There There

Tommy Orange Is Ready to Fail

We speak to the breakout author about his successful debut.

By Ryan Pait February 25, 2019

Buzzy debut novelists often get a lot of media attention, but that doesn’t always mean their book is going to be a hit. Tommy Orange’s first novel, There There, broke the mold, becoming a critical success and a bestseller when it hit shelves in July 2018.

The book follows a disparate group of Native Americans, young and old, as they all converge for the Big Oakland Powwow. As each character gets closer and closer to the big event, we learn more about them as they reckon with their various and multiple identities and the ties that bind them.

On Tuesday, February 26, Orange will read from There There as he headlines the fifth night of Inprint’s 2018–2019 Margarett Root Brown Reading Series with Valeria Luiselli. We caught up with Orange before his trip to Houston to talk about why his second novel has to suck, why Beautiful Mind-ing it doesn’t always work, and the books that mean the most to him.

The first time I read this book it was a first edition right after the book came out. The copy I read this time was a 13th printing. What does that feel like for you?

The number of books originally being printed—and now we’re in, I think, the 16th or 17th printing—it’s somewhat abstract information to me. I understand it to mean that it’s a lot. But I basically published nothing, and then I published this novel. So I don’t have anything to gauge it by. It’s all been a crazy whirlwind, and I have a certain amount of ambivalence toward it. It’s really good in some ways, and it means I have a career as a writer. But it’s a ton of exposure and vulnerability to feel like there’s that many people paying attention to you.

I’m sure it’s a little terrifying at times.

Totally. And I’m guaranteed to fail with my second book. (Laughs.)

Everybody has the sophomore slump!

I’m going to write a purposefully bad book. 

You may have heard this, but There There pleasantly reminded me of Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine—mostly because in both books, it’s essential for us to hear this chorus of different voices and experiences to get the full picture of what’s going on. Whose voice was it easiest to slip into?

There are definitely some that came out faster than others. Tony Loneman, with the Drome (fetal alcohol syndrome), that one came out really fast. As did Thomas Frank. He came out really fast. And the older Opal Viola chapter came out really fast. I wrote that one in a month. 

Who gave you the most trouble?

Opal Viola as a little girl. To render her from the specific perch that I have her at—first person, past tense—you don’t quite know when she’s telling it. And I got really confused and overthought how much she was supposed to know and how much maturity her voice could have. I wanted to capture a childhood innocence while also being able to tell it as a memory, with some amount of remove. So that one took a while to render.

I definitely resisted writing the end for a while. It’s just a big risk—building up to one single event. If you don’t pull it off, everything collapses.

Speaking of structure, you have a prologue and an interlude that give the reader more context. Did you know you wanted to include those passages from the beginning, or was it something you realized later?

I knew! And if I’m being completely honest, the initial prologue was just the prologue and the interlude together at the beginning. Then my editor gave me the suggestion to cut it down. I didn’t want to lose any of it, so I came up with the idea to have an interlude. Because of that edit, I came up with the idea of the mini chapters. They update you on the characters you’ve already been introduced to, and give you a quick look back into what they’re doing. And that kind of happens again at the end, so you’re not jarred by this new structural element. I tried to weave it in in a way that felt organic. By the time you get to that interlude, it sort of connects to what was just being talked about in the story—I didn’t want it to feel abrupt. 

I was happy when I was reading that Louise Erdrich gets a shoutout in Tony’s first chapter, too. 

When I got the Louise Erdrich blurb on this book, I just started sobbing. (Laughs.) She doesn’t normally blurb very much, and I just think she’s an incredible writer. So it was a powerful moment for me.

To compare There There again to Erdrich's Love Medicine—which is referred to as a novel and as a short story cycle—I felt like the same could be said of your book. Did you have everyone’s story planned out from the beginning and split them up? Or did you realize you wanted to have these shorter pieces?

I wanted to earn the right to call it a novel, because I prefer novels to short story collections. So I was really trying to braid the narratives together as tightly as possible so that by the end of it, you’d feel there was a full arc and completion, and everyone sort of makes sense together as a whole. I would always be working on several chapters at once, and that actually helped me think of them together, as opposed to writing each of them separately and then figuring it out at the end. I’m a pretty messy, disorganized worker with my folders, but I can work it out in my head. If I try to work it out visually and Beautiful Mind it on the wall with yarn—it gets messier for me. I can make more sense of it if I keep it in my head.

Finally, there’s a passage in Tony’s first chapter that really struck me on my most recent pass—he’s talking about reading aloud to Maxine and sometimes not getting what he’s reading, but when he does, he understands it “way down at that place where it hurts but feels better because you feel it, something you couldn’t feel before reading it, that makes you feel less alone, and like it’s not going to hurt as much anymore.” Which books do that for you?

The first two that did that for me were John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Those were just early discoveries. No one was ever really telling me what to read—I worked at this used bookstore that was going out of business, so I had a lot of time to just explore fiction. And those were two early ones that just hit me somewhere really deep, and it was the first time I was understanding what a novel could do. That actually kind of became the bar: If a novel didn’t do that to me, I wasn’t really invested in it. I’d expect some level of that to happen.

I really like people who can do something that’s intellectually and aesthetically interesting, but also have an emotional core, and have something to say. Love Medicine did that for me, too. A lot of Louise Erdrich, really: The Round House is a favorite of hers. I really love when books have that page-turning feeling, but also really good writing. It’s an elusive thing to be able to do. I’ve gotten that comment about my book, and I didn’t feel like I wrote it that way, so that was a big surprise to hear. I do focus on pacing, and I’m concerned for the reader and their experience, so I don’t ever want to be indulgent or bore the reader.

Feb. 26. Tickets $5. Stude Concert Hall, 6100 Main St. 713-521-2026. More info and tickets at

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