Emotion at the Forefront of Storytelling: An Interview with Morgan Talty
Morgan Talty is the author of Night of the Living Rez, published by Tin House. He is the winner of the 2022 New England Book Award for Fiction and the 2021 Narrative Prize. His work has appeared in Granta, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere, and has been supported by the Elizabeth George Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts. He is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Maine, Orono and a Prose Editor at The Massachusetts Review. Talty is a citizen of the Penobscot Indian Nation and lives in Levant, Maine.
Night of the Living Rez is a collection of linked stories set on the Penobscot Reservation in Maine. Half of the stories center on a child protagonist named David, and the other half revolve around Dee, who is David as an adult. Told in nonlinear order, the stories balance difficult themes with grace and humor, ultimately revealing the tremendous love the book’s characters have for each other.
I spoke with Morgan via Zoom in September 2022 about emotion and transcendence in fiction.
Liz Iversen: Can you tell me about the Penobscot Reservation where you grew up?
Morgan Talty: I loved growing up there. It felt like one giant house. The woods were a room, somebody else’s house was a room. All my friends lived there. Cell phones were out, but not everybody had one, so you’d walk to somebody’s house and knock on their door and they’d be like, “Oh, I think they’re with so-and-so,” and you’re like, “Well, I know where so-and-so usually hangs out,” and then you would go and find them in the woods.
I loved growing up there. It felt like one giant house. The woods were a room, somebody else’s house was a room. All my friends lived there.
One of the things I deliberately left out when I wrote about the island in the book was its size, because in real life it’s like three by two miles. It’s not very big. I wanted to be able to not pin myself down to a specific size because I plan to set more work there. But when I imagine scenes in the book, they all were grounded in actual places. Like in the story “Smokes Last,” where the kids are battling with sticks and stuff, I envision the actual place where we used to do that, which was across from the river. When Dee and [his friend] Fellis are walking through certain paths, I visualize actual paths that we used to walk on. When Tyson and David are walking to Rite-Aid to get money, that’s a walk I did hundreds of times growing up. So it was all very real, and I liked being able to put those actual places on the map. It’s funny hearing from people who actually know the area or who have been in Old Town before, and they’re like, “I remember the road you were talking about here.” It’s cool to capture that accurately in fiction.
LI: How did your experiences inspire these stories?
MT: I grew up with people who cared deeply about me, who cared deeply about family. I grew up around addiction, poverty, all those things that are dark elements of the book. I never necessarily drew on the specific bad or good incidences of my life and turned them into fiction. Sometimes that may have happened, but really it was about trying to grab at the emotion of those moments in my life, those experiences, and then create a situation that could replicate that emotion.
LI: I found your collection so emotionally resonant. Is emotion your primary focus when you’re writing a story?
MT: I put emotion and desire at the forefront of storytelling because I think there’s nothing more awakening than feeling—you know, reading something and it waking you up to something. It makes you feel in a particular way. It makes you see in a different way. I’m always thinking, how do I make a reader feel? It can be easy to fall into manipulating the reader by telling a sad story to get them to feel sad. But for me it’s always about, how do I feel my way through this story? How do I feel, and in turn, is that in line with my ethics of how I think stories should be told? So yes, I always start with emotion—or a scene and setting and character—but try to use them in a way to evoke feeling for myself but also the reader. If I feel something when I’m writing, I feel like the reader is ultimately feeling it too.
I put emotion and desire at the forefront of storytelling because I think there’s nothing more awakening than feeling—you know, reading something and it waking you up to something.
LI: In a conversation with David Naimon on the “Between the Covers” podcast, you said whenever you see a symbol start developing in a story, you run the other way because you feel like if we feed into that symbol, from a writing standpoint, we begin to miss an opportunity to get to metaphor and then ultimately to get to a transcendental moment. How would you describe the relationship between symbol, metaphor, and transcendence?
MT: I think the relationship between symbol and metaphor is like, symbol stands in the place of something. It gets its meaning by context—what’s around it, how often the symbol appears, and if it appears in the same sort of environment as the last one. And we think of metaphor as being representative of something. It’s not symbol—it could be a simile or the actual structure of a metaphor—but it’s getting us to think about two different things that seem pretty disparate. But when we put them in close proximity, we come to some understanding that we otherwise wouldn’t have come to. And then transcendence is that feeling of otherworldliness. To get to those transcendental moments, which I think is the goal of all writing—we don’t always get there, but it’s our hope—we start with symbol.
