Morgan Talty on Writing a Native American Novel That Subverts Expectations

Charles and Mary have a daughter, Elizabeth. The secrets and complexities that surround this fact are at the core of Morgan Talty’s Fire Exit, his first novel, after the much lauded story collection Night of the Living Rez. Although Charles lives across the river from Mary, he meets Elizabeth only once while she is growing up in the Penobscot Nation. She is three, and shy, pulling away from him at first. He brings her a surprise, a stuffed elephant.

She lifted her little hand and extended her even littler finger. She pointed, and her nails—on that one hand, anyway—were painted pink. The gesture, the first time recognizing me, how could I forget it? And to have it followed by her voice, the first intelligible words I heard her speak, so near, the only time I’ve regretted the wind, wished it away, that slight breeze that carried her breath away from me. How terribly did I want to know her.

With tenderness, raw emotion and admirable grace, Talty tells the story of a family torn apart by lies, and the consequences that unfold over decades. Our email conversation spanned the US continent.


Jane Ciabattari: What have you and your family been doing since our last conversation?

Morgan Talty: Jorden and I finally saved enough for a down payment to build our house, which we moved into in 2023, the same year we welcomed the greatest joy into our lives: Charlie, our son, who is 15 months old. Just a few hours ago, he took his first steps! Night of the Living Rez helped me land a tenure-track position at the University of Maine, where I’m an Assistant Professor of English, specializing in Creative Writing and Native American and Contemporary Literature. This position, along with my collection, allowed Jorden to “retire” as a teacher so she could spend her time with the person she loves the most (no, not me): Charlie. So, since we last talked, much has changed!

When I go to the page to write, I think of only the story at hand—that to write is to find some truth about what it means to be human.

JC: I’m curious to know how the experience of winning so many awards for your first story collection, Night of the Living Rez (the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Sue Kaufman Prize, the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize, the New England Book Award, the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 honor) changed you?

MT: I don’t know, to be honest. I was always a doubtful writer (and still am), but as I developed over the years there was always something that would come along and suggest I wasn’t a bad one. Certainly, with awards and longlists, I was happy and proud, but I was and am strangely embarrassed at times, especially when people read the list of accolades before I give a reading (it’s right then when I read bad reviews of the book to the audience to temper expectations). It’s hard to articulate how it changed me because maybe it hasn’t fully set in. All I know is that when I go to the page to write, I think of only the story at hand—that to write is to find some truth about what it means to be human.

JC: In our last conversation you mentioned you were working on Fire Exit, and that it deals with themes of fractured families. How long have you been working on this first novel? What was the inspiration for the book? And its title?

MT: The idea came to me in 2015, and the inspiration came from a course at Dartmouth taught by the wonderful Professor N. Bruce Duthu called Native American Literature and the Law: “Students will read literary texts produced by Native authors and legal texts involving Indian tribes in an effort to understand how the Native production of stories contributes to the persistence of tribalism in contemporary Native America.”

I will say, too, that Professor Duthu’s other course strictly on Federal Indian Law, also contributed. Both of the classes allowed me to take my experience as an indigenous person and look at the absolute worst rulings—which is all of them if you contextualize them as coming from the Marshall Trilogy. And so through law, history, and policy for tribes, I looked to find consequences from rulings which I could trace back to an inciting incident or invent one, a hypothetical one. And so the contemporary way tribes use Blood Quantum came to mind , and so I instantly—really, it was quite fast—thought, what if a white man has a baby with a Native woman whose BQ is too low for her child to be considered a member of the tribe unless she’d had the baby with a Native man—and so she lies and says the baby is someone else’s?

I wrote about five drafts, the first in 2017 and sold the book to Tin House in 2022, I believe. If we count the two years between ’15 and ’17, then 7 years! Plus the intense edits Masie and I did!

As for the title Fire Exit—I have no idea. Ha! I tend to keep a running list of titles for everything I write and then choose one or keep going until one hits me, usually at the most inconvenient time. I will say it was called “Fire, Exit” on submission, with a comma, but it seemed too literary.

JC: Your opening lays out the stakes: “I wanted the girl to know the truth. I wanted her to know who I was—who I really was—instead of a white man who had lived across from her all her life and watched her grow up from this side of the river.” Living in a house across the river from the Penobscot Nation, Charles watches Mary, a woman he loved, raise Elizabeth, who is his daughter, with another man, Roger. No one knows the secret of her paternity but Charles and Mary. As Elizabeth grows to adulthood, Charles gathers hearsay about her studies, her work life, her illnesses, and witnesses her return home. What made you decide to make his need to know her, and for her to know her full family history, become ever more urgent?

MT: During an early rewrite or draft, I recall noticing the “needs” or “wants” of Charles, and both his needs and wants seemed so invisible. I asked myself why? Why doesn’t he want to just take off and live with Bobby in some sunny beach house to get away from a life he seems NOT to be living? The more I thought about it, the more I realized Charles had very little, which is exactly why he has very little wants and needs. It was because of that last part—the fact that he wanted and needed very little—that made me realize his desire and need to know his daughter and for her to know her full family history was, to use your words, urgent.

