Erika T. Wurth’s publications include two novels, “Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend” and “You Who Enter Here,” two collections of poetry and a collection of short stories, “Buckskin Cocaine.”
A writer of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, she teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University and has been a guest writer at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee and was raised outside of Denver, where she lives with her partner, her two stepchildren and her extremely fluffy dogs.
The following is an interview with Erika T. Wurth.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
What inspired you to write this book?
I realized there were no novels about Native gangs, at least, not in the States, and, I wanted to write about a character, Matthew, who had been haunting me for years. He was based on a number of people, and he’s mainly fictional – but, I’d had a friend who was involved with a man who was like Matthew to a degree. Smart, soft-spoken, loved to read Dante. But though he’d never joined a gang, he did end up on the streets, due to issues with his life at home.
And he was someone who drank what he could get, to kill the pain. I thought a lot about what folks would think of him if they just saw him on the streets – they’d have no idea that he carried a copy of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” with him.
And then, at a certain point, I thought about what would have happened if he’d wandered across someone who could be a father figure to him – no matter what that person was like – and how people like Matthew were so easily drawn into gangs. I’d seen little baby, small-town proto gangs where I grew up. And they exist on reservations too (to be clear, I am not from one).
And when I interviewed a Diné officer in Albuquerque when I was just starting to do research for this novel, I remembered him saying that they’d stopped classifying wannabe gangsters vs. actual gangsters, because when Native kids hit the city, the transition happened too quickly for that distinction to matter.
Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole and why did you select it?
In this section, Matthew’s being ranked in, and in a prison no less. It’s a difficult moment to watch, and, though I don’t like gore for gore’s sake, and certainly not in this context, I felt like it was important not to shy away from what was happening to Matthew.
Mainly because I think it’s important that anyone who’s gone through anything like this feels seen, and anyone who hasn’t, can see from the inner landscape that for Matthew, being beaten within inches of his life is something he submits to because like all of us, he needs to feel kinship and love. And they are offering that.
Tell us about creating this book: any research and travel you might have done, any other influences on which you drew?
I started writing this novel years before my first novel, “Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend,” was published because I kept thinking I was done with “Girlfriend” and was ready to move on. I wasn’t.
I had so much to learn – and I still do, mainly about structure. I’d written the first 30 pages, and done an interview or two, and put the manuscript down time and time again, revising my first novel. I’d queried agents for years and years with no luck.
I’d gotten an agent for “Girlfriend” finally – but she was unable to sell it, and so I had to go back to it again to revise. When a small press took my first novel, I was finally ready to move on.
So I spent a year in Albuquerque on my sabbatical (lucky timing), and interviewed ex-gang members, people who worked with men and women imprisoned for gang activity, and people who worked with organizations that were designed to help ex-gang members, especially when they left the prison system.
So in many ways, this book is pulled from research – but also, just ether. And, though I am Native American, and my character is, and we share some tribal background — like I said, really, this book is complete fiction. I grew up middle-class-ish, meaning that I grew up in the country, with two parents who went to college.
But they were the first in their family to do so, and like Matthew, I had an alcoholic for a parent who spent a lot of his money on booze and get-rich-quick schemes, so we didn’t always live middle class. Additionally, I went to school in Idaho Springs, and it was mainly working class whites, some middle, and a large chunk of Latinx and/or Native Americans from different nations, some with white parents, some adopted, some okie mixes, Diné, Lakota – an Ojibwe here and there. So, there are ways I’m always pulling from that.
What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
In many ways, it’s what I describe above, but the real challenge came when I found another agent willing to take on this project – but he couldn’t sell it. I had told him that I felt that the subject matter was dark, and also at the time publishers were only interested in one Native writer – Alexie – and I had a lot of doubt that it would sell.
The agent was enthusiastic. He kept saying that it was unique subject matter, that the language was what made it bearable to read, that there hadn’t been a Native fiction writer with a big press who had started his or her career in almost 20 years. He figured presses would jump at that chance. They didn’t.
They kept whining about how dark it was – and finally, my agent gave up on it, and me. Eventually SUNY took it for a Native series that died literally after publishing my book and one more. Thank goodness now there is a true Native Renaissance happening in Native fiction.
Walk us through your writing process: Where and when do you write? What time of day? Do you listen to music, need quiet?
I write when I get the chance, which is often in the mornings. And I do like to listen to music – but generally music without lyrics. The challenge for me is balancing it with the projects I have on my plate.
I’m a professor, and I teach online now, but, I have to grade, to interact with students – to go back to Illinois to run a writing series. And I review. A lot. And I write freelance projects to help promote other writers. So there are times I have to shut it all out and take an hour for the writing.
What’s your next project?
I’ve been revising and re-revising a novel about an urban Indian who has always hated the mother who abandoned her – until she finds out that there’s more to her mother’s life than she realized. She ends up going to Oklahoma, where her mother is from, to find out if her mother was murdered – and by whom. I’m also working on a Science Fiction/Fantasy novel, and some SFF stories. That’s the genre I loved growing up, and I feel excited about returning to it.