I can’t count the number of times I’ve digitally fallen on my face in front of Erika T. Wurth. We’re friends on Facebook, and she always shares sides of life that I’m unfamiliar with—either because I’m white, because I’ve lived on the coasts my whole life, or because I’m not as well-read and deeply thoughtful as she is. I ought to just listen, but sometimes I comment, and what I say usually comes out wrong.
Wurth never seems to have this problem. What she says always comes out insightful. Her books handle the reader roughly, describing as they do multiple varieties of heartbreak, substance abuse, despair, and dead-end lives. Her prose is simple, but spiky, and it reveals new layers of complexity with each reread. Occasionally, beauty and redemption are in the mix. (Disclosure: I explored Wurth’s style at greater length in a review of her most recent novel, You Who Enter Here, which I wrote before assembling this interview.)
In general, Erika T. Wurth is a badass. So, of course, I fell on my face a few more times in the course of interviewing her.
Tell me about your hatred of books. Do you hate certain kinds of books, certain authors, or just particular books when they come along?
I never talk about books or authors I hate—at least publicly—for a variety of reasons. I can say that I really really hate when authors sit comfortably in a camp—like, I’m an experimentalist! Or I only like traditional fiction! Perhaps this is because even though like many artists, I feel that parts of my heart are very black, I’m still American—and I hate hating. The other part of it is, that I know how hard it is to write a book—if I think someone failed, then hating on them seems shitty.
Also being Native American, our world—and certainly our writing world is so small—so I know what that looks like when hate comes back. It’s destructive—to everyone’s art. And I want more art in the world, not less.
I can say that I find it tremendously boring when someone is so comfortable in their aesthetic that they don’t care at all about their audience and their joy—and it’s inconceivably frustrating when those folks get attention anyway.
Any examples of books you hate?
Like I said, I always feel weird talking about books I hate. Even when I review books, I tend to only review ones I love—or at least really like, because I know what it takes to write one. But I can say that I hate when a book feels lazy, like it’s resting on the ideas or aesthetic of a very small audience. I generally hate overly conceptual books that rest on ideas and not on story at all, and I hate unnecessarily turgid language, like, a lot. But I also know how easy it is to hate, and how destructive it is—and how ready people are to applaud especially famous writers who publicly hate on other writers, or other books.
In that case, tell me more about the “sitting comfortably in a camp” stance.
Here’s what I’ll say about camps and why I think they’re dumb. For example, if you’re like “I’m an experimentalist or a post-modernist and I don’t care about the audience being comfy” or “I don’t care about commercial fiction—I’m just doing something sooooo groundbreaking and I’m a goddamned genius,” OK—but why do you sound and look exactly like every other dude who graduated with an MFA? How is this an experiment? And if you don’t care about your audience at all, why aren’t you just journaling—for you?
On the other hand, there are the folks who are like “I’m about ACTION and audience reaction and commercial fiction,” and great—you might just make that sweet sweet money. But God, your books are vapid, and forward all kinds of bigotry that fuels the thing in the world that makes my life personally hard. Is it really that difficult to challenge yourself and your audience a little?
I think the most beautiful work is like an orchestra: every section plays its part, though of course every orchestra is stronger in some areas. Language matters—but if only language matters because language matters, then you’re acting like language isn’t a tool that evolved to communicate, and you’re an idiot.
On the other hand, great splosions dude, now how about a character that can move me?
Structure matters and language matters and characterization matters—and it all works together to do this thing called writing a book. Literary writers can hate on George R. R. Martin if they want—but dude is actually not that interested in structure or plot, he’s interested in character. That’s what brings people back—and that’s not easy—great characterization is one of the markers of what I would call literary fiction.
There are plenty of literary writers hiding behind the word “experimental” that, you know, just can’t write dialogue. Because it’s actually really hard. And as far as commercial folks who know how to push buttons—well, cool, but if you can immediately forget about a book once you close it, what the hell was that for, anyway?
Do you think these preferences have altered your reading practices, generally?
When I was young, I only read horror, fantasy and later, science fiction. I remember a white relative of mine tried to hand me a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird and all I could think was, where are the dragons? But that was great, because it allowed me to transcend my reality.
Years later, I’ve come back to those genres—especially science fiction. But [these genres] also blinded me to what language’s function was in literature. The beauty of the language in most of those books was to allow a kind of invisible door into another world, and the more invisible that door was, the stronger the portal. When I got to college and began majoring in English, I was asked to stop and look at a sentence and see the beauty of that sentence, and it hit me, hard. But it was difficult for me, considering my background, to then make the leap into seeing what was genuinely experimental and genuinely challenging, and seeing how that mattered.
Do you think your preferences have affected your writing?
God, yes. I wanted to be all about story—I still do! And I’m still struggling. I’m about to take a course on structure, and I’ve resorted to reading Save the Cat—partly because I’m writing screenplays but also because, as usual, I really need a model if I’m to deviate.
That’s just sensible. Picasso and all that.
I’ve been reinventing the wheel, and I should’ve just bought a bunch of “how to write a novel” books on Amazon for a buck and figured out how the most commercial writers do structure and then how I would. I think, again, the problem is that I see a real divide between commercial and literary writers—and it’s a false divide that isn’t adding to the art.
I think that I’ve learned a lot about structure over the years, and I have some good stuff to say about it—and my novels have eventually gotten there because I’ve just beaten my head against them for years until the structure became clear. But the novel I just finished, I charted out, at least loosely—because I realized that the magic happens in the in-between.
All of that said, I started to think, years ago, about what a genuinely experimental or post-modern book might look like for me. And that’s how I wrote my collection of stories about Indians in the Native film world, Buckskin Cocaine. I borrow from poetic technique a lot, in order to get at the inner life of the characters—and that worked for me, and that was absolutely an experimental book—one that I thought I’d never, ever write.
Do you keep books or give them away?
I pretty much keep all of them. But I’ve decided that buying more bookshelves is a madness, and so now I mainly do what I do with music. Vinyl for the music I adore, Spotify for stuff I’m just listening to. Hardback for the books I adore, Nook/ebook for the books I’m just reading.
Have you ever physically thrown a book across a room?
I did! I was twelve and my grandfather had just died and my mother was at his funeral in Texas and I was staying with a family friend. I was reading IT, by Stephen King, and one of the scenes scared me so much I threw it. It didn’t help that I was alone in a little room at the top of the house. I’ll tell you this though, I went and picked it up, and finished it.
What are you reading right now, and do you like it or hate it?
I’m reading Tiffany Quay Tyson’s The Past is Never. It’s a perfect book. Beautiful language. Complex, compelling characters—pristine structure—like a chapel—and not in any typical way. There’s this lovely progression forward, but there are chapters that move backwards in a way that gives the main story context and meaning. I really, really admire it. It does the kind of thing that Revolutionary Road did—just amazing on every level.
I’m about to teach Alex Weinstein’s Children of the New World in my advanced fiction class. That book’s a brilliant example of being science fiction and literary (now they’re calling that “speculative”), and having a compelling theme, and complex characters and great language, and concept—and he cares about story and structure. It goes to show you that you really can have it all if you do the work.