Debra Earling

Debra Magpie Earling. Photo courtesy of Ms. Earling

Debra Magpie Earling. Photo courtesy of Ms. Earling


Debra Magpie Earling was born in Spokane, Washington. She received her BA from the University of Washington in Seattle and her MA and MFA in Fiction from Cornell University. From 1991 to 1998, Earling held positions in both Native American Studies and Creative Writing at the University of Montana in Missoula. Currently, she is an associate professor in the English Department there and teaches Fiction and Native American Studies.

Earling's work has appeared in Ploughshares, Northeast Indian Quarterly, and many anthologies including Song of the Turtle (Old World/Ballantine); Contemporary Short Stories Celebrating Women; Circle of Women (Red River Books); Talking Leaves: An Anthology of Contemporary Native American Short Stories (Delta).

Perma Red (Blue Hen Books 2002) is her first novel. It received the Western Writers Association Spur Award for Best Novel of the West in 2003, the Mountain and Plains Bookseller Association Award, WWA's Medicine Pipe Bearer Award for Best First Novel, a WILLA Literary Award, and the American Book Award. It is a Montana Book Award Honor Book and was chosen by Barnes & Noble as part of its Discover Great New Writers series.

Author's Statement

I am humbled by the honor. The generous endowment will allow me the great gift of freedom, freedom from the ever-present worries of money, and freedom to pursue my writing without encumbrance. The NEA is giving me the rare gift of time.

I plan to use the money to complete my next novel. It took me twenty years to finish my first novel. I would say a third of that time was spent on working and reworking the novel, the other two thirds was spent on earning a living, trying to find the time to finish and polish the story. The stories I feel called to write often reveal the darkest side of the human heart. Perma Red is a family story that explores the struggle that American Indians have faced and continue to face because of governmental policies that enforce assimilation with little or no understanding of its devastating effects on the individual. I spent too many years worrying about whether my story was a story others would deem worthy to read. The National Endowment for the Arts has put some of those fears to rest. Thanks to the NEA it won't take me another twenty years to finish my second novel, nor my third. I am writing my second novel now, and have a great deal of work finished on the third. I will use the money to honor the freedom I have been given, to honor the stories I feel I must write. My words are inadequate to express my appreciation, but perhaps the work that I complete will reflect my deepest gratitude. I will be forever grateful for this gift.

From the novel Perma Red

On the day Louise's great grandmother had died Baptiste foretold her
death. It was in the Spring on a day so clear clouds faded overhead like
wide ghosts. Louise's great grandfather was branding horses in the high
field and she remembered Baptiste had come over with his grandfather to
watch. Louise was six years old at the time but she still remembered
Baptiste because it was one of the few times she had seen him out of school
then. But she remembered him most because of what had happened that day.
And that day Louise sat up on the hillside with her mother, her grandmother
and Old Macheese her great grandmother. Louise thought at first Baptiste
was frightened of Old Macheese and had chosen to sit away from her.

Old Macheese had survived everything, even small pox, but her
grandmother said her face had always been pitted. Louise could still
remember Old Macheese's face, places where disease had died beneath her
skin, bruised places where the blood had pooled for good. Old Macheese
liked to rub her knuckles down Louise's spine, liked to laugh at her when
she tripped or cried, whenever she hurt herself. And after the old woman
died Louise's grandmother had told her Old Macheese was just that way, mean.

Louise had wondered if there was something wrong with Baptiste that day
because he stared at her, and even when she made faces at him, he did not
stop his watching. She had heard stories about him, how he could see and
hear things other Indians could not, how his mother had the rattlesnake
power. He sat away from the others, rocking back and forth, digging his
slender fingers deep into the black soil while his grandfather worked. He
wasn't called down to the corral like the other boys. His grandfather had
let him be alone and quiet on the hill.

