Transcript: Rebecca Roanhorse and Finn Murphy

This is a transcript of Recommended Season 2 Episode 4.

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JENN:

This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. In today’s episode, Rebecca Roanhorse picked Buckskin Cocaine by Erika Wurth, and Finn Murphy picked 1984 by George Orwell.

JENN:

Up first is Rebecca Roanhorse. She is a speculative fiction writer and Nebula, Hugo, and Sturgeon Award Finalist. She is also a 2017 Campbell Award Finalist for Best New Science Fiction and Fantasy writer. Her novel Trail of Lightning is the first book in the Sixth World series, followed by Storm of Locusts in 2019. She lives in northern New Mexico with her husband, daughter, and pug.

REBECCA ROANHORSE:

I’m gonna talk about Buckskin Cocaine by Erika Wurth.

So this book is about, um, the Native American up-and-coming film scene in Santa Fe. So it’s sort of this cast of characters, um, all of them sort of striving in some way to make their name in, in the film industry. And they’re all Native American.

It’s just about a hundred pages … a hundred pages, so it’s really a novella. Uh, and it’s not linear. It’s just a series of sort of, uh, vignettes or uh, sort of character studies, uh picking from like this group of people that are all part of this, this, film community.

Of course they’re all pretty self-obsessed. They’re in the film industry so that’s not surprising. So you have like directors, models, dancers. You even have like wannabes and hangers on, you know, things like that. And they’re all trying to make their name or you know, get someone’s attention or just sort of the way that they interact with each other, um, really reveals like a lot about their character and of course, about, you know, how they feel about themselves and about all the people around them.

This is the awesome thing about the book and this is what you don’t get to see a lot. ‘Cause this is contemporary. This is now.

I know so many of the places in this book that Erika talks about. I know the Hotel Santa Fe where they all hang out. I know that the Evangelo’s the bar where they all end up. IAIA, the school that, you know, a lot of them come in and out of, the Indian arts school here. And so they’re all sort of in town.
The majority of the book takes place when they’re all in town for this, um, the Red Stick Film Festival.

And so this is- this is so familiar to me and of course all the characters are fictional-… but like they’re so real and, and I’m like, “Oh I know that guy.” And you know, maybe I don’t know specifically that guy but I know his type-

And I think I sat next to him, you know, at a screening. Or you know, I’m sorta tangentially part of that ’cause my husband is an artist too in the Native arts scene, so I’m familiar with a lot of these people and the way that Wurth captures them just seems so true and like so real that … and it’s nice because these are not Native American characters that you get to see a lot.

So you normally what you see in like literature is a) it’s you know in the 1800s which is (clears throat) depressing (laughs). But um, and b), you know, they’re- they’re usually on the reservation and it’s sorta this tragic tale of you know, poverty or you know, whatever their story is. But all these characters are pretty middle class. They might have grown up on the reservation, uh, but they’ve- clearly they’ve moved you now past that. Well in a certain sense. Certainly they’re haunted, you know, by what it is they grew up with and what they’ve experienced. But you also have a character who grew up in Denver, you know, and becomes a ballerina in, uh, Paris.

A lot of the characters sort of struggle with what it means to be traditional in the Native sense. So you know, knowing your language, knowing your people, you know, sort of rejecting these sort of Western ideals of what it is to live.

And then also wanting to be part of the film industry. Wanting to succeed and to try to divorce themselves from that Native narrative of poverty and reservation life. And as she says, you know, feathers and buckskin.
some of them want to put that away and then some of them want to capitalize on that. So all the characters are complicated (clears throat). There’s no right or wrong sort of clear issues for them. They’re all sort of struggling through trying to make the best of their lives as they can.
And a lot of them fail. Like, it’s a pretty dark book.

I think my favorite character’s probably Olivia James. You know that’s the ballerina, um, and she grows up in Denver. A single dad, uh, raised by a single dad who is a janitor in a hospital and she grows up dancing sort of traditional dancing, Pow Wow dancing, that sort of thing and then when she’s six, she discovers ballet. And she absolutely falls in love with it. And what she really loves about it, I think, is the rigor, you know the demands of it. And that not everyone can do it. She can do it and she can conquer it. She can force her body, she can force her will into these, um, into this thing that makes her better than everyone else.

