Eric Gansworth is a writer and a visual artist. He is an enrolled member of the Onondaga Nation who was raised at the Tuscarora Nation, near Niagara Falls, New York. He is currently working as a Professor of English and Lowery Writer-in-Residence at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. His latest novel, If I Ever Get Out of Here (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013), has been reviewed by the L. A. Times, Kirkus and by Publishers Weekly. I was recently able to in interview Eric for this blog. Enjoy!
I always start with the same few basic questions.
Where did you grow up?
Tuscarora reservation, Niagara County, New York.
Do you have any pets?
I have a cat who has lived with me for a couple years. She’s a shelter rescue cat, so I’m not really sure how old she is. I would guess, given her size and shape, that she’s easily six years old. My previous cat lived here for 17 years, and slept on my desk for the writing of my first nine or so books. Sometimes, when I’m writing, it still feels like if I look over to the desk, there he’ll be. I have nothing against dogs, though some breeds I avoid, those with the brute power to do physical damage if they’ve gotten that into their heads. You cross a cat, it pees in some unwanted places. Not pleasant but something I’ve dealt with. A Rottweiler, I’ve noted from personal experience, is a different matter. I was at a dinner party years ago and the hosts’ Rottweiler roamed the room, under the table, seeking affection, etc. Though the dog had a generally calm disposition, one guest absently came up on it from behind and patted its head. The dog must not have heard him, and in two seconds, it was in a position of defense/attack. Fortunately, the host was a couple feet away and was able to intervene. I don’t want to have that kind of psychic energy around me very often. I grew up with dogs and cats, but cats suit my adult temperament better.
What do you enjoy watching on television?
I don’t watch a lot of TV live, except for some morning news—my schedule is way too complicated to be in front of a television at a given hour every week–but I watch a fair number of series on DVD. It’s pretty broad, from the BBC social-critique zombie drama, “In the Flesh,” to the surreal comedy, “Community,” to edgier drama like “Orange is the New Black,” and “Dexter.” I particularly like a British show that has not made it to U.S. television, called “Trollied,” a nuanced comedy about employees at a grocery store. I avoid certain kinds of shows for personal reasons that have nothing to do with their quality. In fact, many are quite fine but I prefer not to examine their subject matter. I actively avoid shows that celebrate bully culture, but I also discovered that, as well produced as it was, “The Big C” was too emotionally challenging for me and I had to stop watching it. Oddly, though I am the least sporty person on earth, I truly loved “Friday Night Lights,”
and was deeply sad at its loss. It was awesome small town drama, pitched in perfect ways for its ensemble cast and the remarkably epic physical setting.
Mostly, I tend to watch the same few movies and some vintage shows I love, over and over, while doing mundane chores like folding laundry.
Meat or vegetables?
I am largely a carnivore, given my preferences. I could pretend here to be pro-vegetable by claiming that French fries are technically potatoes, but even I know that’s nutritionally a lie. I get a lot of grief for this, and some friends seem too preoccupied with finding that magic vegetable that’s going to convert me. I wish they’d accept that I tolerate broccoli, asparagus, and parsnips, but that I’m never going to love them, no matter how they’re cooked. You can dress up a pepper, but it’s still inherently a pepper. In those situations, I often want to insist to my vegetarian friends that if they’d just put the right seasoning on that steak, they wouldn’t notice the meat at all, hoping the inverse analogy would get them to grasp my fundamental aversion. I’ve always been puzzled by my vegetarian friends’ inability to see that their repulsion to meat is exactly the same experience I have with vegetables. Sorry, I’ve probably gone on too long about this issue, but at 48, I’ve pretty much stopped politely pretending that there’s a difference in those stances.
Are there any books that stand out in your memory from your childhood?
Probably some of the same ones for a lot of people. My home was not really a part of book culture, so my exposure came in the form of books my older cousins were assigned in school and didn’t want to read. As such, the stand out volumes that they passed on to me were To Kill a Mockingbird, The Pigman, and The Red Pony. The Outsiders I discovered when a tough girl from the reservation who hated reading loved this novel so much that she stole it from school. That immediately intrigued me. Our elementary school librarian introduced me to a collection of distinctly grotesque folk stories called The Grandfather Tales that I loved. She had a wonderful sense of what we were interested in. This book had a dark sense of humor similar to the prevailing edgy one on the reservation. I think of it now as Flannery O’Connor for kids. I started buying books on my own, (terrible novelizations of horror movies I loved) when I was 12 or so. Around that time, I bought Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, thinking it was another novelization, I discovered the world of beautifully written books about subjects I loved—discovered that there were well written books even about monsters. That was my life changer.
And then the interview begins!
What are some of your best memories of growing up at the Tuscarora Nation as enrolled member of the Onondaga Nation?
I think it’s hard to make a meaningful comparison, as I’ll never know, fully, what a standard, American upbringing at the time was like. I suspect one huge bonus was that the Nation is a pretty insular community. Among its thousand or so residents, everyone knew everyone, and so there is a large sense of belonging to something. I know American culture celebrates the individual, and our culture tends to be more about the group identity. I didn’t necessarily fit that, because I’m kind of a weird person in general, but it was nice to feel as if everyone around you knows you. I don’t imagine that tends to be true in, say, suburban neighborhoods. Do parents know kids from five streets away in suburbia? It seems like that’s only true if there are friends in those families, but on my reservation, not everybody is a friend, necessarily, but there are no strangers.