Old Macheese had just started to tell a story when Baptiste had stood
up, so thin, the dirty seat of his pants hung almost to his knees. Old
Macheese spoke up saying he probably had tuberculosis. He wore a belt that
had once been his grandfather's horse bridle. He had two white splotches
clouding his face and still he was the darkest Indian Louise had ever seen,
a beaver-dark boy who stood with a strange certainty Louise recognized even
then as trouble. When his grandfather saw Baptiste stand he slipped the
knot off the colt he was holding and headed fast toward Baptiste. Louise
remembered the old man had leaned over Baptiste listening and nodding. But
Louise could not hear Baptiste.

"Baptiste has seen a salamander," he called, "a lizard turn red."

Louise's great-grandfather Good Mark shut the corral gate and made his
way up to Baptiste. Louise stood silent beside her grandmother. The other
men had stopped working and had turned to see what was troubling Baptiste.
The horses crowded one corner of the corral as the workers gathered at the
bottom of the hill. The men crouched suddenly to the ground. They were
patting the dirt, searching, feeling for something. She could see Good Mark
weaving his fingers through the faded grass, his white braids were tucked in
his belt. Louise's mother shook her head, then cupped her hands together on
top of her head. Louise's grandmother tapped Louise, "Look for a lizard,"
she had told Louise half whispering, "See if you can find the lizard."

Louise got down on her hands and knees with the men. She combed the
grass with her fingertips. She picked up a branch and brushed the ground
but she saw nothing. Baptiste Yellow Knife crept up behind her and Louise
looked up to see his knife-bladed hair, his dark face. 'You won't find it,'
he said. She pushed at his feet, but he did not budge. 'Move,' she said.
She didn't like being told by Baptiste, a boy she barely knew, that she
couldn't do something. 'You're in my way,' she told him. She turned over
stones, picked at the sage and grass, looking. She glanced at Baptiste and
noticed his watching was dim. His eyes lazy. His lashes flickered and she
saw the glare of black irises swirling back in his head, and then only the
whites of his eyes, spooky, almost blue. "It won't do no good," he said, his
dizzy eyes closed, "Someone will die.' Louise saw the dirt in the slim cuff
of Baptiste Yellow Knife's pants. She saw clouds bleaching to wind, a haze
of dust changing light like silt changes water. She saw her great
grandmother standing on the hill, and then Old Macheese was falling back,
falling while the wind lifted her olive scarf from her head.

Interview by Paulette Beete, November 13, 2012

A native of Spokane, Washington, novelist and short story writer Debra Magpie Earling has garnered numerous awards for her work, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a 2006 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Earling's first novel Perma Red is the stuff of legend---rewritten multiple times over more than a decade, lost in a fire, and rejected countless times before finding a home at BlueHen Books. But if there's one thing Earling has in abundance---it's perseverance. And it's that perserverance and unmatched talent that have propelled her from her days as a high school dropout to today when she holds two masters degrees, is on faculty at the University of Montana at Missoula, and has been widely published in anthologies and literary journals. Earling took some time out from a writing residency to speak with us via e-mail about the writer's life, about the place of survival in the creation of literature, and about meeting Joseph Brodsky in her first outing as a professional writer.

NEA: What's your version of the artist's life?

DEBRA MAGPIE EARLING: I don’t believe anyone has ever asked me about my version of the artist’s life. I am going to shirk under the label “artist” and answer, hopefully, as a writer. In some capacity or other writing for me is visiting with the angels and occupying for brief and glorious moments a spirit world. I don’t feel embarrassed to say this to another person face-to-face but transferring my thoughts to the page adheres them to scrutiny. And scrutiny by nature is inquiry---and to say my version of the writer’s life is a communion with spirit sounds, well, silly and grandiose. Writing is a place I go to, a life different from this life---and my life---yet it bears the shimmering edge of reality. It is also a very dark place where I need an angel that will attend me.

