David Treuer on Revisiting and Republishing His Debut Novel
Jane Ciabattari Talks to the Author of Little
David Treuer, an Ojibwe Indian from Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota and a Professor of English at the University of Southern California, was a 2019 National Book Award and Carnegie Medal finalist for his pioneering nonfiction narrative, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present. But he started out as a novelist, mentored by Toni Morrison at Princeton. When his first novel Little was published twenty-five years ago, the book got a paperback publisher, a UK publisher, and a French publisher, and won the 1996 Minnesota Book Award.
It was one of the first acquisitions for Fiona McCrae, the legendary publisher of Graywolf Press, who retired shortly before Little was reissued. “I hope this reissue leads to a new appreciation of the novel’s achievement,” McCrae told me via email from London, where she was attending the Booker Awards ceremony (Graywolf author Percival Everett was a finalist). “At the start of the novel, there is a phrase, ‘Tucked back in the woods, Poverty had no witness.’ Perhaps Little the novel provided that witness: to the daily lives of these characters, their resilience, and their hardships.”
McCrae added, “I fell back in love with the language as I read it again twenty-five years later. ‘A hole. A heart. A whole heart…’”; and the vividness of the descriptions. There is a real cohesion, in mood, narrative, and setting throughout the novel. My favorite characters? The boy Little himself is very compelling. His big, enigmatic presence looms over the novel, punctuated with his one word: ‘you.’ I am also drawn to the older woman Jeanette, and the way in which she occupies a central place in the novel, but without drama. She understands the contours of other people’s stories better than they do themselves. (I have always admired the way David sets up a mystery of sorts, and solves it without a dénouement; he trusts the reader to figure it out.)
“I do think it is a real work of art (a ‘masterpiece,’ as Toni Morrison said of it). Still well worth a read or re-read in 2022. It would do even better if it were a first novel today.”
My latest conversation with David Treuer (our first was in 2019 when The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee was first published) took place over email, over a few weeks as autumn began.
Jane Ciabattari: How have your life and work been impacted by these recent years of pandemic and turmoil?
David Treuer: That’s actually hard to say. My own work (or reception to it) has really blossomed over the past few years during the pandemic. And I’ve been incredibly lucky to have the chance to do the kind of writing I want to in places I’ve always wanted to work. As for life—well, life has been hard in many ways: my father passed away in 2016 and my mother in 2020 and in between I lost my two of my best friends. Life has always flowed along in two tracks—there’s my writing and teaching life and then there’s my private, lived, life. Sometimes they intersect but most often they don’t.
JC: In November 2021, Lisa Lucas recruited you to become an editor at large for Pantheon.
Your first acquisition was two books by journalist Mary Annette Pember, the first dealing with “her mother’s experience at a Native American boarding school, their complicated relationship, and the history and ongoing trauma of America’s policy of forced assimilation of Native peoples,” the second book “an embedded, reported book about missing and murdered Indigenous women.” How do you see your new role as an opportunity to reshape the process through which writers are able to tell their stories and contribute further voices to this outpouring of new Native writing?
DT: Joining Pantheon is, I hope, a huge win for Native (and other!) writers as well as a win for Pantheon. The sad fact is—as near as I can tell—until I joined up at Pantheon there wasn’t a single Native person at any level in trade publishing (no one in marketing, publicity, editorial, production, design, etc.). And yet since the late 1960s trade publishing has produced thousands of books by and about Native people. This contributes to a strange problem: most people (in the world) experience Native life and history and imagination through text and yet we’ve not had the chance to have our texts nurtured and produced by people who are familiar and, more than that, related to the sources and the makers of our material.I feel so fortunate to have the chance to help—but not steer—the growth of Native lit.
I feel so fortunate to have the chance to help—but not steer—the growth of Native lit; to make it better; to help train writers and readers to think and feel differently about us and our craft. Funny story: after the news broke about my new role at Pantheon my good friend Mohsin Hamid reached out to congratulate me. He said something like: You’ve done the Toni Morrison trifecta but stupidly. I didn’t know what he meant so he clarified: Morrison worked as an editor at Random House and she wrote at the same time, then she stopped publishing and started teaching and writing. But you’re doing all three things simultaneously: writing, teaching, editing. He’s not wrong! Life is suddenly very busy. But I’m excited to have the chance and grateful to have the privilege.
JC: When you say “trade publishing” does that include small indie presses and academic presses?
DT: Clarification: by trade publishing I meant commercial publishing. Not small presses or university presses. There are native people working in those areas, especially in Canada. For example, Terria Smith, who runs Heyday Press’s Berkeley Roundhouse publishing program (Heyday recently reissued Deborah Miranda’s Bad Indians on its tenth anniversary).
JC: What inspired you to bring Little, your first novel, first published twenty-five years ago, back?
DT: I don’t think I was necessarily inspired as much as Graywolf Press and Fiona McCrae (my editor who acquired Little in 1994) were! Though, before she died, Professor Morrison, my advisor and mentor, was thinking about writing an introduction for a re-issue. I would have loved to know what she made of it after all the intervening years. But we weren’t able to get it done before she passed away.
JC: How does it strike you now? Did you make changes?
