[Oscar] motioned for me to sit next to him “This grand prairie”–he swept his hand toward the door– “is like a blank piece of paper. The way I see it, we come here to write our story on the land, acre by acre. Every homesteader’s claim tells a different tale.”
“What is your tale?” I asked.
Oscar grinned. “I’m still writing it,” he said.
~from Oscar’s Gift
The front cover of Lisa Rivero’s debut novel, Oscar’s Gift: Planting Words with Oscar Micheaux, bears four important words: Fiction for Young Historians. Oscar Micheaux, the first African-American filmmaker, bought a claim of land in South Dakota to homestead in the early 1900’s. He was a man of persistence and of wit, educated and creative. In her historical novel, Lisa Rivero shows how a man such as Oscar must have impacted the lives of those around him, especially a young person like the main character, Tomas.
Lisa Rivero has plenty of publishing credits to her name, but this is her first venture into fiction. I doubt it will be her last. She has a knack for taking details of the past and weaving them into stories that touch today’s readers. Just take a peek at some of her Flash Narratives on her website, stories about her Great Aunt Hattie. You’ll see what I’m talking about, and you’ll likely want to read more.
I’m honored to host Lisa today to talk about her debut novel, Oscar’s Gift. At the end of her interview, leave a comment to be entered into the drawing for a free paperback copy of her book. Random.org will choose the winner on Tuesday, October 18th, at high noon.
CC: The blurb on the back cover of your book says that you grew up on the same reservation where Oscar Micheaux homesteaded. How did you come to learn about Oscar and his connection to your own history?
LR: I am still amazed that I hadn’t heard of Oscar Micheaux until just a few years ago, since he homesteaded not far from my grandparents’ farm. I first read about him when I was doing some research about my ancestors for a writing project based on some family diaries. Although Micheaux is best known for his film making, I was captivated by his farming and writing. What must have the experience been like for an African American homesteader at the turn of the century on an Indian reservation? Then, when I began to read about his childhood and the intensity he brought to everything he did, I was hooked and knew I had to write about him.
One of the most gratifying aspects of seeing Oscar’s Gift in print has been the reaction of my family in South Dakota, who have enjoyed reading a story about their homeland. My dad has become my best press agent!
CC: In the chapter titled “Thunderstorm,” you write some powerful scenes: Tomas realizes what life as a young boy on a farm means, that there are sacrifices he must make; he runs to Oscar for comfort; at Oscar’s, he encounters what I expect was a common picture during those times. Were those details (right down to the medicinal uses of spider webs!) discovered in your research on Oscar Micheaux or on the life and times of South Dakota homesteaders?
LR: That chapter was perhaps my favorite to write, because it is a turning point for Tomas. One of the details that came from Oscar’s life is his being kicked in the head by a mule, which Patrick McGilligan writes about in his biography of Micheaux. Oscar Micheaux’s novels are also filled with rich details that are often autobiographical and historical. For example, in The Conquest, he wrote about an ornery mule:
The mule I was traded was only lazy, while the one I had received in the trade was not only lazy, but “ornery” and full of tricks that she took a fiendish delight in exercising on me. One of her favorites was to watch me out of her left eye, shirking the while, and crowding the furrow at the same time, which would pull the plow out of the ground. I tried to coax and cajole her into doing a decent mule’s work, but it availed me nothing.
The voice is enchanting!
The mixed reaction of curiosity and wariness on the part of Oscar’s neighbors was also part of Micheaux’s biographies, but other details, such as the remedies that Sonja uses for Oscar’s injuries, I learned through researching the lives of early homesteaders in general.
CC: On your blog, you’ve written several posts (like, “My September Writing Habit”) where you talk about the importance of unplugging from social media. You quit Twitter for a time, and recently signed up again. After your hiatus, what drew you back to Twitter, and how are you handling the pull of social media differently?
LR: I still have a bit of a rocky relationship with Twitter, but after a brief separation, we are reunited and coming to terms. Some people love Twitter’s quick updates and fast pace, and I wish I did, as well! But when I open my Twitter page and see the scroll of interesting people and links and conversations, when I think of the retweets I’m missing and the kind #FF and #WW mentions I have not yet acknowledged, I feel as though I’m at a crowded cocktail party where I can barely breathe or make out what people are saying. I just want to go home! I think my unease is due partly to my personality and partly to the fact that when I was first on Twitter, I didn’t use lists well, so once the number of followers/follows grew past three digits, I was completely overwhelmed.
That said, I do love being able to find new resources and to retweet friends’ and colleagues’ posts, and I understand Twitter’s value for a writer in terms of getting the word out about new work (when I first closed my account, a blog reader said that Twitter was how she kept track of new posts). As I begin again, I’m trying to give myself permission to do Twitter my way, which means I probably won’t engage in as much back-and-forth banter as some folks do, and I won’t be as active in #FF (Friday Follow) or other social activities, but that’s okay.
CC: What are you reading these days?
LR: I’ve been immersing myself in Willa Cather, both her works and biographies. My Antonia and O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark have long been some of my favorite novels, and the more I learn about her life, the more fascinated I become. My near obsession is similar to what I felt with Oscar Micheaux. Both were transplanted to the Great Plains. Both wrote semi-autobiographical works. Both were obviously gifted and intense writers and individuals. Both even involve trains! The opening of My Antonia, told from the perspective of Jim, the narrator, makes my heart sing:
I first heard of Antonia on what seemed to me an interminable journey across the great midland plain of North America. I was ten years old then; I had lost both my father and mother within a year, and my Virginia relatives were sending me out to my grandparents, who lived in Nebraska. I travelled in the care of a mountain boy, Jake Marpole, one of the “hands” on my father’s old farm under the Blue Ridge, who was now going West to work for my grandfather. Jake’s experience of the world was not much wider than mine. He had never been in a railway train until the morning when we set out together to try our fortunes in a new world.
CC: What advice would you offer for writers on the rise?
LR: Only recently have I begun to think about my writing career from a longer perspective, and I can only echo the comments that Steve Jobs made in his now famous 2005 Stanford commencement address: that we need to do what we love and trust that the dots will connect down the road. That sounds simplistic, I know, and it doesn’t offer much practical wisdom about online presence or book proposals or social media (all of which are also important). But I believe more than ever that if we writers forget why we write in the first place–because we have to, because it fulfills something in us, because we can’t imagine doing anything else with our lives–we can quickly lose the great joy that writing can bring as we trade it for an obsession with blog stats or Twitter followers or creating a platform at the expense of honing our craft. Again, that’s not to say that platforms aren’t important. They are. But platforms are not writing. Having a fantastic platform does not, alone, make one a good writer.
Trusting that the dots will connect means taking the long view, scheduling regular practice (our words are our piano scales), not getting caught up in a quest for quick success at the expense of patient, joyful progress. Finding other writers who are on the same journey helps a lot. When writing becomes a source of frustration and anxiety, we can reminder each other to write a paragraph or poem, just for fun, or to unplug for an hour and read a favorite book, perhaps one from our childhood, until the joy returns. Another dot is then in place.
In addition to writing, Lisa teaches writing, technical composition, creative thinking, and other humanities courses at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. She also speaks across the country about intensity, giftedness, learning, homeschooling, and creativity. For more information about Lisa and her work, visit her website, follow her on Twitter, or like her page on Facebook.
Leave a comment to be entered into the book giveaway. Or, should you not be the lucky winner here, purchase your own copy of Oscar’s Gift from Amazon or Barnes and Noble (in print) and for your Kindle or your Nook.