Rilla Askew’s novels tackle big themes: early 20th-century race riots, the Great Depression, the Vietnam War era. Her latest, Kind of Kin, focuses on America’s current immigration debate. In this Zola Q&A, the Oklahoma author reveals how the deportation of a family member influenced the book and why Bible Belt residents are more conflicted over the issue than you might think.
Zola: In your research for Kind of Kin, you spent a lot of time with Oklahoma state legislators. What surprised you the most about the lawmaking process?
Rilla Askew: I was impressed by how much the Oklahoma House of Representatives is the people’s house. Groups from all over the state—student groups, Future Farmers of America, Federal Housing Administration groups—come to watch laws being made. There is a sense of access to the representatives. The public can really engage in the system.
Zola: Your niece’s husband was deported. How much did this experience influence the book?
RA: Real life is much more personal and different than fiction. My experience with my niece was not really the catalyst for the book. The realization of the passing of the law [Oklahoma’s 2007 anti-immigrant House Bill 1804] is what inspired me. You could be arrested in church if you were keeping someone in the church. Even giving an illegal immigrant a ride home was enough to have action taken against you by law enforcement. My niece’s husband was deported before the law was passed but sheriffs and cops had already started to establish the process of enforcing the law before it went into effect. After my niece’s husband was arrested, she went to see him, and he had already been deported by the time she arrived. Oklahoma was one of the first states to pass a law addressing the immigration issue, and it was really who we are as a state that inspired me to want to write about it.
Zola: Are there certain factors that make Oklahoma’s relationship with immigration especially complex and unique?
RA: A big part is faith. Oklahoma is the buckle of the Bible belt. We all go to church. And while some might assume that Protestants and Evangelicals align with the Republican side, it’s much more nuanced and complicated, especially in rural southeastern Oklahoma. Illegal aliens are people they know, not an abstract notion. When you get connected to individuals, it isn’t monolithic. Sweet [one of Kind of Kin’s central characters] experiences this internal conflict. She wishes her niece would not have married an illegal immigrant, but she still sacrifices herself for the sake of her niece’s daughter, who needs her father in her life.
Zola: Kind of Kin is your first book set in the present day—after four others whose settings range from the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 to the Dust Bowl to the Vietnam War era. Is it easier to write historical or contemporary fiction?
RA: Contemporary fiction is easier. Daily life is already familiar. It was more difficult to get the little details of life in 1921 Tulsa—the details that are necessary to paint an accurate picture of life in that era. But in contemporary novels it is harder to get the present lyricism of contemporary language.
Zola: So what comes first when you start a novel: theme or character?
RA: It really depends. I wrote Fire in Beulah because I wanted to write about the Tulsa race riots. Kind of Kin began with the voice of Dustin [a young Oklahoma boy]. He came into my head one day, and I could hear his voice narrating. Luis [an Mexican illegal hiding in Dustin’s grandfather’s barn] came second, and initially I imagined a sort of Huckleberry Finn where Dustin and Luis were the main characters going somewhere together. Then the character of Sweet came along. She was a strong female trying to hold her family together, getting by with little money. Sweet then took over in my head as I went along.
RA: Walking—keeping the body occupied and the mind free. I’d also recommend waking up early before the world comes in. Like everyone else, I’m also distracted by Facebook, and my job teaching.
Tenacity is really key. Even when you feel like you’re writing badly just keep going until your voice comes back, and you can cut out what does not fit later. I used to think a novel was sprung fully formed but it really isn’t. There’s a great Flaubert quote that addresses this: “Talent is a long patience, and originality an effort of will and intense observation.” Unlike some forms of writing, the novelist is in for the long haul. Kind of Kin took about three and a half years to write.
Zola: Other than Flaubert, which authors inspire you?
RA: There are two that immediately come to mind. First is Luis Alberto Urrea, who is a Mexican-American poet and novelist born in Tijuana. He has two books I really recommend, The Devil’s Highway—a nonfiction account of crossing the border from Mexico—and Into the Beautiful North. He presents the great devastation of crossing, the beauty, and some comedy. Another favorite is Native American poet and musician Joy Harjo. She has this spiritual and moral understanding of Oklahoma people that is hard to describe. Her poetry and music sing a song of Oklahoma and heartbreak and our connection to the Earth.
Zola: What’s your next project?
RS: I don’t really want to confirm it, because I’ve started it before and been distracted both by Harpsong and Kind of Kin, but I’d like to write about a protestant woman burned at the stake in England during the era of Henry VIII. I really enjoyed Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. They show a great point of view for the era.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.