An Interview with Erika T. Wurth
By Jordan A. Rothacker
I first became acquainted with the work of Erika T. Wurth when Astrophile Press sent me an advanced edition of Buckskin Cocaine for review in 2017. I instantly loved the book and was excited to write about it. I was captivated by the interconnectivity of the “Hollywood Indian experience” across all of the short stories in the collection. Over the next few years, I read each subsequent Wurth work, taking adventures into Native American gang life in New Mexico with You Who Enter Here (SUNY Press, 2019), and teen poverty and drug use in Colorado with Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend (a reissue of her first novel now from Astrophile Press, 2021).
Wurth writes from a place of confidence and courage. With a scalpel-precise eye for life and an ear for how people really talk, she can take the reader into another world, no less real than our own, but a world often forgotten and marginalized. The hardest truth in Wurth’s work is that these worlds of desperation are often inhabited by people indigenous to this land, now running up against poverty, racism, and normative social barriers. As they strive to survive and find their places in a white-dominated society, Wurth’s characters grip you by the heart while often breaking it.
Her newest work is a departure—on the surface—into the genre of horror, but the setting and general interests and themes are still familiar. In White Horse (Flatiron Books), Erika T. Wurth takes the reader to the edges of these familiar worlds by taking the reader to the edges of reality itself. She makes the supernatural feel real and natural, and that makes it all even more frightening. Reminiscent of both Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft, White Horse depicts the struggle of Kari, a native woman in Colorado with enough problems already, coming face-to-face with an evil entity she’d only heard of in hushed tales.
Luckily, I was able to chat with Erika T. Wurth about this taut and thrilling horror novel, along with several other related topics.
Jordan A. Rothacker: What power does literature have? Or any art form? Is there anything that makes writing/literature special in regard to other mediums?
Erika T. Wurth: I think, though this may rub some folks the wrong way, it’s the accessibility I like. We are, even if the system sometimes fails, in this country, required by federal law to be literate. We are also—as people—drawn to stories. And so there are ways to change people, move people, challenge them in organic ways that can make differences in people’s lives—especially now that entire books are downloadable via a smart phone.
JAR: Your newest book is a novel, and specifically categorized as horror. This work alone, but more specifically your previous works involve gang violence, drugs, and the “seedier” side of life. What draws you to those themes and topics?
ETW: My parents came from poverty. And though they got me to a semi-middle-class place, in many ways my life wasn’t that different from my more working-class peers. I went to school in the same rugged, poverty-stricken area they did. My dad was an alcoholic who was occasionally physically abusive. He often blew our money. And to top it off, I was a nerd. So ultimately darker subject matter fits me.
JAR: What draws you to horror?
ETW: In some ways, it’s coming back to my nerd roots. I used to wander the library shelves at lunch, running from my bullies—and I’d come across books by Stephen King. I loved every one. The other part of it is that it allows me to express the darker parts of the gritty realism that I wrote in before, but it allows all of that dark magic that I adored as a child as well. Gambino, and my Indigenous brother from another mother Jones, are more into the slasher with some supernatural. Whereas I am more of a paranormal guy, I love the idea of a portal to another world.
JAR: What connection do you see between horror as a genre and narratives from indigenous First Nation traditions and spirituality?
ETW: It’s important not to generalize. Even within the Native American experience you have people from reservations, very different people living on one reservation, Black Natives, Latinx Natives (of which I am technically both), urban Natives, and a myriad of individuals with their own experiences and fears and joys. However. It is my feeling that the commonality is the exposure to historical genocide, colonization, and slavery—parts of history that Native people have in common and that follow us to this day. Statistically speaking, it takes more to get us to education, for us to own a house, etc—and there are darknesses that are certainly very human, but of course are often amplified by the things that we are contending with now (e.g. the situation with my grandmother). And so I think that horror is a way of speaking about it that’s again cathartic, but also a way to get it to other folks in such a way as to discuss it in a more productive, fruitful, interesting, and hopefully organic way as well.
JAR: Genre for some writers is a matter of identity—“I am a poet,” “I am a horror writer”—and so I am wondering what connections you see with genre and identity, and more specifically with genre-defiance, hybridity, and intersectionality?
ETW: I like to think of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry as forms—not genres. Genres are speculative, realism, romance, crime—and along those lines, literary isn’t a genre, just like genre isn’t a genre. It’s a set of conventions: depth of theme, complex characterization, attention to form and language. Those conventions and/or more commercial conventions (linear structure, dialogue over description) can be applied to the subject of cops, spaceships, or a dying marriage.
JAR: Who are your favorite contemporary/living writers, musicians, and visual artists?
ETW: Right now, I’m really jazzing on contemporary horror writers: Stephen Graham Jones, Cin Pelayo, Grady Hendrix, Silvia Moreno Garcia, Tananarive Due, Gabino Iglesias, V. Castro.
And watching Native fiction bloom with: (also Jones), Brandon Hobson, David Heska Wanbli Weiden, Keli Jo Ford, Rebecca Roanhorse, BL Blanchard—I can’t keep up now, and that’s something I’ve been waiting for for 20 years.
JAR: Who are the greatest artistic influences on your work and sense of aesthetics?
ETW: I think that Silvia Moreno Garcia hit my head really hard with Mexican Gothic. There have been so many over the years that have influenced me (Holly Goddard Jones, for example) but this book turned my head around.
JAR: Which of your works or projects are you most proud of?
ETW: Oooof. That’s a hard one. Right now? It’s my current, White Horse.
JAR: What is next? Are there any new projects on the horizon as of yet unannounced?
ETW: I am working on a new literary horror novel—it’s about a paranormal investigator who ends up having to investigate her sister’s suicide.
JAR: I hate to be indelicate or morbid—and I hope you live forty more years—but what do you hope the legacy of your work to be?
ETW: Two things: that I worked HARD to make especially the Native literary community—but also the literary community at large—a more positive one. Anyone who knows me knows that I am tireless in this regard. It’s something I take seriously. And, yes—of course I hope people remember me for my fiction. I want my work to move people, and I hope they see the diversity of Native fiction—and people—through my fiction. Native folks deserve fiction that invites anyone, but speaks to them. I think we’re really finally coming into that.