California Book Club: Tommy Orange Transcript

Read a lightly-edited transcript of author Tommy Orange's conversation with California Book Club host John Freeman and guest Kaveh Akbar.

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David L. Ulin: Good evening, everybody. I'm David Ulin, the books editor of Alta Journal, and welcome to the California Book Club. For those of you who don't know about Alta or the California Book Club, Alta is a quarterly journal of California culture, history, arts, also with a very active website. We are doing a lot of books coverage, weekly reviews, and other things. And also the California Book Club, a monthly exploration of California literature with some of the most interesting and exciting contemporary California writers. I want to start by in introducing our partners: Book Passage, Books Inc, Book Soup, Bookshop, Diesel, A Bookstore, the Huntington USC Institute on California and the West, the Los Angeles Public Library, the San Francisco Public Library, Romans Bookstore, Narrative Magazine, and ZYZZVA.

We have a sale for California Book Club members for only $50. You can get a year of Alta Journal, you can get the CBC, California Book Club, tote bag, and also one of our upcoming California book club books. It's quite a deal, and I want to just make a big deal about the tote, which is this, which I have been using quite a lot in the last couple of weeks as I have moved out into the world much more than before. It's got pockets, it's got Velcro, it's got zippers, what more do you want? You can find out more about that at

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Please watch tomorrow's thank you email for a link for this great deal, and also please visit the California Book Club clubhouse to keep the conversation going. This is a space for California Book Club members to dig even deeper into There There, share questions, discuss tonight's event, and also upcoming books and events from the book club. You'll find links to sign up for the clubhouse in the comment section and in tomorrow's email. Tonight, our guest is Tommy Orange who will be discussing his novel There There, and without further ado, I'm going to turn things over to John Freeman who will introduce Tommy and get the conversation started. So welcome everyone, and John, all yours.

John Freeman: Thank you, David. Really, really nice to be here on the eve of winter to be talking to Tommy Orange about his brilliant novel There There. Hope everyone's staying warm, it's so nice to see the comment cues with all these amazing locations that we're all calling in from and what a joy that technology can bring us all together in this way when I think we want to be together. Every now and then it's easy to forget that the novel itself is a piece of technology. Prior to it, the way that people told stories was different, older, and slightly less portable, and that every now and then the novel needs to be updated, not like a piece of software, but an essential organ of information, entertainment, belief, and dreaming, and it takes a novel like There There to realize how badly certain updates need to be made.

This is an extraordinary book of symphonic, construction, exquisite patterning, and a channeling of inner and outer weather, and language of a dozen or so characters on their way to a powwow in Oakland in the present day. They're everything from ex school janitors to people dancing and drumming in the powwow to people that are there to rob the powwow, something that the novel escalates to, and just a really exquisite piece of plot making. But it's the way that this novel channels so many registers of speech, of thought, of being, using first person, first person, plural, second person, emails, conversations. It has the effect by also roping stories in of creating an immensity of time and place within a short time period. It feels kind of endless. You see whole family histories being collapsed into bodies, you see whole periods of tribal histories being collapsed into ritual, and you feel the stress that, that collapsing places on the individual and the sense of that individual's authenticity.

One of the great joys of reading There There is just how tenderly and patiently Tommy Orange attends to those feelings of anxiety, and displacement, and longing, and faith, and opens them up by having characters enmeshed in each other's lives and moving across time in this real life Oakland that you could practically map from this book. You see the way that these characters are completely entangled in each other's fates, and you see the ways that they can only ever have been such being native people living in Oakland. It's a breakthrough in that sense, yes, an urban native novel, but it's a breakthrough on so many other levels as well. This is my fourth time reading it and I have never even come close to the bottom of what it has to offer, but happily the person who wrote it is here and please join me in welcoming him, Tommy Orange.

Tommy Orange: Hey John. Wow, that was beautiful and generous, and by far the best introduction I've ever gotten, so thank you for putting the time in on considering the book over different periods of time and really thinking about it and reading it. That's amazing, that was amazing to hear. I have deep respect for you, so thank you.

Freeman: It's amazing what time can bear out of a text and I kind of want to start there in a way. You've got these dozen plus characters and then some secondary characters, and I'm really quite curious as to how you dialed into their inner music because there's such a range in the way that they think, and speak, and talk, and it doesn't ever feel cacophonous, it feels quite symphonic, and I know you play the piano, and right now you look quite like a DJ in the booth. I wonder if you could talk about the sort of sonics, the sound of voices and what that means to you as a fiction writer?

