Monday, October 25, 2021

Margaret Verble

Margaret Verble is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and a member of a large Cherokee family that has, through generations, made many contributions to the tribe’s history and survival. Although many of her family have remained in Oklahoma to this day, and some still own and farm the land on which her books are set, Verble was raised in Nashville, Tennessee, and currently lives in Lexington, Kentucky.

Verble's first novel, Maud's Line, was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016. Her second novel, Cherokee America, was listed by the New York Times as one of the 100 Notable Books of the Year for 2019 and won the Spur Award for Best Western. It is set in 1875 in the Arkansas River bottoms of the old Cherokee Nation West and is a prequel to Maud's Line. The books are linked both by their setting and by four characters who are young in Cherokee America and elders in Maud's Line.

Verble's new book, When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky, is set in 1926 in the old Nashville Glendale Park Zoo.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I think the title is fairly apt. It alludes to a major plot point and bounces off the introductory chapter which tells the reader when in time the story is placed. I can’t take credit for the title. My editor, Nicole Angeloro, came up with it and it took some thought.

What's in a name?

I named my title character Two Feathers because I found a horse-diver who used that name had actually worked at the Glendale Park Zoo, where the story is set. I don’t know much about that woman except that she worked there for more than one season and was a featured, highly-touted act. I suspect in real life she was white because whites were always dressing up like Indians to make themselves more exciting and exotic.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

I don’t think my teenage self would be surprised at all by this novel. She’d probably say, “What took you so long?” I was raised on the grounds of the old park zoo where the novel is set. I can’t remember not knowing about it, and it captured the imagination of every child raised in my neighborhood.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I don’t think I can truthfully make a generalization about that. I think the critical point in any work of literary fiction is about 80% of the way in. Writers who don’t write from a formula let the characters drive the narrative, but at some point that narrative has to turn toward an ending. The last 20% of the tale is wrapping it all up, not necessarily neatly, but in some way. A lot of novels fail right there. You have to get that right and it can be tricky.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters?

Not necessarily. Or I should say probably not as much as some of my readers do. No one has ever confused me with Check Singer, the protagonist of Cherokee America. But I’ve had the rather discombobulating experience of people assuming I’m a lot like Maud Nail. Since I have grandchildren and Maud is eighteen I’ve found that rather odd. But a good thing, I guess. Anyway, the female protagonists of all of my novels are rather take-charge kind of women. And it’s true I’m like that. And all three of them are good with a gun and I used to be a fairly good shot. But I don’t shoot much anymore and I don’t feel the need to be in charge of much other than my own life. So these characters come out of me but aren’t me.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Certainly, the greatest influence on my writing was the fact that I grew up watching a treaty being broken. When I was young, in Oklahoma the Army Corp of Engineers was stealing the Arkansas River bed from the Cherokees in trucks carrying valuable sand and gravel right down the very section line I portray in Maud’s Line. It was an outrageous theft that went on for several years and it infuriated me. Those trucks ran me to the side of the road more than once and I had to watch the old Indians in my family stomach that theft when I knew they had been stolen from again and again.

Another influence that pertains directly to When Two Feathers Fell From the Sky is the fact that my mother was a fourth grade teacher and the fourth grade was where children in Nashville were first introduced to its history. Which, believe me, consisted of a lot of stories of murderous Indians – who were Cherokees – attacking poor innocent white people for no apparent reason. That, too, infuriated me, both on my own behalf and on my mother’s, who had to teach that nonsense year after year. She never said anything about that, but that’s how everybody handled that kind of history then. They just kept their mouths shut. Fortunately, times have changed.
Visit Margaret Verble's website.

My Book, The Movie: Maud's Line.

Writers Read: Margaret Verble (March 2019).

The Page 69 Test: When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky.

--Marshal Zeringue