At the time of writing this introduction, about three months have passed since I finished reading Brandon Hobson’s The Removed. Not a day has gone by since then that I haven’t thought about it. Sometimes, it feels like the book is still reading me. In it, Maria Echota and her husband Ernest, who’s beginning to suffer from dementia, temporarily take in a foster child named Wyatt. His resemblance to their deceased son Ray-Ray is astounding. In the days leading up to the Cherokee National Holiday, the Echotas’s grown children, Sonja and Edgar, go on wild emotional and spiritual journeys of their own. One of them even visits The Darkening Land, a realm between life and death. It’s a cool and profound novel.
While I’ve never met Hobson in person, I’ve admired his short fiction for years in places like Conjunctions and NOON. More recently, I’ve come to enjoy a hearty correspondence with him via email and text. He’s an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation Tribe of Oklahoma and his previous novel, Where the Dead Sit Talking, was shortlisted for the National Book Award. I’m in awe of Hobson’s vision, his ability to guide his readers beyond the constraints of realism with grace and authority. And that’s perhaps what I love most about The Removed: the necessary reminder that the real and the extra-real are in fact the same thing; the distinctions we tend to make say more about ourselves than the world(s) in which we dwell. He and I conducted this interview via email over several months, beginning on Halloween and ending right before the Winter Solstice.
Andrew Ervin (Rail): How did you make the decision to channel so many distinct voices? Was there one that spoke to you first?
Brandon Hobson: I knew I wanted to write this book around the Echota family and how they're all dealing with grieving and their own conflicts that will lead them back to each other. They're all dealing with their own problems while focusing on the anniversary of Ray-Ray's death. The first voice I started with was Edgar's. He struggles with addiction and is running away from the family. I knew I wanted to send him to an alternate universe called The Darkening Land, where he's the target of a shooting game that parallels his fear of being shot the way his brother was killed by a police officer. His sister Sonja's voice came next, then the mother, Maria. The last voice was the voice of Tsala, a spirit ancestor who tells old Cherokee stories as well as his own story of resilience after being killed on the Trail of Tears. I wanted to structure all these voices in the time period of a week, in September, the anniversary of Ray-Ray's death as well as the Cherokee National Holiday.
Rail: What was the toughest part about writing The Removed?
Hobson: Probably the hardest thing was threading in the old traditional Cherokee stories with the overall story. Part of the book is narrated by a spirit ancestor named Tsala who was executed with his son for refusing to leave his home during what began as the Trail of Tears. While Tsala tells his story he also tells old, traditional Cherokee stories, some of which are documented in James Mooney's Myths of the Cherokee and which I try to use here to parallel and examine the effect of removal and displacement on the Echota family and in light of the coming Cherokee National Holiday. I'd say the overall structure of any novel can be challenging, so weaving the family voices here in a way that hopefully helps the narrative be propulsive was hard as well.
Rail: What other kinds of research were involved?
Hobson: Other than Mooney's work, the only other research I really did for this book was talk to a woman who had lost a child many years ago in a car accident. Part of Maria's character in the novel involves her grieving over a lost child. I wanted to try to understand the complexities of that as much as I could. A boy I grew up with died in a car accident when he was 15, so I talked to his mom. It was difficult but necessary, and I can only hope I at least got something right in the book with her grief.
Rail: Yeats famously wrote, "There is another world, but it is in this one." Sherman Alexie of course used that as an epigraph to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Does that have any bearing on your creation of The Darkening Land? Please tell us what that is and how it became central to this novel.
Hobson: Part of my interest in writing this novel was really digging into the old Cherokee stories that involve traditional beliefs and what many people refer to as "mythology," stories about spirits, courage, etc., and The Darkening Land seemed like a good land to play with for Edgar's sections. After overdosing, he takes a train to The Darkening Land and becomes the subject of a shooting game. Insert Rod Serling voice here: This other dimension exists outside our space and time and leads Edgar Echota on his own journey of survival in a land full of the dead, people who cough dust and talk about going downtown to see Cobain or Hendrix play an all-acoustic set, but that's about as good as it gets there.
I wanted to place Edgar in the same fear his brother felt when he was shot by a police officer, and The Darkening Land was a fun place to do that. Also, there are sections involving Tsala, the ancestral spirit who gives retellings of the traditional stories of suffering. I've always believed that writing should deliver a good deal of pleasure, so those sections were enjoyable to work on.
Rail: What are some other Cherokee and Cherokee-inspired books you think everyone should read?
Hobson: One of my favorites is Pushing the Bear by Diane Glancy. Also, Geary Hobson's Plain of Jars: And Other Stories. Santee Frazier's poetry collections, Aurum and Dark Thirty. Kelli Jo Ford's Crooked Hallelujah just came out last year. And a children's book called Mary and the Trail of Tears: A Cherokee Removal Survival Story by Andrea Rogers.