A Q&A with Tommy Orange, Author of March Indie Next List Top Pick “Wandering Stars”

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Independent booksellers across the country have chosen Tommy Orange’s Wandering Stars (Knopf) as their top pick for the March 2024 Indie Next List

Following the events of There There, Tommy Orange traces the lineage of one family through the generations.

Wandering Stars is an epic tale grounded in truth and elevated by Tommy Orange’s phenomenal storytelling. He brings a gruesome slice of US history to life and gives voice to a generation of Native people who live its legacy,” said Claire Benedict of Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vermont.

Here, Orange discusses his work with Bookselling This Week.

Bookselling This Week: Wandering Stars picks up where There There left off. Did you always plan on writing a follow up to There There?

Tommy Orange: I did not always plan to write a sequel, but it did start coming to me before There There was published. And it did at first begin as a more straightforward picking-up-where-we-left-off kind of sequel, only I followed several characters into their afterlives. The first concept about wandering stars began as the afterlife being kind of inside a thing traveling beyond the edge of the universe but also still here on earth as a kind of ghostly existence. It was Tony Loneman, and his grandmother Maxine mourning him. There were several other kinds of afterlives I wrote for different characters too. Thomas Frank was stuck in a loop in a desert in infinite twilight. But none of those afterlife narratives ended up going anywhere.  

BTW: Where There There was a wide cast of characters whose stories all converged at the end, Wandering Stars traces one family line through the generations. How did your writing process or thought process differ between the two?

TO: I wanted the story to focus more tightly on one family instead of having so many characters and figuring out how they might all connect this time around. With There There I had them all getting to the powwow as the connective tissue. There wasn’t a plot point like that with Wandering Stars. And it is a generational saga, beginning in 1864, so it was always about the family line, beginning back there, and seeing where it ended up. I very much wanted to write a different kind of book with Wandering Stars

BTW: This book features a smaller cast than your last title. And though we met them in There There, as the youngest generation, Luther, Orvil, and Lony are sort of the focal point in Wandering Stars. Would you like to tell us more about expanding their characters and stories? Did you have a clear vision of where they would end up, or was it a more chaotic process?

TO: It was a chaotic process, but I did know I wanted to expand this family. It did feel like a core family in There There, but also like an important story to follow in the wake of what happened at the end of the first book. Whether Orvil lived is a basic question, but how he and his family would survive and recover after he ended up living was a whole other question I thought would be interesting to write into. I felt the meaning and layers of their circumstance when first starting to write into Wandering Stars.

BTW: We’re introduced to a few characters, who are struggling with their Native identity after being adopted by/raised in white families. Those chapters really reflect what we’re seeing so many transracial adoptees speak up about today. Do you want to talk more about this? 

TO: Identity is sometimes thought of as extra. Like a thing “woke” people like to obsess over that is not really important but more maybe vain or like a part of identity politics. I think identity is a core part of everyone’s existence. Whether you’re easily able to identify as a citizen or as a member of a race or nation or family, identity is at the core of your story, and your narrative. In talking about people who don’t squarely belong anywhere I was able to explore the idea of identity itself. This was a place I felt was fruitful to write about, and something I’ve been thinking about since as long as I’ve been alive.

BTW: What’s next for you?

TO: So, I sold my third novel, which isn’t related at all to the first two novels, at the end of last year. I’m excited about that. And I wrote an original screenplay for a feature film also not related to my first two novels. I spent 12 years in the world of There There and Wandering Stars and I’m ready to do other stuff. I’m also working on a YA book with my 12 year old son and a TV show idea with my best friend.

BTW: Can you tell us a little about the role of books and indie bookstores in your life?

TO: I fell in love with fiction for the first time at an Indie bookstore. I was being trained to be a book buyer. But we didn’t get that much business and I was asked to move the fiction section from the back of the store to the front. I fell for fiction for the very first time then. I was never a library person. Even though I was broke, I always shopped at used bookstores and wanted to own books. It was often impractical. But there are stupider things to spend your money on. There are so many bookstores in the Bay Area to love. My two favorites have always been Walden Pond and Spectator Books.