In June 2018, a 36-year-old writer named Tommy Orange had his first novel, "There There," a panoramic look at Native Americans living in and around Oakland, Calif., published by Knopf.
By his own account, Orange didn’t get deep into reading and writing until after college (he studied audio engineering as an undergrad).
Which isn’t to say the guy was unaccomplished — Orange was a MacDowell Fellow in 2014 and picked up an MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in 2016. And he knew the book had a little pre-publication heat on it. But you never know with these things.
Then the book exploded.
By the end of 2018, “There There” (think Gertrude Stein’s “There is no there, there” comment about her vanished childhood home in Oakland rather than the reassurance) had won the Center for Fiction’s first novel prize. It ended up on year-end lists from (deep breath): Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, Buzzfeed NPR, Time, Library Journal, Entertainment Weekly and a mess of newspapers. In late January, it was announced as a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award.
So it’s been quite the six months.
“It seems like six years,” Orange, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, says from his home in California. As the book, which is the Austin360 Book Club pick for January, started to build, Orange found himself in a state of perpetual disbelief. “I kept thinking, ‘Wow, this is intense,' and then it would just sort of get more intense, and you think, ‘Is this really happening? Yes, it's totally happening,' and then it gets even crazier.”
Of course, Orange started promoting “There There” at a dead run. “I went on a 30-day book tour,” he adds. “Different city every night, different bookstore, and a lot of public speaking for a person who does not like public speaking.”
Mind you, these do not sound like complaints as much as observations in a bit of awe and exhaustion. You just never know with these things.
“I sold ‘There There’ for enough money and to a big enough publisher that I knew I was in an enviable position as an author,” Orange says. “But I also knew that sometimes books get a lot of hype before they get published and they bomb once they come out. One guy showed me certain books from the past 10 years that I'd never heard of that had gotten the same care as mine. So I am grateful for all the attention it has received.”
The polyphonic “There There” follows the somewhat interconnected lives of 12 Native characters living in Oakland whose fates come together at a powwow at the Oakland Coliseum.
There’s the overweight Edwin Black who lives with his mother and wants to find out more about his father. Dene Oxendene wants to make a documentary about Native American experiences, whatever that might mean. Orvil Red Feather wants to win the big cash prize at the powwow’s dance competition, a prize another character is bent on stealing. It’s a tour de force of a debut, climaxing in a manner much like Robert Altman’s “Nashville” or Gilbert Hernandez's “Love and Rockets X.”
“I was surprised the non-Native audience embraced it at all, let alone so wholeheartedly,” Orange says. “I thought it would do well maybe in Native writing programs and in the Native community, but usually issues around the Native community aren’t paid much attention to.”
Orange, born in 1982, grew up in Oakland, the son of a white mom and a Native father, the latter of whose family was in Oklahoma. School was not his bag.
“I wasn't a good student, and I didn't really care about school,” Orange said. “I was an athlete.” Orange played roller hockey on a national level: out-of-state competitions, a national sponsor, the works.
“That was my whole life for a while,” Orange says. “There was a pro team out of Oakland in the '90s, so it didn't seem that far out of my reach to get to a place where I could be paid to play.”
But the sport fizzled, as did those dreams. “It was not a basket to put my eggs in,” Orange says. He got into music in community college and got his bachelor’s degree in recording engineering. Except “90 percent of the program was geared around analog recording at the exact moment when the digital age was just about to sweep everything,” Orange says. “It's already not an easy field in which to find a good job in the first place, and suddenly a lot of my skills were irrelevant."
So Orange got a job at a used bookstore in San Leandro in 2004. “I was in my early 20s reading, like, religious texts and philosophy for meaning and not really for the joy of reading,” Orange says. “But I fell in love with fiction at that store. The owner took absolutely anything that anybody brought in, and then we'd filter through it.”
It was there that Orange fell in love with writers such as Kafka and Borges and books like “Confederacy of Dunces” and “The Bell Jar,” then weird works in translation.
“Nobody was telling me what to read, so I just followed my instincts and spent hours and hours in different bookstores just picking this or that up and seeing what I thought of it," he says. "This is the stuff that gave me the impulse to write, because it was exploring consciousness and meaning in a way that felt exciting to me.”
Orange says the Oakland Native community was something he had to learn about, with his Native family in Oklahoma.
“I didn't even grow up around powwows,” Orange says. “I went to one when I was 5, then one when I was 18. I ended up with working in the Oakland Native community (at a Native American health center) for almost 10 years and really learned a lot more about it then.”
He started thinking about what became “There There” in 2010. He knew he wanted to write about urban Natives, and he knew he wanted it to be in Oakland, and he knew certain things had to be in there, such as the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz Island by Natives from 1969 to 1971. And so over a period of years, "There There" was born.
“There were so many stories I realized were there,” Orange says. “There weren’t any urban Native novels. What would it look like to write one?”
Apparently, it would look like one of the most vital novels of the year.