Morgan Talty’s debut, Night of the Living Rez, is a linked short story collection that follows David as he grows up on the Penobscot Reservation in Maine. The collection opens with “Burn,” in which David, coming home from an unsuccessful drug deal, stumbles upon a friend whose hair has frozen to the snow. After that darkly funny story, the collection shifts to young David, who finds a mysterious—and possibly cursed—object under the concrete steps outside his house. The collection zigzags like this, from adulthood to childhood, to explore the inexplicable—how we become who we are. Throughout, David and his family navigate being and loving imperfect people, and Talty’s narratives bear witness to this journey through tender, searing insight tempered with humor and compassion. This is a book to sink into.
I spoke with Talty over Zoom about how writing can be transcendental, what discoveries he made in crafting this collection, and what happens when a story emerges fully formed.
The Rumpus: In interviews, you’ve often talked about literature as being transcendental and showing you how to live or how to love. Do you find the act of writing similarly transcendental?
Morgan Talty: There are moments where it’s definitely transcendental. As a writer, I don’t really plan things. I have ideas in general, which direction I think a story might go, but for the most part, I really try to listen to what the characters want and what the story wants. When I find out where it goes—not in terms of plot necessarily, but the emotional journey—it’s like reading a really good story, and I’m swept away by it. When I discover those pivotal moments, I can sometimes be left breathless. Sometimes these moments don’t ultimately make it into the final draft, but they help me figure out the rest of it. Often, I have these moments in thinking about what happens to two characters or how they mend some problem, given that a lot of the things for my characters are broken. So definitely, there are transcendental moments. It’s not the only thing that gives us this insight, but similarly to reading, it can offer us greater insight into people if we stick to that path of unearthing human emotion and the human condition.
Rumpus: What were your initial goals for this project, and how did they shift over time?
Talty: My original goal was basically to write a story collection. I wrote all these stories from David’s perspective, and it was super simplistic. I thought I would start when he’s a young boy, and then I would work all the way up to when he’s an adult. The first story I ever wrote for this collection was “Night of the Living Rez,” so I had David as a young adult. Then I wrote some other pieces that were really focused on David dealing with his grandmother’s Alzheimer’s. Eventually, I decided to go back to the beginning. I wrote “In a Jar,” and I kept going forward and then going back in time.
But when I had reached the moment where I thought, “Okay, here’s the collection,” it didn’t feel like anything. It was just stories of David growing up, and that was it. I decided to try something else, so I wrote “Burn.” There, I discovered Dee. I realized this was David all grown up, and it gave me a completely different perspective.
“Burn” was the pivotal story that changed the whole trajectory of the book. There were other moments too, especially when it came to ordering the collection, particularly because this isn’t a typical story collection. The stories together form a narrative, so they have to go in a certain order. But at the same time, you can read them in any order. For instance, if you open to “Get Me Some Medicine,” you should be able to just pick it up and read it.
I realized the collection wasn’t a chronological story. Instead, it was two chronological stories that came together like a zipper: We’ll do David, then Dee, then David, then Dee. My new goal was to alternate between younger and older versions of David. That got me back to writing stories, using that back-and-forth structure. At that point, I wrote “Get Me Some Medicine”; “Earth, Speak”; and “In a Field of Stray Caterpillars.”
I also wrote “Safe Harbor” although I didn’t intend for it to be in the book. My mother suffered a lot with depression and alcoholism, and she often went to this crisis stabilization unit, where people can go and get rest. I would bring her cigarettes and stuff, and one day, she had a seizure while I was there. When I went home that day, I wrote the story, all the way up to the seizure part. I just intended it to be a piece of standalone short fiction, but it was so spare and bare-bones that I was able to shape it in a way so it fit in the book.
Rumpus: Once you had several stories, how did you go about putting the collection together?
Talty: I put them all together in that zipper pattern. At that point, I had an interesting structure, but I had to ask myself if it was delivering the reader somewhere. With story collections, we often think of reading a story, and then you’re done with it. You move on to the next one, and you’ve got different characters, even though thematically, it might be the same. But with my collection, it was the same characters.
