Each year, a committee of thoughtful and diligent YALSA members reads dozens of titles to determine the winner of the Michael L. Printz award for literary excellence in young adult literature. The committee also selects honor titles, a small group of exemplary books that merit special recognition. In 2021, the committee selected Eric Gansworth’s Apple (Skin to the Core) to receive this honor designation, noting the complexity and nuance of his verse memoir for young adults. In his speech at the Printz Celebration event, Gansworth explains that he is not usually someone who cries, noting that even tears of joy are too risky “because you are letting people know what you value, letting them know what they could steal if they wanted to hurt you.” Even so, he acknowledges, tears ran down his cheeks when he learned of the Printz honor.
An enrolled member of the Onondaga Nation, Gansworth grew up on the Rez – Tuscarora Nation near Niagara Falls, New York. His work explores issues of identity and culture as well as music, art, and relationships. Gansworth is also an accomplished artist and teacher, and we are so thankful that he has agreed to this interview.
THE HUB: Hello and thank you so much for sparing the time for this email interview. It means so much!
GANSWORTH: Hello! Wow, complex and wide range of questions! Thank you for taking the time to go in for the deep cuts here. Sometimes I end up learning about the work even after it’s published by some of the responses, and these are ambitious and interesting. I’ll apologize up front. I’m not very good at short answers. I believe rich questions deserve full answers.
THE HUB: Let’s start with the title: Apple (Skin to the Core) and the layers of meaning it inhabits. Was this an easy title to land on, or did it go through many iterations?
GANSWORTH: It was kind of agonizing (he said, melodramatically). This book has taken on many forms over the decade it was in development, but one thing had stayed the same. It was always going to be called The Apple Years. I’d never even given it a second thought. But it was also, for much of that gestation, a very different looking book, for an adult audience. When the discussions began about it evolving into a memoir in verse for young adults, a form I was unfamiliar with, there was great resistance from publishing professionals who assumed such a title would seem too geezerly, too much a “back in my day” kind of title. I could appreciate that, immediately, but I was definitely stuck, because that title was entrenched in my imagination. I was really not happy with anything I came up with. Rez Humor has a heavy pun dynamic, which is why I loved The Apple Years so much, and none of the other punny titles had the same pay off. This one dropped in, almost at the deadline for a final title. It looks good on paper, and resonates, but it doesn’t really roll off the tongue. I feared people might want to just call the book Apple, which has happened in some quarters. My poetry titles have tended to be cumbersome, so it fits that pattern, I suppose.
THE HUB: Obviously, rock music plays a significant role in shaping this book, most notably The Beatles. Why them? What makes these four white dudes from England an apt symbol for a book by and about Native life?
GANSWORTH: I have found it strange to discover that some people are not music people. That seems sort of like saying “I’m not really an oxygen person” to me, in part, because the Rez, as far as I can tell, has kind of a universal love for music. Not always the same music, of course, but as an art form, it is essential. In a lot of ways, the presence of The Beatles and their music is more symbolic. I needed some versatile images to sneak into some of my ideas, and they happened to be symbols I know extremely well.
Our first treaty with European invaders was the Two Row. It was a non-interference treaty, two parallel rows of beads, symbolizing two vessels traveling side by side, peacefully. One great thing about the treaty belts is that they have multiple interpretive threads and the focus is the interpreter’s prerogative. One thread has to do with the water in between. The two vessels traveling side by side inevitably leave wakes, and each wake mingles with the other and influences the paths. Much of my career has been about the ways indigenous cultures influence popular culture and vice versa.
There is a chronic tendency to want to keep us frozen in some fabricated amalgam of historic Indian identity, so I like to look for unexpected communications. My siblings are a lot older than I am, so I was always influenced by their interests. My first singles were “Daydream Believer/Goin’ Down” by The Monkees, and “Hey Jude/Revolution” by The Beatles, when I was three. It’s long been acknowledged that the British invasion was largely a British interpretation of an American music form, an outgrowth of primarily African American forms, with some significant early indigenous threads as well. Link Wray’s “Rumble” is a cornerstone of early American rock. Even if you don’t know it, those early British Invasion acts did. But their form is their form. It doesn’t sound like American rock at the time. The Beatles, The Stones, et al, loved the forms and internalized them, so their sound became its own thing in synthesis.