And it becomes more urgent as the novel progresses. In a way, that urgency along with the constant care for his mother takes up so much room that it’s impossible for Charles to have any other needs or wants. This is not to say he is stuck—no, no—but rather to show in the context of the novel’s connection to the political (which it does not directly address, i.e., Federal Indian Law) how people, Native and non-native in these situations surrounded by drawn borders, are actually trying to achieve what they want so they can be happy despite the fact that any achievement might rarely offer space for a full and happy life. So I suppose what made me decide on this urgency was the disgusting situation of the story, the situation a consequence of Federal Indian Law and Policy.

JC: What influenced your decision to tell this story from the point of view of a man who is white, but was raised on the Penobscot reservation until he was eighteen?

MT: I grew up with friends on the rez, whose mom or dad had married into the tribe, and we grew up together. We went to school together. We learned the same stuff about being Penobscot. But they had to leave eventually. If you ask me how that has affected their identity today, I could not say. But I know I would not be so happy. And so that was one reason why: to capture something I hadn’t seen before in Native fiction (if it’s out there, someone let me know!). But another reason, and this is by pure happenstance, I want people to be like, “What do I do with this book? It’s written by a Native American but its main character is white and, like, uh, half the book isn’t even about Natives. Is it Native American Literature? Is it American literature? WHAT IS IT?” I do want this book to be uncategorizable in the context of culture or identity.

Unless we start categorizing “white literature.” which is the default against which all other minority writings are judged. For example, look at this review of James Welch’s masterpiece Winter in the Blood:

Winter in the Blood is by no means an ‘Indian novel.’ There is nothing in it—character, incident, language or emotion—which will not be familiar or quickly comprehensible to any middle or working‐class white or black Southerner, Jew, Spanish‐speaking American, homosexual, or other minority member, literate country‐club social chairmen included. What it is is a nearly flawless novel about human life. To say less is to patronize its complex knowledge, the amplitude of its means, and its clear lean voice.”

And then compare it to contemporary reviews that usually compartmentalize or categorize the work as being Native American Literature.

I do want this book to be uncategorizable in the context of culture or identity.

JC: Charles’s challenges include caretaking: his mother Louise, who suffered from depression throughout her life, spending weeks in bed, now has dementia. How did you research and work in the details of her shifting states, including the fact that she seems less troubled when most demented; when closer to normal, she is more depressed.

MT: Both of my grandmothers suffered from dementia/Alzheimers, and so I drew on those experiences. I researched the disease, but it didn’t necessarily focus too much on the “timing” shifts in and out of knowing and not knowing. For that aspect, I tried to pace it so when we see her, she is either knowing, not knowing, or a mix of in between. I don’t think there are any parts where the shifts are sharp turns one after the other. It wouldn’t work that way. As for how she felt during her forgetting vs. not forgetting, that I began to notice as a pattern, and patterns are great to have, so I kept using it. I had no objective for it—really. It was something I saw and thought, “This feels like an opportunity.” And it was.

Because the research I did do—but also drew on from experience, since I had family members undergo the treatment—was on electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). ECTs are helpful for depression, but I also found some research that showed ECTs helped memory! I won’t say anymore, but for readers out there, when you read the book, imagine if I hadn’t found that overlap?

JC: Charles and his mother have a conflict embedded in their interactions—a lie surrounding the death of his stepfather, Fredrick. How challenging was it to balance this novel as it circles two family secrets, and the damage that can come from lies?

MT: Very hard, since, in my view, a novel could contain just one lie! But here I tried my hardest to tackle two families and two lies. But the ability to make it work rests on the question, “Are these two different families?” So it was challenging at first until I thought of that question and used it as a guide.

JC: How important is Charles’s friend Bobby, a heavy drinking, often explosive man who experienced Louise as the mother he never had, to your sense of the unfolding of this story?

MT: Fire Exit would not be a novel without Bobby. You take Bobby out, the whole book falls apart. That’s how important he is. In a way, I wonder if he is Charles’s shadow.

JC: When did you add the stuffed elephant, with its connective qualities across time, to the novel?

MT: It popped up around the third rewrite of the book. Specificity is important and so too is pattern—things, objects, appearing again and again. And so the elephant was something I saw early on and thought about the ways it could impact the story and stay along for the ride.

JC: What are you working on now/next? Did you proceed with the novel you mentioned earlier, tentatively titled The Year of the Frog Clan, which focuses on a contemporary Penobscot mother trying to regain custody of her three daughters?

MT: Right now, I am working on a memoir! It’s about my mother and father who are both dead, but the main narrative starts with the birth of my son and ends when he is older (perhaps two? he’s only 15 months now!). I want my children to be able to pick the book up one day, read it, and say, “I feel like I knew them.” But rest assured—The Year of the Frog Clan is still here!


Fire Exit by Morgan Talty is available from Tin House Books.

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