Interview By JONAH LOSSIAH
ONE FEATHER STAFF
I sat down with Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle a week before the official publication date of her new novel “Even As We Breathe”. The following is a transcription of that conversation. Clapsaddle is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and a teacher at Swain County High School. Her book is set for full release on Tuesday, Sept. 8.
You can learn more about Clapsaddle or events that she will be attending on her website, www.asaunookeclapsaddle.com.
How does it feel now that you’ve finally reached the publication date?
AC: It’s funny because now it feels like ‘that didn’t take any time at all’! But I’d complained for years that it was taking forever. This is the most exciting point for me, because right now I’m only dealing with positive things. Friends are excited to get the book, signings and events and things like that. All that’s very positive. I just told my friend at work; we’ll see when I start getting negative reviews how this feels! I guess the other thing too, because this is just how I think, I’m really trying to enjoy this moment and trying to enjoy launch week next week. But the way I operate in life is I’m always thinking, ‘alright Annette, what’s next? You need another project.’ I have a bad habit of not living in that moment and enjoying it as much as I should, so I’m trying to keep my mind on that and not worry about what’s next.
What made you decide upon the length of the novel?
AC: What’s true of probably most first novel drafts is that it was definitely longer to begin with. But I think through the editing process, both on my own and then when I worked with Silas House as my official editor from the Press [The University of Kentucky Press], we really talked about the speed with which the narrative moves. The speed with which the plot moves has always been important to me. I’ve tried to learn from other authors that have been really successful with that. Folks like David, who’s another local author, who keeps you moving. And this could be because there’s so many underlying themes and messages to the books, it could have gotten weighed down in the literary aspect of it pretty easily. But I wanted those to be subtle.
What was your process for maintaining the authenticity of Cherokee in the story.
AC: I think it’s easy to get lost in the literary quality in writing and remove yourself from the community that you’re representing. But that was one of the benefits of using a first-person protagonist, because I had to be true to Cowney’s voice and what would Cowney say. How would he interact, really interact with people from this area? And so, I think that was a little trick that made it easier.
Please tell us more about your choice to use first person perspective.
AC: It was very intentional. From my experience with the first novel manuscript that wasn’t published, one of the things coming out of that I thought more about was voice and how to craft a narrator that is relatable. To do that, first-person is kind of the easiest way to approach that because you get to know the narrator. But I also liked the character of Cowney because I feel like I know that young man, right? That’s trying to figure out what direction he wants to go in. He was a character that was moldable and smart, but maybe not smart in the way we think about ‘school smart’. Following all the particulars in school, but he was smart in his own way. I liked the character of a young man who’s going to grow over the course of the novel. And I liked it being retrospective because we’re able to see his intelligence at the end through his voice. His maturity at the end, but also see how he gets there.
Tell us about the Cherokee humor that is laced through the story.
AC: Silas and I had a conversation about humor during serious scenes of the book, and how to balance that carefully. Because you know as well as I do that we sometimes deal with serious situations with humor. We’ll literally be at funerals cracking jokes, that’s pretty typical of our community. But that’s not typical of every community and that’s a little off-putting to some readers. So, it was a balance, but I did want to showcase that humor is a survival mechanism. But it’s also just a way to find that balance. It’s always about finding that balance in the most serious situations. If you infuse it with humor, it helps to level things off again.
How long did it take to write “Even As We Breathe“?
AC: It was probably maybe two years total. I really have trouble with timelines. I know that I was working at the Foundation [Cherokee Preservation Foundation] when I started writing it. And of course, the actual publishing contract came while I was teaching. From the point of starting to write to this point, it’s probably been about four years.
Where does the character of Cowney come from?
AC: His name is actually a family name from my Saunooke side. I’ve just always loved that name. But his character in general – I think I have a soft spot for young men who are going through that period of their life of transition and trying to figure out where their real strengths are and what they want to do with their life. I mean, I’m a high school teacher. So, I feel like I teach Cowney every day.
Did any of the characters in the book come from people that you know from your own life?
AC: Not directly. But different characters have traits of people I know.
