Author Interview: Eric Gansworth on Apple (Skin to the Core) & Writing Insights

By Kim Rogers

Eric Gansworth (Onondaga) is a visual artist and a professor and Lowery Writer-in-Residence at Canisius College. (Photo credit on image above: Larry Plant.)

Eric’s young adult novel-in-verse Apple (Skin to the Core) (Levine Querido, 2020) has won many awards and accolades, including TIME’s 10 Best YA and Children’s Books of 2020, NPR’s Best Books of 2020, Shelf Awareness Best Books of 2020, Publishers Weekly’s Big Indie Books of Fall, Amazon’s Best Book of the Month, AICL Best YA Books of 2020, CSMCL Best Multicultural Children’s Books of 2020 and was named to the 2020 National Book Award Longlist for Young People’s Literature and the winner of a Printz Honor award.

From promotional copy:

The term “Apple” is a slur in Native communities across the country. It’s for someone supposedly “red on the outside, white on the inside.”

Eric Gansworth is telling the story of his family, of Onondaga among Tuscaroras, and of Native folks everywhere.

From the horrible legacy of the government boarding schools, to a boy watching his siblings leave and return and leave again, to a young man fighting to be an artist who balances multiple worlds. Eric shatters that slur and reclaims it in verse and prose and imagery that truly lives up to the word heartbreaking.

Your book is your memoir written in verse. What was your inspiration for wanting to write this book about your family? And what made you want to write it in poetry form?

This answer is going to sound convoluted, but I’ll try to distill it. It probably sounds hokey, but often I have projects I’m actively and intentionally working on and then others sneak up on me. My publication record has been about 50/50 intentional and accidental. I’ve also tended to alternate between prose books and poetry books.

I’ve written short memoir type prose but not a lot. I couldn’t really see “telling my story, from A to ?” being very compelling. I never found a focus point. So my long-form prose is a series of shared universe fiction. My poetry, on the other hand, has been heavily autobiographical, growing from moments in my life and my family’s lives.

I’d discussed the idea of poetry for young people with my editor and publisher, and they’d mentioned The Memoir in Verse as an alternative to a traditional collection. Unfamiliar, I didn’t want to learn a new genre.

None of us realized I was already doing this until I had shared poems from the issue of Poetry Magazine that Heid Erdrich had guest edited.

What’s your writing process like? How long did it take you to write this book?

I had a finished complete version maybe a decade ago. It was a poetry collection for adults. I’d recently won a PEN Oakland Award and an American Book Award, and thought that might buy me some credibility leeway. But the trends in book culture are extreme in poetry. I wanted to move to publishers really respected for poetry, presses whose book I loved.

Every press I tried said there was just no place on their list for narrative, autobiographical poetry, that it was stylistically out of date. Both statements were patently untrue. I studied their lists carefully. I read and loved their books because they regularly published plenty of narrative and autobiographical poetry collections. What they meant was there was no place for my narrative, autobiographical poetry.

Fair enough. Nobody owes you a book contract, but I do wish editors would be more honest with writers submitting, particularly after sitting on a submission for a year. I had opportunities at smaller presses, but it didn’t make sense to go backward, so I kept tinkering, rewriting, swapping out, adding new, resequencing.

When my current editor, Nick Thomas, saw the kind of poetry I wrote from the sample in Poetry, he asked if the whole manuscript were in the same style. I put together a sample, with the disclaimer that it was only a sample. He liked what he saw, and we went from there.

That said, the complete book includes a quarter of what appeared in that sample. I suppose I should be thankful to the editors who didn’t believe in it. They gave me an opportunity to find and work closely with a thoughtful and committed editor who did.

Congrats on all the awards and accolades your book has received. It was selected to the 2020 National Book Award Longlist for Young People’s Literature and then won the Printz Honor book award. What does this recognition mean for you as a Native author?

Nyah-wheh, thank you. They’re exciting, of course, particularly for the academically oriented. They’re like the adult professional version of the gold stars or happy faces on top of a successful school assignment.

I’m only partially joking. The gold stars are very motivating for some young people, but I wonder if that culture also makes other young people give up, when they’ve tried their hardest and still don’t get the stars.

Practically speaking, your goal as a writer is for your work reach audiences to whom it might make a difference. Awards mean greater library adoption, increasing the chances that a young person might find it who doesn’t have smooth access to books at home. That’s the kid I was.

Eric at two years old, wearing a Batman cape.

So I’m delighted the odds of this book maybe helping a young person have vastly improved. That books are chosen for these honors on literary merit is tremendously satisfying. Sometimes when you’ve rewritten a poem or story for the fifteenth time, you think “why am I doing this?” It’s nice to know that deliberation and attention to craft is noticed.

