Erika T. Wurth: Letting Monsters Out of the Bottle

(photo: Michael Teak)

Erika T. Wurth, a writer and professor of creative writing, is an urban Native of Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee descent living outside of Denver with her partner, stepchildren and extremely fluffy dogs. Her literary-horror novel White Horse--coming from Flatiron Books on November 1, 2022--straddles this world and the next, where both gritty and mystical elements operate on the same plane.

How did this story start for you? Was there a particular detail or element that came to you first?

I was that kid who read dorky dragon books in math class under the desk. I needed that escape. My dad was an alcoholic, and often took his own garbage out on me and my mother. But also, I just loved spaceships and elves and ghosts.

But when I went to college, I started reading "serious" literature because even though I had no idea what that meant, I'd always wanted to be a writer, and "real" writers read "serious" literature. I remember having a conversation about how I wanted to write my senior thesis on Stephen King's work. I got just laughed at. By the time I earned my doctorate in literature and creative writing and became a professor of creative writing, I'd become fully indoctrinated. I was exclusively reading, writing and teaching literary realism. No dragons.

Eventually, however, I missed all that speculative stuff, and I realized that I could incorporate what I loved--good, creepy material--with what was literary. Because "literary" is not a genre, it's a series of conventions. Complex characterization. Depth of theme. Attention to form and language.

However, wrapping back around to the personal, some of the content is inspired by something that happened to my grandmother, who died when I was very young. I'd been told that she'd misfired a gun, thinking there was a robber in the neighborhood. Which never made sense--she'd been around guns all her life. Then I was told she suicided. Years later, my mother was told by a neighbor, who'd been a cop, that her death certificate seemed doctored--that it looked as if my grandfather had murdered her. The novel took a very different turn, but that whole strange, winding, confusing, unresolved story has stayed with me.

Can you talk a little bit about your process of marrying Native folklore and ghost story elements in this novel?

Beyond the kind of indoctrination one gets in literature classes, part of why I wanted to write in the vein of realism for so long was that I often felt that literature by Native people that incorporated elements of magical realism wasn't for me. It wasn't gritty and real--I respected novels that spoke to the everyday realities, the meat and bones, of Native existence. However, on the other side of things, the Native lit I read in the '90s and early '00s didn't speak to the fun, spooky, ghosts-are-real-in-this-book side of literature I'd so loved as a young person.

But reading Rebecca Roanhorse, Daniel H. Wilson, Stephen Graham Jones--and listening to my own family's stories (my grandmother's visions, my mom smelling my father in her room years after his death)--made my brain eventually get where it needed to go. I wanted to write literature that incorporated what my family had told me, what I'd learned in reclaiming stories of the nations I descend from, alongside my own completely imagined material. And then I wanted to marry that to the grittier elements of urban Indian life I'd grown up in and around in Denver and the outlying areas. And this is how Kari, my heavy-metal, horror-loving protagonist, was born.

The Lofa--Kari's nemesis in the novel--is a sort of evil Chickasaw Bigfoot. Some of the stories of the Lofa say that he kidnaps women. That he skins folks and eats their skin. He's wonderfully creepy, and a perfect metaphor for what I was trying to get at in the novel. I understand why Native people choose to write about, say, vampires. It's safer, and our communities are understandably sensitive about those stories being out there in the world. However, I'm aligned with Roanhorse in this regard, because if we're stuck with European monsters, there's a way in which we're still colonized. What could be better, more original, more respectful than allowing those stories out of the bottle, and letting them grow, the way our ancestors intended them to do?

Aside from Stephen King, whose book The Shining is a huge presence in the plot, who were the authors you wanted to channel here?

Beyond the authors I mentioned above, Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Grady Hendrix are IT for me in horror. In general, I'm loving the direction Native fiction is moving. In realism you have Brandon Hobson and Kelli Jo Ford, and of course, Tommy Orange. In crime, my partner, David Heska Wanbli Weiden. And Shane Hawk is an Indigenous horror writer to watch. Jenn Givhan, a writer of Pueblo descent, is about to knock readers on their collective asses.

Without revealing too much to readers, can you speak to how you decided to craft the really original climactic scene you have in this novel?

As somebody who read exclusively literary fiction for a long, long time--not that some of those folks aren't brilliant--the climax in many literary realism novels is often like, "and then he was sad, internally." I realized that if I wanted to achieve an effective climax on the action-based level AND on the emotional level, I had to work on thinking about how to break my character emotionally in such a way that she was forced to change--and then find a way to illustrate that in a compelling, parallel, physical way--that wasn't silly. It took many drafts.

I think this relates to structure--something that isn't much talked about in literary circles. Mainly, it's language. Character if you're lucky. Lots of amorphous statements about form. It was my partner who told me that what I was looking for was in more nuts-and-bolts craft books: Save the Cat, Chuck Wendig's Damn Fine Story, Ben Percy's Thrill Me and Jane Cleland's Mastering Suspense, Structure, and Plot were lifesavers. And back around to how this affects the climax, my boyfriend (a literary-thriller writer) went over that scene with me beat by beat, so that I could strike that physical and internal climax. And then I changed it again. And again. And I'd already changed it so many times by the time we'd even gone over it the first time.

The thing I'd like to leave folks with is: read. Read widely--and read passionately. And don't be afraid to treat the work as work, to get in there like a mechanic. Good on the poetry part. But it's 75% tearing the car apart. And it's so important to part from your peers when you know what they're telling you isn't right for you. And at the same time, to not be a stubborn ass, especially when you're younger, but really at any age, when it comes to making your work better, when folks with experience are genuinely trying to help you make it better. And for Native writers especially, follow your own vision. This is not the time to be afraid. --Alice Martin

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