Orange: Well, I think I didn't know what I was doing when I took my Bachelor's of Science in the Sound Arts degree, when I got into this program. I knew that I loved music and it was relatively cheap, and it was like a full immersion fast program, get your Bachelor's degree really fast, and that sounded cool to me at the time. And it'd be in studios and all that stuff. But to study sound before I became a writer, whatever writing I was doing before that program, this was 2003 to 2004-ish, whatever writing was almost unconscious. I knew it was happening and I remember doing it, but I don't remember what it consisted of. But to think about sound over the period of getting my degree, it definitely changed me as a person. And by the time I started writing and getting into voice and understanding the power of voice in fiction, some of the development of the characters... In thinking about voice and sound, we use this word, voicey. When things are voicey, they're sort of forcefully... I don't know, language is thrust upon the reader in ways that are unconventional, I guess. There's the conventional way to write, and sometimes I feel like you can create a mad lib for conventional fiction, where it's like description of sky, drop down to dialogue, and backstory to one character.

And some of these things, I hate about fiction, and I've always loved voiciness. And when I started thinking about a novel and putting all these voices together, I realized when I wanted to refine them and really make sure that they were distinct. And sound all of a sudden became really important to me and reading out loud, not in any dramatic way, but definitely leaning all the way into the written thing that I had already done to make sure it was sounding distinct and the way it should sound as a sentence and in dialogue. It definitely was a part of the process for me.

And I don't know, the register thing, I always... Reading Dennis Johnson for the first time, he just happened to be my doorway into high-low register and sort of writing messy lives, but I think specifically high-low register. In his novel Angels, I felt like I was given permission. And so much about reading writers that move you in ways, as a writer, it's about feeling like you're given permission to do things. And with Dennis Johnson, the way he's free with poetic language and the way that he writes messy lives, I felt like I was given permission to do this sort of low register thing, and I'm like thinking that I can include aspects of my life and the life of my community, and it can be a part of what a novel is.

And truly, that is why I fell in love with the novel, because it can do whatever it wants. And you talked about it as a piece of technology, and it is, and the way that it can bring new perspectives on our reality, and bring new voices into the way we think about other people or think about ourselves is why I love the novel as a form.

So [inaudible], this is my first novel and some of that is naivety and not knowing what a novel could do, not knowing how I could try to write one, and some of it was just really trying to write my community in a way that felt true, and rendered in a human and a real way.

Freeman: Yeah, there's a lot of love and respect for the novel coming from the... Sheila Shies says, "No question, just deep gratitude for this book and what you have given us." And Flavia asks, "Which character do you feel closest to?" and that sort of touches on something I'd like to get into. Because the depth of characterization is so profound in this book, and in such compressed space, and we begin with the kind of loneliest character, in a way, judging by the name. He's not lonely, but he is called Tony Loneman. I wonder why you began the novel with him? It's always stuck in my head, that that's a provocative beginning.

Orange: Well, I think I was just talking about voiciness, and when I first started writing, I started waking up really early in the morning in 2012. And early morning hours are great writing hours, and I can never bring myself to be disciplined enough to... I could at this point in my life, when I started writing this, but I can't seem to muster it these days. But I was doing this for the first year of writing this, a lot of the voices emerged during that morning time, and Tony came out really early and really whole. And the way that he came, I don't know that I knew the metaphor. It took me a little while to understand the metaphor that I was working with.

A lot of things... It wasn't totally intentional, but I did want to lean into it once I saw it, this sort of idea of native history and the general public not wanting to look at it, and sort of being embodied in Tony. And the loneliness that... I wouldn't characterize him as lonely, but the loneliness that is made when people want to ignore you, your story, the story of your people, and they want to go with this other thing, that's pretty absurd.

Tony, he just came first. I always knew he would be some kind of anti-hero. He came first and whole, and I think that's the shortest way I can answer it before I start rambling introductions that aren't making as much sense.

Freeman: No, I love your honesty about this, and I know later on we're going to hear from someone that you collaborate with and are friends with, the poet Kaveh Akbar. And the two of you have talked together about writing as a collaborative act, as a kind of improvisational act, and it's quite unique to hear a novelist admit their not knowing was their guide. It's not the design, not the patterning, but just the sort of using some instinct to get in, to sort of tap your way into a person. Was there a character that resisted you more than the others? I only ask this because there are a range of them, and you've gotten into all of them, but there must have been some periods where you thought, "I'm not getting this person."

Orange: Yeah. Well, as fast as Tony came, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, her chapter on Alcatraz took four years to get to. And it really had to do with perch, and understanding where was she telling it from? Because I knew it was past tense and I knew it was third person, and there were definitely iterations where it was first person. And there are always problems when you're doing past tense, like how much do you want your narrator to know, and how much does their knowledge interfere with the reader's experience of storytelling? Because the reader wants to get lost in voice and in detail, and what am I hearing this for, what's going to keep me turning the pages? This is the essence of readability and engagement and communion, when it comes to a reader-writer relationship.

