In Author Dennis E. Staples' Town, Sleeping Dogs Don't Lie
In Dennis E. Staples' remarkable debut, This Town Sleeps, flawed mothers and sons must pacify vengeful ghosts and family curses. As if loving each other wasn't hard enough.
This Town Sleeps
Dennis E. Staples
Marion Lafournier is a listless accountant who is ambivalent about his relationship to his North Minnesotan hometown, and for good reason. Defined by addiction, gang affiliations, corruption, and familial disputes turned deadly, the fictional town of Geshig is a veritable sinkhole. "The first chance I had to move out of Geshig and off the Languille Lake reservation, I took it," Marion says. "I moved to the Twin Cities for college. And then as a few years passed, and after a disastrous relationship or two, I found myself back in Half Lake, and spending a lot of time in my hometown. It pulls me back here like the door at the end of a dream that you don't want to go through, but you can't control your feet" (12).
While Marion wrestles with the inscrutable reasons he's tractor-beamed back time and time again to the town, he gets romantically entangled with Shannon—a good ol' boy enjoying a covert test-drive of a gay lifestyle. Along the way, Marion inadvertently conjures up a restless ghost who may be the canine incarnation of a murdered town favorite, Kayden Kelliher. Through Marion's scramble to pacify this vengeful spirit, Ojibwe author Dennis E. Staples leads readers through a narrative that is a spiderweb glistening with family curses, messy lineages, tortured romances, and flawed mothers and sons grappling with what it means to be Native.
Though manifold in topics, the story is densely compacted into a slim novel, just over 200 pages. With a little effort staying grounded through some dizzying, but arguably necessary POV shifts, a reader will appreciate the complex but satisfyingly entertaining tale of identity differentiation Staples crafts in a winsome style that reads like a contemporary Raymond Carver is recovering from an Edgar Allen Poe binge.
In this candid interview, Staples is more than happy to wake up the dogs that inspire his work, This Town Sleeps.
Multiple family lineages become important over the course of the narrative. How much pre-writing did you do to keep all of them organized?
I did a lot of different notes and family trees. I still have a fair amount of them. One of them is in Microsoft Excel's hierarchy chart. That's how I've done some family trees before. I did have to map out a lot to find different ways that these families could populate on just this one corner of the reservation.
Names are an important tenor of the novel. Like all novelists, you are, by default, a namer of things: characters and fictional places. Did you feel this to be a burden or a gift or both?
A burden sometimes, as I struggled naming certain things. At first, the men's names were one example of how I needed to work harder. In an early draft, all the men's names ended in an "N" (Collin, Jordan, etc.), and early readers were mixing up the characters.
I gave Marion and Shannon distinct names that an average person might interpret as female, but names I've seen commonly as male. Also, John Wayne's actual first name is "Marion", so I figured I'd keep that just for fun.
Last names were a contention for me. I didn't want to use real last names, but I wanted them close enough so that people would get the vibe of a real reservation. But also, I chose French or Swedish-inspired surnames due to the big fur trader influence regionally from the 1750s. I paid attention to this so that the names were diverse enough but not too confusing.
I admire the town's name "Geshig", which ironically means "sky" in Ojibwe and is also the last half of legendary Bugonaygeshig's name, the hero of the Battle of Sugar Point. Tell me about the choice to fictionalize the town. Did the choice to fictionalize Geshig come early? What were the benefits of doing so?
It came early because my preference for fiction has always been fantasy, speculative, and horror. I love exploring new worlds and topics like that. I wanted to fictionalize Cass Lake and Leech Lake in a way that was clearly centered in a real-world place with enough leeway to add in the magic, the spirituality, and the ghosts to show how the world of Geshig works and how fantastical this specific setting can be.
The draw to small-town life competes with various characters' flights to urban getaways. The story's ending gives the indication that the back-and-forth will continue. Is that true for you personally and/or for other Native people you know?
Definitely with the generation before me, it seemed like there was a lot more of a rolling stone lifestyle, such as with a bunch of family members or just one person here or there. There were a lot of people going from this city to that city, moving here or there. I myself didn't do a lot of moving after high school. As a teenager, I had some general angst toward the town, but as I ended high school, that dissipated.