DT: Strangely, I hadn’t read Little since it was published in 1995. But once published I never really go back to my own work (there are far better things to reread written by other people). So it was strange to read it again. There was so much I’d forgotten about it and much, too, I’d forgotten about myself at the time of the writing: who I was, how I thought, the scope of my ambition and the depths of my own insecurity. The book itself strikes me as a very ambitious attempt at telling a story in way I wasn’t ready and didn’t quite have the skills to tell but a pretty good read nonetheless. I could have made substantive changes to the structure and added new sections. But I think books, like many things, are mostly best left alone as a record of the time in which they were made. I did however address some of the more egregious syntactical wobbles and awkward transitions to the best of my ability!
JC: In the introduction you write of the influence of Toni Morrison, your professor/mentor at Princeton, on the shaping of this first novel. Did you have, in essence, a conversation with your younger self as you prepared for this book to be reissued? How would you describe Toni Morrison’s guidance?I think books, like many things, are mostly best left alone as a record of the time in which they were made.
DT: Lol I try to never have chats with my younger self. Professor Morrison (and I even now can’t break myself of the habit of referring to her as “Professor”) is another matter. She was a wonderful teacher. Engaged. Invested. Funny. She liked pushing and she liked it, I think, when I pushed back. When we first started working together she said something like “My job is to be your teacher, to help you learn how to write. I won’t launch you. I won’t help you find an agent or a publisher. I don’t hold doors.”
And I said something like: “I would never ask you to.” And I never did. When I shopped agents I didn’t tell any of them about my connection with her. And when Graywolf accepted the book I didn’t mention her either. Not until the very end when Fiona and Janna asked me for a list of people who might be willing to blurb the book and I told them we could ask Professor Morrison. I still remember the look on their faces! When I approached Professor Morrison she said, “Well, I’ll take a look and we’ll see. You might have ruined it since I last saw it.” I guess I didn’t ruin it after all.
JC: This is a polyphonic novel, circling around characters and incidents, weaving back and forth between the late sixties and 1980. Did your sense of the characters shift over this past quarter century? Are there characters who have more resonance for you now than when you were first writing the book?
DT: My sense of the characters didn’t really shift: they are who they are. But I do see Jeanette differently, perhaps, because—like her—I am old(er) now: on the far side of many more things than I was when I wrote the book in my early 20s.
JC: In one early passage, from Donavan’s perspective in 1980, you write, “In later years all of us at Poverty dressed up our stories about Little, gave them wings, and let them go. And since there was so little to tell, they took off, circled higher, and, like the dandelions never touched the ground again.” Does this passage connect with your sense of coming back to this novel “in later years” and the circular structure of the book, which begins and ends with Donovan in 1980?
DT: Again—not really. Writing is a job and going back to the novel was a job as well—both of them pleasurable. But Donovan’s quote still strikes me as true about our willful and wishful re-imaginings of our past; true about gossip; and true about our own self-regard.
JC: You bring the texture of history to passages like this describing the winter of 1968: “The fields that used to yield corn, beets, soybean and sunflower to farmers who came from Germany, Sweden, and Norway were choked with quack grass. The descendants of the Germans, Swedes, and Norwegians, now worked as auto mechanics, store owners, policemen, telephone repairmen, truckers, pipeline supervisors, carpenters, plumbers, roofers, welders, sheet-metal workers, and as agents of history.” And, you note, “there are places where their memory could not go….They couldn’t remember what the land looked like before it was logged the first time.” This willful amnesia or ignorance or erasure continues to this day. Do you think it will ever be supplanted by stories like those in Little, which restore a sense of the people who long inhabited the land that is your setting, and their lives, then and now?
DT: Who knows? That would be up to my readers and their imaginations. But I do love the ways in which novels color my experience of places. I remember a passage in Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda when Oscar sees a door that has been painted over so many times it “looked like a chocolate bar left in the sun too long.” Now I look at doors differently and drag Carey’s masterpiece into my association with old doors. There are, for me, lots of examples of this. Whether or not past or future readers of Little make the same connection in the northern landscapes that are my home and homelands and the most precious places on earth to me….who am I to say?
JC: Little was first published in the mid-1990s during what has been called the second wave of the Native American Renaissance—around the same time as Sherman Alexie’s first novel Reservation Blues, Greg Sarris’s first novel Grand Avenue, Louise Erdrich’s fourth novel, The Bingo Palace. I wonder if you’ve thought about what would the response be if Little were published today, in the midst of what seems a third wave, with Tommy Orange, Terese Mailhot, Morgan Talty, Margaret Verble, Oscar Hokeah, and so many others?
DT: There’s so much new Native writing (and I’d add a whole bunch of other writers to the ones you mention above—Erika Wurth, David Heska, Wanbli Weiden, Eden Robinson, Julian Brave Noise Cat, Jake Skeets, Santee Frazier, and many more) in all genres and, frankly, so much great new writing generally (and Native literature has always been and remains deeply connected to world literature in general) and so much of it is so good…I’d never stand a chance.
JC: What are you working on now?
DT: Oh well, I’m a little bit the victim of my own success in nonfiction: so I am working on a new (short!) nonfiction project. The less said the better right now. But fiction is my first and enduring love so I’m looking forward to finishing a novel that’s been on my mind for a long time now.
Little by David Treuer is available from Graywolf Press.