this version of there,

there and wandering stars with a new title that I'll

one day come up with where it

is. The first part of wandering stars, they're

there in the middle, and then the second and third

parts of wandering stars afterward.

Jeniffer: I did that.

Tommy Orange: Oh, did you?

Jeniffer: I totally did that. I was reading wandering

stars and then when I got to, it's not even, it's like a third of the way.

And I, all of a sudden I'm like, wait a minute, I

know these names. This is so familiar. And then I

was like, oh my God. Because I didn't know,

I didn't, I hadn't paid enough attention to know

that it was, had the same character. So it was a total surprise.

So, yeah, then I went and read there, there. And back to the,

did you like.

Tommy Orange: The experience of doing the.

Jeniffer: Loved it and I'm so glad I did it. And no, to answer

his question, you do not have to read there, there to read

wandering stars is absolutely standalone, but it's does

enrich the text 100%. And I'm, so I was like,

I don't know, I was kind of excited that I did it that way because

I loved there, there so much too that I got to read it again. So

that was cool.

Tommy Orange: Yeah. So I think it'd be super cool if one day

it's one book, I just have to come up with the right title

for it.

Speaker C: Maybe there's a song out there.

Jeniffer: I know it's.

Tommy Orange: Beth Gibbons is, I think she's about to go on

tour, and my publicist got in touch with her people

and sent her a copy. So maybe a future song of

hers because she's still writing music.

Speaker C: There you go. So you always throw that stuff out there in the universe.

All right, we got time for a couple more here. So just, So

Angelica is asking,

what inspired you to write a novel?

And was this the only genre or

format or choice?

Tommy Orange: so, you know, the beginning of

my writing, I was doing, like, pretty

unconsciously. I was in sound engineering school,

and, I only, like,

consciously remembered it much

later. I was writing, like,

prose, poetry stuff while I was listening to

lectures about sound.

and, luckily, there's no

trace. There's no evidence of that.

and then the years in, sort of, like, trying to find my writing

voice, there was a lot of short stories

and, a lot of

experimental stuff that, it was all

short form. There was no big project. When I

found out I was going to be a father in the end of

2010, that was the first time I was like, I want

to take on a bigger project. I want to

make. if writing

is this meaningful to me, why can't I take it more seriously and take

on a more serious project? Not

with it in mind that it's going to mean career.

Just like, this is what I'm most passionate about.

I need to take it more seriously because I'm, like, going to be

raising a human and trying to teach a human how to be a

human. and,

so I had been wanting to write a novel for a long

time because I love the form. I love the novel as

a form. and it wasn't until

that moment, like, a month after I found out I was going to be a father, that I

came up with the premise for. They're there. and it was just like, a bunch

of people are going to, sort of crash into each other

at a powwow at the Oakland coliseum, and you're going to find out how

they're all connected. That was just the basic premise.

so it was the novel for

a long time, it was what I wanted to do, but I hadn't

taken it seriously enough, and I hadn't thought of an

idea that I could really take a lot of time writing

into. Yeah.

Speaker C: okay.

Robin and Adrienne, I'm so glad you asked this question, because this is

what I've been wanting to ask, too. So I'm going to

combine these two a little bit. So Robin would love to know the

books and authors that you're reading now

or those that have deeply affected you.

And Adrienne commented that she sees a lot of books. So who do you

love reading?

Tommy Orange: So,

I love reading contemporary

fiction. I have major

holes in my classics

department. I haven't read that many of the classics,

because when I started reading, I completely did it on

my own terms. I was working at a used bookstore

and would just read whatever like

I wanted to. so

I read a lot of work in translation, a lot of south american

literature. you know, like, when I first got

into reading, borges and

Kafka were super important to me. And Clarice

Lispector was, like, huge for, like,

figuring out voice and what you could

do. And I think I look to

my favorite writers when I read their books. It

makes me want to go write immediately.

and I feel like the books that I love the most give me

permission to do something that I want to do in my own writing.

like, the feeling is I'm being given permission to do something.

Not like I'm stealing the idea of something they came up with,

but just like, oh, you can do that. Whoa. And

then I'll do my version of that.

