Pedestal Magazine Interview
with Nathan Leslie
NL Thank you in advance for taking the time to chat with me, Rilla. Since the impetus behind this interview was hearing your wonderful reading of "Breakfast" at the AWP conference in Austin, Texas in March, I thought I'd first ask you to address the issue of your own experience with performance. For starters, you received your BFA in theatre performance. How do you think this background in acting has influenced your own approach to writing?
RA It's a pleasure to visit with you, Nathan. Yes, my first love was the theatre and originally I thought that acting was going to be my art form. That's how I came to New York, as a matter of fact, in pursuit of an acting career, but it wasn't long before I turned to writing. There are several ways a performance background, and most specifically the acting impulse, might serve a fiction writer, I believe - not least when it comes to giving readings - but the primary connection for me has to do with embodiment of character, i.e., the projection of one's self into the selfhood of another. An actor embodies a character with the whole animal, both physically and psychically; as a fiction writer I do the same thing, only using the mind, the visualization process, the living sound.
NL Whether writing in first or third person, your work overall strikes me as richly voice-driven. Do you agree with this assessment? If so, why do you think voice so central to your work?
RA Yes, it's strongly voice driven - as you say, whether in third person or spoken-word first - and in fact, if I can't "hear" the voice, I can't write. Or I can't write well, let me say. My work is strongly visual, it's true, but the fact is, I have to hear a narrative voice in my head to have any authenticity on the page. I'm not sure why that's so; it's just an instinct, I suppose. I do come from a family of storytellers, and my people in southeastern Oklahoma speak with the wealth of syntax and metaphor so natural to the voices of the South, so this may be partly why. I also have a naturally imitative ear and when I was younger would start to speak in any accent I listened to for very long (an impulse I have fortunately learned to curtail.)
NL When I was reading your collection of inter-connected stories, Strange Business, I couldn't help but think of books such as Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, as well as Eudora Welty's The Golden Apples. In writing your first book, did you find yourself influenced (either subconsciously or consciously) by other writers?
RA Well, certainly not Anderson or Welty, as I had not read either of these books at the time. But, yes, of course; we're always shaped by the writers we read, especially in our early years. For me the strongest influences early on were William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers. I didn't consciously model any of my works on theirs, with one exception, but their rhythms and characterizations and ways of seeing were strongly influential. The exception I mentioned is that I set out to write, for my fiction workshop in the MFA program at Brooklyn College, a story told in a collective voice, a first-person-plural "we" narrator, in the vein of Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily." The result was my story "Ways Without Words," which is narrated by the children of the town.
NL Many of the stories in Strange Business feature eccentrics of various stripes (by the way, this warms the cockles of my aesthetic heart). I'm thinking of "Hat Trick," "Ways Without Words," and "Irrevocable Acts" in particular. In the biography on your website I read that you are interested in "demythologizing and deromanticizing America's master narrative." Do you consider telling the tales of the "oddballs" in American history part of this venture?
RA Hmm, interesting concept. Well, I don't know that I'd ever thought of it this way before, but perhaps I shall now... Actually, I think the eccentricity of the characters in Strange Business is more the result of the rich heritage of the place I come from, coupled with a way of seeing that was highly influenced by the Southern Gothic writers I just mentioned. Small town characters do seem odd, but I think it's because of the intensifying lens we apply to them. It's not just that in small towns everybody knows everybody: it's that everybody knows so MUCH about everybody.
NL I can certainly see how your approach to writing is an attempt on your part to embody a character. Your work is character-centered; this is one of my favorite aspects of your fiction. In particular, can you tell me a bit about how you went about approaching the character of Mattie in writing The Mercy Seat?
RA Well, I have to say that Mattie was just a gift. She started talking to me one day and wouldn't quit. From the beginning her voice was very available to me, and I couldn't tell you why. Part of the mystery of creation, I suppose, but I believe that's why she has the "gift" she exhibits in Mercy Seat: her ability to merge her consciousness with another's. She came so readily to me, maybe I gave the gift back to her. In her case it's frightening though, and she rejects it - or tries to - because she has no ritual, no guide, no spiritual structure to help her know what to do with it. This very ability, which for her is a curse, would be to the fiction writer and the actor a kind of blessing. So in Mattie's case I had no particular approach to finding her, other than absenting myself from the world for a time so I could hear her voice, and then, of course, all the research necessary to understand her world. I'll talk more about historical research in a moment, but just to finish off that thought about finding a way to embody character: I don't know any real trick to it, except that I do know that consistency helps, writing every day, and it also helps me to begin early in the day. I have to go from the dream state to the writing state before the world sneaks in with all its terrifying, baffling, heartbreaking contemporary clamor. I'm very fortunate because I live out in the country in the Catskills half the year and so - except for those days when my husband's theatre seduces me into town - I have the opportunity to write in retreat much of the time. I think all writers need retreat and, especially, uninterrupted time to write, but too few of us get either.
NL You mention your rich heritage. Can you tell me how your heritage influenced the writing of The Mercy Seat?
