November 13, 2012
by Paulette Beete
Debra Magpie Earling. Photo courtesy of Ms. Earling
“Art in all of its manifestations is engagement with others. I love to grab someone’s hand and say, here it is—the story.” — Debra Magpie Earling
A native of Spokane, Washington, novelist and short story writer Debra Magpie Earling has garnered numerous awards for her work, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a 2006 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Earling’s first novel Perma Red is the stuff of legend—rewritten multiple times over more than a decade, lost in a fire, and rejected countless times before finding a home at BlueHen Books. But if there’s one thing Earling has in abundance—it’s perseverance. And it’s that perserverance and unmatched talent that have propelled her from her days as a high school dropout to today when she holds two masters degrees, is on faculty at the University of Montana at Missoula, and has been widely published in anthologies and literary journals. Earling took some time out from a writing residency to speak with us via e-mail about the writer’s life, about the place of survival in the creation of literature, and about meeting Joseph Brodsky in her first outing as a professional writer.
NEA: What’s your version of the artist’s life?
DEBRA MAGPIE EARLING: I don’t believe anyone has ever asked me about my version of the artist’s life. I am going to shirk under the label “artist” and answer, hopefully, as a writer. In some capacity or other writing for me is visiting with the angels and occupying for brief and glorious moments a spirit world. I don’t feel embarrassed to say this to another person face-to-face but transferring my thoughts to the page adheres them to scrutiny. And scrutiny by nature is inquiry—and to say my version of the writer’s life is a communion with spirit sounds, well, silly and grandiose. Writing is a place I go to, a life different from this life—and my life—yet it bears the shimmering edge of reality. It is also a very dark place where I need an angel that will attend me.
But writing to me is both a public and private practice. I talk what I am writing… sometimes endlessly. I love the social aspect of writing. Art in all of its manifestations is engagement with others. I love to grab someone’s hand and say, here it is—the story. It’s a physical thing, story. It’s a vehicle. We’re going to lift off. Listen.
NEA: What do you remember as your first engagement with or experience of the arts?
EARLING: Seal Press published my first story in an anthology called Gathering Ground: New Art and Writing by Northwest Women of Color. And then they asked me to give a reading and I thought it was funny. Who was I to give a reading? (I still feel this way.) I was to read at the Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle in a theater that had stage monitors and they put me in a room that had been Lily Tomlin’s dressing room the week before. I was snapping on and off the dressing room lights and camping it up. I couldn’t get over the idea that I was in a dressing room at all, let alone, a dressing room that had been occupied by a star. I was far from the other women in the anthology who were also reading—so far that I missed my stage call. I still believe they’d made some kind of mistake. When the director finally came for me he was frantic. He said, “Jesus, where were you?” He looked at me like I’d have an answer. Then he sort of swiped his hand in the air in dismissal and sighed. “Well,” he said, “I guess you’ll have to go on before Mr. Brodsky. I was too dumb to know who Joseph Brodsky was then but as I stood in the wings I was introduced to him. He was a big man who smelled like good cigar smoke and whiskey. I read my little piece and as I was leaving the stage I turned to see him enter. I knew something about him was remarkable. It wasn’t his introduction. I couldn’t hear it. There was a scatter of light, a humming in the soles of my feet. Something in me recognized that he was grand and eternal. I understood that I was in the presence of greatness.
NEA: What was your journey to becoming a creative writer?
EARLING: High school dropout. Married to an abusive alcoholic at 17. Divorced at 21. Then moved back in with ex. Had teeth rattled. Told I was stupid. Was knocked down. Bleeding. Knocked down before work. After work. Knocked unconscious. Busgirl. Black eye. Stupid. Waitress. Lip split. Shot at. Worked as housekeeper with my mother. Beaten again. Heard the endless refrain—you don’t want this life you don’t want this life this life this life from my mother and all the other housekeepers. Go to school. Get outa this. Ex-husband in and out of rehab. Told I was stupid because I was Indian. At 27 ex-husband took his life by jumping off a bridge. Felt sorry for myself. Cried around. Felt sorrier. And then I realized the path to writing wasn’t about suffering at all. It is about joy and celebration. It is about survival. I held on. Clung to the stories my mother told me. Began to understand her stories and the stories of my tribe were significant. They helped me to keep on living. Went to school. Got an education. Learned some more. Came to understand in my bones that Isak Dinesen spoke the truth when she said, “All suffering is bearable if it is seen as part of a story.”
NEA: What does it mean to be Native American writer? A woman writer? An American writer?
EARLING: It means everything to me. Everything.
NEA: In 2006 you received a Creative Writing fellowship from the NEA. What impact did that funding have on your arts practice and on life in general?
