Morgan Talty’s first book, “Night of the Living Rez,” comes out on July 5 and is getting a lot of early buzz. Talty grew up on the Penobscot reservation known as Indian Island, and his fictional stories draw heavily from those experiences. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Morgan Talty doesn’t want to be known as an “Indigenous writer,” at least not solely.

But he doesn’t want to ignore his past either, because it informs so much of his work.

“I think there is this expectation that when non-Natives read about Indigenous people, they want a colorful and easy tour of the culture, something that doesn’t challenge them,” said Talty. “I knew I wanted to work against that.”

The 31-year-old who grew up on a Penobscot Nation reservation north of Bangor, had to walk that line in his first book, “Night of the Living Rez,” a collection of 12 interconnected short stories that comes out July 5.

The stories are fictional, but they are rooted in his experiences. Things he saw. Things that happened in his own family. Most of the characters are Native American, but they aren’t presented as stereotypes or caricatures. They aren’t filtered through a white, western culture lens. They are just people.

“There really hasn’t been any representation of Penobscots in popular culture,” he said. “I don’t feel the weight of having to represent the entire Penobscot Nation, but at the same time, I feel an immense amount of pride in presenting characters that are fully realized, that have the same emotional journeys as any others.”


So far, the reviews have been strong. The New York Times and Boston Globe each included it among the lists of best books of summer.

“His debut collection, full of surprising drama, offers a fresh view of the precarious lives of marginalized people in the 21st century,” the Times’ review read.

The accolades have been a surprise for Talty who, in addition to writing, has three different teaching jobs: at Husson University in Bangor, at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast creative writing master’s program (where he received his graduate degree only a few years ago), and at Bay Mills Community College, a public tribal land school in Brimley, Michigan.

The book began with a piece he wrote in 2015, but he didn’t think about creating a cohesive collection until a couple years later. The stories are told either by a young narrator, David, or an older version of the same character, known as Dee. They explore emotionally heavy themes such as poverty, substance use and mental illness. The outcomes of the characters are sometimes bleak, but there is also a tenderness to their relationships.

“Morgan is the singularly most talented writer I have worked with,” Cara Hoffman, an author who taught him at Stonecoast and who keeps in touch with him regularly, said in an email. “His work is funny, sly, a profound meditation on class and love; on the burdens women carry; on the power and powerlessness of men. On what it means to be good in a highly imperfect world.”

Rick Bass, another author who mentored Talty at Stonecoast, offered similar praise.


“He was assigned to be my mentee, but he’s always been a peer from day one,” Bass said. “I got lucky when I worked with him at Stonecoast. Everybody knew immediately what he had.”


Talty was born in Connecticut but moved as a child to Indian Island, a Penobscot Nation reservation near Old Town that shares a border with a river of the same name.

Today, the reservation is home to about 750 residents, but the population was closer to 500 when Talty was growing up. It’s a close-knit community, and one that has struggled for decades to balance tribal sovereignty with economic stability.

All around him, stories were abundant, and he too found an early love for storytelling.

He attended elementary and middle school on Indian Island and then went to Orono High School because the reservation doesn’t have its own high school. He didn’t excel there, he said, and college wasn’t a certainty.


Unsure of his next step, Talty ended up at a community college for a couple years and had professors there who really encouraged him to pursue writing.

“I had a lot of support, but I’m not sure I believed it,” he said. “I still doubt it, honestly.”

Something clicked, though. With some college under his belt, Talty transferred to Dartmouth College and earned a bachelor’s degree in Native American studies.

He returned to Maine and enrolled in the creative writing master’s program at USM known as Stonecoast. He chose the low-residency option, which is a two-year program that includes intensive 10-day residencies and six-month independent writing projects supervised by faculty. Talty worked on the stories that would become his debut.

“I read a draft of ‘Night of the Living Rez’ in 2018 at the time it was a book of linked stories,” Hoffman said. “From the first sentence, I knew that he was brilliant, and after the first few stories, it was clear that it was a book of enormous artistic and social importance and that it was going to be huge.

“For a student manuscript, it was extremely sophisticated. He played with timelines and narrative voice, the rhythm of the sentences had a musical cadence, his ear for dialogue was impeccable.”


By that time, Talty’s stories had been published in literary magazines, but selling a collection of them would be different. An early agent wanted to turn his stories into a novel.

“They basically said, ‘I don’t know how to sell this,’ ” Talty recalled.

He dropped that agent and signed instead with Rebecca Friedman, who represented Hoffman. She helped sell his stories to Tin House, a small but well-regarded publishing company based in Portland, Oregon.

Talty said his editors at Tin House didn’t force him to make the characters “more Indigenous,” and he was appreciative of that.

Still, he worried about whether readers would respond if his characters didn’t fit some archetype.

“In the end, I think all people feel the same emotions, so that’s something I look for,” he said. “Getting people to feel something is the best way to connect.”



Talty said he draws inspiration from other Indigenous authors – Tommy Orange and Chelsea T. Hicks, for example – who have helped make room for more disparate voices in literature.

But he also said he’s careful not to veer too much into social or political commentary in his work, and when he does, it’s subtle.

“I really like the craft of fiction, building characters and setting,” he said.

Hoffman called Talty’s characters “deeply intelligent and complex.”

“He’s a master of understatement and surprise,” she said. “The setting – the Penobscot Reservation – is so richly drawn, it is its own character.”


Talty said, for many people, Native Americans seem like a “dead culture,” even though that’s not true. Yet even a simple Google search of the term yields mostly images from the 19th century.

“A lot of what people know is what is presented in popular culture,” he said.

Some topics were tricky. In writing about poverty or substance use, for instance, Talty said he worried about perpetuating stereotypes.

“But those are things that I experienced, things that I knew,” he said.

Bass said he doesn’t like to look at Talty’s work, or anyone’s, by comparing it to others.

“My daughter says, ‘Comparison is the thief of joy,’ and there is a lot of wisdom in that,” he said. “What I love about Morgan’s work is that there is an abiding sweetness. No matter how dark the external environment gets or how ominous, the characters have an inner light.”


Talty now lives in Levant, just northwest of Bangor, not all that far from Indian Island. He still has family there and visits about once a month.

His writing is increasingly getting noticed. He’s already working on a follow-up and, this year, was among 35 writers to receive a $25,000 creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

And with all the advance praise of “Night of the Living Rez,” he’s hopeful the book will sell.

“I didn’t grow up with a lot of money, so if this is able to sustain more work, I think that’s … well, it’s nice for sure,” he said.

In his future work, Talty expects that he’ll continue leaning on his background, but he remains mindful about being confined to any specific label.

“I think the label of Indigenous writer is both a fact of who he is, and a part of how publishing categorizes,” Hoffman said. “He could also be called a feminist writer, a working class writer, a pastoral writer, a comic writer. He’s clearly working within a tradition of great Indigenous writers like Richard Van Camp, and ‘Night of the Living Rez’ is about people of the Penobscot Nation, but I think Morgan has created a novel that transcends all labels. This is literary work in the truest sense of the word. It’s complex, intelligent, funny, harrowing, sad, gorgeously written. It’s brilliant.”

Bass said he’s not surprised Talty’s work is getting praise.

“It’s what I hoped and wished for him, but you hope and wish for a lot of good books,” he said. “You never know what’s going to catch the wind.”

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