An Interview with Tommy Orange

The Pulitzer-Prize nominated author on writing, personal history, and looking ahead

Orion recently had the pleasure of connecting with author Tommy Orange for a brief conversation about his eagerly awaited second novel, Wandering Stars, reading habits, how Native history is taught, the ongoing work of recovery, and how to write in back of an Uber van.

How would you characterize your relationship with the natural world?

I grew up in the city so I’m kind of a city person at heart. But I have a deep appreciation for the beauty of the natural world i.e. the outdoors or amongst strictly non-manmade things in nature. I lived in the country in the Sierra Nevada mountains for seven years before moving back to Oakland two years ago. I run all the time so I got to be out in nature all the time there. But I also consider cities to be part of the natural world. We come from the earth too. I think sometimes we think of ourselves as separate from the earth. The Bible talks about us holding dominion over the earth, like it is our possession. This is problematic and at the root of a lot of the problems related to climate change. We are the result of the earth going through a series of very slow processes over time that resulted in creatures like us eventually populating the earth, but we come from it, just like the trees, we are the natural world and so are buildings and cars a part of the earth, just as the superstructures of ant colonies part of the natural world. But I know what you mean about the natural world and I don’t mean to step on your question. I just think there is a Judeo-Christian influence that separates us from nature that causes a lot of problems as well as making us feel alienated from the earth and from one another. 

Revisit Tommy’s relationship to redwoods in “Trees of Mystery”.

I certainly agree with you there. In your new novel, Wandering Stars, characters navigate the lasting trauma inflicted by both familiar current events (a mass shooting) and tragic historical events like the Sand Creek Massacre and the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Before you started writing this story, how much of that history were you aware of? This country’s school curriculum is woefully lacking when it comes to Indigenous history, but were these things you learned about in any kind of formal or informal way growing up?

I grew up hearing a story about the Sand Creek Massacre, a story about a young man saving a baby the day of the massacre. It was where my dad got his Cheyenne name. My dad was always very clear with us about being Southern Cheyenne people, and he was very vocal about all that white people got wrong in telling the story of Native American people and this country’s origins. At school they basically only ever taught us the 400-year-old pilgrim and Indians meal story. And I knew about the boarding schools since about 2006 or 2007 having worked in the Native community in Oakland and hearing about it through a film I watched at a community gathering. But I didn’t know anything about the Fort Marion prison castle experience. 


When you were finishing There There, did you know you wanted to continue Orvil’s story?

I did know when I finished writing There There that Orvil survived, and once I knew I wanted to write a sequel, I knew Orvil would be one of the main characters in the story I would tell. There just seemed to be so much to write into, to have a young person try to recover from being shot in full regalia while dancing. 


How much of yourself do you put into your characters?

I put a lot of myself into my characters. It’s not always in a 1:1 way, not always recognizable, but I write from a deeply personal and vulnerable place. 


Bring home a copy of Wandering Stars today.

Speaking of vulnerability, this book spends a lot of time turning over the individual and cultural fallout of abuse, attempted genocide, addiction, and questions about identity and memory. How did you keep your heart safe while writing it? Especially during the COVID pandemic? Or did you?

Honestly it doesn’t feel heavier to write about these things. It feels like it frees energy up, or moves places or feelings of pain or stagnancy. I definitely run a lot and that helps. But my life has never been easy. It is full of pain and challenges, so it wasn’t like I left the writing space and went off to enjoy myself. But the pandemic was very hard to write through, and I probably would have finished the book a lot sooner had that not happened. 


I hear that. Who are some of the authors, or what are some of the cultural works in which you imagine your work in conversation? Both in terms of expanding a more diverse representation of modern Native communities, and humanizing addiction?

Martyr! by Kaveh Akbar, Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty, Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. 


Those are all such great books. I’m just finishing Martyr!, and always enjoy reading about the literary brotherhood the two of you share in particular. I’ve heard you weren’t much of a reader as a kid. How were you spending your time growing up? What ultimately turned you into a reader as an adult?

Yes, I was not a reader at all. I liked playing tag with friends and other sports. I played baseball and soccer and basketball and football then eventually roller hockey was what won me over. I played at a high level from the age of fifteen to maybe twenty-six. After I graduated college I got a job at a used bookstore, and it was there that I first fell in love with what fiction was doing. I hadn’t known before. No one had ever handed me a book and said you have to read this. I don’t come from a family of readers, and there was a lot going on at home. I played video games. And sports. But once I found fiction for myself, I became obsessed. 


Where do you write? And how? Are you an author who needs ritual and routine, or can you pick up a pen or laptop and jump in anywhere?

It really is anywhere and whenever I get the chance, always on my laptop. But my favorite place to write is in a hotel room. I’m writing this now from the back of an Uber (van) on the way to an event for Wandering Stars in Santa Cruz, with a laptop in my lap, listening to a playlist I listen to when writing. 


If you could look out your window and see anything, what would be?

I would love to live by the ocean, or to live in the middle of a forest, or anywhere that it snows all the time. I would love to see any of those things outside my window. 


What’s something you’re looking forward to lately?

I’m looking forward to diving into my next novel, I sold it at the end of last year. It’s not related to There There or Wandering Stars. I’m excited about the story and the characters. And I’m also excited for a screenplay for a feature film I wrote for a studio. I don’t think I can say much yet but it’s an original screenplay. I’m excited it could actually become a film, to eventually be able to watch it if it does. 

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Tommy Orange is a graduate of the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. An enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, he was born and raised in Oakland, California. His first book, There There, was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize and received the 2019 American Book Award. He lives in Oakland, California.

Kathleen Yale is Orion‘s digital editor and the author of the award-winning children’s book Howl Like a Wolf! and the game Guess My Animal! which both combine ecology, animal behavior, and imagination to engage children in creative play. She’s a former scriptwriter for the educational programs SciShow and Crash Course, and prior to that worked as a wildlife field biologist. She lives outside of Glacier National Park, with her family.