When I caught up with novelist Tommy Orange recently, he was in the middle of a run. He had just moved into a house in the Sierra Foothills and was still getting acclimated to the running trails.
“I average six miles a day,” Orange said. “I might drop it four or jump it to eight or 10, depending on how crazy I’m feeling. It’s steadily become a required daily thing over the years.”
A long run helps Orange deal with the pressure of being a bestselling novelist. After the breakout success of “There There,” his 2018 debut novel about the urban Native American experience in Oakland, he was suddenly in demand.
Running is also part of Orange’s writing process. “It does double work,” Orange said of his daily miles. During his runs, Orange works through problems in his writing and generates new ideas, including his current project, a sequel to “There There.”
“The sequel started coming to me the March before the publication of ‘There There’ [in June],” Orange said. “It came pretty organically. I wasn’t thinking I should write another one because this one did well. I was fully ready for ‘There There’ to bomb. … Since the sequel came on its own and came from a very similar place that the first one came from, I just kept following it.”
“There There” not only didn’t bomb, it landed on bestseller lists and racked up numerous awards, including the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2019 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.
But success didn’t come overnight. The 37-year-old enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma graduated from the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Accolades starting coming in 2014 when he was named a MacDowell Fellow, and a Writing by Writers Fellow in 2016.
When he’s not working on his new novel, Orange said he’s writing pieces for magazines and journals that he characterized as “dream publications.” He recently wrote a profile of the average Native American teen for Esquire magazine and has had short stories published in McSweeney’s, Zoetrope, and Zyzzyva — three literary magazines based in the Bay Area.
These were the magazines Tommy read and submitted to while he worked on and off at the Native American Health Center in Oakland. He turned many of his experiences there into material for “There There.” Those experiences included a field trip to Alcatraz Island to learn more about the 1969 Alcatraz Occupation, when a group of Native Americans demanded the former prison be redeveloped as a cultural center and school.
“I felt like it was an important event for the area,” Orange said of the Occupation, which celebrated its 50th anniversary on Wednesday. “If I’m going to be writing about native people, it’s a big reason why a lot of people ended up in the area. Families were established at that time and made connections between reservations.”
A lot has changed in the two years since Orange wrote an op-ed for The Times about what the Thanksgiving holiday means to him with the headline: “Thanksgiving is a tradition. It’s also a lie.” The piece sparked critical comments that, in Orange’s words, exposed “the underbelly of the American consciousness.”
“The trajectory of some aspects of fame,” he said, “can be the more exposure you have, the more trolls you end up with. For some reason mine has worked in reverse.”
That’s certainly good news for Orange, but the trolls haven’t completely gone away.
Last month at a One City One Book event at San Francisco’s Main Library, Orange was in conversation with another native writer, San Francisco poet laureate Kim Shuck, when a woman interrupted the discussion to request they talk about Orange’s book.
“Stuff will happen and I’ll try to address it,” Tommy said of the disruption, “usually during the Q&A, but that lady stood up without being prompted. That was the clearest illustration of white privilege you can imagine. That a free event at the library isn’t going the way you want it to, so you stand up in the middle of it.”
Learning how to deal with being the center of attention has been challenging for Orange, who described himself as “painfully shy” and “terrified of public speaking.”
When he was young growing up in Oakland, he and his sister used to hide in the back room during family gatherings to avoid talking to people. Now he speaks at bookstores, high schools and colleges across the country, and his shyness has been a huge hurdle he’s struggled to overcome.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve adjusted,” Orange said, “but I’ve gotten a lot better at not looking nervous, which creates a feedback loop of making you even more nervous than you are.”
The thing Orange is most grateful for is something that hasn’t changed. “The big change that hasn’t happened,” he said, “which I feel really lucky about, is that it hasn’t affected my writing. I’ve been able to continually write,” which he credits to his ability “to write really well in hotel rooms.”
Although he’s been able to make the most of his time on the road, he’s had to learn how to be away from his wife, Kateri, and their young son. “That’s been a struggle that I can happily say we’ve moved through together successfully.”
There have been some bumps along the way. When Orange brought his family with him on his book tour in the U.S. and Europe, he got in hot water with his son’s school. “We’re taking him to universities and he’s having crazy experiences that most kids will never be able to experience and they’re treating us like negligent parents. My wife had to meet with police officers, Child Protective Services workers and a judge. They were not understanding about the situation at all.”
Orange said he has come out the other side of the roller-coaster ride of literary fame with a stronger sense of who he is and of what he is capable.
“I feel I’ve emerged from it with a sense of peace,” Orange said. “I’m at peace with everything. That feels really good.”
Ruland lives in San Diego and is writing a book with the L.A. punk rock band Bad Religion.