Interview with Margaret Verble: “I write about what nags at the back of my mind.”

Margaret Verble is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author and a proud member of the Cherokee Nation. As an enrolled citizen and a part of a large and historic Cherokee family, Margaret has a strong connection to her heritage and is dedicated to preserving its history and traditions. Margaret was raised in Nashville, Tennessee, and currently resides in Lexington, Kentucky.

Margaret’s writing career has been met with great success, with her first novel Maud’s Line being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016. Her second novel, Cherokee America, was listed by the New York Times as one of the 100 Notable Books of the Year for 2019 and won the Spur Award for Best Western. Her latest novel, When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky, was chosen by Booklist as one of the 10 Best Adult Novels of 2021. Margaret’s fourth novel, Stealing, is set to be released in February 2023.

Margaret is a proud member of the Authors Guild and Western Writers of America. Her passion for storytelling and preserving the heritage of the Cherokee Nation is evident in her works, which have earned her recognition and accolades in the literary community.

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Hi Margaret, thanks for being here with us today! Your second novel, Cherokee America, was listed by the New York Times as one of the 100 Notable Books of the Year for 2019 and won the Spur Award for Best Western. Can you talk about the research and historical context that went into writing that novel?

I spent about 20 years researching the background of Cherokee America. But when I began, I was doing genealogical research, not specifically rummaging around with the idea of writing a novel. I wanted to know how Cherokee America Rogers and I were related, as my grandmother had called her “Aunt Check,” her allotment land was next to ours, and Will Rogers was a cousin of Grandma’s.

I also researched my great grandfather and his brother, who are Bert and Ame in the book. They were orphaned as children during the Civil War, so their origins were rather a mystery. And Mrs. Rogers took them in when they came to Indian Territory, so they were connected to her.

Only years later, did I turn that research, and all the rabbit holes it led me down, into a book. Mrs. Rogers and I are not related at all. Or not related any more than most people are in the Cherokee Nation. We’re all cousins somehow.

You have created characters that span generations in your novels, can you talk about the process of creating and developing these characters?

Four of the characters who are old in Maud’s Line are young in Cherokee America. I did that on purpose because I wrote Maud’s Line in order to get Cherokee America published. That’s a long story in itself. But really, when I look at older people, I often wonder what they were like as kids or teenagers, and, of course, we all wonder how children are going to turn out. So writing people as both old and young was sort of fun.

Maud’s Line was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Can you talk about the impact this achievement has had on your writing career?

When my agent, Lynn Nesbit, called me to tell me Maud’s Line was a finalist for the Pulitzer, she told me it would change my life. She was right. That book got very little support from my publisher, and probably my whole career would have been fizzled had it not gained that recognition.

I’d love to learn more about your writing routine and daily habits. What does a typical writing day look like for you? 

I wake up looking forward to writing. After I eat breakfast, it’s the first thing I do. I start by fiddling with what I’ve written the day before. Then, if I’m writing a first draft, I write from where I previously stopped until I’ve written a scene or a movement. It read it back over, and then I quit.

Writing goes on in the back of my head all the time. I never spend time staring at a screen wondering what to write next. I do, sometimes, have to detour to look up a specific historical fact. I don’t send a novel to my agent until it’s been through at least nine drafts. So most of my writing is rewriting. Writing a first draft is like trying to get a pill down a cat, but re-writing is like petting a cat. I just love it.

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How do you handle writer’s block or moments of creative stagnation?

I don’t get writer’s block. Sometimes, between novels I dither around trying to decide what to write next, but generally I don’t have to spend a lot of time on that. I write about what nags at the back of my mind. And there’s always something back there. Since I write historical fiction, I spend that between-novels time reading history and deciding what era or year I want to set my characters in.

How do you stay motivated and engaged in your writing over the course of a long-term project?

I don’t have any problem with staying motivated. If I go for a while without writing – like when I’m on vacation – my fingers start to twitch.

What does your writing workspace look like? 

It’s a second-floor study with bookcases, covers of my books, awards, and other pictures on the walls, a desk, two stuffed chairs, an end table, and a big lighted magnifier so I can read without straining my eyes. It’s also got a computer. Thank the Lord.

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