RA That's another area where I feel awfully fortunate: my heritage is a rich, smoky stew of Deep South and American West. My parents' grandparents came to Indian Territory in covered wagons from Mississippi and Kentucky, so that experience is not deep memory for me but living memory, as I heard George Garrett once describe it. The Southern inflection, idiom, faith, and worldview are all a part of my parents' language and experience, yet their sensibility is supremely western in terms of their belief in rugged individualism, their don't-fence-me-in attitude, all that (this is especially true for my father), and this blending of regional characteristics is a fact for many Oklahomans - not a blurring but a blending, if I may make that distinction. Others in our state share a piquant mix of Midwestern practicality combined with Western law-and-order independence. We're such a young state - next year is our centennial year, in fact - that the stories of how we came to be in this place are still fresh in us, in our families
NL Can you take me through a bit of the process of writing The Mercy Seat? For starters, what was the initial inspiration for writing the novel?
RA I wanted to write about the Tulsa Race Riot, and I did begin that work, which eventually became my novel Fire in Beulah, but as I was researching the horrors of the riot I realized I had to go farther back in Oklahoma's history to understand how such volatile and violent racial attitudes - attitudes that would lead to the worst racial conflagration in our nation's history - could have been carried into this place. So I went back in my own family's history, and I learned that in 1887 three brothers named Askew left Kentucky in the middle of the night with their families in wagons and headed to I.T. - Indian Territory. One of the brothers went down into Texas, and we lost track of him, but the other two brothers came on into the Territory, into what was then the Choctaw Nation. There was some mystery about why they left Kentucky so abruptly, although some in the family said they didn't leave in the middle of the night at all, but the kids just remembered it that way because they'd left before daylight to "get an early start." (Thus the niceness of family memory smooths the edges of narrative, right?) However, an elderly cousin of mine said when he was a boy he listened to all the grown-up talk, and he heard it told that they left because one of the brothers had infringed on someone's patent, and I developed that narrative thread. Most of the rest of it, and certainly all the characters, come from imaginings. In particular I want to note that I created the deadly enmity between the Lodi brothers, which was never a part of my family's real story, and I did that not only to create conflict for the novel but also because I felt a need to come to some comprehension about brother-upon-brother violence before I could understand the nature of man's violence against the Other, as racial violence is.
NL You mentioned that you did a good deal of research in writing The Mercy Seat. I know for many fiction writers research can be daunting and difficult to incorporate. Can you talk a bit about how you so elegantly weaved your knowledge of the time period into the novel itself?
RA I researched gun-making, the complicated legal circumstances for whites in Indian Territory, the Choctaw language and much else, but I would often have to try to just forget the research in order to not be writing to it rather than to character and story. As I said, I began with old family stories, but then gave my imagination free reign, and often I would write a scene (for instance how they crossed the Mississippi in their wagons) and then do the research later to find out if it could have been done that way. Turns out, it could. Very often I would find that I had, by some mystery of osmosis or logic, written conditions just as they would have in fact been. I also asked my mother a lot of questions. She grew up during the Depression in an environment in southeastern Oklahoma that was very little changed from the way her own mother and grandmother had lived when they first came in to I.T., so she was an excellent resource for the details of everyday living, as was my father for hunting, blacksmithing, dogs, horses: a good example of living memory vs. deep memory. For the novelist, though, there's always a fine balance between research and the act of creation, and it is indeed difficult sometimes not to write to the research. One thing I try to do is to read just enough at first to have a sense of how they lived, in order to be able to create the scene at all, but to not do so much in the beginning that my imagination becomes paralyzed. One can always go back and make the specifics more accurate in a later draft - though I do think it's important to do that. In my mind, as I'm polishing, I always believe there's a reader out there who knows everything - all the facts, how it was really done.
NL The Southern Gothic writers you mention were deeply rooted in place. How do you see yourself as influenced by your surroundings in Oklahoma?
RA Well, in just every way. The land, the wind, the force of sky and distance and thickly wooded hills; the deeply conservative Southern Baptist influence; Oklahoma's progressive past (its socialist past, actually, though few now use that word). I'm shaped by the sound of our voices, the blending of regionl influences, Deep South, Midwest, West, and Southwest, that all come together in Oklahoma, as well as the three powerfully dramatic, even melodramatic, narratives of how blacks, whites, and Indian people came to be here. Really, it's hard to limit my thoughts on all the ways that growing up in Oklahoma has shaped me. I've written of how I see Oklahoma's story as a microcosm of the whole nation's story ("Most American" Nimrod, Fall 2006), and how the Oklahoma character is, in my view, a profound distillation of the national character, and all these understandings have shaped and continue to shape me as novelist, to forge my material and my voice.
NL Flannery O'Connor had an interesting relationship to the idea of regionalism. In several of her essays. In Mystery and Manners she seems to both praise it as, in some respects, a kind of liberating force for her, and she also wrings her hands at being pigeonholed as a parochial, "exotic" Southern writer. What do you make of the concept of regional writing?
