Native Voices: Byron Graves Talks About The Importance of Connection

By: AJ Eversole

Today on Cynsations we introduce author Byron Graves. His debut short story, “Sometimes in September,” is included in the anthology All Signs Point To Yes (Inkyard Press, 2022) which releases on May 31, 2022. His debut young adult novel, tentatively titled Rez Ball (Heartdrum, 2023), has been sold to Heartdrum, an imprint of HarperChildren’s that centers  Native stories and book creators.

All Signs Point To Yes, Releasing May 31. 2022.

What is the heart of your short story in All Signs Point To Yes?

I’d say the heart of my short story, “Sometimes in September,” is about pivotal moments. Those life-changing interactions with a person that can alter your outlook on the world.

At the core of the story is Waabooz, an Ojibwe teenager who is finishing up a stay at a group home that’s focus is on sobriety and the recovery process. Waabooz is about to leave the safest place he’s known while he grapples with his fears of maintaining his newfound sobriety and navigating his ambitious hopes of becoming a musician now that he has his head on straight. The friends, counselors, and a brave and bold love interest all help shape and inspire Waabooz in different ways that leave a lasting impact on his mind and heart.

What writers have influenced your writing the most?

Candice Montgomery, Kosoko Jackson, Rachael Allen, Angie Thomas, Cynthia Leitch Smith, Henry Rollins, Eric Gansworth, Erika T. Wurth, Traci Sorell.

I know that looks like an extensive list, but I could have kept going. Cue the award show music.

No, but seriously, there was something in each of these writers’ style and voice that made me feel super inspired to write how I wanted to write and to write stories that were related to my own life experiences. There were times when I doubted my ability to figure out “how to write” because it seemed like this daunting, Rubik’s cube puzzle that I wouldn’t be able to solve. But these writers have a knack for making their stories come to life, in a way that felt comforting to me, like I was listening to a best friend recount a story, not so much like I was reading something formulaic. Their words hit home to me, connected with me, and inspired me to tell my stories with my voice. So many of them have also been incredibly supportive of my writing journey, helping me in a wide variety of ways along the way.

Tell us about the individuals who encouraged your writing early on.

My mom, for sure. Instead of reading me bedtime stories, she used to make up her own as she went. But I’d constantly interject and ask for cameos of my favorite cartoon characters and ideas for changes to the plot. I was probably so annoying.

Eventually, she told me to write my own stories. She’s stayed incredibly engaged and supportive in my writing journey. My family has all been supportive, but my little sister Serena was my biggest fan of everything creative I ever did. Sometimes her excitement for a poem or a song I wrote would feel like winning an award. My closest friends, the ones I’ve had since childhood have also constantly encouraged me, even in my darkest moments, they never ever quit believing in me. They all inspire me and keep me going.

If you could tell your younger writer-self anything, what would it be?

Definitely to enjoy the overall process for what it is. It can be filled with the pride in learning new skills, creating friendships with other writers, learning the nuances of the publishing industry, and the incomparable satisfaction that can come with the feeling of finishing a new chapter, a first draft, a revision.

I would tell myself to not get caught up in arbitrary time frames for finding an agent or getting published, and instead focus on how much fun learning and networking can be. Things will happen when they are meant to happen. I put a lot of unnecessary pressure on myself throughout my writing journey that at times stole some of the fun away from it. So if I had a time machine, that would be my advice. Have fun, cherish the baby steps, and let the cards fall where they may.

How did connecting with young readers through your books affect how you approached writing subsequent stories?

The feedback and support that I have received from young readers has been a really exciting and invigorating experience. They showed me ways that my stories impacted them, made them laugh, made them feel, and how it was inspiring to them in a variety of ways.

My biggest takeaway has been to make sure I do everything I can to not lose what I consider to be the authenticity in my writing. I care a great deal about my words coming across to young readers as real, not canned or molded by an expectation of a genre. I want to make sure they feel that connection and bond to it.

Byron with Mother, Victoria Graves, and sister, Serena Graves.

How has your writing evolved over time?

Voice and tone. I’ve worked really hard on finding the voice of a character and the tonality of the story I’m trying to write. I strive to find a cohesive match up of the narrative, dialogue, story and character arcs, settings, action, etc. I want it all to coalesce in a way that makes the story really come to life in a way that lifts the emotional resonance off the page and makes a lasting impact on the reader. But for me, it involves several sweeps of edits, rewrites, leaving the story alone for a while and coming back and reading it with fresh eyes.

Sometimes I’ll instantly know the front-to-back story aspect of a story, but it can take me multiple revisions before I figure out the right voice and tone.

Byron Graves is an Ojibwe author from the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota. Byron is represented by AKA Literary Management and recently signed a two book deal with Heartdrum, an imprint of HarperCollins that highlights the voices of Native creators.

Byron’s writing is a fictionalized reinterpretation of his lived experiences growing up and being from the Red Lake Indian Reservation and, as of now, has been written as Young Adult. His writing portrays an honest balance between the trials and tribulations that his people face, the hope that so many hold in their hearts, and is laced with plenty of Indian Humor as well as life lessons.

Byron currently resides in the Denver area. When not glued to a book or his laptop, he can be found skateboarding or at a retro video game arcade.

AJ Eversole covers children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She grew up in rural Oklahoma, a place removed from city life and full of opportunities to nurture the imagination. She is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and writes primarily young adult fiction. She currently resides in Fort Worth, Texas with her husband. Follow her on Instagram @ajeversole or Twitter @amjoyeversole