Transcendence is hard. I don’t know if any of my stories have moments like that. When I was writing, there were moments I encountered when I felt myself go beyond metaphor and saw things new, which is what I love about writing in general, just as a private, artful practice.
LI: In a linked story collection, each story has its own arc and readers experience transcendental moments throughout, while simultaneously building a sustained relationship with the book’s characters. Do you think this form lends itself to greater emotional resonance than the novel?
MT: It’s funny seeing people who have commented or left reviews of the book. Some are like, “Great story collection!” and others are like, “This was marketed incorrectly. This is a novel, this isn’t a story collection.” I have this strange notion—I almost wonder if we as people don’t really know what an interconnected short story collection is, how it works or what it’s supposed to look like. They get squished between story collections and novels. Then there’s interconnected story collections, and to be an interconnected story collection, there has to be certain things that are happening. There might be common characters throughout that repeat. My book has an arc to it, but it’s more of an emotional one. I set out to write a story collection but I wound up with this strange thing instead. I was like, “I’m going to write a traditional story collection,” but it was this thing that became both a story collection and what I think you could call a novel. And in a way, it’s almost like the entire thing is one giant short story, if we consider short stories as getting their power from what’s left out. If you look at every story as just a section, a small part of the entire thing, it has that element to it.
My book has an arc to it, but it’s more of an emotional one. I set out to write a story collection but I wound up with this strange thing instead.
LI: You mentioned possibly using the same setting for your future work. Would you use the same characters or are you thinking of exploring new characters?
MT: Exploring stuff with new characters. I do have desires to perhaps go back to Fellis maybe in some way. I don’t know how yet, but I’m interested in him as a character because there’s a lot I don’t know about him, as opposed to the others in the book. I have a novel that’s set in the same area that Tin House is actually going to be publishing. It has a completely different set of characters—it actually makes reference to Dee and Fellis, not by name, but by the incident of them robbing the tribal museum. And so it is in conversation with that same community and stuff. I just love the place. I think setting is so important. I’m glad I have this lived experience of this place because it has so much opportunity to put characters in.
LI: Both the David and the Dee stories resonate so strongly with adult readers, and I’m wondering how you were able to achieve the same power with the young protagonist that you were with an adult protagonist? How do you write young protagonists in such a way that they are not just relatable to adults, but their stories carry so much weight for an adult audience?
MT: There always has to be this distinction between a narrator and character. It’s very easy to be seen in third person. You have a narrator who’s either limited, objective, or omniscient, and they’re telling the story. And then you have the character who’s the main character, and there’s that detachment between the narrator and the character. That same detachment still exists even in first person. So when writing from the point of view of a child, you have to think about the adult reader’s level of sophistication obviously, but you want to consider what the narrator brings to the story moment to moment, beyond the immediate knowledge of the character themselves. The narrator in first person has already lived the story and is retelling it, even though it may feel as if the story is occurring as it does in that very moment. So we see David as a child in these stories in first person—really we see his character, but we’re being guided by a much older version of him. We don’t know where he is in time or space, but the knowledge he brings to the page in moments of reflection, for example, that’s David the narrator. And then we see him as a boy who can be naïve at times. We usually see that in dialogue, or in a specific situation. But to render that same level of relatability, it really comes down to paying attention to that line, and that gap in distance between narrator and character.
LI: In this book we have substance abuse, poverty, violence, but there’s also so much joy and humor. How are you able to balance humor and sadness?
MT: It’s a coping mechanism. From experience, I just find and have found that humor has been a way to deflate sadness or anger or irritation. Growing up, when terrible things happened, humor made us feel whole again. When writing this book, I tried to think about, if I were in these people’s shoes and this had happened, at what point would something become funny? At what point would I use this as a way to escape the tragedy inflicted upon myself or others? I drew on my own subjective reaction to how humor has helped me in my life. Whether that humor is crass or irreverent, it was central, and I just navigated it in that way.
LI: The title story “Night of the Living Rez” was the first story you wrote, but it’s the second to last story in the collection. How did you go about writing the other stories? Did you try to shape a collection around that particular story?