And it took me forever to understand how to retain Opal's innocence, but also have this past tense, knowing that that could create this scene building. And I ran into a lot of problems throughout the novel when I was trying to make the whole thing resemble too closely a filmmaking project. And you sort of referenced that in the beautiful essay that you wrote for Alta. And I really got caught up in trying to make the things seem like a film, and it ultimately was not supposed to be.

So I got caught up in thinking about Opal and how much she was supposed to know, and I got caught up in a lot of the other, in terms of resistance and how to render people that felt like it could be part of the project. But the hardest one was Opal, and it had to do with retaining innocence and sort of knowledge that could speak of the experience in the way that it's written. Everybody else came relatively fast, and just took the amount of time that it took to get it where it got to was more of a revision thing, but Opal was an actively, "How do I land where it needs landing?"

Freeman: I sometimes wonder... One of the things that you've taken on here is a wide cast of characters. Opal and her half sister go to Alcatraz with their shared mother, they have different fathers. And in the course of that trip, they move around quite a bit as a result of all the various things that come from being the children of a single mother. And so movement is a big part of this book, it's a reality of this book, temporal movement with spatial movement. And something happens in Alcatraz, and I'm summarizing this for anyone who hasn't read the book, that has ramifications that ripple throughout the rest of time, that are felt in the present. And I wonder if you can talk about the source of some of those ripples, because it feels like in addition to many things, about seeing and being seen, about pride and shame, that this is a book about this sort of, the transference of trauma.

At one point a dog barks at one of your characters, and the dog bares its teeth and you write, "It was just trying to spread the weight of its abuse." And it feels like one of the things that you're trying to write across every living thing in this book is how people spread the weight of abuse. And I guess I know that's quite a heavy thing, but I wonder if there's something that you could say to that, as the novelist and the creator of this book?

Orange: No, I appreciate you pointing that out. I worked in the native community in the [inaudible] Health Department in Oakland for many years before starting the book, and I wore many hats, and one of those was to help put grants together. And I don't mean that I was a grant writer, I was literally putting grants together with staples, big staples, industrial staples, and making a lot of copies of them. And this idea of historical trauma was written into a lot of the grants and to get funding. And some people are familiar with the term now, it's outside of grant language, but I heard it... I read it putting together, literally making copies of a grant. I read it and immediately understood what it meant, historical trauma. I'm like, "Oh yeah, that's like how heavy I can feel my dad's shit, how completely I can feel it and have carried it since I was very young."

And then he told us these massacre stories, were native stories that we grew up hearing, but I also knew that the idea of historical trauma, it's so abstract, it's meant for grants. It's not something that translates to feeling. And so the reverberations of something like what happens to [inaudible] in Alcatraz and you feeling the ripples in the novel is one example of me wanting to translate how events through time affect people and affect families, and seeing on the ground stuff and putting on the shoes of people that can feel the weight of history, in the way that I felt it and in the way that I know a lot of native people have felt the effects of history. In this really intense way, that part of what I wanted the novel to do will was to do something artful with this whole idea of historical trauma, and take it out of the academic and the grant language world and make it like, yeah, these reverberations through time really hit people in real ways. And how do I render that in a way that people can feel it?

And so wanting to do that within the novel in various different ways, and that was one of them, and wanting for time to... And thank you for saying you could feel how much time is happening. I would never want to write a historical novel, or I don't like how much history and native people are always bound in this really troubling way, but I did want the reader to feel the reverberations of history in a real way, and so that's part of what I was doing with the Alcatraz piece and the way that it plays out in many of the characters lives. What happens at Alcatraz has these reverberations.

Freeman: And you also see some of your younger characters correcting against that trauma. They've seen it operate on their loved ones, they've seen it operate on their mothers and grandmothers, and I think one of the things that the novel seems to be meditating on is masculinity and its pressures, and the possibilities of... with the self consciousness that you've talked about. This is a book in which almost every character passes a reflective surface and looks at themself. One character drives a drone to the powwow, one character is searching, sneaking onto his mother's Facebook to sort of seek out possibly his birth father, another talks about code switching in the emails that he sends to his dead brother. There's an intense amount of self consciousness, and yet simultaneously there's also this instinctual awareness that certain patterns can't be repeated.

And that bending away from patterns of abuse to some... that's a terrible phrase, but let's just put it on the table as that... seems to be instinctual rather than spoken, and I wonder if you are doing any kind of counter narrative, to some degree, in the way that you have some of your younger male characters just clock what has been done to their mothers and grandmothers?