I legitimately enjoy the area and found myself having a good time here. I always wanted to go to Bemidji State University (BSU) because of my connection there with the Upward Bound Program. I lived in Fargo for a couple of months. While I liked it, it wasn't the woods and the water and the smaller setting that I prefer.
You have a rich connection with the Ojibwe language and tribal culture, which is different than your protagonist, Marion. What lead you to writing that difference?
It was an intentional choice. I wanted Marion to reflect people who weren't that connected to the tribe and who didn't have a ceremonial, spiritual, or even linguistic connection. I wanted him to resonate on his own.
You make some exciting choices with point-of-view: Marion narrates first-person POV reliably, but every other chapter, there's a shift. All are inventive. For example, Marion's lover, Shannon's perspective is narrated in the second-person. But a number of other characters are included in the third-person limited POV. What was your process in choosing POVs?
There were a variety of methods I employed.
With the first chapter, I wasn't sure about the perspective. It was very fragmented. I tried an experimental approach to starting the story, which looks nothing like the published first chapter. It wasn't chronological, weaving between history and the present-day characters and situations. But eventually, I settled into the first-person perspective with Marion because I wanted a through-line.
When it came to the other characters, though, I used different POV methods to achieve what I wanted. For example, I narrated Shannon's sections in the second person because it communicated that internally, he was giving himself orders, denying things, and fighting himself.
When it came to some of the other third-person perspectives that I chose, that was more about history. For instance, Chapter 4 "Ogichidaag" ("Warriors:) is narrated in a close third person as just snapshots. Those all began as flash fiction after an attempt at a later chapter that I tried as a police report. In that draft, every other section was an official document related to Kayden's death. But I grew really disinterested in emulating formal police-style writing, choosing only certain bits to reveal what happened. It just wasn't what I was going for. So, in my revisions, I kept all references to Kayden's death from the close perspective of the families entangled in the incident—mainly the mothers of the kids involved.
One of the mothers, Brenda, has a chapter that I wrote while re-reading Mrs. Dalloway, which inspired me to write it in a similar, day-in-the-life-of, modernist framework. The chapter with the least direction was the title chapter, which I wanted to reflect uncanny parts of the town we could never really get to easily. I knew I wanted it to be uncanny, but I didn't know what to do with it for the longest time.
At this time, I was listening to the Stephen Foster song "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" (1854), and so the chapter started with a little girl named Jeanie at a replicated logging camp looking at some very uncomfortable-looking old-style clothing hung on a clothesline. That girl's connection with the other characters came organically, but only after some thought and playing around with different ideas.
One of the final sections is a first-person perspective from another woman closely connected to Kayden. I wrote that chapter fairly early and decided on her connection to Kayden. Once I decided her connection to him—poof—the story went in all different directions from there.
Chapter 7 is one of my favorites. It depicts a naming ceremony in a sweat lodge with comedic absurdity. How did you conceive of this scene? What was your process in approaching it?
It snowballed from small ideas into bigger ones.
When I was going to the Institute for American Indian Arts, there was a controversy around one of my professors using culturally appropriative language, specifically to do with a sweat lodge. Previously, I had read about what an actual sweat lodge would look like, and about some of the misconceptions around them. Like being naked, for instance. So, the idea of writing a scene with a sweat lodge was in my mind. Also, there was a famous case of a "shaman" who killed a number of people by setting up an unprofessional sweat lodge, which he had no business doing. That was on my mind too.
In Chapter 7, the "shaman" Carey's sweat lodge in this scene, rather than being heated by hot rocks, is heated by fire, which inflicts smoke inhalation.
Originally, the sweat lodge scene wasn't even going to be part of the novel. The original concept would have been similar—a bizarre, possibly homoerotic naming ceremony, but the idea didn't have much meat to it. As I was plotting out the rest of This Town Sleeps, I thought maybe a naming ceremony scene could fit, and I could lean more into the supernatural aspects, which start coming out as Marion learns more about his mother's connection to Kayden.
This Town Sleeps is decidedly not a who-done-it. Though the first page depicts a murder, your narrator is clear "there was no mystery about what happened. Everybody knew" (pg 52). Did you ever consider framing the novel as a who-done-it? If so, when did you move away from that?
Early on, yes, I wanted to frame it as a who-done-it with a big reveal. But I got really sick of the idea of a murder mystery.