If I Ever Get Out of Here, the work where they first show up in a major way, was my tenth book, so they were absent from a lot of my work. I began really taking a deep dive into the wrestling match between group identity and individual identity in that novel, something almost any community-based Indian has to engage. I had the sudden insight that the same tension was a major part of The Beatles’ life stories. There are only two left, and it is still pop-newsworthy when Paul and Ringo play together. For a certain demographic, The Beatles being together seems the only natural state. And that strong group identity is a big part of many community-affiliated indigenous lives. Once I started considering The Beatles as one of my tools, I understood how much there was to say. Because they were also constantly experimenting and growing, they also had a rich trove of material to mine metaphorically.
THE HUB: One of my favorite poems in this collection is “Naming Ceremony,” especially as it grapples with the way we receive names and cast off names throughout our lives. There are those names we fear we might lose and those “given in innocence” that turn on you. Why is naming so central to our ability to tell our stories?
GANSWORTH: Thank you. I enjoyed pushing the limits with that poem. I’m glad the pay-off was worthwhile. This is another of those peculiar collisions that offers so many lenses, and I really wanted to consider as many facets as was possible. People seem very interested in this idea of “The Indian Name.” I mean, isn’t that the origin of the title of Dances with Wolves? Isn’t that the “Indian Name” the white guy gets? It was so weird to see that film proclaimed as a major landmark in indigenous cinema when its narrative was clearly about a white guy with Indians in the background.
And I’m probably guilty of that naming preoccupation to some degree, myself. It was important for me to go through ceremony and finally have a name, but I was still nervous about the process. You’re supposed to do it in your first year and I was fifty. I had 49 years of absence weighing on me, and I probably still wouldn’t have done it without the active help of my niece and my sister. There is also the weight of all the children who were forced to boarding schools who lost their original names, and the reality that my family’s last name was arbitrarily changed by the reservation school teacher in 1870 because she didn’t think it sounded American enough.
On the other hand, many nicknames are unflattering in some fashion, certainly in American culture. A lot of the Rez communities reject their members’ legal names and use nicknames as a matter of course. Some are behavior-curbing names, some are puns, and some are total flukes. There’s no real pattern and I love the inventiveness but must acknowledge that some people find their nicknames painful and that I have probably been a participant in causing that pain. I tend to feel that being a writer of realist narratives, I have to acknowledge my complicity in some things, like adopting nicknames that I knew I would not have wanted, myself.
THE HUB: The concept of metamorphosis turns up over and over in this book. What is it about those transformations or partial mutations that resonate for you?
GANSWORTH: The thing I love about a great metaphor is that it sort of works like a pedal effect on a guitar amp, or that game, Post Office, where things start off as one entity and, through repetition, become something else. Most metamorphoses we experience have some environmental trigger, like the Brood X cicadas in the news right now. They awake after seventeen years because of environmental triggers. I live in the region so toxic with chemicals that its state essentially initiated the SuperFund designation. I suspect I am going through undesirable metamorphoses even now, at the DNA level. But through a different lens, I remember the major change of growing up in one way of life, involving a close community, where you knew most of the families, the adults, the older kids, your own peers, and then at 11, being thrown into a giant middle school where we weren’t just meeting 300 new, primarily white peers. We were meeting 300 new peers from a significantly different culture, with a different worldview. They might know two or three neighbors, depending on whether those neighbors had kids their age. Their idea of community was fundamentally different.
Your choices, being faced with that new world, are change or be crushed, or be defiant. Defiance always bites me in the ass. Maybe it does everyone, and others don’t mind the bite as much. So you change, and generally speaking, metamorphosis is not a two-way street. And of course, people going through puberty are keenly aware of metamorphosis. It’s one of the times in our lives where change is largely inescapable. And puberty is simultaneously fascinating and mortifying, as an experience. If any phase of life is Kafkaesque, it is the overhaul of puberty. Like Gregor Samsa, you wake up one morning and your voice is different, your body has changed and some people respond to your new evolution poorly. Still, you have no choice. You have to adapt.
THE HUB: I love the phrase “live up to the joy” (found in the poem “From Iron Man to Skywalker: 4. Devourer of Worlds”). What does that phrase mean for you now as an adult looking back, especially as one who grew up in a community where another baby might bring complications and difficulties as much as it might invoke joy?
GANSWORTH: I had to look that up, to see the context. This book went through many, well, metamorphoses. Yeah, so, certainly our cultural narratives signal a specific kind of delight a baby is supposed to bring. There are whole industries built around the idea of sharing the joy, but when you meet the parents of infants, and even children beyond, they’re often frazzled and worn out, but they never want to admit that. It’s sort of a taboo. And if you’re born into a family that already has financial challenges, the introduction of one more mouth could, in real ways, take a household one step closer to disaster.