Orange: Yeah. I think, first and foremost, the way that I've seen native women in my life be strong and be the source of stability and power, I think that just came through when I was writing it. But I think that there's a counter narrative that I'm trying.... There's a way I'm trying to resist a lot of things in the book, and the way masculinity and the native world sometimes gets played up and native men come off as super heroic. In the same way that I was wanting to get visibility to urban native lives that I did not feel that I saw very much or was not explored or written about. In the same sense, I didn't see native women revered or talked about as having these leadership roles that I saw in my life and that I saw in my community. I wanted to write that because I didn't see it and I knew it to be true, and I think it's redundant to say that that most men are pretty shitty and we're not doing a good job and we have a lot of work to do, and it's no different in the native community and native women. Just in Oakland specifically, most of the leadership are women. And so I wanted to reflect that in the book and have reach this younger generation, because I come from a certain generation where the man being the best is still like a voice in my head and that I have to resist actively, but I think there's a younger generation that sees something else. And I wanted to write into that too.

Freeman: Speaking of writing, I wonder if you could read a brief section, just so we can hear how quickly the book gets in to me as a reader, that's always that moment when you, when you get into someone's body is exhilarating and you do it so rapidly.

Orange: Yeah. I'm going to read a little bit from Thomas Frank. Thomas Frank is, maybe most people don't know, my family has called it "Our chapter." Thomas Frank is my first and middle name. So I'm like sort of nodding myself to the fact that there are a lot of things in this chapter that are actually from my life and are me. But that's, I write fiction because I can hide behind what I know to be true and what to be fiction. And so it's not to say that the whole thing is autobiographical.

Thomas Frank. Before you were born, you were a head and a tail in a milky pool, a swimmer, you were a race, a dying off, a breaking through, an arrival. Before you were born, you were an egg in your mom who was an egg in her mom. Before you were born, you were the nested Russian grandmother doll of possibility in your mom's ovaries.

You were two halves of a thousand different kinds of possibilities, a million heads or tails, flip shine on a spun coin. Before you were born, you were the idea to make it to California for gold or bust. You were white. You were brown. You were red. You were dust. You were hiding, you were seeking. Before you were born. You were chased, beaten, broken, trapped on a reservation in Oklahoma. Before you were born, you were an idea your mom got into her head in the seventies to hitch hike across the country and become a dancer in New York. You were on your way when she did not make it across the country, but sputtered and spiraled and wound up in Taos, New Mexico. Had a peyote call me new morning star. Before you were born, you were your dad's decision to move away from the reservation up to Northern New Mexico, to learn about a Pueblo guy's fireplace.

You were the light and the wet of your parents' eyes. As they met across that fireplace and ceremony. Before you were born, your halves inside them moved to Oakland. Before you were born before your body was much more than heart, spine, bone, brain, skin, blood, and vein. When you just started to build muscle with movement before you showed, bulged in her belly, as her belly, before your dad's pride could belly swell from the side of you. Your parents were in a room listening to the sound, your heartbeat, you had an arrhythmic heartbeat. The doctor said it was normal.

Your arrhythmic heart was not normal. Maybe he's a drummer, your dad's saying. He doesn't even know what a drum is, your mom said. Heart, your dad said. The man said, arrhythmic, that means no rhythm. Maybe it just means he knows the rhythm so good he doesn't always hit it when you expect him to. Rhythm of what, she said. But once you got enough to make your mom feel you, she couldn't deny it. You slammed to the beat. When your dad brought out the Kettle drum, you'd kick her in time with it or to her heartbeat or to one of the old mix tapes she had made from records she loved and played to no end in your star minivan.

Once you were out in the world, running and jumping and climbing, you tap your toes and fingers everywhere. All the time on tabletops, desktops, you tapped every surface you found in front of you, listened for the sound things made back to when you hit them. The tamber of taps, the din of dings, silverware, clangs, and kitchens, door knocks, knuckle cracks, head scratches. You were finding out that everything makes sound. Everything can be drumming, whether a rhythm is kept or strays.

I'll stop there.

Freeman: Wow. That's that was pretty beautiful. Tommy. I really appreciate you reading from sections that you don't always read from, which I think we'll hear from later. It's so poetic and beautiful, says [inaudible] and [inaudible] says the repetition before you were born, there's an enchantment in repetition. And sometimes I think history of is a kind of form of enchantment that you get right into with that. This seems like a really good time to bring in our guests this week. The poet Kaveh Akbar whose latest book is Pilgrim Bell, which is in and of itself, its own enchantment. Many of you will know him as the author of Calling a Wolf a Wolf, but I implore you to pick up this book. It has the percussive mysteries of a long prayer of the person praying to themselves as well as to something higher. And I think the two of you know each other and Kaveh you might have some questions for Tommy. Why don't you come on now if you're there?

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah. Hey, can you hear me?

Orange: Yeah. Hi.

Akbar: Hey friend. It's good to see you and thank you so much, John. I love just watching your guys' brain moves. Brain moves, or your guys' brains move together?

Orange: Brain moves is like a basketball court thing. I think that's like a brain moves brain moves on the court.