RA There's a paradox here, because I'm very much a writer of place, and yet I don't see myself as a regional writer. I say this partially, of course, because I want to resist the pigeonholing Flannery O'Connor was talking about, but it's more than that. If one is writing about America one is always writing about place, whether that place is Manhattan, Kansas, or Manhattan, New York. The bias, then, is in the eye of the beholder. I'm writing about a portion of the American story as it has manifested in one particularly violent, heartbreakingly decent, infinitely interesting state in the gut of the nation. If others call that "regional writing" I can't do much about it except to not blink, to not appease, to simply keep my own vision accurate, and to write as truly as I can
NL You mention that the Oklahoma character is "a profound distillation of the national character." When you set about writing Fire in Beulah were you intimidated at all by attempting to portray the racism deeply imbedded in our nation's history?
RA The challenge of portraying racism never daunted me. Race in America has been a passionate concern of mine for many years, and I chose to write about the Tulsa Race Riot for that very reason. Where I felt more trepidation was in creating the lives of African American characters, or not in the creating, actually, but in how that would be received by African American readers. I’m acutely attuned to issues of authenticity and appropriation. My American Indian activist friends have really raised my consciousness about the myriad ways Indian stories and culture are appropriated by non-Indian writers, and I feared to be seen as doing that in any way. Yet I’m writing about race and racial violence in a place of the most profound, cataclysmic confluence of America’s three founding races, and I’m doing this in the narrative form which most allows the reader to live inside the characters; so it’s imperative to write from all points of view. I have to say, though, that I’ve received no negative feedback. There have been readers, both African American and white, who’ve wanted to know if I’m black or white - I think because the book is so evenly divided between the two main characters, Althea and Graceful, and because Graceful and her family read true to them. I’ve also had some African American writers tell me that they’re glad to see white writers tackle race in America. Sort of like, “Well, it’s about time.”
NL The character of Graceful in Fire in Beulah is really well-written and intriguing. Was Graceful based at all upon an historical figure or was she a product of imagining as well?
RA She’s not based on any historical figure. In fact the only historical figure who spends much time on stage in Fire in Beulah is the newspaper editor, Mr. Smitherman. The others are all products of imagining, as you say, but there’s a portion of Graceful’s character - her strength and stoicism and seemingly placid demeanor - which was inspired by my friend, Marlene Campbell. Marlene has been in my life since 1989. Her children are my godchildren, her extended family is like my adoptive family, and the experience of spending so much time as a part of their lives gave me the confidence to write Graceful’s family, to recreate the rhythms of language and syntax, and so forth, but the only direct way that Graceful resembles her real-life model is in an interior way: I’ve seen Marlene go through very difficult times, and always she presents to the world a calm exterior, no matter the pain or inner turmoil she’s in; she’s very quiet in that way, and she has great wells of inner strength, and these are characteristics I gave Graceful.
NL It's interesting hearing you talk about the socialist past of Oklahoma. Have you ever received any flak from other residents of Oklahoma (or even other writers or critics) for portraying a warts-and-all history of the state?
RA Not to my face. There are probably plenty folks who’d just as soon I’d write something “nicer” about Oklahoma, but nobody has complained about the warts-and-all revelations. (Though a few readers have asked me, “Can’t you write something a little happier?”) In my next book, Harpsong, I have tried to capture a different aspect of the Oklahoma character, not because of others’ complaints but from my own desire. The new book is set in the 1930's, and of course that’s a troubled, iconic era for Oklahoma. We’ve lived in the shadow of Grapes of Wrath these many decades, and I both wanted to demythologize the era and set a few things straight. Mr. Steinbeck just got a few things wrong, you know. But besides that, I wanted to try to capture some of the best parts of us, our essential decency, the fact that, among Oklahomans, there’s a sense that people will ultimately do the right thing. Harpsong had its first inspiration at one of the early Woody Guthrie festivals in Okemah. I was still working on the race riot novel then, had finished Mercy Seat, both of which are so much about the violence within us, and Arlo Guthrie was on the stage at the old Crystal Theater talking about how his father always believed in the people, just believed in their deepest, finest humanity, and after that it was Arlo and his son and daughter and a whole bunch of Woody acolytes on the stage singing “This Land Is Your Land,” and the audience, made up of almost all Oklahomans, on its feet singing along: a great rousing, moving, roof-lifting moment, and I knew then I wanted to convey some of that in my next book. Took me a lot of years, and I don’t know yet how effectively I’ve done it, but the novel will be out from the University of Oklahoma Press in the spring of 2007, and I guess then we’ll see.
NL The strife and violence in Fire in Beulah must have been particularly difficult to see on your computer screen on a daily basis. Do you ever find yourself stepping back because you are moved in some way by your own writing?
RA I haven’t often found myself stepping back; on the contrary I’ve had a great struggle trying to get there. More than once I’ve just thrashed around my house, walking outside, to the fridge, much pointless roiling, just trying to find my way into the kind of fear and loathing that Mattie feels for the black wetnurse in Mercy Seat, or the stupefied alcoholic rage of Fayette in that same book, or the abusive tirades of Althea in Fire in Beulah, or the cold, psychopathic force for destruction that Japheth becomes at the end. These dark sides of the human character aren’t natural to me, though I can comprehend their seeds from my own paltry failings, but I’m familiar with them. We witness their manifestation daily, from Iraq to our own city streets, and as a novelist I’ve felt compelled to try to get inside them and understand them, render them, though I couldn’t tell you why. Being raised Baptist may be part of it. We had a pastor throughout my teens years who preached Revelation every Wednesday night: all that sin and fire and brimstone are still in my head!
