“My grandmother… had loved her father and uncle deeply, so although they died before I was born, I felt connected to them, and had imagined their lives and their desperation.”
Cherokee America (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2019)
Which scene in your novel did you write first?
The first words I typed for Cherokee America are now on pages 15-17, the section entitled “The Painted Door.” The two boys in that scene are based on my great-grandfather and his brother, who’d been orphaned by the Civil War and had come to Indian Territory looking for work and new lives. My grandmother, who initially told me about “Aunt Check,” the title character, had loved her father and uncle deeply, so although they died before I was born, I felt connected to them, and had imagined their lives and their desperation. But when I gave the first reading draft of the novel to friends, they almost all agreed I should center from the very beginning on Check, the main character. So I moved that scene further in.
Did you have ethical concerns about developing characters inspired by historical figures?
Yes. This is something I frequently wrestle with. The novel I’m writing right now is set in 1926, and I thought about this just this morning. I’m not big on defaming the dead or embarrassing their descendants. However, unless people misbehave, you don’t really have a novel. The New York Times review of Cherokee America said that, by the end, the characters feel like “family and friends” who you are “invested in.” I intended that. I resolved my ethical concerns by creating likeable people.
What was the research like?
I’d read a lot of Cherokee history and done some genealogical work before I ever thought about writing a book. Mostly that was because this great-grandfather of mine and a great-great-grandmother, also in the book as Nannie Cordery, both were orphans. I wondered about them, in particular, because one of my first cousins looked like a fullblood. And my grandmother’s enrollment quantum (entirely derived from her mother’s side) wasn’t enough to explain that, her own features and complexion, or that of some of my other relatives. My mother had no doubt that her grandfather and great uncle (those two boys) were Indians. So I knew there was more Indian blood in our line than was accounted for and suspected they were the answer. That got me to investigating the entire Dawes Rolls mess, and into finding out all I could about my ancestors. I discovered after considerable digging that my great-grandfather was actually a Choctaw. About the time I solved that mystery, I started writing. But I kept on reading Cherokee history because, by then, I was hooked, and we are, culturally, Cherokee, not Choctaw.
What was your hardest scene to write?
I don’t know that any of them were particularly hard. Or harder than any others. But I spent a lot of time on the bawdy house scenes. That was, I think, because I enjoyed them so much. I like thinking about rowdy behavior, and adding in little brushstrokes gave me a lot of pleasure. Also, I’ve been on the porch of that house again and again. It evokes my imagination. My grandmother had lived in it as a child, and one of her brothers raised his family in it. My mother spent many a night visiting her cousins inside those walls and had very pleasant memories of those times. But the house has always seemed delightfully spooky to me.
Margaret Verble is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Her first novel, Maud’s Line, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She lives in Lexington, Kentucky.
Author photo by Mark Kidd.