I first got to know Rilla Askew at Woodstock. Well, sort of. We didn’t meet at the famous music festival, but rather almost exactly 36 years later on the very spot at which it took place: a large field in Bethel, New York. Every September, that property is given over to a Harvest Festival, which includes craft booths, farm animals, kettle corn, hay mazes–and area authors signing their books (Rilla spends half the year near Bethel and the other half in Oklahoma, where her family is from and where each of her five works of fiction at least partially takes place). My family was spending time at the festival, and when I noticed Rilla and her table of books, I promised myself I would fight my shyness and “act like a real writer” by making myself say at least a few words to her.
She was so warm and natural that we got into a long conversation, and we have kept in touch ever since, seeing each other when geography allows. I bought Rilla’s first book that day, the story collection Strange Business, and once I finished it I worked through her other books, delighting in each.
Her essay “Rhumba” appears in the current issue of Tin House. I was delighted to be invited by the magazine to interview her and learn more about what’s behind the stories she tells.
Pamela Erens: Your family has been in the San Bois area of Oklahoma since the late 1800s. Tell me a little about where they came from and how they got there.
Rilla Askew: Both sides of my family migrated from the South into Indian Territory after the Civil War. The Kentuckians fled their farm in the middle of the night because my great-great-grandfather had violated a patent: he and his brother took their families in covered wagons into the wilds of The Territory—the same Territory Huck Finn lights out for at the end of his tale. That old family story formed the seed of my first novel, The Mercy Seat. The Mississippians were looking to escape the deprivations of Reconstruction—or so the story goes. One of my father’s great-grandfathers, John Robert Whitesides, was a Confederate soldier who survived a stunning number of battles, including Shiloh, and at the end of the war went home to the Tupelo area, but he couldn’t thrive there. So he, too, loaded up his family, including a little girl, Rilla, my great-grandmother, and migrated to I.T.
My mother’s side of the family also came from Mississippi: her mother’s mother migrated into Choctaw Nation with her husband and began a family. The husband died. Later, his nineteen-year-old brother came up from Mississippi and married her, and they had two children, one of whom was my grandmother Maggie. The second brother rode off on a horse one day and never came back. Everyone assumed he’d died—snakebite, robbers, who knew? That mystery of a family member just vanishing, no way to know what’s become of him, has shaped my understanding that there will always be, even in fiction, unanswerable questions. The necessity of storytelling has also come down in me—what’s known in deep memory and in living memory, told again and again. Similarly, the story of migration, restless movement, homesickness, loss that’s shaped so much of America’s story, and Oklahoma’s story, is completely imbedded in my work. I’ve lived in New York for thirty years. I’ll never get the Oklahomaness out of me, just as the Southerners I come from have never gotten the South out of their blood and bones and tongues.
PE: Place is so key and so vivid in your fiction. Is Eastern Oklahoma an inexhaustible well of images and stories for you? Or have you sometimes been tempted to set a story or stories in a completely different place?
RA: For almost a decade, I’ve been working on a novel set in Henrician England. The book contains many of the recurring themes that obsess me—politics and religion, women’s lives, greed and ambition and blood sacrifice and faith—but every time I get cooking on it, another Oklahoma story will start to rise to the surface. That’s what happened with Kind of Kin. It’s what seems to be happening now—though the new work is too nascent to talk about.
So, yes, I’d say the place I come from is an inexhaustible well—not one that I have to go dip into to draw water but one more like the artesian well on my dad’s land where the water relentlessly rises to the surface.
PE: What was your first trip away from Oklahoma that you can remember? What kind of impression did it leave on you?
RA: The summer I was eight, my daddy built a camper out of thick plywood, painted it turquoise and set it on the back of his turquoise Chevy pickup, loaded us kids in the shell and my mom and grandma in the front, and we headed out to California. We were on our way to see his brother, a Baptist minister in Bakersfield. We camped along the way, crossed the desert at night because of the heat, and must have looked, as I think now, like a 1960’s Joad family, heading west. In California we visited Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, saw the ocean for the first time, and I remember all that, but what I remember more acutely is the day we crossed into Mexico on our journey, and how, in a little border town, my mother bought souvenirs she didn’t want because the sellers were so insistent. I remember her walking away on a dusty street, a man following after, pleading with her to buy something. I remember my feelings of pity for the man, how I just wanted my mother to stop and buy something, to help him, how my mother wouldn’t look at him or answer but just kept walking. I know now that was self-preservation on her part, but then I couldn’t see it.
