Plotwise, Tommy Orange’s second novel, Wandering Stars (Knopf, Feb. 27), is a follow-up to his acclaimed debut, 2018’s There There, a Pulitzer Prize finalist. The new book follows the events in the previous one, particularly the fate of Orvil Red Feather, the young Native American man at the center of a calamity at a powwow in Oakland, California. The novel also reaches back into the past, tracking Orvil’s ancestors to the 1864 Sand Creek massacre, in which the U.S. army killed and displaced hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho, sending many of them to Florida schools and forced assimilation under the bigoted mantra “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

But while Wandering Stars extends There There’s story, it also stands on its own as a piercing study of the ways Native history and lore have been erased, and how that erasure feeds into feelings of disassociation, and sometimes addiction, among Native Americans today. Every scrap of history that has survived years of attempts to destroy it matters, the book argues. To that point, speaking by Zoom from his home in Oakland, Orange was enthusing about Native actor Lily Gladstone, who the previous evening won the Golden Globe for best actress in a film for Killers of the Flower Moon—the first Indigenous woman to win a Golden Globe. “Anytime one of us is highlighted, it lifts all of us,” Orange says.

In this conversation, edited for space and clarity, Orange discusses the genesis of Wandering Stars, writing about addiction with humanity, and his next book.

Wandering Stars is at once a prequel and a sequel to There There. Were you thinking about continuing the story while you were writing the first book?

I had no plans for this book to have a prequel part, or even having a historical piece. I feel allergic to historical fiction, especially for Native people, because it’s just been so overdone. When I wrote There There, there was always modern technology and a very modern feeling on purpose, because of how overdone that historical element has been. The second book was always just going to be the aftermath of what happens at the end of There There.

So what changed?

I was in Sweden for the translation of There There, and I got invited to do this museum tour. There was some Southern Cheyenne stuff there, and I saw a newspaper clipping in one of the exhibits. It said, “Cheyennes in Florida, 1875.” And I know enough about our tribe’s history to know that we were never near Florida. It made me very curious about how we ended up there. So I went down this rabbit hole of [Native] boarding schools, which were a super-devastating piece of history for Native people and went on for many, many decades. So it felt like something was there, something important that I wanted to explore.

Where does the title come from?

I was in a warehouse signing books for There There when “Wandering Star” by Portishead came on. I knew the song already, but something in that moment made me feel like, Oh, that’s the name of the next book. So I started imagining what that would be. As I was writing into this historical piece that I was researching, I found out that one of the [Cheyenne] prisoners was named Star, and one of the names of one of the prisoners there was Bear Shield [a surname of multiple There There characters]. I started crying when I saw that, because I felt like this is where the connection is—how to get all the way to the present from there.

You dedicate the book to “everyone surviving and not surviving this thing called and not called addiction.” Why are surviving and addiction such volatile words for you?

The characters in the book are dealing with addiction, and my own life has been formed and mangled in many ways by addiction. It’s just been a really unavoidable, formative thing for me. I also wanted to get at how a lot of addiction books are simplistic—they show that addiction is bad, but then somebody recovers and then that’s good, and they’re healed and that’s the arc. Or it’s romanticizing addiction. I think [in] our understanding around addiction—even though it’s so rampant in our culture—there’s still no humanity to it, there’s no complexity to it. And I think the way that it’s tied up with trauma and surviving is also not emphasized enough.

I think people are plagued by various addictions because they’re trying to cope with something else. A lot of times we point to the addiction and we’re like, “That’s what’s wrong,” instead of asking, “Why do you think somebody has to do something like that?” Addiction is not fun, as much as sometimes it can be portrayed that way. I was really trying to speak to something that I see an absence of in fiction and in a lot of language we have around addiction narratives.

There’s a line that comes up twice in the book about how telling stories takes you away from your life and brings you back “better made.” Has that been true for you?

Yeah. The way that fiction transforms is really hard to pinpoint. It’s hard to collect data and show that there’s this specific outcome. But it’s been deeply impactful to me, the transformative quality of fiction and of art in general. Sometimes stories and entertainment get mixed up. Sometimes it can feel like it’s just a distraction, or they just transport you. Some people do use fiction for that and that’s perfectly fine. But the kind that is important to me, and that I’ve been moved by since having a relationship to reading and to art in general, is [the experience] that you come back from changed. It does take you away, but you come back different.

What that difference is, it’s not always super clear. Sometimes I’ve been asked, “What do you want your book to do for people by the time they finish it?” I’m like, “It’s a novel. It’s a whole world you’re trying to render in all its complexity.” That line came to me just out of the blue—it wasn’t something that I’d ever thought about before. But then it became important in the book as I got further into it, in trying to think about the way remnants of this past life would end up affecting future lives.

Have you been working on a new book?

Yes. I’m a little hesitant to say too much because it’s so new—I just sold it a month or two ago. It’s set in Oakland, but it’s completely outside of the universe of There There and Wandering Stars. It’s a contemporary book around the theme of the “pretendian” [a portmanteau of “pretend Indian”]. Recently there was a lot in the news about Buffy Sainte-Marie, a very famous musician, pretty much our most famous musician. Or used to be ours—it recently came out that she’d been faking it. [Ed: A 2023 CBC investigation challenged Sainte-Marie’s claims of Indigenous ancestry; the singer/activist denies that she fabricated her identity.] This is a devastating thing, and there’s a whole world of academics, filmmakers, authors, musicians, who are not in the worlds that surround them. They are super interesting, identity-wise.

Mark Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix.