Morgan Talty’s short story collection “Night of the Living Rez” is like a string of pearls. Each is so unique and stands on its own — but when you finish and step back, you see the whole stunning necklace.
It’s his debut collection, and it just won the New England Book Award for fiction. In 12 gritty-yet-tender Maine-set vignettes, the author slowly paints a portrait of young David: a member of the Penobscot Nation living on a reservation with his mom, sister, and mom’s boyfriend, a “part-time medicine man” nicknamed Frick. Later, he’s Dee: battling addiction, binge-watching “The Sopranos,” driving his pal to electroconvulsive therapy.
Talty, a 31-year-old member of the Penobscot Nation, lives in Levant, Maine, and is an assistant professor of English in Creative Writing and Native American and Contemporary Literature at the University of Maine in Orono. He spoke to the Globe by phone.
Q. How did this book take root?
A. In 2015, I wrote a short story called “Night of the Living Rez.” When I went into my MFA program in 2017, I had a couple stories written from David’s point of view. I wrote an entire version of this book that’s just not good at all.
So I put it aside, and wrote “Burn,” which opens the collection. I kept telling myself, “OK, this is not associated with [David].” But I’d written from David’s point of view for so long that I kept wanting to call the narrator David. So I just put the letter “D” as a placeholder. In revising, I thought: Wait, maybe he goes by “Dee.” Then I thought: Wait a minute. This is David all grown up.
Q. You’ve described the collection as using a zipper structure.
A. Right. Eventually, I wound up with this strange structure, bouncing back and forth from David to Dee. Each of those story-groups move forward in time. It was a messy process. But the book didn’t work chronologically, and I was dedicated to the short-story form. Short stories, by their very nature, get their power from what’s left out. On a macro level, the book itself ended up like a short story.
Q. Is David/Dee drawn from different people? Is there any of you in him?
A. Most of the characters are amalgamations of people I know. No one person in the book is based off of any [one person]. It was funny: When the book first came out, my aunt, who’s the tribal clerk on the reservation, was like, “You’re the talk of the rez. Everybody keeps asking me: Who’s who?”
I think David, Mom, and Paige are very much me, my mom, and my sister in some shadow of a shadow of a way. As I grew as a writer, and as this book [took shape] those characters became further away.
Q. Do you have a favorite story in the collection?
A. I’d have to go with “The Name Means Thunder.” I had so much fun writing it, but even just reading it, I love it. That makes me sound like a narcissist.
Q. [laughs] No, I love that one. Where did you grow up?
A. I was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut. I lived there until I was 6. Then my mom and I moved to the Penobscot Indian Nation, [near] Old Town, Maine. Levant is about 30 minutes away from the reservation. I grew up on the reservation until I was 18. My mom later moved off, but to this day I still go over there and it still feels like home.
Q. Did you love writing as a kid?
A. I hated writing. But I always loved telling stories. When I got to college, I realized storytelling existed in different mediums and genres. I started to read and fell in love with the way that storytelling existed in literature. That was at community college when I took my first creative writing workshop. I was 18 or 19.
Q. What was life like growing up?
A. It was good. I came from a family that loved each other deeply, that cared for each other deeply. I also grew up around severe addiction and poverty and violence — a lot of the themes in the book I have experience with.
Q. What are a few of those details drawn from life?
A. In “Safe Harbor,” for example, my mom suffered from severe depression and alcoholism, and used to go into a crisis stabilization unit occasionally. I’d visit her, she’d often say, “Hey, bring up some cigarettes.” So “Safe Harbor”— from the beginning until the seizure — is pretty much all true. I saw my mom have this seizure. And the quote [on the whiteboard], “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for” was an actual quote that was written there. After that incident, I went home and wrote everything down. Maybe a year later, I was like, “OK, what can I do with this?” and invented the rest of it.
Q. Are there any other moments pulled from real life?
A. Yeah, the jar full of corn, hair, and teeth. My sister was on the Mohawk reservation, dating this guy. She was outside smoking on the steps and found it. It was supposedly a curse. But I think it was from some woman who was jealous that my sister was dating this guy. [laughs]
Q. What do you want readers to know about the book?
A. Two things. Contrary to its synopsis, this book isn’t necessarily about what it means to be Penobscot. It’s not like every single person in the Penobscot Nation is suffering from addiction. It’s not the whole story.
The other thing: I really want this book to help people learn how to love one another better, especially those people in our lives who can sometimes be difficult, due to addiction, due to other factors. I hope opening this book helps us find more compassion.