Dennis E. Staples explores everything from love to murder in ‘This Town Sleeps’

Dennis E. Staples is an Ojibwe writer from northern Minnesota whose debut book is about two Ojibwe men from northern Minnesota. Don’t let that simple fact let you think this is some sort of vieled biography of his life.

His novel, This Town Sleeps, is steeped in speculative fiction and has unpredictable twists and turns. While the two men, one openly gay and one deeply closeted, explore their relationship, masculinity, and sexuality, the author ventures into mysticism as well.

The result is a breathtaking and unforgettable novel.

I corresponded with the author via email to dig into his writing, interests in speculative fiction, and the Ojibwe community.

I wanted to start by introducing readers to who Dennis E. Staples is. What’s your brief biography? Both personal and writing.

Most of my life I’ve been in the northern Minnesota area. I attended a public school on the Leech Lake Reservation and I was raised by a big Ojibwe family, with a mother and grandmother who both loved to read. From a young age I took a heavy interest in books and writing, often to the detriment of my class work. After high school, I decided to attend Bemidji State University, in part because I’d attended their Upward Bound program. At first, I chose accounting as my stated major, but halfway through the course I just couldn’t keep any motivation for the subject. But just like in middle and high school, I had no problem spending hours, and sometimes full days, with a doorstopper fantasy novel. Every semester after I took as many writing and English related courses as I could. During most of my undergrad years, I worked a graveyard shift job but took daytime classes. As a result, I get most of my best writing done at night.

You graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts with an MFA in Fiction. What was that experience like for you? How did it shape you personally and how did it shape your writing?

The first time I stepped out of the terminal in Albuquerque, it was mid-July, about 97 degrees outside, and I wasn’t prepared for it at all. Took almost the whole week for me to adjust to the heat. But now I could easily see myself living there.

Personally, the experience at IAIA helped me rediscover the value of family and community connectedness. The majority of staff and students were Indigenous, from all across the country and world. I learned so many new things about their tribes’ customs and modern lifestyle and challenges, yet, there was always a sense of the familiar there. The shared experiences were easy to bond over and no matter what drama there may have been that feeling for me didn’t abate. 

It shaped my writing by providing a motivation to open my laptop again after a long period of writer’s block. I hadn’t been writing consistently since the previous November when I participated in NaNoWriMo. Put all of my energy into that (and I completed the 50,000 words) but after I felt drained and didn’t know how to get out of that rut. IAIA connected me with writers from all walks of life and unique voices, I felt compelled to try my hardest to rediscover my voice and write something that could make them all proud. 

The strongest emotional reaction I had was hearing Claire Vaye Watkins read her then-unpublished essay “I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness,” about a former boyfriend of hers who passed away. This was less than two months after the passing of my own first boyfriend. I felt frozen in my seat because her opening paragraph says this explicitly. I almost thought I’d have to walk out because the wound was so fresh, but at the same time just hearing one other writer talk about such a deeply personal story was a comfort I didn’t know I needed. 

You’ve had work in Asimov’s Science Fiction and Nightmare, what drew you to speculative fiction?

Speculative fiction is the genre/style that speaks to me most powerfully because of my tendency to get lost in daydreams. Many of my favorite spec-fic stories have an introspective, forlorn quality of them that allows me to fully immerse myself in both impossible, fantastical worldbuilding, and the raw emotion of a story, which is so important to me to enjoy a work. 

I was 19 when I read my first Sci-Fi novella, A Song for Lya by George R.R. Martin. When I become interested in any author’s work, I like to delve into as much as their catalog as possible and learn the themes and styles that are important to them. I didn’t know what to expect from it because I’d only read a couple of his more known works. But I read it all in one sitting and I felt at the climax of the story because of how raw the emotions were, while also telling a story about an alien planet. That feeling stayed with me and inspired me to jump into more of the genre in search of other stories that could be haunting and speculative. 

Your novel also features a sense of speculative. How was This Town Sleeps born?