NL Finally, since you certainly don't shy away from difficult material, I'd like to ask you about the notion of a "politically committed" writer. This was a popular idea in the 60's and before (for instance, in the influential post World War 2 writings of Jean Paul Sartre). Is this notion important to you?
RA Yes, it’s important, but I think I’d call myself a politically committed person rather than writer: my commitment manifests in my activities in the world rather than on the page. I’m a member of PEN America Center; I belong to a local Peace and Justice organization, a women’s democratic caucus, and in my teaching I refer to contemporary issues, but as a novelist I want to write from the position of asking the questions rather than standing on a soapbox with the answers. The political novels of the 1930's and ‘40's seem dated now, don’t they? Richard Wright’s Native Son is one of my favorite novels, I love what he does with point of view, the narrative voice inside Bigger Thomas and the close third narrator who translates him, but the communist/socialist rhetoric in the latter part of the book has that soapbox ring to it, and it leaves me cold. I’d hope always to subordinate my political views to narrative and character, to language, to that absorbing phenomenon which is unique to fiction: allowing the reader to live inside another’s life.
Summer 2005, with Carla D. Walker, Editor
Anita R. May, OHC President & Executive Director
Bill Hagen, Professor of English, Oklahoma Baptist University
Carla Walker: Rilla, tell us about your connection with Oklahoma and how it is that Oklahoma figures so prominently in your writing.
Rilla Askew: Everything about who I am as an individual was shaped by the forces of this place. When I first began to write, I tried to write about other places, but every time I wrote a story set in Oklahoma I knew I was writing from a genuine place, from an authentic source. I think that the combination of all the forces, both historically and in the crucible that Oklahoma is, not only shaped my family and who they are but also shaped me. I think it’s a source that will never be used up as long as I’m still writing.
CW: I know that many writers write from a sense of place, and it seems that is what you’re saying, that Oklahoma is just a part of your fiber and that it almost can’t help but come through in your writing.
RA: In a sense I wrote my way back to Oklahoma, not having discovered I was a writer until I left here, which in some ways is a sorrow to me. If I had grown up understanding myself as a writer and had any notion that I could make art out of who I was or where I was coming from, perhaps I may have observed more closely. But I had to leave in order to be able to see it. In the effort to leave I understood how deeply tied I am. It’s like I’m tethered here, it’s my gravity on the planet.
And I don’t mean just southeastern Oklahoma, I really mean the state of Oklahoma. All of the landscapes really, deeply speak to me, the open spaces, the flatlands, the great sky, as well as those mountains down in southeastern Oklahoma, which is where the real source is for me. It’s a strong sense of place that I’m not sure I had any way to understand until I left.
CW: You mentioned not knowing for a while that you were going to be a writer. I think our readers would be interested to hear how you came to that realization, that writing was what you wanted to be your life’s work.
RA: That’s a story about me and my husband actually. I went to New York in 1980 to be an actress and I met my husband when I’d only been there a week. After we had been together perhaps a year, we had a terrible fight and I couldn’t articulate to him my inner life, so I decided to write to him about it. I wrote a five-page, single-spaced story in third person, the description of where we were in the moment. We didn’t speak for four days while I was composing this thing. I never could quite finish it. So I finally just stopped and gave it to him and watched his face as he was reading it. I thought, Now he will understand me, now he will understand what’s in my inner life that I couldn’t explain to him, why we’re fighting so terribly. He read it and looked up at me and said, “You know, kid, you really can write.”
I am deeply grateful to him for saying to me–well not saying to me that I was a good actress; he didn’t say I was a bad one, he just never said I was a good one–but for looking at me as a writer/artist and helping me to articulate that for myself.
I grew up in Bartlesville and the schools were very good and I had very good teachers, but none of them told me I could write, none of them suggested that I could be an artist or that Oklahoma itself was a worthy subject for literature. So I not only had to leave, I also had to encounter artists, other individuals who looked at the world with writers’ eyes.
Bill Hagen: When did you first realize that writing was power? Was it in New York or had you had some experiences with writing before?
RA: I don’t know that I actually thought of it in those terms. In college, I wrote in bursts of inspiration, I had no discipline. I would write brief snippets of things, but once the initial creative energy passed and I was on to something else, I just abandoned it. What happened for me was that I was validated, initially by my husband, and a maturity was coming within me to be able to be still long enough to write.
One of the things that happened is that I just understood that I could do it. I would show anybody my writing, whereas acting was an entirely different condition. I hated auditions, I hated getting up in front of people. I loved performing after I had rehearsed for four weeks, but the initial vulnerability of having your whole self up there was extremely painful for me. Whereas writing, because I was alone and I could change it until I had made it as good as I knew how to make it, it was such a wonder to me that I could do it. You know that old song from A Chorus Line, “I Can Do That”? That’s how I felt. In a sense I guess it was empowering.
