Interview by Linda Mahal
Morgan Talty (Fiction ’19) is a citizen of the Penobscot Indian Nation where he grew up. His story collection Night of the Living Rez was released by Tin House Books in July 2022. Talty’s work has appeared in Granta, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, TriQuarterly, Narrative Magazine, Lit Hub, and elsewhere and has been supported by the Elizabeth George Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. A winner of the 2021 Narrative Prize, Talty teaches fiction and nonfiction in the low-residency Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of Southern Maine and at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is a prose editor at The Massachusetts Review and lives in Levant, Maine.
Talty has been named a Writer to Watch by both Publisher’s Weekly and The Millions. Night of the Living Rez has received a starred Kirkus review and has been recognized as one of the top books to read in 2022 by Lit Hub, Book Riot, Paste Magazine, and Good Housekeeping.
In his Stonecoast interview, Talty reflects on his critically acclaimed debut, Night of the Living Rez; the journey he’s taken as a writer; aspects of culture and craft; and his current projects and future plans.
LM: I’ve had an orange peel running through my mind ever since I finished reading Night of the Living Rez. These stories seem to run purely on magic–the quality that you’ve said separates an excellent story from a technically competent one.
MT: Thank you, Linda! I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed it (and that you’ve had an orange peel running in your mind ever since!).
LM: Before we talk about your book, I’m curious to know what becoming a writer has been like for you. Have your experiences matched your expectations? What has surprised you along the way?
MT: To be quite honest, my introduction to “what a writer is” was largely shaped by Beat writers: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and others. I feel like I thought a writer was someone who was constantly on the move, in a sense. I spent my summers with my father in Connecticut, and so twice a year I was On the Road, so to speak, taking the Greyhound from Bangor to Bridgeport. I traveled a lot when I was younger—in my twenties—and really tried to get a sense of the world. The older I got and the more I wrote, the more I began to realize that being a writer was being someone who wrote, someone who read and wrote and read and wrote and read and wrote. Along the way, what has surprised me the most is how hard it is to be a writer.
LM: How did your time as a graduate student at Stonecoast change your writing or the trajectory of your career?
MT: I had always been told by former professors that my writing was good, but I never believed them. When I got to Stonecoast, every writer I worked with—Rick Bass, Aaron Hamburger, Cara Hoffman—echoed the same thing: that my writing was good. It was around this time that I finally believed what people said. And that did change my writing career a bit. One mentor said to me, “I don’t really have anything to teach you—you’re at the point where you’ll become your own best teacher.” It was then I started to believe in myself and really put the work in to write and learn and write and learn.
LM: I’m interested in how you constructed the geography of Night of the Living Rez. Does the setting match, more or less exactly, a real-life location? Or did you use several settings to form a composite, or something purely from your imagination?
MT: The location, in my mind, is literally the Penobscot Nation, except I made some changes to the locations of particular things within it. I never drew a map—but that is something that is helpful—because that place is my home and is so ingrained in my memory that I can see it clearly and am able to revise how it looks in my head. I loved writing from that place, and it will almost always be a setting for my fiction when it takes place on the Penobscot Nation reservation. I didn’t want to create a fictional reservation—and that’s something I thought about—because there’s already enough “fiction” out there about Native peoples, so I stuck as close to truth as possible.
LM: One of my favorite qualities of these stories is how you incorporate your own retellings of traditional stories, such as those about the stone people and the pugwagee, within your own original stories. Could you speak a bit about your relationship to these older stories and how you came to include them?
MT: I grew up hearing these stories—the ones about Gluskabe and other traditional stories unique to Penobscot culture. For me, there's so much richness in our cultural stories that I found it to be a place to reflect and to even reimagine the possibilities of those stories. What I love about oral storytelling is that the stories can change a bit, and I played around with that idea in my collection. Finally, I also felt that to keep these stories out of the collection would be an injustice: these stories are so interesting, and I hope they inspire people to read and learn more about Penobscot mythology.
LM: If there were one piece of advice I could give to readers of Night of the Living Rez, it would be to look up, if they haven’t read it before, the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act—referred to as “our Settlement Act” in your book–and read the actual congressional language of the act. You wrote the story in which the Settlement Act appears before writing the others in the collection, yet it ends up being the climax/denouement. Could you speak about the process of coming to that decision?
MT: It just happened that way. I didn’t plan it, but instead listened to what I thought the collection wanted. But in that moment of writing that story—and even revising it when the collection was put together—I paid close attention to that section with the Settlement Act. I felt it was important to have it in there, but also to highlight how little Native American Studies is actually studied, or at least was when I was growing up. Today it’s much better, I think, but there’s still so much more road to go. I feel like it would have been an injustice for me not to mention the Settlement Act in this book, even though it’s not directly about it at all.
LM: Have you received any surprising responses to Night of the Living Rez?
MT: I’ve been getting emails from readers who have gotten ARCs of the book and they all say they love it, and so that means a great deal to me. However, I’ve had a good number of readers email me and talk specifically about this book’s handling of addiction, going on to say how much they appreciated that I never exploited that element and let it be. That means so much to me—I want this book to find its way to readers who I feel have been historically excluded from literature, those on the margin, like Dee and Fellis and David’s family. We all crave stories, and we all need them.
