Triumphing Over Rejection To Break Through As A Native Writer: Meet Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle

Aug 24, 2020

Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle spent years writing her first novel, and it garnered critical acclaim: she won an award and became a finalist for another. Yet she could not find an agent to publish it. So, she started again, this time with the support of the Great Smokies Writing Program. 

The cover of Clapsaddle's debut novel.
Credit Courtesy of The University Press of Kentucky

Her second novel, “Even As We Breathe” (The University Press of Kentucky/2020), comes out next month and makes Clapsaddle the first published author of a novel who is an enrolled member in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. In her work, Clapsaddle examines Native American stereotypes and a fluid relationship with identity, both issues she has confronted in her own life as she moved through predominantly white spaces like Yale University and the College of William & Mary.

Host Frank Stasio talks to Clapsaddle about her upbringing in the Cherokee community, her new novel and her experiences in the classroom as a high school teacher in Swain County. Clapsaddle will host three upcoming book talk events: a virtual launch at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville on Sept. 8; a socially-distanced in-person reading at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva on Sept. 10; and a virtual event at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh on Sept. 16.  

Interview Highlights

On the difficulty of finding an agent for her first novel:

It's difficult to find the right fit, I think, [and] for someone who understands the community that you're talking about when there's no other literature to compare it to. There’s certainly other Native novelists out there. But every reservation, every tribal community is very different. So, you know, you may have agents who see a Native author, and they're expecting Sherman Alexie or Louise Erdrich or someone that has been more in popular culture, and that's not this community. It's very different. ... There's a kind of an education process, and you've got to sell literature.

There is the mix of our Cherokee culture, which meant that I grew up with hearing some of the traditional stories and practices of our culture, but also being in a place where tourism centered on what we shared of our culture with outsiders.

On her grandmother’s role in the community:

She was not a passive woman. ... Seeing the recognition of that as accepted in our community verified for me that I could also be a strong woman [and] that some traditional gender roles that we think about in Western culture don't quite hold in Cherokee culture.

On the bonds she shared with Native students from around the country at the Association of Native Americans at Yale:

There are certain things that most Native communities have in common, like a shared sense of humor — it's kind of hard to categorize. An understanding of what family means. And then just a different perspective on being an American citizen and having ancestors who were on this land long before there was an America. I think that just kind of shines through regardless of what Native community you come from.

On why she is teaching at a public high school:

I had a professor at Yale who was in charge of the teacher prep program who told me that the best use of a Yale education — or a quality education in general — was to share it. And teaching public high school is the best place to share an education. It's access to everyone. And I just enjoy that. I enjoy learning with students. I enjoy being around my colleagues who are the hardest workers I have ever been around.

Our staff and administrators and all my colleagues [at Swain County High School] are constantly solving problems. And I like what that does for me mentally.

On the support she received from other rural Appalachian writers:

There's a lot of crossover between the Cherokee community and Appalachian culture in general. … When I became more a part of that Appalachian Writers’ Workshop, I was exposed to many different writers across the region who've been grappling with how to explain what it's like to really live here and not be a stereotype.