Akbar: It's like the B side of that Bob Seeker album, right? Like night moves, brain moves. That was really funny. That earned more of a laugh than you just gave it Tommy. Okay. It's good to see you, my brain was racing. I was thinking, as you were reading, I was so enjoying your reading and then it was so brief and it reminded me of this poet who once told me that American audiences would, if given the choice between going to heaven and going to a seminar about what heaven might be like, American audiences will all choose to go to the seminar.

And I feel like I'm like, I'm like the face of this being the seminar now, but yeah, no, that was, that was brilliant and you are brilliant.

One of the things that I am thinking about is the ways in which this book in your work broadly is. So you talked about sort of wanting to do something artful with historical trauma and show how it's not just some sort of academic or grant thing, but it's an embodied thing that lives in the gut and it lives in the mind and it's everywhere apparent in the psycho, spiritual, social stations of the people for who are governed by it. And, and I feel like that's one of the things that this book gets so right. And I also feel like it's in this way, that resists the easily sort of legible narratives of empire and the narratives that empire has already sort of written that you know people who are writing from positions of [inaudible] often have to address those narratives in one way or another, either to explicitly reject them or to sort of lean into them because they have to, in order to make ends meet.

And one of the things that I always found so staggering about this novel, in your work broadly beyond this novel, is that it just feels like unbeholden to anyone. You know what I mean? As if I handed you a pen and a paper and said, "What would you write if you didn't have to explain yourself to anyone?" I feel like there is what would happen for Tommy Orange if he felt like he didn't have to explain himself to anyone. And I feel like that's the kind of miracle of it, we sense that unprecedented ness. We sense that not even like taking the bait of the quarrel of empire, or of quarreling with that. And I imagine that there are a lot of writers assembled here, who are in this space. Sorry, I don't mean to just be sort of like clapping, like a happy seal, but that's kind of how your work makes me feel sometimes. But I wondered if you might sort of talk about just how as a writer, how do you get the place where what you're writing is just what you would be writing? You know what I mean, if you didn't have to explain yourself to anyone to sort of like exercise the go somehow telling you what you should write about or telling you what you should explicitly reject, which is still a way of writing about it.

Orange: Thank you for that question. That's couched and lot of compliment, I appreciate that. And for you being here, it's kind of a paradoxical thing, my answer, because you and I both come from an unconventional. Our paths to writing was unconventional to the point that we both had insecurities, we were just talking about this two days ago. We both have, maybe it was, yes, no two days ago, we both have these deep insecurities about like, what are we missing from not being in the institution or not being told, this is what the good writing is, and this is why it's the good writing, we don't have that. And we sort of are searching through all of the craft books and all of the sort of standards or the Canon to understand what we might have been missing.

And I think I started writing the novel in a vacuum and was not part of a writing community and was inspired by unconventional books. So I wasn't reading people, I wasn't reading indigenous authors, native authors writing about the experience that they had. I was turned off a little bit early on from reservation based stuff, because a little bit made me feel like I was a less native and I didn't have the right to write about being native. I was from the city because I wasn't finding that anywhere. So I was, I loved what clearly suspect was doing in a sentence and like Robert Walser and a lot of South American authors, like Boaz and Kafka and sort of weird, weird writers, doing weird things with structure and with narrative. And so I went at the novel with no one telling me anything and it was very lonely and scary, but also liberating in a way that I was like, I'm just going to do whatever brought me to reading and writing.

And I'm just going to see what happens. And so I did that and the reason why I say it was paradoxical, cause I did that for three years. And then I got into an MFA and this was at the Institute of American Indian Arts. And these were people that were telling me this was like an affirmation point. And I don't know that I would've been able to write the whole thing in that vacuum of like, I'm just doing whatever, I'm following my instincts because I do know that I'm an instinctual writer or to be more self deprecating, like an idiot savant of some sort. I was actually did have the experience of meeting with a jazz teacher, one time, a jazz pianist in Taos for a piano lesson. And he actually called me an idiot savant.

And I didn't even know what it meant. I did not know what it meant at the time, but being in the program at the Institute and having the structure and getting the affirmation and understanding a native writing community and understanding that all this stuff that maybe I thought I would've had to explain within that native writing community never had to be explained. So had I had, I ended up at another MFA and had it been like, well, maybe the same time period, things are only just changing in terms of having to explain ourselves and how to do pandering and not do pandering and all this stuff is changing now. But I was doing my thing from 2014 to 2016. So some MFAs could have easily been this experience of like either fully explain yourself or leave out all of this stuff that you want to write about, because this is the way to write. This is the good writing.