How has life changed for teens growing up there today?
Well, I suspect, as with everywhere, technology has had a huge impact. Our tribal leadership had an impasse with cable communications companies, so when I was growing up, we had the three local channels, a couple independents, PBS, and a few channels from Toronto. The couple times I saw the channels available in suburbia, it was mind-boggling. Now, with the availability of satellite dishes, and their popularity on the reservation, I suspect there are some technological levelers. At the opposite end of the spectrum, formal education on the reservation has also made major strides. A thorough and thoughtful curriculum including classes in our traditional culture, language and history, is in place and ambitious in scope, for young people now. It also includes units involving family so there’s an awesome opportunity for cross-generational teaching and learning. It seems like a good time for young people who want to strike that balance between the traditional and the contemporary.
I loved Uncle Albert. And Bug. Carson wasn’t so nice, but he got the best lines! It seems like character development is easy for you. From where do your characters come?
Thank you. I’m glad you liked them. I had fun with them, as well. For the record, though, character development is not easy, by any means, at least not for me. A writer’s job is to create believable characters who seem like real people, but those final renderings come after much hard work, feedback and revision. My particular upbringing offered a rich growth environment for a writer. An anthropologist who studied my community for many years has suggested that the Tuscaroras live by a code of “forbearance,” a sort of “tolerance of individual choices.” I don’t think that’s exactly the right word, but it’s in the ballpark. While there are many rules within the traditional culture, there is also a lot of leeway for people to become themselves within that context. As such, I grew up in a rich environment of folks–from the most bland to the most eccentric–where differences were not suppressed or pressured out of people. To be respectful to others’ privacy, I don’t write characters drawn from any one person. I invent the characters I need, adding qualities and details borrowed from people I’ve known, mixing and matching as the characters demand.
Why The Beatles?
Pop culture has always informed my work, because it was always a dominant force in my life. The first story I ever published had appearances by The Monkees and The Jefferson Airplane, and they were both meaningful to the story’s ideas. The Beatles are among the major cultural forces of the twentieth century and proving to last well into the twenty-first. They’ve shown up a lot in my poetry over the years, so I suppose it was only a matter of time before they wound up as a dominant force in my fiction.
I am not prone to eye-rolling, as a rule, but I grew up wholly on a reservation. When writers who did not grow up in indigenous communities over-saturate their fictional worlds in some hard core “Native spirituality” culture, totally at odds with any reservation I’ve ever been to, I feel an obligation to document the indigenous experience as I know it. A lot of Indian artists who grew up in communities joke about that exaggerated, performative choice–we’ve all seen it–calling it “The Leather and Feather Show.” The Beatles have always been, and continue to be, a major presence for me, so I’m following the traditional writers’ advice and “writing what I know.”
Was it difficult setting on the title, If I Ever Get Out of Here?
I had a totally different title when the novel was in its earliest formative stage, and then I had a name that was tied to a plot point from the end of the novel, and finally, when it became clear that Paul McCartney was going to be a significant artistic force, that phrase showed up and from the second it did, I knew it had to be the novel’s title. The longer I worked, the more perfect it seemed. The novel is about two guys in middle school, so to some degree, I thought that sentiment would be self-evident. It’s also about the ways we, at that age, are so vulnerable and trapped by circumstance. We’re not really children anymore, but we’re still years away from being able to make meaningful decisions about the directions our lives are going. So, the “Here” isn’t just the physical setting of the school, but also that awkward stage between the formative years of childhood and the freedoms of charting our own courses as adults.
If I Ever is the first YA piece you’ve written after a long line of adult works. What challenged you most about writing for teen readers?
I’ve consistently written about younger life, so that focus wasn’t an issue. My first published short story is about one afternoon in the life of a four year old, as remembered by his adult self. My writing for adults tends to be pretty interior, about the life inside, with a ton of detail, history, and memory. The first draft of this book looked like that as well. The most challenging thing was to strip away a lot of that tonal, interior detail and memory, in order to bring the plot into the forefront, while still keeping it in the ballpark of the kinds of ideas I want to write about.
Finally, what does diversity mean to you?
Perhaps because of my cultural upbringing, I see diversity as a treaty. A treaty is a negotiated common ground between different ideological groups. A number of groups, it seems to me, still try to negotiate a formal separatism, but I don’t really see that as attractive. I have my ruts as much as anyone else does, but I also like to consider new things. I’m an accumulator—I suppose that’s a nice way of saying I’m a hoarder. I don’t drop one aspect of my life when it’s no longer fashionable, or because something else is more exciting. I like the comfort of the familiar and the thrill of the new. If you were to look at my book collection, or film collection, or music collection, you would see a very wide diversity in each. I find they all give me something rich, without taking away from the others, and that, truly, is what diversity means to me—the opportunity to grow with the exposure to new cultural forces, but not at the expense of those with which you’re already familiar.