BH: But you had some stories with you, I bet. I get the sense that some of your short stories were ones that you created from the inside; the others may have been heard and then you worked with them.
RA: To a degree that’s true, if you’re thinking about the short stories in Strange Business.
BH: I am.
RA: That’s one of the ways that being an Oklahoman–and I think especially a southeastern Oklahoman, where they come from the oral tradition, the storytelling tradition of the deep South–gave me that sense of storytelling. I come from a long line of storytellers, particularly my father and my grandfather Askew.
That reminds me of a story. My mother could not read my work, just absolutely couldn’t. She would try and I think it was just too close to home. It wasn’t until she heard me telling a cousin of mine, who also wanted to write, “If you want to write fiction, then you’ve just got to learn to lie.” When she found out it was lies it was okay.
Anita May: I read that the reason there are such great novels out of the South and not any other region in the country is because the South had more experience with tragedy. Lots of your work, particularly The Mercy Seat and Fire in Beulah, seems to be based in tragedy. Do you feel like Oklahoma is part of that southern tradition?
RA: It is for me personally, but I think that’s also because my people came from the Deep South. They came from Mississippi, from Kentucky and Arkansas. But I’m not sure that it’s tragedy that interests me–it’s violence and the nature of the spirit, spiritual questions of what it means to be human within the Christian context in which I was raised, deeply Southern Baptist, combined with a culture that, particularly in southeastern Oklahoma, is extremely violent. Most of those murders are not arbitrary. It’s not stranger on stranger murder, it’s family murder or lovers or quarrels in a bar or shootouts on the street. My dad has stories about shootouts he witnessed when he was a boy.
There has been much tragedy in Oklahoma, from the Oklahoma City bombing all the way back to the Dust Bowl era, the Tulsa Race Riots, and the Trail of Tears. This particular state was founded in a deeply tragic story. And then we have our violent weather, our tornadoes. And yet there is, in my view, an incredible innocence bordering on naiveté among Oklahomans–I ought to say white Oklahomans, who are the dominant culture in Oklahoma.
There’s something about our legacy, the pioneering culture that has allowed us to be so certain of our neighborliness, the proverbial Oklahoma friendliness. In some ways it’s on the surface, it’s friendly, it’s just talk about the weather, it’s sort of, “We’re all in this together”; but in the midst of real tragedy, like the bombing, the tornadoes, so many Oklahomans just come together and there is a complete impulse to help. You couple that with all the secret violence, with our legacy of race, you put all that together and it’s a rich mix and perfect to write novels from.
BH: I was thinking of the mix of peoples in this state, which you use. It’s not so much classes as it would be in the Deep South; it’s more racial lines that you talk about, the Choctaw, African Americans.
RA: Well, I think it’s one of the things that makes our stories and the continuing condition here so unique. The native population is not some mythical notion of native people in the past; it’s real individuals living real lives right now and the power of some of the tribes, the economic power of the Choctaws and the Cherokees, now in a way that I don’t think was so true when I was growing up.
In my view, we still remain so segregated. We’re all living in juxtaposition to one another, but we’re not completely integrated, and I’m speaking primarily of African American, Native American, and European American. It is also true with the influx of the Hispanic culture. There’s not a blending, it’s not a melting pot.
BH: Earlier you mentioned tragedy. The Aristotle model of tragedy is that you start with plot and then the characters unfold. In some of your stories, I get the idea that you have a story pretty well set from the inside. I guess I’m asking whether, in the case of novels for instance, you have the outline of a story and then you set to work on the characters.
RA: No, I rather wish I did, I think it would be easier. I develop character, setting, situation first and try to see my way through to how, with these individuals and their conflicting wants, it’s going to lead to this.
E.L. Doctorow said that writing a novel is like taking a long automobile trip at night. You can only see a few hundred yards ahead of you, but you can make the whole journey that way. That’s how I write. That’s one of the reason’s the book I’m working on now has been so difficult. I wanted it to be about something else, and the book kept going in another direction, the characters had their own mind about things. I think it’s helpful to have story, but I think if you have story too clear in your mind as a writer, then you don’t allow the characters to surprise you and they always say, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”
It’s amazing how little control you actually have over how a book unfolds. It’s as if it has its own selfhood. You know how Michelangelo talked about, “I’m cutting away all the stone that is not the David?” That’s what you’re doing in some way, you’re trying to find that there is a book there, you’re trying to interpret it or . . .
AM: Uncover it.
RA: Uncover it, right. In terms of choices that I make, they are far less matters of theory and far more a matter of merely listening for the voices that will tell me the story.
CW: Rilla, I want to ask you about your ability to give voice to different kinds of characters. We have some anecdotal feedback from our Let’s Talk About It programs that indicates, and I’m including myself in this, a fascination with your ability to so easily slip into what I call a southern vernacular, a conversational style of many kinds of characters. I’m wondering, how do you learn to hear that, the subtleties of language, and then communicate that to readers in such a distinct way? For instance, in Fire in Beulah we feel like that black minister is sitting in the room preaching to us. Can you talk about that?