Part of it was that they kept churning out those Sherlock Holmes movies that no one ever asked for. I was watching Twin Peaks at one point and I admired how Lynch never seemed to want to solve Laura's murder but used it to shoot out into other story arcs. I was upset at first and wondering why I was invested in the show, but by the time it got to the actual revelation, I was SO glad I stuck with it. That was one of the first times I was surprised by a murder mystery.
But as I started to draft out Kayden's murder with that elongated but triumphant, revelatory ending, I realized that murder mysteries have never really been my thing. And so, when the opportunity came in This Town Sleeps to turn it into a murder mystery, I lampshaded the whole murder-mystery genre in the theme of a rumor among children that runs through the book, ultimately turning the story into a kind of anti-murder mystery.
From reading your interview on Debutiful, it sounds like you have some plans for either a sequel or companion novel, which was exciting to hear about for this fan, as I feel like the novel could have been longer. Why did you choose to keep things short?
When I was in school, I had to read eight novels a semester for my grad degree. In my naïveté, I chose a lot of long novels for my first semester and while I was getting overwhelmed with that, I was reading shorter works just because. For instance, I have a copy of Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time. I always keep it handy, so I can look at a style of writing with more brevity. It's not a super exciting book, but it's super grounding: this is what a short story can be, and this is what a book can be.
Also, I remained interested in the novella throughout college—works that, though short, could still pack a punch. "The Barracks Thief" by Tobias Wolff is about a group of soldiers on a base, and though it's a really thin book, I still remember the scenes vividly. A Song for Lya by George R.R. Martin is another example. That was the first time a shorter work of science fiction really ripped at my heartstrings. It's so romantic, forlorn, angsty, but it's also this high concept and not just based in relationships and feelings. That's the kind of stuff I love.
I don't know if there was one moment when I decided how short the work was going to be, but when I got around 40,000 words, I didn't feel I needed to double this. At one point, I wanted to, but ultimately, I decided to tie up loose ends and have a relatively short book so that people didn't feel they had a herculean task to get through reading it.
Boys in Geshig find themselves in the crosshairs of problematic expectations. But matriarchs also find themselves targeted by expectations in the small town. Did this subtonic present itself early on in the drafting process, or did it come out in subsequent revisions?
It flowed pretty naturally when I was writing the chapter, "What Mother's Do". What specifically spurred it on was that when I first tried to write a mother character for Marion, I was shooting blanks. I wanted scenes with Marion's mother to be funny, with some high-stakes drama, but an early reader commented that they hated Hazel (Marion's mother) because she was too much of a bitch and abusive!
So, in revisions, I explored a different angle. In the book, Hazel is unfairly self-critical of her parenting, even though Marion appears relatively unaffected. From there, I wanted to explore how her relationship with her mother might have been. The reason it's less than an ideal one is because I've just seen that so much on the Rez with different people. I think that would go back to my mother, my grandmother, my great grandmother…
Their generations had the boarding school and the changing landscape to deal with, along with the onset of alcoholism that caused so much harm among the families. I wanted to explore those generational mistakes without over exaggerating. So when it comes to the three mothers, there's sort of a model mother, a troubled mother, and an in-between. Each has their own struggles of how to raise children in a landscape that comes with its challenges.
The novel is filled with troubling initiations. Older characters force younger characters into doing age-inappropriate things—like weed, alcohol, sex, and gang involvement. Where did the topic of initiation rites and their toxicity come from?
It goes back to the stories I would hear about gangs while growing up—which were super disturbing to me. For instance, to join a gang, you got to get jumped by all of them. Why would anyone want this? Boxing, I guess can understand. MMA, that's cool. But the ultimatum "you have to submit yourself to us and take pain just for the sake of toughness"—it was all just weird.
The corrupting and disturbing influences of hard drugs make people's behavior even weirder. I wanted a few of the situations to reflect that. Though the initiations are violations, I wanted to show that they are also reasons people give to justify staying involved in gangs.
The other things came about from history. I've heard stories from Native people that they were forced to do this or that. Either by boarding school people or relatives. And it usually had to do with beer. I've heard so many people talk about how it wasn't a conscious choice but just foisted upon them as kids or else they had to turn to it to get through whatever else was going on.
My grandmother had one of these stories…Men I've known too have had awful sexual experiences—sometimes nonconsensual—which have seemed to define them.
