Author Interview: Byron Graves On Life Experience As Backbone of Story

Cover Illustrated by Natasha Donovan

By AJ Eversole

I am excited to share an interview with debut novelist Byron Graves (Ojibwe) today on Cynsations! I met Byron during the first We Need Diverse Books Native Writing Intensive in 2020, where I also got a sneak peak at what would become Rez Ball (Heartdrum, 2023). Rez Ball isn’t just a sports story, it has a lot of heart and soul. Basketball is important to many Natives across Indigenous Country, and Byron paints a wonderful contemporary world of Native teens with the game in the center.

What is the heart of Rez Ball?

For Tre, he is experiencing so many new things, all at once. Navigating his way through the grieving process of losing his older brother, as well as how his family, friends, and community are coping with the loss. Simultaneously, he falls in love and finds himself a star basketball player, which both have their own, unique and scary challenges.

Rez Ball is about what it’s like trying to balance love, grief, and chasing dreams, not only all at the same time but for the very first time. Tre finds himself in situations that seem impossible to work through and assumes that he needs to figure it out on his own. But it’s in his life-changing, trust-fall moments, that he realizes he’s not alone if he doesn’t want to be. His family, friends, teachers, coach, teammates, and community are there for him, to uplift him when he needs them most. It’s very much about teamwork, in all aspects of life.

Photography by Mike Finney

Tell us about your own experiences playing basketball.

I never liked sports as a little kid. Nintendo and comic books was where it was at! Every time my dad asked me to play catch or shoot some hoops, it always sounded so boring compared to saving the galaxy from evil space aliens.

Then in 1992 during the Barcelona Olympics, I watched about ten seconds of the Dream Team. I had never seen anything like it. Five people, in sync with each other, like mind readers, moving what looked like at light speed, making poetry in motion. I was in awe. An hour later I was on the makeshift dirt court in my parents’ yard, shooting at a wooden backboard and metal rim that was nailed onto a tree. Like most kids of that era, I all of a sudden wanted to be like Mike. I was obsessed.

From that day forward, I was working on my basketball skills. Honing my dribbling and shooting skills. My freshmen year our high school basketball team went to the state tournament for the first time and had a record-setting game that is still renowned by most Minnesota basketball fans as one of the greatest state games ever played. They lost, but it created a frenzy of basketball obsession. I became a starter the next season and joined the returning players from that team and had to quickly try to fit in while playing with my idols. Every game we played was in front of a jam-packed gymnasium, with people waiting in lines for hours to get in. My life changed over night—playing exciting, high stakes run and gun basketball and becoming an overnight star. We were featured in SLAM Magazine, USA Weekend, and were on ESPN news. It was surreal to say the least. My book Rez Ball was obviously influenced by a lot of those experiences from my first season.

From SLAM Magazine. Photos by Monte Draper

How does Native identity effect your characters?

It’s honestly everything. From language, slang, style of dialogue, clothing, setting, body language and eye contact. It is the root of any of the Native characters I write. I also had wondered for a long time, specifically with this story, the main differences between a group of Native teens working towards a goal, like winning a state basketball championship, and a similar white team.

Taking from my own experience, I felt like the friends and teammates I grew up with all faced a lot of common hardships, and it was hard for me to imagine that the white teams we played against dealt with the same struggles. It seemed to me that was part of our story, the obstacles Native youth face in comparison to the middle American, white youth experience. Also, our culture is a focal point of mine, where it comes in to play directly or indirectly, how both our pride and history intertwine with generational trauma, and how those aspects impact each character in different ways.

Photography by Mike Finney

What do you want teens to take away from this book?

To know there are life long lessons and experiences to be learned and gained from whatever they’re participating [in], whether it is a sport, an extracurricular activity, or some other passion or hobby.

Winning or scoring the most points is great, but it isn’t what’s most important. I say, focus on being a great teammate, commit to the discipline it takes to be the best at a craft, and take pride in knowing that you all gave it your best.

Those elements, the bonds from being there for a team, working as hard as one can, seeing the payoff from the time spent on developing a skill, those will serve them for the rest of their life, in a wide variety of ways. I’ve used everything I learned from my basketball playing days and have applied them to my writing. I used to wake up hours before the school bus would arrive so I could work on my jump shot. Now I wake up hours before my work day so I can read and work on my next book. Without the commitment I gave to basketball as a teen, I don’t know if I would have the work ethic I do now.

Photography by Mike Finney

What parts are you most excited for teens to read?

The character arc of Tre. He begins the story feeling out of place, out of sorts, and trying to become something he thinks everyone around him wants him to be. He’s nervous, constantly worried about where he fits in, and overthinks his every move.

As Tre puts in the time and effort to prove he belongs, shows up consistently and works hard, he earns the respect of his teammates, and the crowds of fans. But most importantly, when he has the realization that he is a great player and is a great teammate, he has a mental, emotional and physical shift to taking over games and steering his team to a better place, on and off the court.

I hope that as teens read it, they can see a bit of themselves in it, and know that whatever challenges or insecurities they’re facing, they can face them proudly by showing up consistently, caring about what they’re working towards, and knowing in their heart that if they work as hard as anyone, that they belong and can carve out their own space in whatever medium that may be.

SLAM Magazine.

What was your favorite part to write?

You would think the basketball action. Or creating the buzz around Tre through social media, young fans, and eventually SLAM Magazine. But honestly, my favorite scene was the one where Tre and his friends have their video game marathon. It was so much fun to write the scene and world of the video game they were playing. It felt like a story within a story. And the jokes, rabid excitement and intensity of playing video games with a group of friends brought me back to when that was my life. It also inspired the next book that I’m working on.

Cynsational Notes

Byron Graves is an Ojibwe author from the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota. Byron is represented by AKA Literary Management.

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