RA: It’s almost like being able to sing; to a degree I think you have it or you don’t. I just have an ear, it’s not something I could give someone a tip on how to develop; but if you do have it, it’s vital to pay attention to it. It’s basically memory. The rhythms of that minister in Fire in Beulah are rhythms that I’ve heard. It’s not like I played a record or studied it, I just went to church. The biblical rhythms that are in my work are because of what I was raised with.
The African American voices have to do with really close friendships I have. I don’t think you can study it or be around it peripherally and get it. It has to belong to you through experience. The same thing is true with the southern vernacular, the white southern idiom. That’s just my grandparents’ voice, my parents’ voice. My godson is Jamaican, he’s fifteen, and he came here for the first time this Christmas. They were fascinated by his accent and he was fascinated by their accent; I forget my family even has an accent. But that’s what it is, just being in it and then having an interior ear, a memory that will repeat it to you.
So much of writing is listening. I think sometimes people who want to write don’t understand how much of it is that you hear it, you hear the voice in your head as you’re composing. As readers we translate those little symbols on the page, it seems so visual; but the rhythm is really auditory, it’s an inner ear thing.
BH: Do you ever find yourself saying, “I wonder how an African American will react to this character or how a Creek Indian will react to this character?”
RA: Yes, but in the time of composing I have to not think about that, because I would just censor everything. It’s frightening, but every fiction writer does it. If I’m writing about a white woman who happens to be seventy-five, I’ve never been that. When I’m writing in my grandfather’s voice, I’ve never been him either. It feels like a challenge. If I get too conscious of it I simply would not be able to write.
Many white writers have had great difficulties with this. William Styron was really vilified when he wrote The Confessions of Nat Turner. There is always the controversy, Huckleberry Finn, we know the stories. I am extremely sympathetic to them because of our history, particularly for Native American people whose stories have been so appropriated and romanticized and really it’s been another theft. I’m extremely conscious of it, and yet I’m writing about this place where those three stories are. It’s like the three fork area where the Verdigris, the Grand, and the Arkansas rivers all come together. The confluence of black, white, and red in Oklahoma is the state story, as it is, in my view, so much the story of the nation. So the only way to write about it as a novelist is to try to write it from the inside, and not only as one white character looking at all those other characters. That has its own dangers.
AM: What has been the reaction to Fire in Beulah? Did you ever get any protest about your writing in the voice of African Americans because you are a white woman?
RA: No, never, not to my face. I guess it’s possible that people have all kinds of things to say behind my back, but what I’ve mostly received is really wonderful compliments. George Henderson was the moderator of a panel I was on, and he said, “If you read her work, you’ll find that she is a sister on the inside.” A young black man came to see me at a reading I did in New York. He came to find out if I was black or white. He had reviewed the book for Black Issues magazine and had the gallies with no photograph and couldn’t figure out if I was black or white. Those are the kinds of comments I get.
AM: They had a debate at the Let’s Talk About It program at OCU and one of my board members sent an email asking, “Is Rilla black or white? We have this giant debate about that.”
RA: Those are the most wonderful compliments that you can receive. I hope that means there is some level of truth in it. I also know how volatile it is. I personally could not do it if I didn’t have strong, personal relationships with African American people. I have a family that is like my adopted family, they are as close to me in many ways as my own family. If I didn’t have that I couldn’t have the rhythms, I don’t think I could have a beginning of an understanding of what it might mean to live under segregation.
As a fiction writer, you are always throwing your imagination into what it means to be a human being. If you are an historical writer, you’re doing it in another era. There’s all the research that you can do, and there’s living the life that you’ve lived, but then finally there is that act of imagination, that place where you just throw yourself into an imagined world. I don’t know how one really teaches that other than to say you have to set all these other conditions up for yourself and hope that you can get there.
BH: You said you did a lot of research for Fire in Beulah. Did you ever feel like you were in danger of having the details of history take over the fiction?
RA: Yes, many times. But having written The Mercy Seat before that, where I had done so much research to try to invoke that world, and I think perhaps got bogged down in places with not only the historical record but also other details, I was looking to hone more. You change as a writer as time goes on. But it’s always a danger, particularly for something like the riot because it was a story that, when I first began to work on it, was not very well known.
It seemed vital to me to try to keep it as historically accurate as possible, because I knew that I was also giving the record in some way. Sometimes people will get their history from novels. If it’s an event as significant as that, I think it’s vital to keep it historically accurate, within the bounds and demands of fiction and how fiction works. Somebody complained to Faulkner that he got some battles wrong in some of his Civil War material, and he said he was a novelist, not not an historian. That was somebody else’s job. It’s a danger either way. It’s a danger to ignore it and it’s a danger to be too faithful to the historical record.
BH: I notice that in some places you actually took stories from the riot for your character studies.
RA: I tried to do that with my sources and some of the characters represent something. There was a story handed down about a white man going into one of the juke joints across the tracks, and beginning to foment the riot among the African Americans. I can’t recall exactly where I read that, it’s in one of the major books, but I turned that into the character Japheth.
