Margaret Verble on the Irresistible Main Character at the Heart of her New Novel
In Cherokee America, Margaret Verble crafts a thrilling saga of threatened familial bonds, all centered around an unforgettable character, Cherokee America Singer, also known as “Check.” Ten years after the Civil War has wrecked havoc on the Cherokee Nation West, Check struggles to care for a dying husband while running her family farm. Tensions in her community escalate when a fabled stash of gold goes missing, and Check soon finds herself forced to make nearly impossible decisions to keep her splintering family together. Margaret Verble’s first novel, Maud’s Line, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and Cherokee America seems poised to reap similar acclaim, with Publisher’s Weekly hailing it as a “rich, propulsive novel.” Brendan Dowling spoke to Margaret Verble via telephone on February 1st, 2019.
The characters in Cherokee America are loosely based on the lives of some of your relatives and their neighbors. When did you decide you wanted to use their stories as a springboard for your novel?
That was about in the year 2001 or 2002. I heard from my grandmother way before then the story of how her father and uncle had come to Indian territory as orphans of the Civil War. They were taken in by Cherokee America Rogers, who Cherokee America Singer is based on. I was intrigued by their story because they were orphans. I didn’t know much about them or where they were from. I was also intrigued by Mrs. Rogers taking them in and essentially giving them a life. My grandmother was very grateful to her for that.
Reading the book is such an immersive experience, and we get a close-up view of the characters’ day-to-day lives. What was your research process like in order to capture the small details of life in 1875?
I’m very familiar with the land on which this book is set. I’ve roamed it my entire life, I grew up knowing it and I’ve been on it as recently as last July. I knew people who lived much in the same way as the people in the book did. When I was young the people down there in those bottoms still didn’t have electricity or plumbing or any of the modern conveniences of life.
We live in a vastly changing world. The Cherokee people didn’t. They lived much the same way from generation to generation. Many of the things going on in the United States passed them by. They didn’t have access to telephones or anything like that. Cherokee culture is pretty conservative, too. People have been doing the same kinds of things as they were doing in 1875. I know people who knew the people that I’m writing about, and knew them well.
One of the things I loved about Check is we get to see her assessing the risks and solving the seemingly never-ending stream of problems that get thrown her way. What were the elements of her character that drew you to making her the center of this story?
I didn’t start out making her the center of the story. I started out wanting to center the story on my great grandfather and his brother. Since they were orphans there wasn’t very much information on them. My grandmother, my great aunts and uncles, my mother, her brothers, and first cousins knew them well, but they didn’t have much history on them. When I began investigating Mrs. Rogers, I found a fascinating history. This is a woman who was the daughter of Gideon Morgan. Morgan led the Cherokees against the Creeks in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, which is one of the most famous battles in Cherokee history. She was also the great granddaughter of John Sevier, who was the first governor of Tennessee and a ferocious Indian fighter. He just slaughtered the Cherokees in South Carolina. She was the great niece of Chief Lowery, who among other things sponsored Sequoyah to the Eastern Cherokees so that they would learn what he had done with the syllabary. So you take a woman who has all these famous male relatives and they’re pulling on all sides of her. How complex a background that is made her irresistible to me.
Your great-grandfather and uncle are characters in the book. What was it like imagining their lives as young children in Cherokee America?
In order to do that, I had to delve into the Civil War in Indian Territory. At the time I started writing on Cherokee America, which was way back in 2001 and 2002, not a lot had been written about that. As the years rolled on, I got more access to that information. The war was absolutely devastating out there. When we think of the Civil War, we normally think of what was going on in the famous battles that we all grew up hearing about, but it was complete devastation in what is now Oklahoma and in parts of Missouri and Arkansas.
It’s sobering to see how the war has affected each character.
It touched every aspect of their lives. They lost their homes and their family members. They went to refugee camps. And everything the tribe had built after the Trail of Tears was destroyed. They’re still trying to cope with it ten years later when the book is set.
Certain characters speak Cherokee in the novel, and it’s really beautiful to see the letters of the Cherokee alphabet printed in the book. Can you talk about how you decided to use and show the Cherokee language in the book?
I started from the very beginning using the Cherokee language phonetically spelled out, because I had access to Cherokee dictionaries. It’s absolutely crucial to the plot. It’s not just in there for show. But it has only been relatively recently that we’ve had access to Sequoyah’s syllabary on computers, so that it would be possible to use those symbols in the book. That was a really late decision, although I fell in love with the looks of the syllabary as a young woman. If you read the acknowledgments, you’ll find my mother’s first cousin, my second cousin, Earl Boyd Pierce, was our tribal attorney. Earl had a law office in Fort Gibson. On the ceiling of Earl’s office, he had tiles that were the syllabary’s symbols. It was just astonishing to look up there and see how beautiful they were. They were a very real living thing to me.
One of the quotes praising Maud’s Line stated that you write “as though Daniel Woodrell nods over one shoulder and the spirit of Willa Cather over the other.” Who are the authors that have been influential to you as a writer?
I would say the author who’s most influenced me as a writer probably does not show in this book, and that would be Flannery O’Connor. I can read her again and again and again. Probably on this book, the greatest influence is Mark Twain.
I feel this book has a similar mordant sense of humor as Flannery O’Connor. There are moments in Cherokee America that are darkly funny.
I’m glad you feel that. I’m like that in real life. Flannery O’Connor’s like that and I just delight in it. I tried to make Cherokee America as funny as I could.
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