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edge staff writer


Talking process, pathos and more with Morgan Talty

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I love talking to writers. Learning about their inspirations, their histories … it’s all a delight.

I particularly enjoy speaking to writers about their debuts. Authors whose first books are about to be thrust into the spotlight. Their darlings – the surviving ones, at any rate – set loose into the world, no longer under the control of their creator.

And if that author is a Mainer, well … so much the better.

Morgan Talty, whose debut book “Night of the Living Rez” has just hit shelves, covers all those bases. Talty, a member of the Penobscot Nation, grew up in the area and lives here still. His memories and experiences from that time largely inform the (exceptional) stories that make up his newly published collection.

(Note: You can read my full review of "Night of the Living Rez" here.)

Mr. Talty was kind enough to speak to me recently about his new book. In a wide-ranging conversation, we discussed the book, his writing process and how these stories pull from both his lived experience and the depths of his imagination.

“Night of the Living Rez” is a collection of short stories. While it wasn’t necessarily the intent as the pieces were being written, it’s tough to deny that the connective tissue between them is extremely strong. The tales largely center around David, a young Penobscot, at different times during his childhood and adolescence, though that character continuity was a bit of a surprise for Talty.

“I had something like 15 or 16 of these David stories, but some of them weren’t very good,” Talty said. “As I wrote some other stories, I was using ‘D’ as a sort of placeholder for a character name. At first, I thought maybe I’d just keep it as is – call him Dee. But then, it clicked that perhaps D was an older version of David. That helped to solidify the arc of the stories, moving back and forth in time in this one person’s life.

“The intent was always for this to be a collection of stories,” he continued, “but as I put them together, the connections became more apparent.”

As you might expect, there are similarities between David and Talty – both spent formative years growing up on the Penobscot Reservation – but while there are undeniably autobiographical elements to these stories, we’re not exactly talking about autofiction here.

“It’s a mix of nonfiction and fiction,” said Talty. “A lot of these stories, these details, were pulled from my own life or stories that I heard, but others were constructed. I wanted to strike that balance; even the nonfiction details operated within the construct of fiction.”

So where does the inspiration come from? Talty has pulled moments from his own experience, of course, as well as from stories he has heard. But what about the moments crafted from his imagination? From where do those details spring? As an answer, he simply shared with me an example.

“We were driving down I95 southbound, just past the Hogan Road exit, right where you can first sort of see the mountains, and I saw this fog,” he said. “I opened up the Notes app and wrote it down. Details can be found anywhere at any time.”

Now, it might come as a surprise to anyone who sits down and reads “Night of the Living Rez” – it’s an outstanding collection – but Talty confesses that he wasn’t always someone who expected to live a life in letters.

“I think I’ve always been a storyteller,” he said. “I had always loved telling stories, but hadn’t really considered what might come from writing them down.

“I didn’t really care for reading or writing much when I was in school,” he continued a chuckle. “Honestly, it wasn’t until I got to college that I started even considering the possibility of being a writer. I went to EMCC for two years and had a couple of very encouraging teachers there. From there, I went to Dartmouth and received even more encouragement there. I never really considered the realities of being a writer – I just decided to jump in and try to do it.”

And do it he did, penning numerous short stories that would eventually become the foundation of this new book. But while some writers are notoriously rigid in their processes, Talty’s tendencies are more toward fluidity, albeit with consistency.

“I set time to write every day. Sometimes it’s in the morning, sometimes it’s in the evening after work, but when I’m working on something, I work on it until it’s done. Sometimes, I’ll work on something for three months straight, just about every day, and then I’ll spend the next stretch working sporadically.”

I also asked about whether there were any issues in switching from teaching writing – Talty teaches as part of the Stonecoast MFA program, the low-residency creative writing master’s program attached to the University of Southern Maine – to working on his own craft. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Talty has little trouble drawing a distinction.

“Teaching writing and writing myself are actually pretty different,” he said. “It might sound counterintuitive, but one hasn’t really impacted the other, at least in my experience.”

One of the many wonderful aspects of “Night of the Living Rez” is the humor. Despite the fact that these stories are marked with stretches of sadness and tragedy, they are also surprisingly, almost jarringly funny in spots. Those moments beautifully color the sadness that surrounds them, resulting in both feelings resonating longer and more deeply. So how do you find that levity?

“I’ve always considered myself to have sort of a sick sense of humor,” Talty said. “So when things got dark in some of these stories, I thought about ways to find that humor. Of course, when you’re writing, trying to be funny is one of the best ways to ensure that you aren’t. There are some writers who are great at it, but they’re pretty rare. So you can’t push too hard, but you also need those moments to create a more rounded experience, both within the context of the story and for the reader.”

(Note: Talty is extremely successful at this.)

As I said, I love talking to writers. I love talking to debut authors. And I love talking to Mainers making good on the larger stage. Morgan Talty is all of those things and more. He is a tremendously gifted writer, thoughtful and thought-provoking. He is also one hell of a great interview.

“Night of the Living Rez” is Morgan Talty’s first book, but I’d bet good money that it won’t be his last.

Last modified on Wednesday, 06 July 2022 15:02


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