She wants to escape, uh, the confines of the sort of Native identity that she feels like she’s gonna get pushed into. And she sees all the girls around her sorta getting, uh, pregnant when they’re young and being stuck and never going anywhere. And she doesn’t want that. She wants the world, right?
And so she sees ballet also as her way out of that. But what she sacrifices for that, like what she’s willing to give up is tragic. And I think her story, while you know (groan), identify with a lot of like what she says, her story really speaks to me on a personal level.

But it’s also brutal you know, and so there’s a whole passage where she’s had this falling out with her older lover and he’s accusing her of, you know, these monstrous things and, and she’s you know thinking to herself, you know, “Maybe I am monstrous.” You know, or not even a maybe, “I am,” you know. And she says things like, you know, “I feel like (clears throat) … it feels like I’m something evil. Like something that has emerged out of a cave and I’m living off my own pain and anger and I don’t even care.” You know, she’s so … (clears throat) and she sort of comes back to that and she says, ” You know, I’m something born with out a mother.”

And where that will lead her and what she will be willing, you know, to sacrifice for that or how that set her adrift in the world. And so I love that character. I think that character is fascinating.

I don’t wanna tell you how her story ends. You’ll have to read it and find out.

Erika Wurth writes, uh, in this sort of free form, non-linear, you know, style at least for this book and, and I think that adds, like it just makes the characters open up in a way that is just fascinating to me. Like how much she can get out of the characters in so few words really ’cause it’s only … the book is about a hundred pages long. I mean the form really works for this, you know? It really works for her and she really works the form.

She has another character, uh, named Candy (laughs) fittingly enough who is, you know, in her whole sort of … she’s an actress, uh, a model, she lives in New York, she’s in her early 20s, which she says over and over again as sort of her mantra to herself to justify the sort of vapid horror of her life.
And um, and I think, you know, she makes a great contrast to the Olivia James ballerina character in that Olivia seems very conscious of the choices she’s making. Whereas Candy just seems to be, you know, sort of barreling through this sort of life that’s, that’s on the surface you know, looks beautiful and she talks about how- how there’s these gorgeous photos of her all over the Internet. You know, that sort of thing and that’s supposed to add meaning to her life. And she keeps telling herself, “This is meaning. This is meaning. This is meaning. Look, this is me and I have meaning.” But clearly, you know, she has no meaning (laughing) unfortunately, you know. I mean that’s not the way … she doesn’t inherently have no meaning but she’s not going to find her meaning in- in the way that she thinks she is.

She doesn’t give you easy people to love.

She gives you these difficult, complicated people and there’s no, uh, noble savages. There’s no, uh, sort of single-tiered, you know, Indians looking at the environment. Like, there’s not of that. You know, this- this is the life. This- these are the people that I know.

When you say Native American, these are the people I knew there. And so that’s refreshing.

JENN:

Thanks again to Rebecca Roanhorse for joining us and recommending Buckskin Cocaine by Erika Wurth. Her novel Trail of Lightning, published by Saga Press, will be available on June 26, and you can preorder it now. You can follow her on twitter at RoanhorseBex.

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JENN:

Our next guest is Finn Murphy, author of The Long Haul. More than thirty years ago, Finn Murphy dropped out of college to become a long-haul trucker. Since then he’s covered more than a million miles packing, loading, and hauling people’s belongings all over America. In The Long Haul, Murphy offers a trucker’s-eye view of America on the move.

FINN MURPHY:

I picked 1984 by George Orwell. I read it as a freshman in high school.

I grew up in a very structured Irish Catholic household. And, I have seven brothers and sisters, and I went to parochial schools, and I was, my whole life was very, very regimented. And, I was always sort of confused about the… why people you know … why regimentation was so attractive to authorities, and what they were trying to do. In the case of my family … I mean, it was … it was practical in terms of getting eight children, you know, dressed and off to school. I could understand that part, but then, uh, going to school and just seeing these arbitrary rules and things. It’s always sort of in the back of my mind. There was always something, something not connecting about it.

And when I read 1984 I found it wa- it … I mean one of the things I love about the book is its- its accessibility to sophisticated ideas about freedom, the individual in society and it just it put up this big light in the back of my head oh that’s why.

Basically, um, large organizations- authoritarian organizations, um, the trick is to subsume the individual, in favor of some collective greater good, and that might be in many cases there is a collective greater good, but in many cases people are … authoritarians are looking towards a goal that has nothing to do with my welfare or the welfare of society but the welfare of the state or the… in the case of 1984 the party and the permanent power of the party and the tools that they used to gain control, maintain control is perfectly done in this book and not only is it but its not only just about totalitarian ideas its also a great story a great plot and its a wonderful love story.