So why isn’t this a novel? Why turn these into stories? Why not have an overarching theme or plot to it? I got to this point where I wanted the book to be both. I thought of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which people are afraid to definitively label as either a novel or a story collection. She brilliantly created the space for this other form to exist. I wondered, why can’t I do that?
Then I queried a lot of agents, and they wanted to see a novel. A lot of them advised that I turn this into a novel. I think that with some work, it could have been a novel. But turning it into a novel would have made it more mechanical. I think it would have shown the nuts and bolts of the craft more. I didn’t quite want that, but I also understood that I had to find some overarching something, which became a question: What went so terribly wrong, that this innocent and good-natured boy wound up the way he did?
You can point to a number of dramatic moments in these stories, but they never really felt so transformative and so powerful that they would push David to become so different. I knew I had to find that moment. That’s where revisiting “Night of the Living Rez” came in. I won’t talk about the ending, but there’s a pivotal final moment in this family saga. It wasn’t in the original draft of “Night of the Living Rez,” but as I revised it, I worked toward it because I knew this was it. This was the answer. It’s the moment that makes it all make sense.
That’s how the collection kept evolving and becoming what it would be. I kept having to listen to what the story wanted and what the book wanted, not so much what I wanted. I started with just David’s stories, and then I wound up with a book that became completely different. I abandoned what I wanted, at a certain point, and just trusted that the story would do what it wanted, and then I would just go from there.
Rumpus: Building a short story collection can feel like spinning plates because you’re finding what the book wants, but there’s also the question of what each individual story wants. In the Aspiring Author series, you said the best writing advice you’ve received was to “make something inexplicable happen, and then work to reconcile it, to make sense of it.” At what point in your writing journey did you learn that?
Talty: That’s from the wonderful Rick Bass. He was a mentor of mine when I was in my MFA program at Stonecoast. At Stonecoast, they really like for you to have a different mentor every semester so that you get exposed to different writers. But Rick wanted to keep working because after the first semester, we knew we could keep going and producing more good work. So in the second semester, I was writing a lot of David stories, and Rick kept saying, “Yeah, this one’s not working. This one’s not working. This one’s not working.” Then he wrote this note in one of my drafts because he kept noticing that nothing was really happening in some of these stories. By “things happening,” I don’t necessarily think he meant explosive moments, but also those tiny things that can happen emotionally. I wrote his advice on a notecard, which I kept next to my computer for a while. But now I don’t need the notecard. I just remember exactly what he said. This advice came to me very early on in the process of writing this book.
Rumpus: You’ve noted that the inexplicable thing in this collection is how David goes from innocent to not so innocent. But along the way, there are moments of humor and joy. We both admire Louise Erdrich, whose work is deeply humorous but who also discusses how hard it is to be funny in writing. How did you find the humor within the stories?
Talty: I’ll echo what Louise Erdrich said: Writing humor is so hard. The moment you try to be funny, you can’t be, so when I approach writing, humor is never something I actually think about. But the way my family coped with trauma was to laugh at it. We thought terrible things were the funniest thing in the world. What’s funnier than somebody having a mental breakdown? We all experienced it, so why can’t we laugh at that?
I recently read “Burn” at the University of Maine. After the reading, Greg Howard, a faculty member and author of the book Hospice, said he had read the story before but didn’t know it was so funny. There’s a super seriousness to “Burn,” but for me, it’s absolutely fucking hilarious that this guy’s hair is frozen to the snow. People who are outside that spectrum of trauma might be horrified, but Dee finds it funny in the story, and I found it funny.
When I work in these stories, I try to find moments where I think someone in this family would find these moments funny. I tried to put that humor in there because it’s going to be hard for a reader to continue reading traumatic events if they’re not laughing at some stuff. If you can make someone laugh, they’ll follow you anywhere. If you get somebody to laugh really good, you can bring them to the darkest depths—like what it means to exist—and they’ll follow you. It’s kind of a gamble to use traumatic moments as leverage for humor, because you don’t know who’s going to laugh at what. You’re betting on who’s reading and what their past experiences may be.