MT: Yeah, I did. My original framework was I had “Night of the Living Rez,” I had David as a young adult. And so I was like, how about I write a short story collection of stories that all stand alone, you can read them in any order you want, but we’ll move chronologically. I wrote fourteen or fifteen stories all told from David’s point of view, and I whittled it down to what I thought were the ten best, and then I looked at it and I was like, “This book is boring.” It was connected by character, but it was missing something, and so I shelved it. Then I wrote “Burn,” and I realized that Dee was ultimately David all grown up. And so I was like, “What happened? How did we get from this good-natured boy who turned into this person who has nobody?” I started writing Dee and Fellis stories and eventually I was like, “Alright, what if I did five David stories and five Dee stories?” The question in my mind—while I was dedicated to making sure each story stood alone—the question that still existed that didn’t necessarily need answering was, “How did David turn into Dee?” So the original version of “Night of the Living Rez,” the one I wrote in 2015, didn’t have the explosive moment at the end. Everything I wrote in the David and Dee stories made me think about ways I had to go back to the David stories and reshape them in ways where I didn’t destroy them as short stories, but where I could lay bread crumbs and point to what happened.
And so that’s what I did with “Night of the Living Rez.” I went back in and decided there needed to be something very explosive that can be used as a means to explain why David became the person he did. It was a very out-of-whack approach to writing, but it was the way this book had to be written, and I didn’t force it. I tried to listen to moments where I thought I needed to listen, where I thought the story needed to do something it wanted to do rather than what I wanted it to do
And so that’s what I did with “Night of the Living Rez.” I went back in and decided there needed to be something very explosive that can be used as a means to explain why David became the person he did. It was a very out-of-whack approach to writing, but it was the way this book had to be written, and I didn’t force it.
LI: What did the path to publication look like for you?
MT: I had an agent for a year, but it didn’t go anywhere. So we parted ways and a friend introduced me to the first agent they had: Rebecca Friedman. She read the book, loved it, and was like, “We can sell this.” She sent it out to editors. But what was different was that, while she sent it out to these big places, she was like, “I also want to send it to Tin House.” And so Tin House almost immediately was like, “Oh my God, we love this book. We want it.” We waited for the big publishing houses to get back. Some passed, and we sent it out again. And time was passing. Finally, Tin House had had it for so long that we were like, “You know what? Screw these places that don’t want it or are not getting back to us. Let’s go with Tin House.” I had one talk with Maisie, who was my editor, and she understood the book the way I understood the book, and I was like, this is it. This is perfect.
LI: Your book makes me want to read everything Tin House publishes. Can you talk about the novel you’re going to publish with them next?
MT: It takes a look at blood quantum and how it’s been used as a tool to act as a form of genocide against Native people and Native identity. So it’s centered around a guy who is non-Native, and he ends up having a baby with this woman who’s only a quarter blood. But she ultimately lies, because you have to be a quarter to be considered a member of the Penobscot Nation. And so she lies and says the child belongs to somebody else who is a Native to make sure her child was enrolled and was considered technically a Native Penobscot. Basically it’s this book about this guy who’s trying to tell his daughter everything she doesn’t know about his side of the family—everything that belongs to her but doesn’t actually belong to her, while also trying to rekindle his relationship with his dying mother.
LI: I read “Messages,” your essay in The Sun about grieving your mother’s death, and it was so beautiful. Can we find pieces of her in Night of the Living Rez?
MT: Thank you for the kind words on the essay. The mom in the book—the strength she carries, the care she has for her children, and the trouble she has too—is very representative of who my mother was. My sister was like, “You got mommy to a tee,” like I was actively trying to write my mother as this character. And, in a way, I was. I leaned on my experiences and relationship with her.
LI: What is something you would like readers to take away from these stories?
MT: I’d love for readers to put the book down and have a greater sense for what it means to care for people, what it means to love people, especially those who might be difficult in their lives. Basically, I hope people have a stronger will not to give up on one another, really, is what I hope people take away.
Liz Iversen was born in the Philippines and grew up in South Dakota. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Passages North, Fourteen Hills, Room, and elsewhere. She is an Ashley Bryan Fellow with the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance and has received support from Tin House and Monson Arts. You can find her online at Liziversen.com.