Two things occur to me now, unearthing this memory: one is that the great westward journey is not only iconic and formative in Oklahoma’s story, and the larger American story, but also in my own. Our gaze—my family’s and that of most others around us—was always turned west, not back to the south and east, where we came from. The other recognition is that, even then, at the age of eight, my eyes were on the brown-skinned person in the scene.
PE: A consistent theme in your fiction is outsiders. You’ve written about black Americans in Tulsa in the 1920s, rail-riding hobos during the Great Depression, Native Americans in territories taken over by whites, and illegal aliens. Can you say a little bit about how you have come to focus on certain disenfranchised communities, especially in your novels?
RA: I agree that this is so but am not sure why or how it came to be. Not a conscious choice. It’s just where my heart is. You know that old saying—our subjects choose us. I can trace a lot of my influences to autobiographical sources, but as a person I haven’t felt any more the outsider than I expect most writers—watchers that we are—feel. My godchildren’s mother says I was born with the wrong color skin. She and her Jamaican family have been my adopted family for twenty-four years. I’ve watched my godson Travis grow up black in America, God knows that has shaped how I see things and what I write about. My deep friendships with Indian people have shaped me, and their disenfranchisement is surely the founding story of Oklahoma—just as it’s part of America’s origination story. Those parallels, between the American story and Oklahoma’s story, the intensification of the American narrative in my home state, the clash and cohesion of races there, the ghost of Tom Joad, these are all driving forces in my work. But there’s also a kind of knowing beyond knowing that I have no rational words for. A kinship. Connection. I can’t explain it any better than that.
PE: Another thread that runs through your work is American Christianity, often of the evangelical sort. Many of your characters are religious, though some struggle with their faith. Most are conversant with the Bible, or at least parts of it, and this background informs their actions, feelings, and decisions. Was the Bible—reading it, hearing it quoted, being told or telling stories from it—a big part of your upbringing? And if so, do you feel the Bible or church-going shaped the way you came to tell stories?
RA: Oh, yes, I grew up steeped in the King James Version of the Bible. That gorgeous Jacobean prose, its rhythms and syntax, the use of stories to tell larger truths, the overriding notions of guilt and repentance, sacrifice and salvation, obedience, sin, absolute Good and absolute Evil, a God who speaks from burning bushes, a sense that the world is spiritually ordered—all are part of my upbringing. What a rich legacy it is. I doubt I would have ever, in adulthood, studied the Christian Bible or the Torah or the Koran to discover the layers of meaning and human history hidden there. But in the Southern Baptist church I grew up in, it was a given. Lots of memorization. Lots of preaching. Lots of hellfire and damnation and apocalyptic warnings and misogynist Pauline teachings, and for all the fear and guilt it engendered, the tradeoff in language and story has been well worth it.
And yes, I think it’s shaped how I tell stories—there’s a mythic quality to a lot of my work, especially the early novels, that fans of realist fiction might not get. I would say the single force that has shaped my writing more than any other is the fact I grew up Southern Baptist in Indian Country, where the spiritual world, what is unseen, is as real, or more real, than that which is seen.
PE: Yes, characters in your books certainly wonder about the issue of sin. Sweet in Kind of Kin struggles with whether her father is a sinner or a saint. Harlan in Harpsong is tormented by a wrong he once committed. A story from Strange Business (“1976”), begins, wonderfully: “Selena Sikes Willaman had held all her life an abiding horror of irrevocable acts.” Do irrevocable acts interest you primarily because they naturally trigger a lot of fictional drama—or does the question of irrevocability interest you in other ways as well?
RA: When you’re raised in an evangelical church, the notion of irrevocability is as prevalent as the notion of sin. Because always there is death hovering. Always there is Satan and Hell and that irrevocable moment when it’s too late to get born again.