But writing to me is both a public and private practice. I talk what I am writing… sometimes endlessly. I love the social aspect of writing. Art in all of its manifestations is engagement with others. I love to grab someone’s hand and say, here it is---the story. It’s a physical thing, story. It’s a vehicle. We’re going to lift off. Listen.

NEA: What do you remember as your first engagement with or experience of the arts?

EARLING: Seal Press published my first story in an anthology called Gathering Ground: New Art and Writing by Northwest Women of Color. And then they asked me to give a reading and I thought it was funny. Who was I to give a reading? (I still feel this way.) I was to read at the Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle in a theater that had stage monitors and they put me in a room that had been Lily Tomlin’s dressing room the week before. I was snapping on and off the dressing room lights and camping it up. I couldn’t get over the idea that I was in a dressing room at all, let alone, a dressing room that had been occupied by a star. I was far from the other women in the anthology who were also reading---so far that I missed my stage call. I still believe they’d made some kind of mistake. When the director finally came for me he was frantic. He said, “Jesus, where were you?” He looked at me like I’d have an answer. Then he sort of swiped his hand in the air in dismissal and sighed. “Well,” he said, “I guess you’ll have to go on before Mr. Brodsky. I was too dumb to know who Joseph Brodsky was then but as I stood in the wings I was introduced to him. He was a big man who smelled like good cigar smoke and whiskey. I read my little piece and as I was leaving the stage I turned to see him enter. I knew something about him was remarkable. It wasn’t his introduction. I couldn’t hear it. There was a scatter of light, a humming in the soles of my feet. Something in me recognized that he was grand and eternal. I understood that I was in the presence of greatness.

NEA: What was your journey to becoming a creative writer?

EARLING: High school dropout. Married to an abusive alcoholic at 17. Divorced at 21. Then moved back in with ex. Had teeth rattled. Told I was stupid. Was knocked down. Bleeding. Knocked down before work. After work. Knocked unconscious. Busgirl. Black eye. Stupid. Waitress. Lip split. Shot at. Worked as housekeeper with my mother. Beaten again. Heard the endless refrain---you don’t want this life you don’t want this life this life this life from my mother and all the other housekeepers. Go to school. Get outa this. Ex-husband in and out of rehab. Told I was stupid because I was Indian. At 27 ex-husband took his life by jumping off a bridge. Felt sorry for myself. Cried around. Felt sorrier. And then I realized the path to writing wasn’t about suffering at all. It is about joy and celebration. It is about survival. I held on. Clung to the stories my mother told me. Began to understand her stories and the stories of my tribe were significant. They helped me to keep on living. Went to school. Got an education. Learned some more. Came to understand in my bones that Isak Dinesen spoke the truth when she said, “All suffering is bearable if it is seen as part of a story.”

NEA: What does it mean to be Native American writer? A woman writer? An American writer?

EARLING: It means everything to me. Everything.

NEA: In 2006 you received a Creative Writing fellowship from the NEA. What impact did that funding have on your arts practice and on life in general?

EARLING:I cannot express to you how great an impact the NEA Creative Writing fellowship has had on me, just what it has meant to me, and how the award gave me time to consider the direction of my writing life and time to write in peace. Recognition…recognition as a writer but something more important… I had my country’s support as a writer. I’d received some other awards for my writing before that time---many really, and I hope that doesn’t sound big-headed. Ok, I sound like a braggart but the fellowship gave me so much more than money. It is such a competitive award that it backed me up as a writer and made it possible for me to stay in the academy. A colleague in a position of power told me before I received the fellowship that I had only gotten writing awards because I was Indian. She said this with an odd sympathetic smile on her face because she actually believed what she was saying. She said I shouldn’t travel so much, be easier on myself. She had to inform me---because, well, perhaps in her eyes and in the eyes of some of my other colleagues, I was too stupid to know that no one else was taking me seriously. Really, she was saying this to me as if to be kind as if she was simply saying really don’t wear yourself out. I do know we all get recognition partly from our unique perspective on the world. I understand that. But receiving the NEA fellowship made me believe in myself. It is a national endowment and it makes a difference.

