Rilla Askew was born in southeastern Oklahoma, a fifth generation descendant of southerners who settled in the Choctaw Nation in the late 1800’s. After graduating from the University of Tulsa with a BFA in a theater performance in 1980, she moved to New York where she received a creative writing MFA from Brooklyn College. She is the author of four novels and a collection of stories.
It was apparent from her first novel, The Mercy Seat, that her fiction combine social consciousness with historical realism, depictive setting, and strong characters. Her second novel, Fire in Beulah, centers around the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921, and shed light on an American tragedy largely ignored for 77 years. In 2009, Askew received an Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her latest novel, Kind of Kin, is about the family-fracturing consequences of Oklahoma immigration laws.
Our interview was conducted for the Creative Writing Major launch, where Askew was invited to give a reading and speak on September 24, alongside Tulsa authors Bunjamin Lytal, Trudy Lewis, Katie Rain Hill, Vu Tran, and Eilis O’Neal. Interviews with Lytal, Lewis, and Tran can be found on the University of Tulsa English department webpage.
Mason Whitehorn Powell: Some of your novels are connected to very specific places and issues. Do you have a process of settling on a specific topic or set of characters for a book?
Rilla Askew: I’m passionate about a lot of things—human rights issues, social justice issues, the power of place, Oklahoma itself, race in America, its woundedness and complexities and pain—and there’s no dearth of ways to write or talk about these subjects: blog posts, social media, short stories and essays. But how such elements present themselves with sufficient force as to become the subject for a novel, well, for me it happens organically and, really, a bit mysteriously. The issue more or less jumps into my head and says, Okay, this is going to be your next novel. It’s always the issue first, long before story or character, that inspires the work: racial violence in early day Oklahoma in Fire in Beulah, the homeless and dispossessed during the Great Depression in Harpsong, Oklahoma’s anti-illegal immigration laws in Kind of Kin. Even The Mercy Seat began with my desire to write about the Tulsa Race Riot, though the book took its own turning and became a different novel than the one I’d set out to write, as sometimes happens. Once I know the subject and the place, I have to wait for a voice, a rhythm, a character to tell me the story—or rather I should say, to begin the story, because, for me, the voices and points of view will change throughout the novel. I’ve never yet written a novel in a single point of view, one voice, though I hope to manage that one of these days. But, with each of my novels, I’d already been passionate about the subject matter long before the notion to write a novel about it jumped into my mind.
MWP: Your writing seems to deal partly with your observations of Oklahoma, and Americans, while also being highly imaginative and historically realistic. How do you balance the historic research and imagination that goes into your writing?
RA: Once I know the subject and the era, I start the research, because I have to know enough about how people lived then—what they ate, how they dressed, what they saw on the horizon—before I can begin to dream the story awake. Even after the voices and the characters have begun to talk to me, I read and read and read and read, and then I write and read and write and read, alternating between the two on a day by day basis. Once the writing process is launched, it’s a simultaneous endeavor. I can’t do all the research ahead of time, because I’d likely forget all I know, and I’d know too much, in any case—thousands of things that would never go into the book—and I’d know it from too many conflicting sources. I can’t know what I need to know until I get to a place in the novel where the story demands that I have knowledge of, for instance, the brand names of automobiles that would have been driven in 1921 Tulsa or how a family in a covered wagon would cross the Mississippi River in 1887. In short: I research just enough to know the basics of what happened and to be able to see and hear and smell the time and place, and then I write enough to know what else I need to know, and then I research that, and then write some more, back and forth, back and forth.
MWP: Today, there’s plenty of practical advice available for aspiring writers; that sort of question is like beating a dead horse. Was there a single moment in your own life when you fully committed to writing fiction?
RA: I was sitting at the bar in a Manhattan restaurant called JR’s one night talking with my husband about whether or not to quit acting. This would have been sometime in the mid-1980’s I’d moved to New York to become an actress, but within a couple of years I began also writing—first plays and then fiction. I had continued to study acting, but increasingly my time and inner energy went into writing fiction. Still, I couldn’t let go of that other dream—in part because of pride (that’s what I set out to do!) and in part because of fear of failure (what if I can’t really do it?). I went back and forth I don’t know how many times that night, debating the pros and cons, pondering the what-ifs. Throughout, my husband listened, nodded encouragement, said, “Whatever you need to do. But you know, you really can write.” Along about last call I made that wrenching decision. I announced to him, to myself, and, metaphorically, to the world, that I would no longer act but would concentrate all my creative energies on becoming a writer. I’ve never regretted that moment, never looked back. I think in my heart I knew I was a writer, but it took the affirmation of an external voice, saying, “You know, you really can write,” to allow me to make the leap.
MWP: The Mercy Seat and Fire in Beulah—about westward expansion, and the Tulsa Race Riots, respectively—each explore romanticized or overlooked historic events. What draws you to issues such as these, and why is it important to tell these kinds of stories?
RA: As I mentioned earlier, I’m passionate about a lot of things, and one of those is telling the truth of our history. The truth of our nation’s past is violent, ugly, and harsh—and so is the truth of our present. As a writer I strive to be clear-eyed and forthright about the past and to bear witness to the truth about the present as it has been foreordained by that unacknowledged past. One is not separate from the other. We tell ourselves a lot of lies in this country about who we are and who we have been, and we don’t acknowledge—or, to be more specific, I should say too many of us in the dominant culture don’t acknowledge—the truth that this country was founded in genocide and slavery. We’re educated to a sanitized, mythologized version of who we are and who we have been. But without telling the truth about that, we’ll never mature as a people, never heal the wounds that are at the very core of who we are. I think one of the best ways to do that is to render it in fiction—the beautiful lie that tells the truth. For me the biggest challenge is not just how to de-sanitize our sanitized history but how to see it through the eyes of characters born and bred of that age, without the overlay of political correctness born of our current age. Using the common language of the era is tough, but enough research and imaginative projection and courage have to go into the work for me to be able to try to speak as the people of that age would speak, think as they would think, just as I have to put the characters in authentic clothes and offer them the actual technologies and conveyances of their own era. I have to avoid being squeamish about the past, just as I mustn’t blink at the present.
MWP: Your narratives have a spiritual component, sometimes symbolical, other times up-front. How does spirituality find its way among your words?
RA: I grew up strongly Southern Baptist here in Oklahoma. The understanding that the invisible world—the realm of the spirit—underlies all visible reality is so deeply embedded in me that I can’t separate it from my work, any more than I can separate it from my understanding of the world. Spiritual principles fascinate me in just the way that the social justice issues I mentioned earlier concern me on a deep level. They drive my understanding of what it means to be human, and so naturally such elements are laced all through my work. Even when I’m striving for a kind of gritty realism, that invisible realm is going to show up. By spiritual principles, I don’t mean only within Christianity but such principles in other religious and cultural worldviews as well. But I was raised on the King James Bible, and so the lyricism of that great Jacobean language, and the sense that stories are what carry the meanings of spiritual truths, are also encoded in me, so that I can’t not write about the spirit—not as a polemic, not to offer any answers, and certainly not to promulgate any particular spiritual worldview, but to explore the mystery, to ask the questions that are, to me, the most important questions to be asked.