But irrevocability is also a great narrative tool. You have that moment in The Virgins when the narrator realizes he’ll have no second chance with Aviva—his action in the boathouse is irrevocable. One could make a case that the whole novel is generated from that moment, not the act itself but his abrupt recognition that there’s no undoing what he’s done. It seems paradoxical to say that hopelessness—for that’s what it is—can drive narrative, but many of us are haunted by something, an action or inaction, in our past that feels irreversible. We westerners have such a linear worldview that irrevocability is necessarily part of the story. There’s no going back, we say. I think that’s why repentance and redemption are so endemic to Judeo-Christian culture—they give the lie to irrevocability. For other cultures that see reality in a more cyclical manner, the wheel always comes full circle. Maybe there’s no irrevocability there.
PE: You’re not afraid to paint some of your characters as villains. In Harpsong, the “bulls,” or men who toss hobos off of trains and beat them up, are thoroughly brutal individuals. Many of the white residents of Tulsa come off very badly in Fire in Beulah. Monica Moorehouse, an ambitious politician, and Arvin Holloway, a local sheriff, are pretty thoroughly distasteful in Kind of Kin. There are some readers who would argue that no human being is entirely unsympathetic and therefore no fictional character should be, either. Is that overlooking the value, for a writer, of bad guys?
RA: Hmm, I wouldn’t want to do without my bad guys. Not at all. My good guys—that is to say, my protagonist women—are sufficiently flawed that I don’t feel a need to also paint human evil as partially sympathetic. The sheriff and the female politician in Kind of Kin are selfish, even mean spirited, but their ambitions are used to comic effect. In fact, though, I do believe there’s such a thing as pure human evil—not Evil as a force in the spirit world, but that great gaping maw of self that can become a force for annihilation. The character Japheth in Fire in Beulah is a manifestation of that kind of evil. I was writing the Tulsa Race Riot scene when the Columbine massacre took place. The survivors said, about those two boys as they walked through the halls, killing classmates: their eyes were empty. Soulless. This is what I gave Japheth as he makes his way through the streets of North Tulsa, destroying. It’s what also happens to the brother Fayette by the end of The Mercy Seat.
PE: I appreciate the way you give patient attention to experiences that are unique to or mostly experienced by women. The childbirth scene that opens Fire in Beulah is one of the most terrifying and powerful scenes I’ve ever read. In Harpsong, we come to see that the hobo life imperils the health of Sharon more than Harlan—because Sharon gets pregnant. In Kind of Kin, Sweet is juggling being a mom to two boys, making each paycheck last until the end of the month, and taking care of an invalid relative of her husband’s. And that’s before the really big problems start. She’s taking care of the relative because her husband says that people like them, good Christians, don’t abandon their relatives to a nursing home.
But, of course, the relative becomes Sweet’s job, not her husband’s. And the round-the-clock nature of that job makes it almost impossible for her to deal with her kid’s behavior problems, or her niece’s needs, or the legal hot water her father has gotten into. The portrait of Sweet shows very honestly that sometimes women are going to fail to do right by somebody or other. Are you conscious of trying to convey certain, perhaps under-represented, realities of women’s lives? Or am I cherry-picking from the scenes and themes in your work?
RA: Thank you for saying this. I’ve had a number of readers offer similar comments—about Sweet especially. ‘This is me,’ they say. Or ‘This is my mom, my sister. We’re always trying to take care of everyone, trying to fix things for our family.’ But, no, I wasn’t conscious of trying to convey anything in particular about women’s lives. I have family members who are a lot like Sweet, and I’ve been a bit like her myself, a caretaker, a fixer. Her sense of responsibility for everything and everyone is entirely familiar to me. Her inability, in the end, to fix anything at all is, alas, familiar too.
I don’t especially set out to create female characters. I’d love to tell a novel from a man’s point of view, as I’ve done with some of my short stories, but when I start a novel, it’s the theme that shows up first, the “thing” I want to write about: the Tulsa Race Riot, the dispossessed during the Great Depression, Oklahoma’s anti-illegal immigration law. The second thing that shows up is place—where the book is going to be set, or where it will begin anyway. Then the characters show up, with a voice, a story to tell. Likely as not, they will be female—though Kind of Kin began for me with a little boy’s voice.