LM: Was there ever a time on your journey that you became discouraged, and if so, what did you do to get back on track, or to rediscover your inspiration or determination?
MT: How much time do you have? Ha! Just kidding. Kind of. I certainly felt discouraged when I thought the collection wasn’t working—when all I had were 15 or 16 David stories, but I felt better once I discovered Dee as a character (and Fellis).
The stories featuring Dee came about by accident, in truth. I originally had set out to write a story collection from the young boy David’s perspective. The first story I wrote was the title story, “Night of the Living,” and I wrote that back in 2015. In that story, David is about 18, so I gave myself a target: I was going to write the collection in chronological order, starting with David as a boy and moving toward that final story. I then wrote “In a Jar” and kept going until I had about 15 or 16 stories, all David’s POV. But then I looked through them all and was like, “What’s the point? Sure, some of these are good, but the collection is . . . boring. It’s just these stories.” So I said, “Whatever, I’ll do something else.”
It was around this time that I had heard a story about a guy getting his hair frozen in the snow, and I had tried to write about it as nonfiction, but I was too far removed from the actual story to do it any justice (I felt), so I decided I’d write it as fiction. I’d also had this name coming to me for weeks—Fellis—and so I thought, “All right, I have a secondary character, let’s write this story.” That story became “Burn,” the opener of the collection. As I was drafting the story, I got to the line where Fellis says: “Get me out, Dee,” but I didn’t know what the main character’s name was. I was so used to writing from David’s perspective that my instinct was to call this character David. But I didn’t want to write him, so I just put in the letter “D” as a place holder. But as I revised and revised and revised and kept asking, “What the hell is this character’s name?”, I realized it was “D,” with two e’s. Then I realized that this was part of the collection, that this man was that boy, David (spoiler? Don’t think so!). So then I had a new urgency to write this book. I chose the best of the bunch from that first draft of 15 or 16 stories and then wrote a ton of Dee and Fellis narratives. I saw the stories as standing alone, but also as being connected and suggesting a larger narrative arc, so I tried to nurture that as best as possible.
Later in the process, when the book was “done” and I was querying, I did start to get discouraged again. When you say “story collection” to almost any agent in the world, it goes in one ear and out the other and they respond, “What were you saying about your novel?” Every agent I queried liked my collection but didn’t know how to sell it. Many asked me to turn it into a novel, which I think could have been easy enough, but it would have gone against the aesthetic of the art I was creating and would have felt more mechanical. So I didn’t change it, but I was still left discouraged because nobody wanted to represent the book. Until I met Rebecca Friedman, who loved it and was like, “I can sell this no problem.” It took me about two years to find the best agent in the world, and she really helped me rediscover my inspiration because she believed so much in my work.
LM: I think you’re working on a novel or two. How have you found the switch from the short story to the longer form?
MT: I understand that conventions are associated with genres, but I’ve always felt like the idea of “story” was genreless, so for me, when I do switch genres or forms, I do employ the “rules” as they have to be for that form, but for the most part, it’s still very much the same for me: writing it down. With novels, though, I have an in-depth notetaking process because novels are so dang big and beastly. For example, for the novel I’m currently polishing up (which is called Fire, Exit), I have several pieces of white paper taped together, and a long timeline running through the center. Off of that timeline are all the events and important details so I could have quick access to them as I was rewriting the whole book. But I kind of feel like each project undergoing revision requires its own way of handling it. Drafting for me is always the same: diving into the work, wandering, figuring out what’s going on, but revision is a totally different thing. I’m actually curious what my revision process will look like for this next novel I’m almost done drafting.
LM: You’re a fiction writer, college professor, and editor, as well as a family and community member. How do you transition among these roles, while protecting your creative time?
MT: To be quite honest, it’s these things—and even more—that help me write. They remind me that I’m alive, which is such a precious thing. Of course, I’ll be real here: it can get hard to write with my busy schedule, but I’ve figured out how I write best. I don’t beat myself up when I can’t set aside time, but I do beat myself up if I waste time. How I write and when I write is dictated by time constraints, certainly, but it’s also dictated by current projects. If I’m in the middle of a major project like a novel, it’s an everyday thing, regardless of what’s going on (meaning I may have to lose sleep to get the work in). But if I’m not in the middle of a major project, I can find the time when it’s available. I might pick up an older draft of something and try to get it right, or I might write a new piece, which I then obsess over until it’s done. I think it’s important to be honest with writing practices: there are writers out there who write every day, and there are writers who write once a week, and there are writers who write once a month. Trust yourself and your process, but know that at times you might have to sacrifice something.
LM: What are you looking forward to?
MT: The end of the semester! I have so many writing-related plans once time is available, which include finishing this new novel, polishing up my last one, and writing more essay pieces about family that I’m trying to turn into a collection (think a darker David Sedaris).
Oh, and the release of my book! =)