That could have happened, but I went to this MFA. And so I had this sort of vacuum experience and writing instinctually and these nontraditional inspirations that were just led by my love of reading and my love of form when it came to the novel and what would I try to do with language if I could and honestly it had to do with becoming a father and wanting to take on something that meant the most to me. Becoming a father was like, what are you really about? Was the question that I felt posed to me. There's a human, you're about to be in charge of a human, what are you about? And so this is a really intense period that started to push this novel out. And, and so I had this level of focus and belief and determination and discipline that had me getting up super early in the morning and had me believing in my writing and just the ability to try whatever was driving my instincts.

Akbar: That's so beautiful. And that's so good and all. I think that's everywhere apparent in the book that you were at, again, psycho-spiritual Rubicon in your life and that you were using to borrow a phrase from John, the technology of the novel as a compass. As a way to illuminate what the next right thing was for yourself and your own living. What now shall I do now that I've created life. I think that, again, John was talking about the way that this novel allows not knowing to be the guide. Again, one of the things that I find so refreshing in your work, and it's part of a long visionary history that goes back through antiquity, but I think all of my favorite writers didn't seek to resolve certainty, but sought, or didn't seek to resolve uncertainty rather, but it sought to find ways to sit in it and without groping desperately for explanation.

And I feel like every character in this book, is like a different face of the same sort of intrinsic struggle that you're talking about here. It's like, you didn't know what to you with your living. And there are all these faces on that thing. Where all of these characters are unsure in this fundamental way and they're yearning. Maybe a way to frame this as a question, and then I'll dip out again from the conversation and see the [inaudible] and John will come back but one of the things that I'm interested in is, this doesn't strike me as a work that you sat down and neither does your other writing strike me as work, where you sat down and you were like, "Okay, I'm going to have the charts and facts and figures, like in a beautiful mind, like all sort of like tethered to it."

And you're like, "Okay, so I'm going to, everything's going to culminate and then I have to, there's going to be this power. It seems an actual process of organic discovery. And I think that, that's one thing that I often find writers with whom I speak, struggling with is they sit down in front of the blank page and they're like, " Okay, I write a thing that is going to arrest the rising specter of global fascism in its tracks, and also reverse the reverses from the precipice reversible ecological collapse." And do all of these things.

And they're just staring at a blank word document being "All right, how do I do all this shit?" It seems like, again, to borrow John's phrase, this is like a technology for you, for discovery. Can you talk a little bit about just like, what moves you into the language? What the sort of catalytic force that propels you into and through the language, because it doesn't seem to be like, here's an idea that has arrived to me, immaculately formed and now I just have to wrap language around it.

Orange: Yeah. there's like a deep trust that the writing process requires. And again, we were talking about this recently, about the unconscious and when you start getting into this territory, feel very wary of being woo woo. And talking about like characters arising of themselves and talking to characters and these kinds of annoying things. And that's not where I'm heading with this, but with language and becoming convinced enough for revision and the way that ends up informing characters and rendering humanity and consciousness accurately. In order to convince yourself to be able to reenter revision yet again, to keep doing the work, you have to trust this part of the process.

And a lot of weird noise enters in when you begin to trust the process, and when you enter and re-enter again into the work... I like to work heavily on the beginning, the entry points, entrances, if you will, which I just realized recently was like entrance. Entrance is like you're entranced, like as you move through a door into any building, you're entrenched into it. And whatever space you build, as you go through a doorway, you can be entrenched at that point. And I work really hard at the beginnings of everything that I do, because I continue to need to convince myself that what I'm doing is worth it. And this happens with the language. And I convince myself, by trying to create a language that I feel is personal enough that I know that it matters to me. The ideas and the passion that I feel about things in the world and the things that I want changed, or the things that I want addressed, or the things that I want seen or read, they will come out. And this is part of the trust. They will come out. That's not something I have to consciously do.

What I do have to consciously do in interacting with the revision process, is the work of thinking about language, and returning to the sentences and figuring out how the sentences are going to allow me to remain convinced to keep returning to the sentences. And all of this, to me, builds a on the page and with the writing that I can believe in. And belief to me is everything. Belief lives and dies in me every day, for the writing, for myself, but it's everything. And I can't write without it. And the revision process requires it too.

And doing the work and remaining disciplined, and being able to be at the blank page and know that you want these things to be addressed, or that these things matter to you, again, this is part of the trust, and this is part of where belief comes in. Believing in language and the process that you're involved with, to me is such a big part of the work. And it's taken time to even come to understanding that that is part of the process that I do, and that I was sort of already doing. In writing this book, it continues to be so.

Akbar: Thanks so much, Tommy. That's beautiful. It's beautiful. I sit at your feet. I'm going to seed the floor to John, but I'll be back, I think, at the very end.

Orange: Thank you so much, Kaveh.

Freeman: Thank you, Kaveh, for coming in to talk to Tommy and to share your thoughts on this extraordinary book. And there's some wonderful feedback for various aspects of your work, Tommy, including your short story in the [inaudible] climate change issue. And there's some things that come about, I think, as a result of, I guess not pre-masticating the meaning of your own work, letting the process drive you. And that is a kind of rich series of images and symbolic registers. You do some wonderful things across this book with color, that I think create rich, textured, emotional spaces.