PE: Kind of Kin is your first novel set in contemporary times. What led you away from the historical this time around?
RA: I suppose I would say it the other way around—the subjects I wanted to write about led me to the historical first. My mind and heart and personal life were already immersed in issues of race when I first learned of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot and knew I would write about it. This was in Brooklyn, in 1989. I’d grown up fifty miles from Tulsa never having heard of that devastating event, when some ten thousand whites swarmed into Tulsa’s wealthy black district, looting, burning, and killing. It took me eleven years to uncover and write about that hidden history. My research led me back into my own family’s story—I wanted to understand how such raging racial attitudes got carried into Indian Territory—and that’s how I progressed back to the late 1800’s and ended up writing The Mercy Seat before Fire in Beulah.
The inspiration for Harpsong came in a moment: I was at the Woody Guthrie Festival in Okemah. Arlo Guthrie was on stage talking about his dad’s faith in the people, how Woody never doubted their essential decency, their willingness to do right by each other, and survive, no matter how downtrodden or poor or dispossessed they become. Then Arlo led us all in a great rousing round of “This Land Is Your Land,” the roof was about to blow off the old Crystal Theatre, and I suddenly knew, in one of the few actual epiphanies I’ve ever experienced in my life, what my next novel would be about.
I was working on the Tudor book in 2007 when Oklahoma passed one of the first anti-illegal immigration laws in the nation. I stewed and fretted for months, responding in the real world to a real political and human situation: the effects of the law were devastating for Hispanic communities, families were torn apart, people lived in fear, and it felt to me as if this oh-so-Christian state was doing the same targeting of a particular people as they’d done a century earlier when the first laws passed by the brand new state legislature were Jim Crow laws. Still, I hadn’t thought I would write a novel about it until I woke up one morning with young Dustin’s voice in my head, saying, “Your granddaddy is a felon. He’s a felon and a Christian.”
PE: You were an actress before you were a writer of fiction. Do you find that your acting training affects the way you write?
RA: I know a number of writers who began as actors, and I think there are a couple of ways the two are connected. For one thing, it’s what we both do, actors and writers: embody another human being. Actors embody with their own bodies, with voice and gesture and movement, the physical and emotional life of the character. Fiction writers do the same thing, though we do it in our minds; we then translate that embodiment into symbols on a page so that the reader can later lift those same black-on-white chicken scratches off the page and retranslate them into the emotional and physical life of a new, entirely separate human being: the character. It’s really marvelous, isn’t it?
The other connection, for me in any case, has to do with public readings. My acting background makes performance comfortable for me. I often do a first person reading when I have the choice so that the reading becomes more like an acting monologue. Then I get to use my voice, if not my whole body, to embody character, too.
PE: Were there any particular books that strongly influenced you when you began to write fiction yourself?
RA: Not books, necessarily, but writers—the great Southern writers, particularly William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers, who taught me that the people I come from have dignity and value, that they’re worth writing about. The great midcentury black writers, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, who taught me a way of seeing—Baldwin especially, with his essays and his lyrical, complex prose.
There are two short stories that, early on, were life changing for me: Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” and Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” They’re so highly anthologized that it may be hard for some readers to even recall when they didn’t know them—but I remember acutely my first encounters with both those works. I read “Sonny’s Blues” on a plane from Tulsa to New York in 1987, finishing it just as we were banking in toward LaGuardia. I’ll never forget how I was trembling when I got to that last line about “the very cup of trembling,” quaking with a kind of recognition and wonder, familiarity and awe—and yes, the same thing happened with “Barn Burning,” though perhaps not so dramatically.
I should add, too, that I had the same reaction when I read the first Joy Harjo poem I ever read, “Death is a Woman.” I was in a Motel 6 in Saint Louis, and I fell back on the bed, weeping. Sounds melodramatic, I know, but it is so. A number of Native writers—Joy Harjo, of course, and LeAnne Howe, Lance Henson and Joe Dale Tate Nevaquaya and others—have been huge influences, both in terms of friendship and conversation and also in terms of their work.