BH: Tell us more about Japheth. Everyone I’ve ever known who has read Fire in Beulah is fascinated as to where you got the background to create such a character. He’s very mysterious.
RA: He is very difficult because he’s simplistically evil. He’s not other-worldly evil, but he’s the manifestation of violence and sin. I didn’t want to explore what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil,” I wanted to deal with it as a force. There’s a place in the novel where it looks like what moves him is just revenge or greed or some of the more ordinary sins. At the end of it, he’s moved into this force just primed for destruction. When I was writing the first draft of the riot in the novel, it was not very long after Columbine; so my image of Japheth moving through the riot is very akin to the image that shocked the nation and held us all in wonder at what could have happened to those boys, where they became nothing but coldness, filled with nothing but the desire to destroy, until they reached the point of destroying self.
BH: But in Fire he’s also the means by which others unleash. Given that kind of second nature, that ability to see other people’s nature, to push the buttons, is he like something from the id?
RA: Symbolically I intended that, that he pushes all of that.
BH: So much of Fire in Beulah is about confession and sort of lost memories. Is it because the memories have been repressed for so long?
RA: That’s a really interesting question and I don’t know if I consciously intend that. I do know that within my own family, and among many people I know, there’s an impulse to smooth everything over and make it nice. Some of the most fascinating chapters in my family’s history have two versions: the interesting version and the sanitized version. We have that, America has that, and Oklahoma specifically has that as our history. Tulsa, relative to the riot, has that as our history.
AM: All of that is really very Biblical in a way, the force of evil, atonement, all of that.
RA: Everything I write has that underpinning. In some ways I almost wish I hadn’t used the references to Cain and Abel in The Mercy Seat. Somebody put that on the flap copy about “a thoroughly modern telling of the Cain and Abel story” and that was it, that’s where people read it. But that’s not, for me, the movement of the book. The real story is the young girl’s spiritual experience. It’s the fact that she is a young woman, like Joan of Arc, who is called of God and who has no means. She has no ritual, no religion, no faith, no parents, no shaman, no mentor, no teacher, no way to find her way to what it is that she is supposed to do. And so she turns her back, out of her willfulness and her own obsession, turns her back on what she has been called to do, and that’s what that story is to me. So it’s there in Mercy Seat, it’s in Fire in Beulah, and it’s in the book I’m working on now. I don’t think it will ever not be, because sin interests me.
CW: I want to ask you about some of the other influences on your writing. Are there writers that influenced your work, and are there particular writers that you go to when you want to sit down with a good book?
RA: Early on, William Faulkner was by far the strongest influence. Secondarily I would say, Carson McCullars and Flannery O’Connor. They had a powerful influence on me. And James Baldwin. I learned a great deal about race in America from Baldwin. Now there’s not someone that I just go pick up for a good read. I think part of that is I have such a limited amount of time to read for pleasure, that I always have purpose in my reading. I’m almost always researching era and so forth. Often it’s very eclectic. Sometimes I read novels set in that particular era or I read nonfiction.
CW: That must be linked to the writing discipline you were talking about earlier, that you have so little time for reading. Could you tell us about the writing discipline you have?
RA: I have to do it first thing in the morning every day when I’m working on a novel. There’s an old saying I have, “One day away means two days back.” If I leave it for one day, then it takes me two days to return to being able to write it. And I have to go from a dream state, before the world intrudes. When I’m teaching, as I am now, I have to just get up really early; I often get up at 4:30 or 5:30 in the morning. I have to do it before the day gets in there, because once reality is in I cannot return to it.
In the beginning, I put myself into places, positions where someone was expecting work from me, primarily through classes and later in writing groups, to create the discipline. It’s not as if I was born with it, I was no Jack Kerouac or Edgar Allen Poe, I wasn’t writing out of some mad need to write. I just put myself in those positions where somebody expected it from me until it became so ingrained that now I’m really unhappy when I’m not writing.
BH: Tell us a little about Harp Song, the new book you’re working on.
RA: It’s set in the 1930s and follows a folk hero, who is inspired by Oklahoma’s most famous folk heroes, from Pretty Boy Floyd to Woody Guthrie to Ned Christie. It’s in three narrative voices and one of the voices I call “folksay.” It’s a storytelling voice. It tells the myth of Harlan Singer and how he became a folk hero. The majority of the book is told in his wife’s voice. Her name is Sharon and she tries to come behind the folksay voice and tell you the truth about what happened. The third voice I call “deepsong.” It’s Harlan’s consciousness, which is extremely lyrical. Those three voices working together tell the story. The characters hop freights, ride the rails, travel, but they are tethered, as I am, to Oklahoma. They’re literally traveling in a figure eight, that infinity sign, always tethered, always coming back to Oklahoma. My agent says they’re just going in circles and going nowhere and I said, “Well that’s the point. We’re not doing a linear novel about how they left Oklahoma and went to California during the Great Depression.”
AM: What is your response to the literary critics and analyses of your work? Do you feel like they’re getting it?
