Back to the land
Pulitzer finalist Margaret Verble talks ‘Cherokee America’
Novelist Margaret Verble reads at Magic City Books on Feb. 19
Mark Kidd Studios
Margaret Verble, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, was born in Muskogee County, raised in Nashville, and now lives in Lexington, Kentucky. Her first novel, “Maud’s Line,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016. Verble will visit Magic City Books in Tulsa on Feb. 19 to celebrate the release of her second novel, “Cherokee America,” a prequel to “Maud’s Line.” Both novels are set in Oklahoma, where much of Verble’s family still lives. Verble talked with me about both books, Native issues today and of the past, and the combination of struggle and luck inevitable in a successful writing career.
Cassidy McCants: Hi, Margaret. Looking forward to having you in Tulsa. When’s the last time you were in the state?
Margaret Verble: August, I think. I’m there once or twice a year, at least.
McCants: You do have family in Muskogee, and “Maud’s Line” is set in that same area of Oklahoma, right?
Verble: I do. Both novels are set on that same land.
McCants: So “Maud’s Line” is set in 1928, on an allotment, and “Cherokee America” is set in 1875. Before Oklahoma was Oklahoma. What made you choose these particular time periods for the novels?
Verble: Well, I actually wrote “Cherokee America” before I wrote “Maud’s Line.” It got turned down a lot. It was too Indian. Indians are hot right now, but at the time nobody would buy a book about Indians. And nobody would buy a [first novel] that had a lot of characters in it. This notion of one major character that rises above, that’s a real white notion. It’s antithetical to the way Indians think about things. I was told, if you’re gonna write a first novel, you need to center it on one character and follow that character through.
So I wrote “Maud’s Line,” and I had to set it in a low point in the history of the tribe—the 1920s, after the allotments, when the tribe virtually didn’t even have a chief. The whole idea of the allotments, other than the idea of statehood, was the idea that we’re gonna make these people white—and after all the original enrollees die, there will be no more Cherokees. Young people were [struggling] with not having a tribe. So it was a good time to set a novel about an individual. Also, 1927 is a year that has been extensively written about, which gave me a good idea about 1928.
McCants: It’s interesting that your first impulse was to write about the late 19th century—did historical fiction come naturally to you?
Verble: I don’t know if it comes naturally to me, but it does not come naturally to me to write about the times in which we live. I don’t follow a lot of popular culture—I don’t find it that interesting. And I’m not interested in writing about the future, so the only thing left to me was the past.
McCants: I’ve seen “Cherokee America” described as a comic story. What kind of tone can we expect in this prequel?
Verble: The novel is comic in two ways: one, in a sort of Aristotelian way, in that things sort of work out in the end. Second, it’s sort of funny. I think every Indian I’ve ever been around is funny, and it’s my nature to prefer humor. The novel is about serious things, but you can write comically about serious things and make your point just as well.
McCants: Could you talk a little about Cherokee America Singer, or Check—what was the inspiration for this “Cherokee America” protagonist?
Verble: She’s based on a real-life person named Cherokee America Rogers. … She’s buried in the Citizens Cemetery outside of Fort Gibson, which used to be the old Cherokee National Cemetery. She’s got a beautiful headstone. I stumbled across it when I was in my early 20s—I was visiting [the grave of] my grandfather. I told my grandmother I had run across this wonderful name, Cherokee America Rogers, and she laughed, said, “You found Aunt Check.” Aunt Check had given [my Grandma’s] father and his brother work and a place to live when they came to Indian Territory as orphans of the Civil War. Through the years I tried to find out more about her. It was difficult because part of our family is one of these Rogers families, the one that produced Will Rogers. I assumed we were blood kin to her, but that didn’t turn out to be true. It took me years to track that down.
McCants: I wondered how much your personal experiences, family stories, affect your writing. It sounds like you did a lot of reading and research, but it also sounds like you’ve got lines of history that inform your work.
Verble: Well, I did do a lot of reading and research. I did that for decades, but I’m very familiar with the land on which these novels are set. I roamed it all the time as a child. When I was growing up and on into my college years, the Army Corps of Engineers was stealing the gravel out of the Arkansas River bend, when they dredged that river to make Tulsa a seaport. The gravel belonged to the Cherokees and the Chickasaws. They were stealing it in big trucks going down our section line. My mother’s first cousin was the tribal attorney—he was suing the United States government for doing that, and he won that case. The money he won is what laid the foundation for the modern Cherokee Nation. So I got a pretty good dose of the injustices that were going on.
McCants: This brings me to the Supreme Court’s Carpenter v. Murphy case—I think this brought to light, for people who beforehand had never considered it, the idea of whether or not Oklahoma really deserved its statehood. I’m curious about your thoughts on this.
Verble: You know, I am not qualified to answer that. Indian law and treaty law [are] very complicated. I don’t think there’s any doubt the allotments and the statehood—that’s well-established crime. What went on at the time of allotment—it was awful, and in my opinion, as a Cherokee, should not have happened. But I imagine Oklahoma will continue to be a state.
McCants: You’ve written about how luck is key in this field, but reading your story—you endured cancer while trying to put out your first book—it sounds like you’ve just worked really hard. Do you still believe luck is crucial?
Verble: I think luck is really important. But a lot of people don’t realize that if you’re gonna be a successful writer, [you] have to learn a craft. They start writing sentences when they’re in grade school, and they keep writing papers in college, so they think they’re writers. Writing fiction is entirely different. You have to really work to learn it. I’m still learning every day. But there are an awful lot of people who work like dogs [at] it, and they don’t get any breaks. For everybody who’s successful, there’s a lot of people that didn’t get their break. Or they got it and didn’t move on it. You can’t just sit back, say, I don’t know, I’ve got cancer, yadda yadda—a break comes along, you’ve got to take it, and that’s what I did. But there are many people who are really good writers [and] never get good breaks, so it’s a lot of luck. That’s true of everything. We gotta work hard, but we all have to have help, and we all have to have some lucky breaks.
McCants: I think in a way that’s encouraging and in a way kind of puts you on edge, wondering when and if those breaks might come. In wrapping up, do you have any tips for writers who are struggling or afraid—first steps to getting stories on the page?
Verble: Well, I believe that if you’re gonna write fiction—I think most young writers start out trying to fictionalize their own lives. I think that’s necessary for young writers. Then it needs to be put in a drawer and not looked at again.
McCants: [Laughs] That’s a perfect practical first step. Thank you for speaking with me, Margaret.
Verble: You’re welcome. Take care.
“Cherokee America” with Pulitzer finalist Margaret Verble
Tues. Feb. 19, 7 p.m.
Magic City Books (221 E. Archer St.)