And one thing that has come up several times, is the spider legs. And I wonder if there are any symbols across the book where you thought, "Jesus Christ, what does that mean?" Or if there are things that you put in there, because every time a spider is in a book, it activates something. Or are there things in the book you think, "I don't know what that is, but I like it."

Orange: Well, I think what this made me think of, is [Adi] Smith has a lecture, I think it's on YouTube. I think that's the only place that I've seen it. She talks about the novel as porous, and things entering the novel and coming out from the novel. And the spider legs are something that I'd written initially in this metaphor of the spider sort of carrying all this miles of web, and that being a story, and this idea of the web being the home and the trap with the spiders legs there the thing that it weaves, it's a home and a trap. And in the middle of having that already written, I was in a west Oakland Target bathroom, and I pulled two spider legs out of my own leg.

And this was a real thing that happened to me, that felt like, "This belongs in the novel, because I already have these spider things in it." And that was a crazy experience, just for that to have happened. As soon as I wrote the bat into the scene with Thomas Frank, where Thomas Frank has a bat fly, and he's a janitor and he crushes the bat and a lot of other stuff is happening around him. The week that I wrote the bat into the novel, a bat flew into our house and ended up doing what they call a fly-by with my niece. She had marks, and so did my wife. And so my whole family had to get rabies shots. And we discovered, during the rabies shots that my wife wasn't covered, her health insurance didn't cover it, so it ended up costing a fortune for her to get rabies shots.

Anyway, the point being, I don't know what the bat means, and I didn't know what the bat meant. I did know that it entered my reality in this very significant way. And the spider thing I had written in, and I hadn't written in that somebody pulled spider legs out of their legs. This was me weaving back in a spider thing, because it was already written into the novel. So even like the reflective imagery thing wasn't super conscious. It wasn't a super-conscious thing. I was aware that I was doing it, because I wanted different characters to be doing parallel things to make it feel connected, because I was doing my best to make it feel like a novel, and not a just to link stories... I have a really hard emphasis on that, "just," sometimes.

Freeman: I know. As if it's just somehow easier.

I want to ask you one more question then maybe see if you can read just briefly from that gorgeous interlude. I mean, one of the things I adore about this book, is just how it just allows us breathing space by saying "Now just sit back and I'll take over for a bit." And it reminds me of the time passing in Wolf. I mean, modernism is full of these moments, but what I wanted to ask you about... This book has come out in dozens of languages, and you've been traveling as you are right now, to talk about it and read from it. And without turning yourself into a kind of human traveling litmus test, have there been any reactions to it that have surprised or sustained you, or something that really you didn't expect and maybe even moved you?

Orange: Yeah. I mean, there's been a couple that stand out, good and bad. In the first year of writing it, before... I'd been writing into it for a year, my wife, who was the project director for a native youth suicide prevention grant, she made me read what I'd written, a good chunk of which exists still in the prologue that I'd written in the first year of writing it. And these native youth who I was terrified... It's the scariest reading I've ever done. I read this thing as a native author. I had nothing published. And it was pretty secret that I was even doing writing. But she made me do it.

And these native youth from Oakland who were... They didn't respond to that much programming that we were doing. They had like an emotional reaction, and a ton of questions, and one of them was crying. And that carried me for years, the fact that I could reach Oakland native youth. And it was in the urbanity section of the novel where I'm like talking about native people's relationship to cities. And so that was a huge thing. When I was in Oakland, a older native woman who grew up on the reservation, but raised her kids in Oakland said to me... She said, "I understand my son better after reading your book." That was huge. That carried me in a huge way.

So those were very positive and amazing things from the Oakland native community that carried me in significant ways. Natalie Diaz, when I was reading it, before the book was written, but reading from part of the book, she had posted something after my reading, that also carried me. Just, I have so much love and respect for Natalie. And the fact that I felt like she heard me and she heard what I was doing in the book. And she said something like, "Tommy Orange's book is going to be the book." And it was the best thing. And it was a really hard summer. It was a really difficult time in my life. And for speaking of times that carried me. Those are the three that stand out, carrying the book along when I could have not been able to do it.

Freeman: Yeah, she's a formidable and wonderful poet, on so many levels, and quite a person. She has a great poem called American Arithmetic, that I kept thinking of when I was rereading this. Because obviously Fruitville Station has its own localized meeting and its historical meeting, but also its more recent meaning as the location of a shooting of an unarmed black civilian. And the result of that, having a ripple effect in the neighborhood of Oakland, also ripples into your book to some degree. But that's for another conversation.Because there's quite a few questions coming in about whether this will become a film.