EARLING:I cannot express to you how great an impact the NEA Creative Writing fellowship has had on me, just what it has meant to me, and how the award gave me time to consider the direction of my writing life and time to write in peace. Recognition…recognition as a writer but something more important… I had my country’s support as a writer. I’d received some other awards for my writing before that time—many really, and I hope that doesn’t sound big-headed. Ok, I sound like a braggart but the fellowship gave me so much more than money. It is such a competitive award that it backed me up as a writer and made it possible for me to stay in the academy. A colleague in a position of power told me before I received the fellowship that I had only gotten writing awards because I was Indian. She said this with an odd sympathetic smile on her face because she actually believed what she was saying. She said I shouldn’t travel so much, be easier on myself. She had to inform me—because, well, perhaps in her eyes and in the eyes of some of my other colleagues, I was too stupid to know that no one else was taking me seriously. Really, she was saying this to me as if to be kind as if she was simply saying really don’t wear yourself out. I do know we all get recognition partly from our unique perspective on the world. I understand that. But receiving the NEA fellowship made me believe in myself. It is a national endowment and it makes a difference.
NEA: If you could work in another art form, what would it be and why?
EARLING: This question stopped me in my tracks and made me once again face the perennial question—what is art? I think a figure skater is an artist. I would like to be a figure skater. But music comes to me at times, snippets, whole songs, endless loops of music and if I had the time to work in another art form I would secretly tap out notes and make noise.
NEA: Any advice for emerging writers?
EARLING: Never give up. Believe. Be fearless. Jump into the muse. Don’t fuss until later. Hear the stories within you and believe they have power. Don’t don’t don’t DON’T EVER be cynical. It’s too easy. It’s TOO easy to be cynical. Keep trusting. Fight bitterness. Just because a work makes you feel something don’t dismiss it as sentimental. Open up your inner eye. Believe in the miraculous and beautiful. Overcome the darkness by lighting the torch to see. Don’t censor yourself. Look at the difficult stories. Be tough. Be courageous. Be sentimental. Be ruthlessly big-hearted. See yourself as part of a larger community that was here before you and hopefully will be here after you leave. Know that you are a steward of stories. Don’t whine. Give back. Buy books. Buy hardback books. Support the arts.
NEA: What do you think is the role of the artist in the community? Conversely, what is the responsibility of the community to the artist?
EARLING: The late great poet Nelson Bentley used to tell me that poets illuminated the world—they held the light up so others could see. I want to hold the light up for others. I want to inspire and give back to the world. I know it sounds naïve but it’s an ideal I strive to emulate.
No community exists without art. And I will say this again: no community exists without art. I don’t know a community that doesn’t have its storytellers. Art is perception as well as action. Artists create beauty—art in creation is the purest form of energy. It fuels the world. Wherever art begins to spin wealth is created. I am always astonished when a presidential candidate wants to cut funding for the arts, when states wish to cut out art budgets, or when a school principal wants to cut programs in art. Art makes us sane, gives us peace, sparks smart debate. And art creates community. Show me a neighborhood that attracts money and wealthy patrons and I’ll show you an artist community. (And then the artists have to move out of the community they’ve created because they can no longer afford it. The wealthy have taken over.) Art entertains as well as inspires. I used to frequent a café in Polson, Montana, and I would hear this small kaffe klutch of men talk about funding cuts—cut music, cut the arts, cut any kind of social program, and then they would go on to talk about their favorite television shows. I’m not making this up.
NEA: Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington once said: “I try to know as many of the things that are missing from our world of music as I possibly can….I try to put the thrust of my time into realizing those things that aren’t yet part of our work but should be.” With that in mind, what’s not yet part of the work of today’s writers but should be?
EARLING: I don’t know if David Harrington comes from money or has made a lot of money or if he has a wonderful patron who has bestowed a lot of money on him but I think what’s missing from the world of writing is money—money to write, money to spend the time to find out the “things our work should be.” And freedom from fear—the fear that the money for publishing and bookstores will dry up. I would love to have the luxury of using the thrust of my time to make the money to fund the programs that would allow for more people to have the gift of time to write. Maybe part of the work of today’s writers should be figuring out a way to give back, a way to allow for all the voices that don’t get heard to be heard.
NEA: At the NEA, we say “Art Works,” referring to the work of art itself, the way art works to transform people, and the fact that artists are workers. What does “Art works” mean to you?
EARLING: Art works to grace our lives. Art works to give us vision. Art works to chase away chaos and terror, to make us angry, to make us awestruck, to illuminate the world, to light up great temples and cathedrals and back displays in classrooms, and to go above our couch. Art works so that others can go on. Art works to dance when we can no longer dance. Art works to inspire us when we are broken-hearted. Art works to lift our nation up from despair—for where would we have been without music and poetry when the planes struck the World Trade Center? Art works to lift the torch to dispel the darkness. Art works.