I feel it requires some thoughtfulness about awards and the world of Native writers. I’m delighted for this book to be recognized as a Printz Honor, and excited it’s the first book by an Indigenous writer to have this distinction. Who doesn’t love accomplishing an elusive, extremely competitive goal? It is also twenty years into the award’s history, so with all the terrific indigenous writers newly working for young people, let’s hope the gap before the next Printz recognition doesn’t maintain a similar timeline.

The cover of your book is gorgeous. You’re a visual artist. Did you have any input in the design?

I did not. I’m largely a representational painter, and I pull in heavy influences from graphic design.

My paintings are kind of like my poems, a little too representational to be “daring,” but not representationally polished enough to have that graphic-design sheen. I’ve had a lifelong love of graphic arts.

When I was a kid, my mom would throw out the boxes and packaging toys had come in, even when I’d purposefully saved them because I loved the art. After a while, I started hiding them to preserve the box art I loved so deeply. To her, the art was just a lure to get you to buy the product. This is true, of course, but that doesn’t steal from its potential beauty.

If I’d known graphic design was an area of formal study, I might have pursued it. When I worked with smaller presses, the covers did feature my work, but I assumed having my overly painterly brushwork on covers was something I’d likely have to give up if in a more mainstream direction. This cover echoes some of my images inside, but reimagines the ideas in the ways more in line with book-buyer expectations.

Your story “Indian Price” is included in Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Ancestor Approved anthology. What was your initial spark for this story? What were ah-ha! moments and challenges of bringing it alive on the page?

I was reluctant to learn another set of tools. I hadn’t written for middle grade readers before, and I knew some favorite tools would have to take a backseat. As happens a lot, I have part of one idea for a long time, and part of a wholly separate preoccupation for another long stretch. Some third influence enters and pulls them together.

I’ve always been interested in the culture of Indian Price, as insider communication. Upon accidentally discovering the Order of the Arrow and its complicated history of appropriation and philanthropy, I’d tried different explorations, with no luck. But the anthology’s introduction of the powwow vendor room was the spark that pulled them into the messy collision necessary for compelling fiction.

What other writing projects are you working on?

I’ve always got several things going on at once. It’s too embarrassing to identify any, though. I made references in interviews to The Apple Years (original title), ten years ago. So now I think “several” is safe and vague enough.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Nyah-wheh, thank you for reaching out. Sometimes, I’ll have cause to look at an old interview, reaching for some reference and will be surprised at the things I said at some past moment. In that way, they’re like the memory snapshots that sometimes become poems.

Cynsational Notes

Eric Gansworth (Sˑha-weñ na-saeˀ), is a writer and visual artist enrolled at Onondaga Nation, Eel Clan, born and raised at Tuscarora Nation.

His books include Mending Skins (Pen Oakland Award) (Bison Books, 2005), Extra Indians (American Book Award) (Milkweed Editions, 2010) If I Ever Get Out of Here (Honor Award, American Indian Youth Literary Award; One Book, One Philadelphia 2020) (Scholastic, 2013), Give Me Some Truth (Whippoorwill Award) (Scholastic, 2018), and the collection of poems and paintings, A Half-Life of Cardio-Pulmonary Function, (NBCC Good Reads List) (Syracuse University Press, 2008). His newest book, Apple (Skin to the Core), a memoir-in-verse and images was a Printz Honor Book, Longlisted for the National Book Award and chosen for Time Magazine’s 10 YA and Children’s Books 2020.

His play, Re-Creation Story, was selected for the Public Theater’s Native Theater Festival. He is a Professor and Lowery Writer-in-Residence at Canisius College. He has been widely published in journals and anthologies and as a visual artist, has had numerous solo and group exhibitions.

Eric’s work has been supported by the Library of Congress, the Saltonstall Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, the Arne Nixon Center, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Seaside Institute among other institutions. He was NEH Distinguished Visiting Professor at Colgate University. He was included in LIT CITY, a public arts project celebrating Buffalo’s Literary Legacy.

Kim Rogers covers children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations.

Kim writes books, short stories, and poems across all children’s literature age groups. She is a contributor to Ancestor Approved coming February, 2021 with HarperCollins/Heartdrum. Her debut picture book, Just Like Grandma, illustrated by Julie Flett, is slated for winter 2023, and A Letter for Bob, illustrated by Jonathan Nelson, is planned for summer 2023 and both with HarperCollins/Heartdrum. Her work has also been published in Highlights for Children, Guideposts Sweet 16, the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, and many other publications.

Kim is an enrolled member of Wichita and Affiliated Tribes  and the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. Much of her current writing highlights her Wichita heritage.

She lives in Oklahoma with her husband, two boys, and one ornery, but very cute Chiweenie dog named Lucky.

She is represented by Tricia Lawrence at Erin Murphy Literary Agency.