Orange: So I can say at this point, because it was dropped... Did I freeze? Everybody froze. Am I still here?

Freeman: You're still here. I'm frozen. Francisco says we're all here. I think it's just a video clip.

Orange: Okay. HBO had the rights, and then they dropped it earlier this year. And right now it's a free agent, so to speak. So I don't know what's going to happen. There is another screenplay thing in the works that I can't say anything about, that's totally separate, that I'm excited about. And there is another book coming, that I'm turning in a draft in December for, and it is a continuation in the world of There There, after the powwow at the end of the book. And also there's a big historical element to it. HBO [inaudible].

Freeman: There are gremlins in the video. They're determined to make us go into Tron land. It does make me realize, we're running quite short on time, and this conversation's been so great that I don't want to peel away from it. But everyone is... I mean, there's a lot of awesomes. I know we're in California. There's a lot of awesomes that the next book is coming, and I think there's going to be a lot of love for it and a lot of anticipation. So yeah, "Don't stop," says Dedre. And, "Great news," says Mary.

Is there anything, Kaveh, you want to say, since you're still here, hopefully, before we sign off for the night? You guys know each other really well.

Akbar: No, this has been great. Thank you so much for inviting me to be a part of it. And Tommy, I'm excited about all of the things that you just said to the people in the audience who are excited about the next book coming. I've gotten the... I feel like someone who gets like Beyonce's album a week before it hits Spotify or whatever. And however excited you're feeling, it's not enough. It's going to be one of the big things that we'll be teaching for decades.

Orange: Thank you. We've got a page trade tomorrow.

Freeman: So, okay. So now I have to ask, because you've just leaked this out. So do you guys trade a page back and forth? You like basically shoot literary hoops once a day?

Akbar: We have a band, we call it... It's band practice, yeah

Orange: Friday. We try to do a Friday thing.

Akbar: Yeah, trading pages on Fridays. It started out because Tommy wrote a poem after the first night that I met him, because he misheard... The name of my spouse's first book was Space Struck. And Tommy misheard it as Space Truck, like a truck that one drives in space. And he did that thing of like, "Oh, you should write a poem called Space Truck." And I was like, "Uh-huh, sure." And then I got back home, and within an hour after getting back home, Tommy had emailed me this poem that he had written called Space Truck. And so I was like, "Well I guess I have to write one now too."

So yeah. And then we wrote our Space Truck poems and then Tommy was like, "Okay, what's our next word?" And we just started writing like that, back and forth. And it's just evolved over the past few years into whatever.

Orange: We started off with a sky hook with really ugly form. It should never have taken…

Akbar: It's the most unguardable shot in basketball.

Freeman: Yeah, it's funny when you watch those old videos of Kareem and you realize he was shooting sky hooks from just inside the three-point line.

Akbar: Yeah, he was shooting three pointers from... I mean, when he was shooting like 20-foot sky hooks.

Orange: You can't block it.

Freeman: Yeah, that's what you call zombie moves.

Akbar: Yeah. So we shoot hoops.

Freeman: Well I hope one day that we can have a night of just you two, trading hoops, I think would be a really, really fun night, super generative for all of us.

Thank you both for coming out, everyone in the audience, you've been a wonderful, attentive and highly-engaged audience. I've been scanning your questions, and I noticed that Tommy has managed to answer through all of them without actually answering them individually, just through the sheer wide-ranging loops of his imaginative answers and thinking. And thank you Tommy, for just being so much yourself. And this is what's really exciting about your work, is how uniquely yours it feels. And that's such a gift. So thank you for that, for this book and it's been a pleasure.

Orange: Thank you, John. I really hope we can hang sooner than later. I've missed being in that space, seeing the books behind you and knowing the space you're, I miss being there. And I so appreciate all of that, that you put into this, and that you put into everything, and very happy that you're at Knopf and-

Freeman: Yeah, me too.

Orange: ... just wish you the best.

Freeman: David Ulin is out there. I think you have an outro for us, David, that you can tell people where to go to send this link with conversation onward, and to maybe read more about There There, and Tommy's book.

Ulin: Absolutely. Thanks, John. Thank you Tommy, and thank you Kaveh. I'd be remiss apropos of how the conversation ended, and not reminding people of the early seventies, Deep Purple song, Space Trucking. We can all go listen to that on YouTube after the event.

This was a really, really phenomenal conversation on all sorts of levels. I'm grateful to all three of you for the conversation. Big thanks to everyone. I want to remind all of you in the audience that this interview was recorded, and will be available at

I also want to remind you that next month's book is Hector Tobar's novel The Barbarian Nurseries. And Hector will be here on December 16th. Once again, sale on Alta membership for California Book Club members at And please participate in a two-minute survey that will pop up as soon as we end the event. Stay safe, and we'll see all next month. Take care, everybody, thanks for being here.•

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