Rumpus: The line between comedy and tragedy can be quite place-specific. I remember going to visit my grandparents in Wisconsin as a kid and they would talk about the so-called town drunk rolling his car on the same patch of ice year after year, and they were cracking up about it. As someone growing up in the South, I didn’t see the humor, only the terror. Your work is really infused with place—specifically, in and around the Penobscot Reservation in Maine.
Talty: Yeah, place is hugely important to humor and characterization. In “Get Me Some Medicine,” place is very much like a character. It’s acting upon Dee and Fellis, giving consequences to their actions. Place can create that humor, too. It seems like any small community has a sort of sick sense of humor about some things, because you know everybody, so when something happens to somebody, you know about it right away—or you even see it coming before it occurs. The way people make fun of what happened to people they know so well can be very place-specific. The population of a place—how small it is—definitely plays a role in how ill-mannered the humor is allowed to be, and work grounded in place can open itself to that specific laughter and humor.
Rumpus: What were the greatest joys along the way, in writing this collection?
Talty: The greatest joy was how the collection changed over time and how I helped guide that development. I started by writing fifteen or sixteen stories, all told from David’s perspective, and maybe four or five were good. It was a journey of being disappointed, but then getting excited again, at the prospect of that project coming back to life when I discovered Dee. There’s also the excitement of seeing people’s reactions to the stories. Writing the whole book was fun to do. It had its hard moments, but it was so joyful to see the collection evolve and develop, and also to see how I developed as a writer. I look at a story like “The Name Means Thunder.” It’s a piece that is very pronounced, and I was able to take that energy and go back to revise earlier stories to try to get them up to that level. It’s been an educational process, and it’s been joyful all around. In the end, even the hard moments were worth it.
Rumpus: You were using your own growth as your teacher.
Talty: Yeah, for instance, I wrote “In a Jar” while working with Rick Bass, and he absolutely loved that story. Then everything I sent to him after that didn’t quite live it up to it. For the longest time, I thought I would never write anything as good as that story again. Then I wrote “Earth, Speak,” and I thought that was really good, and then I wondered if I would ever write anything as good as that story again. It was a cycle that I think many writers struggle with. I kept doing better, but for a while, I was terrified that I was never going to write anything as good as the last good piece. I still feel that way occasionally, but the more you write, the more opportunities you have to write that piece that’s way better than the last one.
Rumpus: Did your revision process evolve as you continued working on the collection?
Talty: I had some lightning moments, where the story required very little revision. The final form of “In a Jar” is pretty much what it looked like as a first draft. The ending and the events throughout that story all stayed the same, but I had some trusted readers who said I could start it closer to when David goes behind the steps and finds what he finds. Originally, it happened on page four or five. Now it happens in the second paragraph on the second page. I resisted the note for a while because there was a lot of background and context early on, which felt necessary to me. But everybody who told me the inciting incident needed to happen sooner was right. I just couldn’t see it yet, even though I’m usually pretty good at accepting what people say to do. That was the only major revision to that story.
Having a story emerge so fully formed doesn’t necessarily help with wondering if you’re ever going to write a great story again, because then you start fighting to get stories out and they’re a mess. You might think you have to get the story right in the first draft. That’s not true at all. It was the complete opposite for “The Name Means Thunder,” which went through so many drafts until it finally got to where it is.
Rumpus: Did you have any other lightning-bolt stories?
Talty: Yeah, “Burn” is pretty much the same, although it took me a while to figure out the ending. I had a lot of different endings there that just didn’t work. “Safe Harbor” was kind of like that, but I wrote all the way through what actually happened, and then I had to figure out where it went from there. That took a while, and then the final line took me forever to figure out. “Earth, Speak” is pretty much exactly as it appeared as a first draft. From the beginning to the very final beat of that story, it’s pretty much the same. That’s it for the ones with really strong first drafts. The rest I had to figure out and really search for.
Rumpus: Do you enjoy revision?
Talty: It’s fun. The more I write, the more I prefer revision over drafting. Now, I find it hard to squeeze a story out, whereas when I first started writing, I hated revision because I had all these stories and just wanted to tell them. Now I’m in the opposite boat. I find it much more joyful to revise than I do to draft.
Author photo courtesy of Tin House