How much did your personal experience in Cherokee translate to the novel?
AC: I don’t think I can completely separate myself and my experiences growing up here from my writing. I think that even in subtle ways that I don’t even realize it influences my writing. Maybe evidence of that, in the editing process, when I have to add more description. Because in my head it’s so clear, because I see. It’s my memory. For the written word I have to add more description.
What sources did you draw from to learn about this history at the Grove Park Inn?
AC: There are not a lot of written sources that I have come across. The research, in terms of archival research, is very limited. The Grove Park has a publication out that’s about its history and it has a little excerpt in there about that time period in there. But not much. So, a lot of the research I did was kind of scene setting type of research. Which means researching when products were developed and available to people in this area to make sure that everything was accurate. I talked with some local historians just to fact check some stuff. Just to make sure the scenes were right. I look through a lot of old photographs of the area to get a scene of what did the roads look like, what did the buildings look like? What was the landscape?
In the story, how would these characters learn about the jobs at the Grove Park?
AC: They both had connections to boarding school and day schools that were on the Boundary, and so you have folks, even then, who were working there who have connections outside the Qualla Boundary. Teachers and school officials who were looking for opportunities for young people. Kind of think later in native history when they had these public works programs that recruited natives to city centers like Chicago. Now, that part is totally fictionalized. I don’t know if anyone from Cherokee ever worked at the Grove Park during that period.
How did you research how Cherokee would look at that time?
AC: I spent a lot of time thinking roads, which seems weird. What the condition of the roads were, and how they changed during different times of the year. Like, what roads get washed out and what roads don’t get washed out. The distances between things. I guess that doesn’t change over time, but how we get from place to place has changed. How long it takes.
What was it like working with Silas House as your editor?
AC: That was an incredible opportunity. I always say that working with him is like have a personal MFA. He is so attentive to every line and the narrative as a whole. He’s able to hold those things at once and help you see that at once. He’s both very specific in his editing process and also not overbearing. So, he will say ‘this section is not working. Here is the reason it is not working and here are some options on how to fix it.’ Which is above and beyond every other editor I’ve ever heard about in this process. He also ‘got it’ from our very first conversation. He understood what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do. He never led me down writing a more stereotypical image of these communities. He’s very much about conveying in authentic images of our communities. We worked so well together stylistically and also just pragmatically.
Can you explain the process of how you two started working together?
AC: I don’t get to select my editor, but if I could I probably would’ve picked him anyway. I had known him through Hindman Settlement School where I went to the Appalachian Writer’s Workshop. And also, in another workshop we had done with some students prior to that. We knew each other and had talked.
You have spoken of your focus on keeping the authentic Cherokee voice. Did you ever have a line for yourself where you didn’t want to lose the non-local reader?
AC: It’s always a balance. Part of writing about this area has to be a little bit of education for outside people. But I don’t want it to be too overbearing. I don’t want it to feel like I’m teaching a lesson. I’m hoping there are enough clues there that I don’t cause someone to become disengaged because they just can’t relate. I think literature needs to be relatable, to some level, with everyone. Not everybody is going to get the inside jokes. Not everyone’s going to get the inside information. I hope, actually, that it’s richer for someone from here to read it and they get more from it. But I hope it’s still approachable for anyone to read it.
What were some of the challenges of incorporating the Cherokee language in the novel?
AC: We know the challenges of incorporating Cherokee language! Which is that there are multiple ways to say certain words. And if you say it one way and someone disagrees with you, they’re going to be upset. That’s just something that we’re dealing with, with the language. I think it’s gotten better. People are a little more relaxed about it, and just glad that you’re trying to use it. But I feel very responsible when using Cherokee language. I don’t want to get it wrong. So, I always try to check it with more than one language speaker.
For those that have read the book, is Edgar from real life or was that from your imagination?
AC: I love Edgar. Yeah, Edgar’s real. Well, to some extent. There’s a story. Gary Carden’s told this story before. About a monkey that used to kind of roam free in the area and used to scare hunters and people out in the woods. Because no one expects to see a monkey. I always thought that was fascinating, and so believable for here. He really became more a metaphor for me.