Tommy Orange: so, you know, this question's always hard because

I need to have, like, a list where I can read

off. There was, like, a ton of influences for there.

There, like, books like Jennifer Egan,

Colin McCann, Marlon James. There were books that.

And authors that, like, were. I was directly

trying to do something with the form that was based on

actual books. Love medicine, by

Luis Erdrich. Luis Erdrich is one of my favorite authors of all

time. I wrote. I literally wrote wandering stars

with Kaveh Akbar and his book Martyr

came out and he should go read that.

Speaker C: Such a good book.

Tommy Orange: So we're dear friends

and we trade pages still, and actually, next

Friday, we're gonna trade pages for our next

books again. so, you know,

Toni Morrison was really huge, for wandering

stars. I hadn't read,

any Toni Morrison before they were there.

And, I read everything while I was

writing wandering stars. And,

she's just one of the greatest

fiction writers we've ever had.

but, you know, books this year,

like, I'm just finishing knife by

Salman Rushdie, which is

amazing. Dave Eggers has a young

adult book called the Eyes and the Impossible,

which is amazing. I read,

Percival Everett's James while. While

reading Twain's Huckleberry Adventures of Huck

Finn for the first time. I hadn't read it, and I

read them together, which was a super cool experience.

Hanif Abdur Kibb's new, book, there's always,

this year, is beautiful.

I'm also reading demon Copperhead

and David Copperfield at the same time in the same spirit.

Jeniffer: Oh, that's cool.

Tommy Orange: Nam Lee just put out a poetry collection called

36 ways of writing a vietnamese poem.

he's an australian vietnamese writer, but he

has a book, a short story collection called the boat that came

out in 2008, which is

incredible. Like, one of the best short story collections I've

ever read.

and then, calling for a blanket dance was a really

important book in conversation with wandering

stars while I was reading or while I was writing wandering

stars, that, was. Was an important book for me.

I could keep going, but I think that's.

Jeniffer: Yeah, I want to meet with you, like, every three months. And

you can keep doing this.

Speaker C: Exactly. You need to write one of those. Like, just tell us what you're reading.

Jeniffer: Your book list?

Speaker C: Yeah, tell us your book list, because it's.

Jeniffer: You should totally do that. I know you're on social.

Tommy Orange: No, I'm really not on social.

Jeniffer: Oh, you're not? Okay, well, let's, Yeah, I'll give you my email

address. I'll be on social for you.

Speaker C: Maybe we could do that. You send it to Warwicks and go, this is what.

Jeniffer: There you go. Tommy Orange's booklet.

Speaker C: Tommy Orange's booklets via Warwick's.

Tommy Orange: Yeah.

Jeniffer: There you go. That's awesome.

Speaker C: Tommy, this was an amazing conversation. Thank you

for your generous time and sharing your

wonderful books with us and absolutely

cannot wait. I was telling Tommy in the green room

I had the honor and privilege of meeting him

even prior to there. There being

published, and we all knew it was going to

be something special when we read it years ago, and it is

just continuing to be. And wandering stars is

amazing. And, cannot wait for your next one.

So hopefully you'll be here and maybe we'll have

another conversation with Jennifer.

Jeniffer: That would be awesome.

Tommy Orange: Thank you so much, Jennifer. That was such a lovely conversation.

Speaker C: Great conversation. Thank you, Jennifer, for your.

Tommy Orange: Have fun at the Daniel Lenoir concert.

Jeniffer: I will. Thank you.

Speaker C: All right, goodbye, everybody.

Tommy Orange: Bye.

Jeniffer: M.

Creators and Guests

Jeniffer Thompson
Jeniffer Thompson
Writer. Reader. Interviewer. Cohost of The Premise Podcast. I help authors build brands + websites. Cofounder of the San Diego Writers Festival. Chicken-mama.
Tommy Orange
Tommy Orange
Tommy Orange is an American novelist and writer from Oakland, California. His first book, There There (2018), was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize[1] and received the 2019 American Book Award.[2] Orange is a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. He earned a master's degree in fine arts from the Institute of American Indian Arts.
Tommy Orange - Beyond the Pages: Exploring Identity and Inheritance
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