One thing I really loved about dragging the Fantastic Four into this book, even beyond their echo of the Beatles, the “Fab Four,” is that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (and Steve Ditko, and the other Marvel creators) were willing to let their characters’ lives get messy and evolve. They were probably closer to soap operas for boys that even if they weren’t willing to admit it, the boys were invested in. Two of the Four get married and because they’ve been mutated, things get complicated when they end up conceiving a child. It’s not in the poem but Old School Marvel nerds know that in fact, the baby they deliver does cause major problems that even the Fantastic Four, with all their resources, can’t find a reasonable way to resolve. Things don’t always go well for Franklin Richards, though everyone is overjoyed when he’s born. His fate is a ghost on this poem.
THE HUB: The structure of this book is unique and complicated, which is, I think, one of its great strengths. How did it come to be?
GANSWORTH: It started as an idea for a series of paintings, really. My work often cross-pollinates, so I trust one form to communicate with others regularly. I’d been regularly using the profile image from the Indian Head nickel from early in my career, and I was startled to discover, revisiting some research, that it was an image plagued with stereotypes. The engraver found no single indigenous model who looked “Indian enough” for his purposes, so he harvested different stereotypical features from four models and combined them into one Uber-Indian. When I read that, I was re-immersing myself in The Beatles catalogue, and noting how early on, their look was cultivated to be a single entity. And studying the album art, of course, you see them wanting to become individuals, but still creating this unrivaled body of work as a group. They wanted autonomy, in the creation of Apple Records, but they were also longing to own their individual desires and interests. I thought I’d recreate each of their Apple era album covers in some kind of indigenous coding. I decided to cast Abbey Road as four rapidly changing “looks” from phases of my own young adult identity: Rez High School Kid, Rez Beginning College Kid, College Guy in Professional Uniform, and then the radical leap into adulthood, years later, for the last one. The setting is mostly Dog Street, where I grew up, but the final disruptive panel is city life. That sort of set the template for the way to imagine the paintings, and they then dictated a specific arc of my life: Grandparents and family before me; young life; the end of high school and beginning college, and then adulthood beyond. They neatly fit Apple Records, The White Album, Abbey Road and Let It Be. I obviously had to change to The Red Album, and Get Back was the original title for Let It Be, and the artwork was supposed to mimic their first album. The phrase “Get Back,” means something entirely different from “Let It Be.” Sometimes the world gives you a gift and all you have to do is embrace it.
THE HUB: There are several elements of repetition throughout, whether it is repeated lines within an individual poems, or the section where facing pages have different poems with the same title. How do you see that repetition working for your book, and for your readers?
GANSWORTH: Though it looks entirely different from the first or even the fifth version, the lynchpin for this work was the Dog Street/Abbey Road section. I knew I wanted to go back to the challenge of rhyme and rhythm and traditional forms, poetry forms I wrote a lot in, when I was sixteen-twenty. But I also wanted the liberty of free verse to cover the year I formally changed from high school kid to adult, moving out. I loved the opportunity to visit the same moment in different forms, facing one another. It was like talking to two people who’d been at the same party who tell you entirely different accounts based on who they are and what they look at. I want people to think about the ways they remember things.
I loved the challenge, but I wanted it to be something for readers too. It was kind of a litmus test. A lot of people hated that section in development. If an editor’s first question was “how committed are you to this mirror thing,” I knew we were not likely to work together. I have also always loved in the Abbey Road medley, how a sliver of “You Never Give Me Your Money” just appears spontaneously and magically in “Carry That Weight,” and then disappears again. I guess that’s an early Easter Egg. I like Easter Eggs, but only if they contribute meaningfully, so when I’ve included an echo, I’m offering something to the dedicated reader with a good memory. There is something happening in that bridge.
THE HUB: I was thrilled (and surprised!) to find a Lynda Barry face smiling out of one your early collages and then to find the poem dedicated to her. For those unfamiliar with her, what would you want your readers to know about Lynda Barry?
GANSWORTH: That she is a stealthy and loving genius. Although now that she’s won a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” maybe more people will see that. She is a multimedia comics creator. I keep deleting and rewriting this because, to use a fancy term she would hate, she is sui generis, a category of one. In recent years, she’s been publishing books with methods encouraging others to find their inner artists, especially people who don’t believe they have one.
