Midwestern Gothic staffer Hannah Gordon talked with author David Treuer about his novel Prudence, Native American involvement in WWII, working with Toni Morrison, and more.
Hannah Gordon: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
David Treuer: my relationship with the midwest my relationship with the midwest is more filial than romantic! That is—a bilogical relationship . I am a child of this place. And as a child I have acted out and fought with it and disagreed with it, but, somehow, always yearn for that sweet return.
HG: You’ve lived in both Minnesota and Michigan, where you received your PhD in anthropology. Did living in the Midwest for so long make the move to California difficult?
DT: Sure. I grew up in Minnesota, went to New Jersey for college, and Michigan for grad school and then moved back to Minnesota for the next 14 years. So the Midwest, Minnesota in particular is my ground. It is where I am rooted. That said, I am, right now, a bit like a lily: I am rooted in the Midwest and the strength of those roots support a very long stem that allows me to drift in the current of the wider world for the time being. Without that connection I really wouldn’t know what to do with myself.
HG: When it comes to inspiration for your writing, what do you miss the most about the Midwest?
DT: Oh, I don’t know. I mean, I don’t really get ‘inspired’ in any direct sense. I am a writer motivated by (and whose characters are motivated by) yearning. We yearn. For many things. I find that I write best when I am separated from the things that mean the most to me—place, family, etc. And i write my back towards them.
HG: Your latest novel, Prudence, explores race during WWII, specifically Native American involvement in the army. What drew you to this subject?
DT: WWII in the upper midwest, on an indian reservation… No one, really, had thought about how the war came home to these places and I really wanted to explore that.
HG: You write both nonfiction and fiction. Your latest nonfiction work, Rez Life, also concerns Native Americans. How different was the writing process for this compared to Prudence?
DT: Radically different and much harder! I had to learn how to write nonfiction while I wrote that book. Prudence started with a question: what happens to us when we are prevented from living a life on our own terms? What happens to the qualities of our love, or compassion, or our character? Rez life started with a question, too: what are reservations, why do they exist, what do they mean, where are they going? But whereas in fiction I can make up the answers, in nonfiction—facts must guide me. That is much harder.
HG: Do you refer fiction over nonfiction—or vice versa? And why?
DT: Different kinds of writing bring different pleasures. Fiction the joy of creation has its appeal. But nonfiction allows me to wrestle with life itself.
HG: You had the honor of working with Toni Morrison as your thesis advisor. What was the most important thing you learned from her?
DT: It’s hard to boil down a 26 year relationship into a few takeaways. Our work together (when I was a student) and our relationship (still one of mentor and mentee) subsequently remains one of the most profound relationships of my life. Not because of what she is but who she is. We are, I think, similar in that we demand writing to be more than simply pretty or moving. The writing has to do some kind of work. We believe that the imagination and the intellect are not separate or opposite things, they are mutually supportive, intertwined, pleached in the same way that emotions and logic are also, at a deeper register, bound up together and one can’t get along with the other. And she and I have the same priorities too: writing, family, the race, and place.
HG: What other authors inspire your work?
DT: Again, I don’t think I do inspiration, at least not in the same way as other people! But the writers I love to read, who make me forget myself, who transport me, who make me think: Pamuk, Roth, Ishiguro, Mary McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Thomas Mann, Proust, Dunn, Woolf, Chekov, Antunes, George RR Martin.
HG: What’s next for you?
DT: Everything. I am dedicated to driving myself crazy, so i’m working on two novels and another book of nonfiction right now!
David Treuer is an Ojibwe Indian from Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. He is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, the 1996 Minnesota Book Award, and fellowships from the NEH, Bush Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He divides his time between his home on the Leech Lake Reservation and Los Angeles, where he is a Professor of Literature at USC.