What is your next project, and do you have any dates in mind for a release?
AC: Oh, I have no idea about release! I am working on my next novel. I’m always hesitant to say exactly what the plot is. I will say this, I am looking at a contemporary narrative that involves the themes of several traditional Cherokee stories. So, it’s not a retelling of some of our traditional stories, but maybe a reuse of their themes.
What is your goal for this publication cycle?
AC: I’m with the University Press. So, I manage expectations around that. It’s not a New York big press. But I’ve been really pleased with the reach that it’s gotten so far. I mean, it’s technically not even the pub date, and we’ve sold lots of copies out of independent bookstores in the region. They’re pleased with the numbers. There are some things I can’t talk about yet, but there’s some national attention. It’s not in Oprah’s Book Club or anything. But just that this story is heard nationally, that’s exciting. The other thing that I really have enjoyed is being in conversation with other native authors. Because there are quite a few books releasing in the last few months from native authors. Including like Kelly Joe Ford from Cherokee Nation. Her book Crooked Hallelujah is doing well. The Only Good Indians (by Stephan Graham Jones). Winter Counts (David Heska Wanbli Weiden). All of those folks on social media are just supportive of each other. Being connected to that is nice.
Is it difficult to balance the pride and the pressure of representing the EBCI?
AC: I have a tough time with the word ‘pride’ because I think it’s so problematic. Because I don’t want to ever give the impression that I think I’m speaking for the EBCI. I feel like I am one voice of the EBCI, like representative of our community in some way. But I am not the only voice. So, I want to make sure that I’m not representing anything false about our community. I can’t ever present the whole picture and the complexity.
Can you explain your writing process?
AC: For me the process, at least in this book that is published and the one that I’m working on, is to force myself to write the synopsis first. Which is the absolute hardest part of the whole thing. It doesn’t mean that synopsis won’t change, but it helps me see the whole picture. I think it’s Silas that says this, ‘what is the trouble?’. And keep asking yourself ‘what’s the trouble?’ Because the trouble is what moves the narrative along.
There are aspects of the setting that are left as somewhat of a mystery, was that intentional?
AC: Yeah, I think so because that forces you to look at some of the bigger picture questions instead of the details. That’s really what I want to get out of a narrative that I write. There’s a reason that I write fiction. I can just make stuff up.
In your dream situation, where does writing fit into your life?
AC: I mean, I’d like to be a best-selling author and that be my full-time gig, you know? I’d like to see one of my books made into a major motion picture! I don’t know how realistic any of that is. But why not? I tend to think this is where the DNA of my grandfather kind of comes out. You know, my grandfather Osley, who was a world wrestling champion. Like, who would’ve thought he’d be a world wrestling champion? You know, like why not? If you’re going to wrestle, why not be a world heavy weight champion. We’ll see. It’s not that I expect any of those things to happen, but I’m going to work toward it as much as I can.
Were there any discussions about pushing the publication date because of the pandemic?
AC: Not with my press. It happened with some other folks. In fact, my pub date moved up. I think partly because it’s a university press, it’s less about those numbers that the bigger presses track. So, they got books out to bookstores – I mean it hasn’t launched yet and there’s several hundred copies sold. Bookstores were like, ‘can we sell it? Because usually you’d tell us to hold it ‘till the pub date’. But it was like a month away. I think that COVID really moved things along for me in terms of pub dates in a weird way. Because it was a university press. We had, maybe, some casual discussions about it. But I just said lets just do it. Because people were moving pub dates by like a month. Now we know, it doesn’t matter.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about being in that next chapter of this process?
AC: It feels very much affirming. That I’m doing what I should do. The support and feedback that I’ve had from our community has been really incredible. I hear from people that I know but I’m not very, very close to, and it’s just nice to know that your neighbors still care what you’re doing and they’re supportive. They don’t have to be. They don’t have to buy the book or reach out. The community has been so supportive, and I’m just really appreciative of that.