For a long time, her work was in four panel, b&w comics (often in regional arts newspapers). Her mastery of economy never fails to amaze me in its simultaneous heartbreak and hilarity. She most often chronicled the adolescent lives of cousins, the children of two volatile women and frequently absent men. A lot of comics involving kids are either kind of twee, or overly smarty pants, where the kids are unlikely precocious drivers of their own destinies. That power never spoke to me. The realities of Lynda’s characters was an immense gift. I had never really valued the riches of my own life events until I read the insights (and sometimes they are strictly mood insights) that she was able to capture in this brief snapshots of Marlys, Arna, Freddie, Maybonne and Arnold. She is truly the gift that keeps giving.
THE HUB: Another important theme is the tension between things being lost and things being found (or ownership of things being claimed). What is it about this push-pull that speaks to you?
GANSWORTH: I want to blame the loss of my family’s generations-long home to fire, when I was 29, where our accumulated history went up in flames in an hour, including most of our family photos and my first ever painting (a large mural on my bedroom wall–which I’ve subsequently discovered I’ve lost the only photos of). I celebrate the “find” with the advent of ebay. The tension of loss and reclamation is also a microcosm of indigenous history post contact. I know some people want to put a positive spin on the boarding schools, but the reality is their sole purpose was to wipe out indigenous cultures in children, by removing them from parents and environments where their cultures thrived. The belief was that if they were kept away long enough, they wouldn’t be able to re-find their way home. Three of my grandparents were boarding school survivors and they gave us, the future generations, the gift of making it back. We have had the opportunity to try to rebuild as communities, but it is a challenge not without complications.
And on the personal front, the truth is our house was often chaotic, and cherished objects of mine vanished regularly from my life for as long as I can remember. I am naturally a pack rat and still own some things I had when I was three. I have spent an irresponsible amount of money tracking down replacements of things I’d lost, and things I would have never owned but desired. On my desk is a ridiculous, almost life sized (waist up) fiberglass Batman figure, that was part of a children’s ride, outside of stores usually, where you put a quarter in, and climb in the Batboat and ride with Batman. There was briefly one on Main Street in Niagara Falls when I was a little kid. If you would have told pre-school me that I would one day own the kind of Batman I was riding with, even at four, I would not have been gullible enough to believe you. I knew the limitations of our life. Yet, here it is, on my desk as I write. Maybe we come to love some things because we know others will be lost and we have to find ways to cope with being those new people. Maybe those attainable objects are like life jackets on the river of loss, helping you look for the shore of reclamation. Those two extremes are the tension poles for my life’s highwire act.
THE HUB: You’ve created art across genres, in different media, and for different ages. What made YA the right audience for this title?
GANSWORTH: I suppose I write for me in high school. I was introspective, already knew the ramifications of loss, deeply, and was eager to contemplate what adulthood might bring. There wasn’t much in the way of YA when I was young. The Outsiders was the only YA novel I knew formally. I began to recognize style early. I read workmanlike horror movie novelizations, but also picked up novels that peers were reading. Some popular novels were so atrociously written, I went back to the novelizations. Their goal was to help you relive the movies and the prose was generic but not terrible like the novels some peers loved. When I finally discovered work that spoke to me, its scope held a breadth of experience. It’s been noted that a lot of people who became readers because of Stephen King did so in adolescence. For me, it was his second novel, ‘Salem’s Lot. The character, Mark, the young man in high school (or maybe middle school?) has a rich and complex inner life, in the same way the adult protagonist Ben, a writer in his thirties, does. Mark’s desires and interests are treated with the same respect as the adult characters’ concerns. I could identify with Mark’s world and aspire to the life of Ben.
The only poetic forms that spoke to me were reflective rock lyrics. “Yesterday,” made me immensely sad, even when I was five, when my lamented yesterday was the year before I started school. My family laughed that even then, I gravitated to songs like Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were the Days.” The surviving photos of my childhood confirm that I was a serious, melancholy kid. I spent much of my first five years with my grandfather, and then he died and my life changed, both at home and in beginning kindergarten. I knew what serious loss meant. I know for some young people, it’s not cool to associate with your family, or even to think about the future. Maybe this work will offer a chance to reconsider, or maybe it’s for young people like the young man I was: considering my childhood meaningfully but also wondering what came next. Who was I going to be and what bearing did my past have on that trajectory? That seems like a lens respectful of a young person’s concerns. I wanted someone to affirm that the worries that kept me up nights were real, and to offer some hope for a metamorphosis that suited the person I wanted to become. Maybe this book will be a necessary lighthouse for those young people, if that’s what they’re looking for.