Several years ago, Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle sat inside the Jackson County Public Library in Sylva with one thing on her mind — a bone. “I had given myself a prompt to write as long as I could about the most basic object I could think of,” she explains. “So I chose a clean bone. And I kind of joke that I wrote about it long enough to write a novel.”
On Tuesday, Sept. 8, Saunooke Clapsaddle will celebrate Even as We Breathe, her debut novel that started out as a bare bone writing prompt, with a virtual virtual release party hosted by Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe at 6 p.m. A work of historical fiction, the book itself is also historic: Upon its debut, Saunooke Clapsaddle will become the first enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to publish a novel.
The achievement means several different things to the author. In one respect, her breakthrough emphasizes the lack of representation of Eastern Band of Cherokee voices in the publishing world. In another sense, the honor creates an added responsibility for Saunooke Clapsaddle to authentically represent the Qualla Boundary.
At the same time, the author hopes her debut provides a greater understanding of her community to a broader audience. But above all, the book is a celebration of and nod to her fellow Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. “I’ve had so much support from my tribe throughout this process,” she explains. “I hope [the story] rings true for them and that they see themselves in it.”
Tale of two cities
Even as We Breathe is a retrospective, coming-of-age tale replete with youthful romance, family secrets, murder and prisoners of war. In it, Cowney Sequoyah, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, reflects on the summer of 1942, when he and fellow enrolled member (and love interest) Essie Stamper leave the Qualla Boundary to join the staff at the Grove Park Inn.
“Cherokee was not the Cherokee of today,” Cowney, now an old man, remembers early on in the book. “Cherokee was mud-chinked log cabins burrowed into mountain hollers, surprising expanses of neat garden rows jutting across rare unwooded land at the end of roughly carved dirt roads — half washed away in the spring and summer and impassable with snow in the winter.”
Like his hometown, the historic inn also looked quite different back then. Instead of entertaining summer tourists, the resort was used as an internment camp for Axis diplomats, following the United States’ entry into the Second World War. (For more, see “Asheville Archives: Foreign diplomats held hostage at the Grove Park Inn, 1942,” Xpress, Sept. 2)
“There seemed to be many secrets in this town, far more than I considered the Boundary to have,” Cowney states. “But, of course, Asheville townies likely felt quite the same about Cherokee. So, during our time in Asheville, we would pass one another with both curiosity and secret-keeper confidence in our eyes.”
Spirit above all else
Within her book’s rich plotlines, Saunooke Clapsaddle raises deep questions about the country’s history, the role of citizenship and the concept of patriotism.
Cowney, who is 19 years old in 1942, is of age to serve in the military. However, a birth defect with his foot leaves him unable to enlist. Despite his apparent disability, Cowney’s absence from the battlefield elicits criticism from fellow employees at the Grove Park Inn — indelible remarks that continue to infuriate the narrator decades later. “Odd how people were so concerned about me risking my life for a country that wouldn’t even let me vote,” he reflects.
Similar hypocrisies are observed throughout the novel. Saunooke Clapsaddle says she wanted to explore how the criteria and view of citizenship has changed and continues to change over time. And by extension, the author adds, she strives to challenge readers on the superficial ways in which we categorize and limit our understanding of people based on an individual’s bloodline or skin color.
“I hope I make the argument that the spirit of the human being is more important than any of those things,” she says.
Despite limitations imposed by COVID-19, Saunooke Clapsaddle says her own spirit remains high about her book’s upcoming release. “When you dream about your debut novel, you think about going to events at bookstores and meeting readers,” she says. “That’s not happening right now.”
However, she continues, there are benefits to virtual events. “There’s no way I could have done the same number of live events that I’m scheduled to do virtually over the next couple of months,” she says.
Further, the pandemic has created a deeper bond within the Western North Carolina writing network. “There is a real communal sense of supporting each other during this time,” she says. As an example, she notes how acclaimed novelist David Joy has worked with City Lights Bookstore in Sylva to promote her debut, alongside his own latest book (see “Wildfires Spread in David Joy’s Latest Novel,” Xpress, Aug. 12) and fellow WNC author Leah Hampton’s recent short story collection (see “Author Leah Hampton Examines Modern Life in Appalachia,” Xpress, July 7) as a bundle of noteworthy new releases.
“That wouldn’t have happened prior to COVID,” she explains. “I think we’ve had to be more creative in our approach during the pandemic.”
Truth and peace
Saunooke Clapsaddle’s reflections on the challenges and opportunities created by the coronavirus provide insight into her broader understanding of the world. There is always more, never less, to unpack, consider and hopefully understand.
Not surprisingly, this concept is a central theme in Even as We Breathe. In the book’s prologue, Cowney recalls discovering a bone outside the Grove Park Inn, signaling to readers the story’s intention of excavating the past.
“I was immediately spellbound by this calcified opportunity to embrace a remnant of a life’s existence in one hand,” Cowney proclaims. “Dry it. Dust it. Preserve it, and listen. Buried by a story, and I was the only one on this earth privileged to hear it.”
But near the novel’s end, the dangers of Cowney’s quest for answers — about the bone, his family, his country and himself — become evident. “Sometimes you have to decide if you want truth or peace,” a fellow character tells the 19-year-old boy.
Fearless and unflinching, Cowney replies, “I want both.”
To register for the free Malaprop’s virtual release party on Sept. 8, visit avl.mx/82i.