NEA: If you could work in another art form, what would it be and why?

EARLING: This question stopped me in my tracks and made me once again face the perennial question---what is art? I think a figure skater is an artist. I would like to be a figure skater. But music comes to me at times, snippets, whole songs, endless loops of music and if I had the time to work in another art form I would secretly tap out notes and make noise.

NEA: Any advice for emerging writers?

EARLING: Never give up. Believe. Be fearless. Jump into the muse. Don’t fuss until later. Hear the stories within you and believe they have power. Don’t don’t don’t DON’T EVER be cynical. It’s too easy. It’s TOO easy to be cynical. Keep trusting. Fight bitterness. Just because a work makes you feel something don’t dismiss it as sentimental. Open up your inner eye. Believe in the miraculous and beautiful. Overcome the darkness by lighting the torch to see. Don’t censor yourself. Look at the difficult stories. Be tough. Be courageous. Be sentimental. Be ruthlessly big-hearted. See yourself as part of a larger community that was here before you and hopefully will be here after you leave. Know that you are a steward of stories. Don’t whine. Give back. Buy books. Buy hardback books. Support the arts.

NEA: What do you think is the role of the artist in the community? Conversely, what is the responsibility of the community to the artist?

EARLING: The late great poet Nelson Bentley used to tell me that poets illuminated the world---they held the light up so others could see. I want to hold the light up for others. I want to inspire and give back to the world. I know it sounds naïve but it’s an ideal I strive to emulate.

No community exists without art. And I will say this again: no community exists without art. I don’t know a community that doesn’t have its storytellers. Art is perception as well as action. Artists create beauty---art in creation is the purest form of energy. It fuels the world. Wherever art begins to spin wealth is created. I am always astonished when a presidential candidate wants to cut funding for the arts, when states wish to cut out art budgets, or when a school principal wants to cut programs in art. Art makes us sane, gives us peace, sparks smart debate. And art creates community. Show me a neighborhood that attracts money and wealthy patrons and I’ll show you an artist community. (And then the artists have to move out of the community they’ve created because they can no longer afford it. The wealthy have taken over.) Art entertains as well as inspires. I used to frequent a café in Polson, Montana, and I would hear this small kaffe klutch of men talk about funding cuts---cut music, cut the arts, cut any kind of social program, and then they would go on to talk about their favorite television shows. I’m not making this up.

NEA: Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington once said: “I try to know as many of the things that are missing from our world of music as I possibly can....I try to put the thrust of my time into realizing those things that aren't yet part of our work but should be." With that in mind, what's not yet part of the work of today's writers but should be?

EARLING: I don’t know if David Harrington comes from money or has made a lot of money or if he has a wonderful patron who has bestowed a lot of money on him but I think what’s missing from the world of writing is money---money to write, money to spend the time to find out the “things our work should be.” And freedom from fear---the fear that the money for publishing and bookstores will dry up. I would love to have the luxury of using the thrust of my time to make the money to fund the programs that would allow for more people to have the gift of time to write. Maybe part of the work of today’s writers should be figuring out a way to give back, a way to allow for all the voices that don’t get heard to be heard.

NEA: At the NEA, we say "Art Works," referring to the work of art itself, the way art works to transform people, and the fact that artists are workers. What does "Art works" mean to you?

EARLING: Art works to grace our lives. Art works to give us vision. Art works to chase away chaos and terror, to make us angry, to make us awestruck, to illuminate the world, to light up great temples and cathedrals and back displays in classrooms, and to go above our couch. Art works so that others can go on. Art works to dance when we can no longer dance. Art works to inspire us when we are broken-hearted. Art works to lift our nation up from despair---for where would we have been without music and poetry when the planes struck the World Trade Center? Art works to lift the torch to dispel the darkness. Art works.