One of my pet peeves about this book being assigned when you’re fourteen years old, there’s nothing wrong with it being assigned in high school. Um, for me its a book, I re-read this book, I mean its on my nightstand all the time I just re-read it again I read it every year, um, I think its a book that everybody should read at least twice. Once when you’re fourteen and then when you’re an adult because you’ll get like any great novel you’re gonna pull different things depending on where you are in your own life stage

There’s two major themes that stick out for me its how the state affects the individual and how the state uses or and or how the state uses the individual to subsume individuality on the on the one head and then the other one is why the state or in this case the party in 1984, what’s the motive for keeping the heel on the throat of an entire population, and he goes into motive, and he talks about we just want power for its own sake and we want power to make people suffer and to keep things take things away from you and keep them away from you. We’re not pretending that this is going to be some sort of collective utopia where everyone is going to be happy we don’t care we really want you to suffer and bad ideas like that attract bad people.

And here’s how I would explain it or I see here here’s how I learned it from 1984 is that if you look at the radical left, horizontal plane and then the radical right is the far side of the that the other end of the horizontal plane I think what Orwell is trying to explain to us is that this is not a horizontal line this is actually a circle and at the bottom of the circle you’re um your radical leftist is going to be a complete collectivist and at the far right your radical rightist is going to be a nationalist and regardless of whatever collectivism nationalism whatever kind of term you wanna use where you end up in the bottom of that circle is a totalitarian state.

That’s why its so dangerous, and when is the moment where you’re supposed to dig in your heels with as you- as you- as you just said. You know, for me as a radical individualist, everyday, you dig in your heels. But when do you know- you know when is it that- that’s just as a person, as an indi- as a- as a person. You know, when do you dig in your heels and say you know to your society, and become an activist, and say wait a minute this is enough of this stuff.

Because the- cuz the creep- and and when do you recognize and I think this is your question, when do you recognize that its gone too far? You know there were plenty of Jews in 1933 that left Germany when you could leave…

… and then there were plenty that left in 1938, when it was hard to leave, and then, you know, we all know what happened…

So we we enter the book in wi- int- in the situation where the state is already completely established. And there was no hope for Winston. Even Winston knew when he started his diary in the very beginning of the book…

He knew that it was never gonna be read by anybody and he knew he was gonna be caught by the thought police and he knew he was gonna be tortured. He didn’t know that he would eventually betray Julia because he didn’t understand you know he’s so Winston’s really you know he’s in every man, he’s just a, he’s a government bureaucrat he’s he’s not nothing special except that he actually believed in objective reality and remembered things and thought two and two equaled four. I don’t believe that there was any hope for that. And if Orwell had lived and this- heres and idea. What would be a great book is to write a book about how that state got itself established.

It st- it it still totally scares me and um I mean part of it is ya know I like to prophetized about about this book cause I want everyone to read it and to understand it because because it doesn’t have the Hollywood ending because this actually can happen and in many places has happened and in some places is still happening

There’s some basic epistemological points here that we need to keep in mind…myself, the individual reigns supreme, objective reality exists, and you know essentially if you accept the fact that I have a right to live or to exist then by implication you have a right to exist. Everything that’s good that comes out of society, if you keep that in mind then it all follows, but if you take that away, there’s, you’ve already started down the slippery slope.

I think what he would be surprised is that the march of totalitarianism actually that wave is sort of receding. Or lets not cause actually I don’t believe that its receding I think it hasn’t gained the traction that I think he might have expected and I think that’s very hopeful for all of us and that’s why I tell everybody you need to read this book because be prepared and practice freedom everyday.

JENN:

Thanks again to Finn Murphy for joining us and recommending 1984 by George Orwell. His memoir The Long Haul, published by WW Norton, will be available in paperback on June 5. You can find him online at finnmurphy.net.

JENN:
Next week on Recommended, one author talks about how directing a Shakespeare play inspired her writing career.

UNNAMED AUTHOR:

It allowed me to finally make the connection that I’ve loved classics since I was a child. I loved writing since I was a child, maybe I should work with the myths creatively. It led directly, working with Shakespeare’s version of the myths led me directly into my writing career.

JENN:

Thanks again to our sponsors for making today’s episode possible. If you like what you heard, please take a moment to review and rate us on Apple Podcasts. We love to hear your feedback and it helps other folks to find the show. You can find shownotes at Bookriot.com/recommended, and you can email us at recommended@bookriot.com.