An author has to choose what to reveal and when. How do you know when withholding information will be suspenseful or annoying? You've succeeded in the former, by the way.
If I had to describe it, I would say it's somewhat instinctual, but here's where a Freytag Pyramid or a numbered list can also be quite useful. Some people, including myself, have in the past resisted a more formulaic standard of storytelling, but in these moments, it can be helpful because you can look at the structure, what's going on, and decide what you can put where. I wanted some revelatory moments where the audience has an "ah-ha" … and there was a lot of hoping that when I put a twist in a certain place, that it would create or keep a reader's interest.
In the novel, so many words become a kind of seed blooming into the strange fruit of history. For example, the Ojibwe word ogichidaag ( warrior/ceremonial leader) is vulgarized by the Geshig gangs to connote membership in a blood cult. How does writing, but specifically storytelling, allow the writer to reexamine and/or renew language and history?
It comes from being in an area that pushed so much of our history on us in our education. We learned a lot about northern Minnesota growing up to the point that we were doing field trips to logging camps or forts. But also, a history into the fucked-up shit that happened to Natives in the area under the struggles of colonization.
Also, I have always been interested in language and fiction. My first major accomplishment was in 5th or 6th grade, reading Lord of the Rings and going through the maps, the indices, and the names and just loving a constructed world. So, I've always wanted to play with that in fiction—sometimes to the chagrin of my family and friends, when I'm listing out family trees or when I ask them what they think of a name I've come up with for my beautiful main character, and they tell me how ugly the name is.
At the same time, in high school, I was really interested in learning Ojibwe, including competing in the various knowledge tournaments on language and culture. For me, creativity has always been about playing with different names.
When I settled on writing about the town as a boom-and-bust lumberjack town that has definitely seen the best of its days as far as commerce goes, I tried to add in as much of that as I could—lumberjacks and warrior culture that gets corrupted into gang culture.
An online dating app acts as a conduit to Marion's relationships with men. It's also a source of confusion and hurt as betrayals are revealed quite casually and through distance. Technology changes how we connect and interact with each other, but it also helps people connect with their ethnic heritage. This theme is a through-line I noticed between your novel and Tommy Orange's There There. What draws you to this topic of the intersection of tech., relationships, and cultural identity?
In part, it's that learning about a lot of tribal stuff, but also being in the modern culture, whether intentionally or subconsciously, you can think about it like learning an old way of living versus getting in with the new. We had a good mix of both. Our high school tried to provide a lot of STEM kind of learning—like a robotics team and a StarCraft club—juxtaposed outings into the woods to learn traditional ways to make wild rice and maple syrup. So those intersections have always presented themselves.
Among the "shaman", Carey's many colorful claims is his certitude over the unknowable mysteries of the afterlife. The ghost narrative that emerges problematizes this in a memorable way. As opposed to proselytizing a set of beliefs, how is writing fiction a better response to the unknowns of existence?
You can include different versions of yourself that you have leaned on. When I was younger, I believed in the supernatural much more—in Sasquatch, aliens, orbs, ghosts. From the time I was ten until it seemed that that was kind of the natural order of things. But budding from when I was around 14, was of a more skeptical view of the world.
In high school, I checked out a copy of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, knowing it was this book that had rippled controversy across the culture. One of my Native teachers wasn't thrilled to see this. This teacher was very authentic and had a legitimate aim to help people with the spiritual side of Ojibwe culture, helping direct powwows, ceremonies, the drum group. Yet when he saw I was reading atheist literature, he openly mocked me, saying, "you realize it takes more belief to be an atheist, don't you?", which of course, made me want to lean into my skeptical side more.
But that experience of being at first more spiritual and then shifting into more of a skeptic was one of the reasons that I wrote Marion as someone who is much more removed from the culture. But I wanted to include a lot of magic, ghosts, and all of that because that is how I experienced the reservation, not as a witness to the supernatural, but having a lot of people around me that I trust with my life, report whole ranges of beliefs: seeing ghosts, having astral visions, being able to sense your aura, reporting Sasquatch sightings. It was always all around me. So when I write stories, that's the general tone I like to go for—a very mysterious world.
Dennis E. Staples. Photo by John LaTourelle (courtesy of Counterpoint Press)
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