Behind the Book: There There by Tommy Orange

Editor’s Note (from Kristen Beverly, HPB Buyer):
When I first heard about Tommy Orange’s new book, There There, I knew I had to read it. There’s not a lot of fiction out there detailing the modern Native American’s urban experience and I love to read books about other cultures. Once I started reading it, I could not put it down. I devoured it whole and after I was finished, I just had to know how Tommy wrote such an elegant debut novel. I never expected his response! Check it out below.

Prone-Writing, Running, and Robot Voices

I probably wrote the most important parts of my novel lying on the floor or running in the Sierra foothills in California. I write about half the time on my stomach. It’s terrible for my neck and back. For my elbows. The only reason I can think of as to why I started to write this way is related to the way my dad used to watch TV with me. He always preferred the floor. I just found out recently he slept that way most of his childhood. He and his brothers used to fight for a bed of wood slats.

In regards to writing important parts of my novel while running in the Sierra foothills of California, I can only say that as the novel got longer so did my runs and so did the problems get more complex and difficult to figure out in the revision process. While running I would think of solutions to some of the novel’s deeper, more complex problems. I would slow down and write them in the notepad app on my phone. Writing a twelve character cast and making it all feel cohesive, and necessary, and like all their story arcs are interconnected—it did not come naturally, or easily, or even organically. I wanted to give up more times than I felt the hope or strength or whatever it takes—obsession?—to keep going when you want to stop and don’t think you can make it. Long runs can feel that way, too. Learning that if you just keep pushing yourself something will come of it translates from the run to the page. Even if it just meant getting back home. Writing when you don’t want to or looking back at pages you’ve already written takes a kind of endurance. I read out loud a lot, and recorded it, listened to that, and used an app that read my novel to me in robot voices that helped me to hear what worked and didn’t in fresh ways I couldn’t access on my own.

My wife and son and I have lived up in the Sierra foothills for the past three years. Before that we were in Oakland three years. Before that my son didn’t exist yet. Neither did the novel or its beginnings. Before having a son, before becoming a father, I was maybe precious about when and where and how I wrote—what it took for me to get into the right headspace to be able to write. I started writing There There a year after I thought of the idea for the novel and a year after my son was born. How much time one has to write in one’s life is always relative. I started waking up early to write before work and late at night after my son was asleep. I’m not sure when I started writing lying down. Or whether it changed the way I wrote or what I chose to write about.

I don’t separate running and writing anymore. It’s become such an essential part of my process. I can’t do one without the other. The other day I ran half a marathon just because ideas for writing and solutions to things I’ve been writing about, or trying to find a way into, kept coming to me. I’m not breaking any records speed-wise; I’m not trying to, and in fact if a thought requires a note long enough, I stop altogether to be sure I get the whole idea out right. I grew up playing sports, not reading or writing. No one ever told me I was smart or that I should apply myself to anything in school necessarily. Not that I wasn’t loved or cared for. I was a spacey kid. Sports taught me that practice gets results in games. I later became a musician and took that same thinking to the piano. To the guitar. I knew if I put in the time that I would see the difference. Once I finally came to reading and eventually to writing in my twenties, I did the same thing—then because of learning about putting in the time, on top of the fact that I felt I was playing catch-up with everyone who’d known since they were young that they loved reading and writing. My love for reading and writing came late, but it wasn’t any less for it. I was maybe desperately in love with it because I felt so behind.

What I hoped to do, all this lying and writing and running and finding my way through a book, was to say something new about a very old subject too few are actually really willing to talk about and consider in this country. Trump just recently said, “Our ancestors tamed a continent. We are not going to apologize for America.” No one is asking for an apology. Only that things are talked about as they are. As they’ve been. Only that we stop romanticizing both Native people as dead and once noble as well as American forefathers in the same way. I’m not trying to make anything be okay, or to condemn anything that’s happened in history. I’m trying to say this happened, in this country, to my people, and this is how it can affect people, how Native people live now in cities like Oakland, how the echoes of history don’t fade or dim like a scream might in a canyon. The sound of gunfire and the screams of loved ones being massacred lives on, gets passed down in devastating ways, in unrectifiable ways we have to talk about first, tell stories about, give voice to, before we can even consider healing from them.

Tommy Orange is a recent graduate from the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. He is a 2014 MacDowell Fellow, and a 2016 Writing by Writers Fellow. He is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. He was born and raised in Oakland, California, and currently lives in Angels Camp, California. You can find him on Twitter @thommyorange. His fierce, angry, funny, heartbreaking debut novel There There is available in Half Price Books stores and online at while supplies last.