PE: I’m awed by the range of styles and registers that are on display in your books. Strange Business is a collection of character-driven literary realism. Harpsong is lyrical and poetic, bordering on experimental. Kind of Kin is a suspenseful page-turner. Was there some deliberateness in choosing the type of narration for each of your books, or did that emerge organically?
RA: Organic. Definitely. This relates to the notion of listening to the work itself. Just as the characters seem to have their individual lives, separate from mine, so each book has had its own way of wanting to be told. I’ve tried to change it sometimes, have had my own ideas about narrative structure, who would be doing the telling, but the characters and the works themselves have insisted on their own way.
I don’t mean to sound New Age-y la-la about the process. There’s nothing mystical about it. I study craft, practice it, teach it. Early on, when I was in grad school at Brooklyn College, I deliberately tried on different styles and narrative strategies and voices, just to learn them. But I can’t think my way into the world of a novel. I have to listen and write my way into it.
The most challenging book so far in these terms has been Harpsong. I saw the whole story, could hold it all together in my mind at once. I could hear and write the varied voices, but I couldn’t figure out how they fit together. I kept trying to make it fit, trying to make it fit. The book seemed a hopeless farrago, I was nearly despairing, but it was like being in the late stages of labor—too late to quit, no way out but through, nothing to do but keep on. At last, while on an artists’ retreat in Italy, I had a breakthrough about the ending. I’d been trying to make the scene at the courthouse in McAlester serve as the launching scene for the rest of the story, simply because I had written it first. When I understood that that scene is the climax of the book, not the inciting incident, all the other bits and pieces and the elliptical structure that shapes the narrative fell into place.
RA: I’ve been writing some nonfiction pieces lately, and for a year or so I’ve been back at work on the Tudor book. But…recently I was at the Five Tribes Story Conference in Muskogee, where I had a moment of recognition much like the one I had at the Woody Guthrie Festival years ago. It’s a contemporary story set in the Cherokee Nation. I expect I’ll have to surrender to it.
PE: Any advice for the writer who is working on his or her first book—from someone who now has five books behind her?
RA: Well, I love the notion of the act of surrender as part of the process. There’s a deep place we write from (I admire how Richard Bausch addresses this so beautifully in his writings) that has to be submitted to. All our practice of craft, the critical voices heard in workshop, the thinking and overthinking, can subsume that source voice.
So listening to the work itself is the first thing. How one does that is going to be unique for every writer. For me, it’s getting up early, 4:00 or 5:00 a.m., before the world’s voices can swarm in. It’s staying off Facebook, refusing to click over to the New York Times online. Listening gets harder and harder in these days of incessant worldly twitterings peeping me! me! me! me! One of the few ways I can ignore them is to get up early enough.
Beyond that, it’s perseverance. Grit and determination and work ethic. Tenacity and a patient willingness to live with the messiness and uncertainty of a novel, if that’s what you’re writing. Novelists are a special breed. It takes a relentless, and I would say optimistic, personality to live alone with that “loose baggy monster”—over the course of years, sometimes—trusting that it will breathe life someday.
I’ve known talented writers who didn’t have that grit, that stick-to-it-iveness, and they’ve gone on to other things. I’m sure their lives are good ones, and quite satisfactory to them, but they’re not writing. I’ve known other perhaps less talented writers who wanted it more than anything, who kept at it, kept at it. They’re the ones who are still writing and getting their work published.
I quote to my students, and live by, Flaubert’s wonderful dictum: “Talent is a long patience, and originality an effort of will and intense observation.” Henry James said it, too: “A mighty will, there is nothing but that!”
Rilla Askew is the author of four novels (The Mercy Seat, Fire in Beulah, Harpsong, Kind of Kin) and a book of stories (Strange Business). She’s a PEN/Faulkner finalist and received a 2009 Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Askew is married to actor Paul Austin; they divide their time between the Sans Bois Mountains in southeastern Oklahoma and the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York.
Pamela Erens‘s second novel, The Virgins, was published in August 2013 by Tin House Books. In April 2014, Tin House Books will reissue her debut novel, The Understory, a 2007 finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Erens has also published short fiction, poetry, and essays in literary journals and magazines ranging from Chicago Review and New England Review to O: The Oprah Magazine.