Author Interview: David Treuer

David Treuer, author of Rez Life and upcoming novel Prudence

David Treuer, author of Rez Life and upcoming novel Prudence

David Treuer recently answered questions for Books In Common about his experiences at literary events, his last non-fiction novel, Rez Life, and his upcoming novel, Prudence

What do you find most rewarding about speaking events, and are there any type of event or audience you enjoy talking with the most?

Books without readers are lonely. I might even go so far as to say that readerless books aren’t even books at all because they are written in the mind of the reader as much as they are in the mind of the writer. For that reason, I LOVE talking with readers. I love sharing the making of the book, and making it afresh with readers. The most gratifying events, of course, are ones where we are all, quite literally, on the same page: we’ve all read the work, and so the surface topography is recognized by us all. We don’t need to talk about plot or characters, we need no summary, and we can get down into the beating heart of the book much more easily.

Have you participated in any Community Reads events and if so, what do you think of the Community Reads structure as a literary event format?

I have participated in Community Reads programs over the years, more recently in Grand Rapids, MN and at Itasca County Community College. It was a great form! My book, Rez Life, wasn’t a book that most of the students would have read otherwise, but the students all were from northern Minnesota and went to school near American Indian communities. They had contact with American Indians all their lives but they had rarely thought of Indians as more than dangerous “others” and Rez Life humanized American Indians in ways they hadn’t been for the students. Many of them came up to me afterwards and said the book had completely changed their thinking. I took that as a very, very high compliment!

How have you seen campuses and communities use your most recent nonfiction novel, Rez Life, to teach about diversity?

I have. One of the major points I make in Rez Life is how American Indians and reservations are considered in America but not of America. But really, reservations can teach us more about the whole country—its mistakes, its ideals, its history, its culture—than simply about reservations. I like to think it is eye-opening.

Would you share some notable experiences you’ve had at Common Reads events that you’ve participated in?

At one reading, during the question and answer, a young woman raised her hand and she said: “The murder you talk about in chapter three? Well, I knew that girl who was killed. I went to school with her.” I asked her to say more and she shared her experiences growing up in Cass Lake, MN. How hard it was. And how everyone felt after Heather Casey’s murder. I was very moved. She was such an impressive person, so self-assured, so clear in her thoughts and feelings. I learned so much from her—about how to live a life of grace and compassion in a place that is so full of violence. The other students were impressed, too, I think. What is so exciting for me as a writer when my books are chosen for common reads is how the conversation shifts from one where I am an “expert” to one where we are all encouraged to think and share and feel. This is often the case when communities unite around an idea or a book or an event. It is very moving.

What are some of the “teachable” moments in your upcoming book, Prudence, that make it work well for a Campus Reads program?

I am particularly pleased and proud about Prudence. Various aspects of the book were kicking around in my head for a long time. For instance: Ernest Hemingway is quoted as saying “The first woman I ever pleasured was a half-breed Ojibwe girl named Prudence Bolton.” When I ran across that quote I wondered: what ever happened to her other than ending up as a character in Hemingway’s Nick Adams Stories? After some digging I discovered that all that is known about her is that she and her lover Richard Castle committed suicide together by drinking strychnine. She was nineteen years old and pregnant. Her fate and her life have stayed in my mind for over twenty years. What was her life like? What would lead her to want to die in such a horrible way and with a baby inside her? Idle thoughts.

I also remember a story my father told me about an Indian village in Minnesota that gathered every spring to shoot stray dogs (lots of dogs, no veterinarians, means lots MORE dogs) and how two men shot a dog in the brush and went to retrieve it and discovered that they hadn’t shot a dog, they’d killed a girl who had been skipping school for the day. And I wondered: what would THAT feel like? What would that do to you? How would you go on living after such a mistake? Idle thoughts.

Another story: there was a German prisoner of war camp next to my mother’s village on the Leech Lake Reservation. Right next to the village! Two prisoners tried to escape down the Mississippi in a rowboat and drowned in the lake. All these stories, neighbors in the neighborhood of my mind, talked across the fence at one another until they jumped the fence and mingled and I began writing Prudence.

At the heart of the novel is a love story between two boys—one white and one native—that sets all the other parts of the story in motion. The theme or question that motivates the book and makes it good for a Common Book or Campus Read program is this: what happens to a “sin” or an “unspeakable” behavior or desire when unexpressed or suppressed? What happens to the nature of the love (in the case of the boys in my book) when that love is the one thing that they can’t have? What happens to the heart then? What happens to life? These questions affect us all I think in ways that are worth thinking about.

November is National Native American Heritage month. Contact Books In Common to discuss booking David Treuer for next year’s programming.

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