Tommy Orange’s Novel, There There, Is a Favorite of President Obama’s

-You’ve had an incredible year. This novel was a finalist for
the Pulitzer, many other awards, but probably, I’m assuming, one of the most jarring things
to your reality was President Obama made a list of his favorite things
of last year, and he put this book
on this list. How quickly did you hear from
people that that had happened? -I’d heard from my agent
that he had the book, so I was sort of nervous about
the idea that I wouldn’t make it even though it seems
presumptuous to think that I would make it.
-Right. But I knew that
it was a possibility, so, when it happened,
I was pleasantly — You know, I reference him
in the book. -Yeah.
-One of the characters says, “I’m as Native
as Obama is black,” and, you know, the fact that
he referenced it in his list was a big affirmation. -It’s pretty amazing
that he’s such a big deal that you hear he has your book. [ Laughter ] Like, just word
gets out that, like, “Hey, the book has made it
to the President.” -Yes. -Uh, and you didn’t —
I’m sorry — didn’t make Donald Trump’s
favorite list of books. [ Laughter ] -What’s that, like,
two books on that? -There was two books.
-One? -It was “The Art of the Deal”
and, um… -It’s his own.
-…a map. -Yeah. -Uh, this is —
This is an incredible book. It’s, uh, sort of
12 disparate characters who sort of find their way
to this pow wow, and, uh, was it difficult
keeping sort of 12 very unique, very well-drawn
characters separate in your writing process? -Yes.
-Yeah? [ Chuckles ] -No, it was — it was…
intensely difficult to… Why I took it on as a project,
I’m not sure, now. It’s something I decided
a long time ago. To try to make everyone
organically seem to come together at the end
was something that, um — that I struggled
with a great deal, and I had many more
than 12 characters, and so to find the ones
that felt like they were true and real to the world that I —
that I knew in Oakland, it was definitely
a trying process. -And for your first novel,
did you ever think to yourself, “Maybe if I had written
a few more I wouldn’t have made
the first one this hard”? Like, this is —
Were you like, “This is such a rookie mistake
to have done it like this? -There’s a lot of rookie
mistakes that I did in the novel that maybe if somebody
would’ve warned me I wouldn’t have done it, but I was mostly self-taught
until I got into an MFA program. The design, by the time
I got into the program, was already too —
I was too deep in to change it. -You couldn’t back out
of it at that point. -Yeah.
-It’s based — “There There” is based on a Gertrude Stein quote
about Oakland, which is,
“there is no there there.” Explain what she was saying
with the quote and why you wanted to make that
the title of this book. -So, I was researching, um,
other Oakland authors to try to figure out who else talked about
Oakland in literature, and there was Gertrude Stein
and Jack London. Jack London
wrote about the wild, and Gertrude Stein wrote about
not writing about Oakland. So there was very little to go
on as far as, like, What?
How do I write about Oakland? And but her quote was talking
about how she left Oakland after a childhood there
and came back and, um, the land
that she grew up on was developed over
and unrecognizable, and I can’t say that I was
a big Gertrude Stein reader. I just came across it
researching this book, and the resonance
is for the Native experience in regards to this sort
of unrecognizable connection to land and a book
about Native people and how they, um,
experience their environment and what it means
to be Native in a city. It all just felt very potent
for a title and for, um — it took me a while to land
at “There There,” but it — it all was just
a very layered resonance within the Native experience. -And, again, you talk
about the Native experience and the importance of putting
this book in an urban setting. I think a lot of people, when
they think about Native fiction, wouldn’t picture putting it
in a city like Oakland, but it, in the reading
of the book, you realize that there is a huge
community in urban centers, especially in Oakland. -It’s not even necessarily
especially in Oakland. It’s all major, um —
major cities in the country. One of the most —
One of the longest ones, longest-running
Indian centers in the country is Intertribal Friendship House
in Oakland. They’ll be celebrating their
65th anniversary in November, You know, 65 years
means generations of people who have been in cities, and to have no film depiction or literature depiction exist or very few, very hard to find, and for there to be this
ridiculous monolithic depiction that everyone adheres to and everyone sort of believes in about what it means
and looks like to be Native, it felt absurd to me, ’cause there’s long histories and many families and stories
that just haven’t been told, so this was part of it. -And so, not only
being your first book but sort of
taking on this burden of giving Native people
a depiction that they haven’t had in
literature much, did you feel — was that sort of an impressive
burden on you, as well? Did you feel the weight
of that in your writing, or were you sort of liberated by
the idea of, like, oh, this is sort of fresh ground
that no one’s covering? -It was both. It was feeling like
there was openness to do whatever I wanted because there was nothing
to compare it to, and it was very lonely. Like, I don’t know, you know — Like I said, when I was looking
up Oakland authors, similarly,
when I was looking up or thinking about
or researching Native authors and the way the Native identity
and experience is written about, there wasn’t that much
regarding city life, and a lot of reservation stuff
and a lot of historical stuff.

30 thoughts on “Tommy Orange’s Novel, There There, Is a Favorite of President Obama’s

  1. ‘Students for Trump’ co-founder facing decades in jail after pleading guilty to fraud

  2. check out the accomplishments of Stacy lane of Pittsburgh's Central Outreach Wellness center. very very admirable Uban Native Americans.

  3. Outstanding book. It was interesting to hear Tommy Orange talk about the characters. I want to reread the book now.

  4. My family had moved to Oakland after I was born, and spent the entirety of the 1970s out there. My parents even volunteered at the Intertribal Friendship House. Moving back to Oklahoma in 1981 was a good case of culture shock. My Mom even said it was like going back in time. Yeah, being an Urban Native is a pretty unique condition.

  5. Are y'all investigating ? Cause I'm trying to get picked up and arrested ! ASAP ! So I can put everyone in jail and make them bankrupt ! So hurry up I'm at 450 Washington Ave somerset, Massachusetts 02726 and I'm waiting for the federal agents to come and arrest me ! So please hurry before the environment falls apart and we all get swept away ! It's 11:20 am so I'll be ready in an hour or so ! So this way you can get on your way and go spend the rest of your lives in prison ! I'm waiting !

  6. It was difficult reading a book with "12 disparate characters," at least for me. I think it needs to be read quickly to keep them straight rather than over a couple of weeks as you have windows of time….

  7. It's strangely refreshing to see someone more soft spoken and thoughtful being interviewed on a night show

  8. The president read? He thinks the McDonalds menu is wordy and keeps his fingers crossed for the movie version.

  9. I've gotten out of the habit of reading, but interviews like this inspire me to get back into it. Thanks for having this author on. I can't wait to read his book

  10. So proud of Tommy Orange's debut novel's success: good representation matters when it comes to Indigenous peoples and our communities. Thanks, Seth for inviting Tommy to your show.

  11. Oh, hey! This guy came to speak about his book on my campus last semester. I really like his writing and glad he's getting more recognition! Neat.

  12. Loved this book! What a nice surprise to see Orange on the show, thanks, Seth, for these intelligent reviews (the one with Viet Thanh Nguyen is another favorite).

  13. I have to admit the camera work is a new one on me. I was so dizzy after watching I had to lay down.

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