The novel was born during a late-night summer drive in June of 2016. I’d been lying in bed for hours trying to get some sleep for work in the morning, but around two or three I gave up trying to sleep and took a drive. I didn’t have a place in mind, so I let the road take me wherever. I passed through my hometown and saw my elementary school. The playground is a big, wooden castle in an open field. Beyond the fence was an old merry-go-round that was never used because one of the town’s stray dogs had apparently crawled underneath it to die. Or so I’m told. I remember so many people talking about it, but never knew what the truth of the matter was. When I got home from that late-night drive I still couldn’t sleep and started writing what I thought might be a historical fantasy short story about the area. I believe the first line I wrote was “The dog went under the merry-go-round to die. On the night I brought him back to life, a train passed through town.” So even before any character or setting was really established, there was a speculative/fantasy element I wanted to focus on. It’s not marketed as such right now but at heart I do consider it a fantasy novel. 

The novel has a lot of different aspects that build the whole story. What was the process like of fleshing out each of these pieces?

I’ll be honest, it was long, tedious, and frustrating to no end. When I’m writing anything, I like to make lists, of character names, possible chapter titles, etc, but I had so much trouble deciding on how I wanted to structure the story. I might have given up completely had I not heard a song on a friend’s playlist: “Your 8th Birthday” by Cloud Cult. The chorus is a single word repeated in a heavy, emotional call; Kaiden. For the past year or so, the character of Kayden Kelliher basically stole the show as soon as he appeared but with all the trouble I was having with the structure I wasn’t confident I could finish. Even though the background of that song is sad, it reinvigorated my energy and I was able to take another look at it after putting it away. From there I was able to see a better way than as I’d previously always envisioned it; split into four parts that focused on different characters and timelines. Marion would not have been the throughline narrator if I’d kept this method. But I’m glad it took me so long to get there because otherwise I might have not explored more characters and their backgrounds as much. 

What has the response been like prior to publication from the Ojibwe community?

So far, it’s been positive. I’ve not had any complaints about the book by those who’ve read it or any real push back. Most people feel genuinely supportive and excited. 

This book touches on sexuality, culture, and history, among other themes. What propels you to explore these topics?

When it comes to history, I attribute that to an encyclopedia set my mother bought in 1999 or 2000, New World Book of Knowledge, Millennium edition. I would sit for hours at home and page through them, soaking in whatever interesting things I came across. Eventually the set was scattered, some ruined from water damage, others just worn and filthy from being used to balance the kitchen table after a leg broke. We also had a history book of our hometown that me and my sister liked to look through and compare the photographs to how the town was in the present day. What I remember most about that one was a “Man of Three Centuries” named Old Wrinkled Meat, purported to be like 150 years old or so. 

My Ojibwe heritage has always been taught to me and celebrated, by both my family and school. Every year of school I had at least one Ojibwe class. (I almost chose U of M-Duluth instead of Bemidji State to study the language and immersion teaching.) Most of these teachers were Ojibwe, some weren’t, but all were involved in the community and did what they could to ensure the learning and passing on of our culture’s value. It defined me all through growing up and still does today.

As for sexuality, that’s a tougher one to answer. My go-to is usually pointing to Indian humor, bawdy, blush-inducing, and ever-present. Beyond that, some of the books I studied in college also touched on sexuality in a blunt manner. Works like Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs To You, Derek Palacio’s How to Shake The Other Man, Fenton Johnson’s Scissors, Paper, Rock. I think it was seeing how easily these authors portrayed the physical aspects of relationships and how important they are to the characters that gave me the confidence to explore Marion and Shannon so deeply. 

Confession: I actually did the Hollywood pan-out when Marion and Shannon first hooked up in his bedroom; they walked into the bedroom, scene end, next section. Derek Palacio wondered why the sex was ‘skipped’ and I said I wasn’t sure if I was ready to go there as a writer yet. His advice: always go there. It can be revised later if it needs to be.

What would you like to explore in the future?

I’d like to start putting out more horror and dark fantasy content inspired by Ojibwe culture and reservation life. Lots of room to explore there. I’m also in the process of drafting either a true sequel to This Town Sleeps (small preview, Shannon is still in the area and still fishing) or a companion novel or short story cycle that further expands the lives and history of Geshig. All options will probably be fantasy or magical realism based. 

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