Erika T. Wurth’s new collection Buckskin Cocaine brings the reader into the disparate lives of a host of characters working in the film industry. Questions of art, identity, and commerce collide, and the overlapping structure heightens the tensions of a close-knit creative community. It’s a smart, knowing work of fiction that memorably evokes the ways in which creative lives can collide for good and for ill. I talked with Wurth about the genesis of this book, her column at ROAR, and some of her future projects via email.
The stories in Buckskin Cocaine feature a number of the same characters, as they move in and out of one another’s lives. Do the stories appear in the collection in the same order that you wrote them?
You know, I think I did. It’s been a few years, but, I remember that an agent that I had at the time wasn’t able to sell my novel and also, the desire/ability to write poetry had just DIED in me. And I was thinking a lot about what concretely – actually made things experimental or traditional in fiction – and that the more interesting question for me was, what’s the best form for my content. So I thought to take some loose poetic technique – like simple repetition for example – and use it in the stories. But the first is the most alternative in form (it’s a series of vignettes – because that’s the only way I could think to show what this person’s inner landscape was like).
At what point did you realize that these characters and this setting would expand through multiple stories?
I knew from the get-go that this would be a collection that featured returning characters and would mainly take place in Santa Fe. I’ve noticed that with my second poetry and short story collection, you have the chance/ability to be more cohesive if that’s what you want.
Many of these stories are set in and around the film industry, and one of these characters has a background in dance. Were there challenges for you in terms of writing about multiple artistic disciplines?
Yes – because the techniques are different, the worlds are marginally different. But my mother was a dancer, and in addition, the native art world is so small – because the native world is so small – that, with the help of google and simply just knowing folks, I was able to do what I needed. And, this is a collection of stories – not a how to on film or dance – so there’s some amount of artistic license you need to grant yourself if you want the work to be any good at all.
Where did the impetus for writing multiple stories set in the world of film come from?
I think that knowing folks in the native film world, I got to see how brutal it was – how much you have to hustle, and how permissive it is to be inconceivably ugly to people, especially women. And how deeply native folks still want to retain some sense of who they are as native people, which ends up nearly inevitably spinning out in all kinds of devastating ways. And how badly native people want their heros. And of course, the parallels to the writing world are there.
You’ve spent time as a guest writer at the Institute of American Indian Arts, and Santa Fe comes up in several of the stories in Buckskin Cocaine. Did that experience inform the way that New Mexico factors into this narrative?
Without a doubt. I dated a director, I went to those crazy film parties – and saw that hustle up close and personal. And often, folks thought I was an actress, which is honestly a little funny. But, it allowed me to see things that other writers might not. And because my auntie used to trade her beadwork in that area, my family has been coming to the Santa Fe/Albuquerque area for a long time. And then I spent a year as a visiting writer at IAIA – and then took my sabbatical in New Mexico, though I’ve never lived in Santa Fe. I’m a Burqueño, in every way. It’s where I belong. It’s actually where the Chiricahua are originally from.
When in the process of writing the book did the title Buckskin Cocaine come to mind as the title?
I was really struggling with that. But as usual, my poet Nava-dad, Sherwin Bitsui, swooped in to save me, just as he often tried to anyway, when I was at some of those crazy parties in Santa Fe, and suggested the title. I loved it.
In a recent column for ROAR, you mentioned that you were working on a science fiction novel. How is that coming? And where do your tastes in science fiction fall?
That died for a bit, for a variety of reasons – one being just huge life changes, the other being that my agent briefly thought to have me do a nonfiction project – which was a disaster. I am solicited for nonfiction essays – obviously, I wouldn’t be writing for ROAR if not, but the big concept maybe I’ll get all the dollars to have all the time to write project – wrong turn, completely. But that’s coming along again. I also love fantasy – and I’ve gotten to meet Lev Grossman and more recently Rebecca Roanhorse, and though they’re fantasy writers, it’s made me realize that it’s time for me to go back to the novel. I started with fantasy as a kid – would read almost nothing else – then that evolved into science fiction, and then I really wanted to catch up to was great in realism as an adult, which is generally where my tastes lie in literary fiction. And that will never change – then next thing in the back of my mind is a big fat domestic drama. But I began to watch the new Doctor Who (I had watched the old with my dad, who was an aerospace engineer) and then I came across The Magicians, and then Rendezvous with Rama, and it was over. I started to read science fiction and fantasy again and now, I read something like that, then some realism (and sometimes magical realism or something experimental) and I’ve found that doing this really enriches my reading experience. So I’m going back to my science fiction novel, which Rebecca says has a fantasy edge, as part of it takes place on a planet not on earth. Essentially, it’s about a planet that has suffered an invasion, and the people there are far advanced from where we are but they can’t beat the invaders. And a woman on that planet has been able to communicate with a woman who works for SETI here, and there lies the key to beating the invaders. I’m around 90 pages in. And it might be my one and only. Or, as Lee Francis says (he’s the owner of a native comic book store in Albuquerque), why can’t you write the domestic drama in space?