RA: I’m fascinated by what they understand, what they see that I did not think about, perhaps did not intend. Very often they see resonances that I knew nothing about, and I always say, “That’s even smarter than I meant it to be,” because they understand it on all those levels.
AM: What you’re saying is that the reader has all the things in the world to read it the way he wants to, just the way someone standing in front of a painting can get what they want to get.
RA: That’s exactly it. It’s one of the aspects that’s fascinating to me about meeting readers and what is so rich about literature, because it happens uniquely with each reader. This is not created, it doesn’t live until the reader reads it.
AM: Has anyone offered to make a movie of Fire in Beulah?
RA: No, they should, don’t you think? We all keep hoping that Oprah will call, but she hasn’t yet.
AM: It would be a great movie if it were done right. Recently, my husband had the opportunity to speak to John Nichols, who wrote The Milagro Beanfield War, which was made into a film. He found out that Nichols absolutely hates the film. Are you prepared to have somebody do this in a whole different way?
RA: I learned this from Tobias Wolff, whose memoir This Boy’s Life was turned into a film. He said you just have to sell the rights. You cannot compare a book and a film, they are two different entities. You have to just give it up, give it over to them, give them the rights and what they make is what they make.
If that were to happen [with Fire in Beulah], I would hope everybody would still be buying the book anyway and saying, “I like the book a lot better than the movie.” I think that if it ever happens, I’m just guessing this, it would be from an African American perspective, an African American filmmaker.
AM: I found it a very visual novel.
RA: That’s one thing that I end up having to cut in revision, the visuals. One of the reviews of The Mercy Seat said, “This is one of those novels where you see every fly on every mule’s ear.” He wasn’t saying it as a compliment.
AM: But if you like to have the visual, it’s really nice to have a writer that provides you with that.
CW: For readers who don’t have any experience of Oklahoma, I think they get a wonderful view of what even our state looks like, the landscape you describe is so real.
RA: That’s something that I think is very much a part of the Oklahoma character. Our familiar lyrics about “we know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand” are deeply true; it’s certainly true of the people that I come from and I think it’s true for a lot of my students, especially those who come from smaller towns. If you go to Moore or Norman or some other suburban community, it’s perhaps less so; even so, because the weather so dominates here you’re still tied to it. The people I know from small towns and rural areas are keenly shaped and conscious of how they are shaped by the landscape.
BH: Do you think there are different kinds of Oklahoma character, depending on the different regions of the state?
RA: I do think that it’s one of the aspects that’s so fascinating about the state. We can’t define ourselves, we are a complete anomaly. In some ways we’re amorphous in that we can’t decide and nobody outside can decide for us if we’re the Southwest, Midwest, South, West, or what we are. Nicholas Howe wrote an essay about Oklahoma and quotes a nameless woman from Tulsa who says that men in Oklahoma think they live in the West and women in Oklahoma think they live in the South.
That’s a pithy insight and to a large degree true, although there is a type of Oklahoma female character I’d call the western Oklahoma woman. I know some of them and they will tell you straight up front about anything, will talk to you directly about whatever it is they have to say and they’re no-nonsense. The character Jessie in The Mercy Seat is one. She’s a lot like the women that I came from, the stories I’ve heard about my great-grandmothers. They were pioneer women and tough as nails. They were all very small, and they were feisty.
There is another type of Oklahoma woman who is so gracious that you can see those deep southern roots. You go into the Wal-Mart and she’s waiting on you and she’s going to call you “honey” and talk about the weather and ask you about your kids. There’s a deep impulse to help within us and a great sweetness, “a niceness,” if you will. Now how deep that goes is another question. There’s a certain way of being self-effacing and helpful that is genuine and that at the same time has its dangers for the woman herself, because it keeps her from being her fullest, truest self.
I deeply admire Oklahoma women and the Oklahoma female character, but there’s something that I distrust about the niceness. I think it’s because I own it myself and having it was a part of my negating my intellect, my sense of myself as an artist. One of the best gifts my husband gave to me when we first met was that he told me to stop saying, “whatever.” I would end almost any sentence with “whatever” because I did not have the courage to declare anything. To this day I will undermine my own intellectual capacity in the company of others. I can nice you up one side and down the other and my impulse is to be helpful, but I also understand how dangerous it is for the full realization of self.
I’m a little unhappy with leaving that about the Oklahoma character there, because I spoke of the dangers and it’s been difficult for me to speak of what I admire. This is the last thing I want to say: The two novels that I’ve written so far have dealt with difficult aspects of the Oklahoma character and difficult aspects of our history. They deal with the violence of where we’ve come from. I got a review once that said, “Askew doesn’t deal in happy endings.”
I was at the Woody Guthrie festival one summer just before I finished Fire in Beulah, with Arlo Guthrie and everybody singing “This Land is Your Land.” Arlo was speaking about how his father just believed in the people, that was his deepest spirit. I had such a feeling of, I hope not sentiment, but deep love for the people that I come from and deep love of the Oklahoma character and I said, “Oh, I want my next book to be about that.” I don’t know if I’ve achieved that; you don’t know until it’s out and the reader is there to tell you whether you’ve done it or not. But that’s what I’ve wanted to do, without sentiment.