Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle on “Even as We Breathe” and Socially Engaged Historical Fiction

Grease. Lilies. Tobacco. Vanilla. Fresh dirt. Pine sap.”

Vibrant smells invite the reader to escape in time and place with Even as We Breathe by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle. Her debut historical novel, set during the desperation of World War II, enchants with elegant descriptions of the Western North Carolina mountains and a hidden room of romance in the Asheville Grove Park Inn. From the mountains near the Qualla Boundary, homeland of the Eastern Cherokee Nation, Cowney Sequoyah, now an old man, recounts the complex summer of his nineteenth year in Asheville, North Carolina.

Desperate to escape poverty, the expectations of his insular family, and to become a man, young Cowney stands hopeful the first day of his summer job before the “pinnacle of luxury and privilege — Asheville’s Grove Park Inn and Resort.” The Axis diplomatic prisoners housed in this luxury hotel in the summer of 1942 are less foreign to him than Cowney’s fellow Cherokee and crush, Essie Stamper. When a child of the wealthy inmates vanishes from the grand hotel, Cowney’s status, a betrayal, and a mysterious bone combine to indict him for abduction and murder. This tale begins with secrets, and ends with complicated truths, personal and universal. The tension of the mystery of the missing child and Clapsaddle’s elegant descriptions of the Western North Carolina hold the reader to the last word.

Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), holds degrees from Yale University and the College of William and Mary. Her work Going to Water  won the Morning Star Award for Creative Writing from the Native American Literature Symposium and was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. She is coeditor of the Journal of Cherokee Studies and serves on the board of trustees for the North Carolina Writers’ Network. She resides in Qualla, North Carolina.

Clapsaddle graciously answered questions about the story and her process as a writer via email.

The Grove Park Inn and Resort in Asheville, North Carolina, is a treasure of history and myth. You have certainly added to that. My question concerns the line between story and reality. Is room 447 real? Did you see “the light reflected from a large chandelier, twinkling back like a visual wind chime of moon’s glow”? Did you visit the Inn as you imagined the adventures of Cowney and Essie? What elements of the Inn in the story are true to life?

In all honesty, I have no idea if Room 447 is real. I plan to find out soon, though. I have visited The Grove Park Inn on occasion and spent some time marveling at its beauty, and just its general atmosphere. However, for the novel, I purposefully did not spend too much time on the property. I wanted to make sure that I was capturing the setting of a fictional 1942, not a modern Grove Park experience. I have never stayed in any of the rooms of the Grove Park (a little out of my price range), so I relied on historical pictures and accounts for the most part. And again, it is fiction, so I certainly added what I needed to make scenes work — including, perhaps, room 447.

Your book is divided into two sections: Bones and Stains. A physical bone “stained by mountain earth” and found by Cowney presents a mystery never resolved. We never know if the bone is human or animal. Why did you decide to leave this element as a mystery?

I really went back and forth in regard to sharing the truth of the bone. In earlier drafts, I am more straightforward about it. However, my editor, Silas House, and I had discussions about how the bone could come to represent so much more if I left its origin to be a bit of a mystery. In the end, it does not matter where the bone came from as long as a story remains. I wanted to convey the messages that humans so very often create such artificial labels to separate ourselves, but yet we are scientifically a very short step away from all creatures. What distinguishes us, or what should be the only thing that distinguishes us from one another, is our spirit.

What advantages does a writer have when placing their story in the past as opposed to a present-day setting? 

Placing a story in the past allows for retrospection. We are able to examine a story with a more critically informed eye and understand long-term implications of actions.

Your main character, Cowney, is targeted by the military and then rescued by a soldier who fought in the war with Cowney’s father. Often minorities that support our country in military and law enforcement roles are later disenfranchised by those same groups. How do you imagine Cowney to reconcile this conflict as an old man?

Again, it was very important for me to examine to what extent we assign labels and how those labels separate us as human beings. Cowney is both betrayed and befriended by men who could be classified by the same label. It is not the label that helps him save himself, it is the compassionate ally.

You include Cherokee words and phrases without translation and include Cowney’s response to Peter on Syllabary. Cowney says,“‘Syllabary,’ I corrected as gently as possible. ‘We’ve had a language forever. He [Sequoyah] created a system of writing. A syllabary.” Could you explain your choice not to include a Cherokee glossary?

Language is embedded with world view. Oftentimes people will ask for an English translation of a Cherokee word without understanding that some words cannot be directly translated into English because the world view is different. I didn’t want to provide a language lesson. I wanted to provide insight into worldview, and I think that is captured in the way the characters interact with each other and respond to situations. I didn’t want to ruin the beauty of the Cherokee by having it replaced immediately. Also, I play with words like “lishie.” While I explain its English translation, it is also a word that takes on different connotations in the book and having a glossary of sorts would sterilize that too much for my intended effect.

In the scene where Cowney and Lee attend a showing of the movie The Great Dictator they are forced to sit in the balcony “For Coloreds Only.” As they hear Chaplin’s speech as Hynkel, the dictator, pleading for peace and brotherhood, Cowney reflects on the commonality of man. I reviewed Chaplin’s speech and I found the passion and the echoes of history after 26 years to reverberate in today’s political climate. How hard was it to create the balance between writing commentary on politics in the life of this Cherokee boy with the progress of his understanding of the men in his life?

One of the reasons I chose the retrospective narrative voice was so I could show a progression of understanding — how we may grapple with understanding the inequalities of our society when we are younger, but how time provides context for this understanding. The passage of time affords us the opportunity to experience more people and better understand the complexity of people and their motivations. While the novel is historical fiction, it feels very contemporary to me in terms of the overarching themes about identity, race, class, and citizenship. I wanted to provide a narrative that holds together beyond 1942 and I found that (maybe unfortunately) less difficult to do than one might think.

Cowney’s Lishie is such a loving, nurturing figure. How have the Lishies in your life or other women elders influenced you?

I am fortunate to have a long ancestry of strong women on both sides of my family. In fact, on my mother’s side, women have held professional careers in addition to raising families going back to at least my great grandmothers. On my father’s side, my grandmother served as a Tribal Council Representative for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for over 25 years and was one of the most well-respected leaders in our tribe’s history. She also took on sole responsibility for running the family Trading Post business and raising five children after my grandfather died. Lishie is modeled on such women and those I know in our community who quietly do the hard work of caring for our community.

I attended the Writingest State Online Conference sponsored by the North Carolina Writers Network (Nov. 10-14) where you spoke in the Opening Conversation: “The Place and the Past” with Therese Anne Fowler. What advice can you share on how to stay out of the weeds of historical research in the writing process?

For me, the story — the narrative is first and foremost. I certainly went down my share of rabbit holes in my research and I think that is what makes historical fiction fun and interesting. However, in the editing process, I constantly asked myself if it was serving the narrative. Was it necessary information to move the plot forward, develop character, or bring the setting to life? There is a reason I write fiction. I like to bend some of the details of history when it serves the narrative, so I allow myself that leniency when I can. However, I think we have a responsibility to the human condition and its past. For many, fiction becomes all they know of a people or culture. This is especially true with Native literature, so I am mindful that I have a responsibility not to perpetuate stereotypes just because it might serve the narrative.

What is your next project? Is there another place in Western Carolina calling to you?

I am currently writing another novel strictly set in contemporary Cherokee, NC and this time with a female protagonist. I am interested in translating the themes and values embedded in our traditional Cherokee origin stories into a modern narrative that examines the complexities of Cherokee culture and modern politics. I am really excited about the project and challenged by it as well.

Even as We Breathe
By Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle
Fireside Industries
Published September 8, 2020