Erika T. Wurth’s published works include a novel, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend and two collections of poetry, Indian Trains and A Thousand Horses Out to Sea. Her collection of short stories, Buckskin Cocaine is forthcoming. She teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University and has been a guest writer at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals, such as Boulevard, Drunken Boat, South Dakota Review, and The Writer’s Chronicle. She is represented by Peter Steinberg. She is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee and was raised outside of Denver.
Interviewer: What inspired you to write? Common I know, but everyone’s answers tend to be so unique.
Erika T. Wurth: You know I really don’t know. I was a big loner and my home life was dramatic and so I think this is why I became a reader. I think this is why most people become writers. I think as I’ve gotten older though, I’ve realized that there are a lot of stories about people in urban Indian communities/small town Indian communities that aren’t being told and it occurred to me that I wanted to do that. Not that I speak for anyone but myself.
I: As a creative writing teacher at Western Illinois University, what are some points or lessons you really try to drill into your students’ heads? What do you want them to walk away with?
Erika: I think that most people think that a poem is simply an explosion of confession and emotion. And most people think that stories begin with a “good idea.” But I try to train my students to be concrete and directed and specific. And in poetry I get them to focus on image, sound, and metaphor but especially image. For example I always tell them if you go up to a stranger and say be happy! They will only be scared. But if you tell them there are free turkey sandwiches in room 109, they will be happy because that is an example of image, rather than just a flat abstraction. And that’s what poetry needs to be made up of, in order to paint a picture in somebody’s head versus just tell[ing] them something. When it comes to stories I think lots of people have great ideas for stories and then never finish them and don’t know why. It’s because they’re trying to force their characters along a pre-destined track. So I have them focus on plot, point of view and characterization – especially characterization. If you understand your characters and allow them to be complicated and screwed up and you understand what they fear and desire and how they often have to push those things down every day, you can think about the things that will rip those things up and then the choices your characters will make will be much more natural and you won’t have to shove your characters along a track.
I: In your work, do you aim to provide all perspectives (hidden or obvious) or do you actually reflect a specific bias set of thoughts and views? How do you decide what to keep in or out when exploring topics or themes? I ask this with A Thousand Horses Out to Sea in mind.
Erika: Actually have no idea how to answer that question as I don’t really understand it. But maybe you’re asking if I start with ideas or themes? No, most writers don’t start that way unless they are deeply experimental and/or conceptual, which I am not. I am much more interested in human damage, and the lives that we lead because of that damage.
I: You delve into topics that might appear “taboo” to some readers, yet you keep your work grounded by incorporating an honest depiction of reality. What do you believe your readers receive from your work? Do you have messages in them or are they just moments/ a story?
Erika: I don’t really know what they receive from my work but I do know that if the only thing they receive is a message then I’m not doing my job. As I said in the question before, the writers that I love and the kind of writer I aspire to be, will complicate an issue rather than just present it. If you just have a message, you should just say the message, not write a story. And I’m not interested in preserving delusion. Human beings need to look at their damages and face the parts of reality that they are always trying to push down.
I: You have an essay from 2014 titled “Less Boring Art, More Diversity” where you talk about the publishing industry and how it appears they are “gatekeeping” and stopping the world of fiction from being more diverse by avoiding publication of diverse writers and diverse material. Do you still believe this is a timely issue? Would you say there have been any improvements or that there will be any soon?
Erika: I think that writers of color especially in the children’s and YA world (and especially due to the work of Pueblo critic Debbie Reese) have worked incredibly hard to change this, and there have been minimal gains. It’s because the big presses are run by people who are generally middle/upper-class and white and often usually female actually, and who live in New York. Because to work for those presses, you have to take an unpaid internship in New York and those are the only people that can generally afford to do that. And when you have only that demographic reading for example a novel about native American gangs, like my last that was rejected over and over for being too dark, since your exposure to native people is probably primarily through television, you’re just looking for a message about native Americans instead of art. And like I said, I don’t do that.
I: In connection to that essay, you say, “We like reading about complicated, troubled people, and we like complicated, troubled stories”. Why do you think this is? Do you keep this in mind whenever you write?
Erika: I think this because we are human beings. And we like good stories – and only boring people like messages. Human beings like to read about other human beings and they need to see that the ways in which they are different or screwed up are the ways in which a lot of people are different or screwed up. Or perhaps they just want to read a good story. Even if that story is dark or sad. But I don’t really keep anything in mind when I write, I just write imaginatively and poetically about the world around me.
I: Last question, is there anything you can tell us about your forthcoming book Buckskin Cocaine? What can we, the readers, expect from this collection of short stories?
Here’s the description from the publisher:
Erika T. Wurth’s Buckskin Cocaine is a wild, beautiful ride into the seedy underworld of Native American film. These are stories about men gone insane from fame, actors desperate for their next buckskin gig, directors grown cynical and cruel, and dancers who leave everything behind in order to make it, only to realize that at only thirty there is nothing left. Poetic and strange, these characters and the vivid language Wurth uses to describe them will burn themselves into your mind, and linger.