It was a class with Stuart O’Nan at the University of Central Oklahoma in the 1990s that inspired Brandon Hobson to start writing fiction. And this coming February, Ecco will publish his fourth novel, The Removed, which follows the Echota family as they anticipate an annual family barbecue that celebrates the signing of the Cherokee Nation Constitution in 1839 and the memory of their son and brother Ray-Ray, who was killed by police 15 years earlier.
“The Removed came out of mythology,” Hobson says. “I wanted to conceptualize the reality of people suffering from generational trauma and the issues facing Natives.” The trauma he refers to is the Trail of Tears, the removal from 1830 to 1850 of more than 60,0000 Native Americans from their homes—including the Cherokee, who were forced off their land in the southeastern U.S.
The family in The Removed faces the tragedy of history and their present situation: the mother, Maria, is depressed and dealing with her husband Ernest’s Alzheimer’s onset; the daughter, Sonja, feels isolated except for an unhealthy romantic obsession; and Edgar, the younger son, is addicted to meth. The spiritual world encroaches on the story, with chapters spoken by the ancestor, Tsala, who was killed for refusing to be “removed.”
Hobson, an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, has a PhD in English and spent seven years as a social worker serving disadvantaged youth—an experience that figures in his previous novel Where the Dead Sit Talking, a 2018 National Book Award finalist about the relationship between two Native adolescents navigating the foster care system.
That book and its success jump-started Hobson’s career. He had previously written stories and published two novels with small presses—2014’s Deep Ellum (Calamari) and 2015’s Desolation of Avenues Untold (Civil Coping Mechanisms)—but was unagented after queries to, by his count, 60–70 agents. Then he responded to a tweet by Caroline Eisenmann at the Frances Goldin agency with, “I have a novel I’m working on.”
“Send it to me,” Eisenmann replied, and Hobson had found his agent. She sold Where the Dead Sit Talking to Soho, beginning the series of events that changed the author’s life.
“It was shocking,” Hobson says about the NBA nomination. “I was used to no one paying attention, so when it was long-listed, then short-listed, I felt lucky. I was blown away. The award opened up possibilities for me.” He got a tenure-track teaching position at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, where he now lives; he also teaches at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.
At the time of the NBA nomination, Hobson had already started writing The Removed. “I’m a disciplined writer,” he says. “I have a good work ethic. I really enjoy it. I like to spend long periods of time by myself, and I’m not anxious. I don’t believe in high expectations, which only lead to dread and disappointment. I’m completely about the work.”
Eisenmann sent out The Removed. It went to auction, with Sara Birmingham, associate editor at Ecco, winning world English rights in July 2019. “I received the manuscript on submission,” she says, “aware of his last book.”
Birmingham says she was intrigued by the idea of family in The Removed and their “calcified grief.” She explains, “An event that happened years ago was still part of their reality. I felt it was not evocative of any other title I’d seen. The writing was unforced; it was a contemporary story with the weight of history, exploring grief and loss in a special way.”
Birmingham spoke with Hobson before the auction and says there was a solid connection and that they had “a strong conversation.” They worked on it together, focusing on the voice of the ancestor, finding, she says, “the best way to present the myths so the reader would understand the folklore.” It was finished in early 2020.
“It’s a big book for Ecco,” says Birmingham, who joined Ecco from Farrar, Straus and Giroux two and a half years ago. “And it’s huge for me personally—one of my first acquisitions for Ecco. There’s been a great response from booksellers and librarians. With Zoom, you can reach many people, with more early access across the country”.
Hobson is now represented by Bill Clegg, founder of the Clegg Agency, after signing with him in August. Clegg says he read The Removed “long after it was sold and done.” He calls it a big leap forward for Hobson in storytelling. “There are big themes. It describes the long echoes of tragedy born of injustice in a family and in a community. What ribbons through is the crossing from the world we know to the spiritual world. I love and support writers who take risks”.
I ask Hobson what he thought about attending the 2018 National Book Awards in New York City. He recalls Sigrid Nunez and Lauren Groff being there (Nunez won the award for fiction that year). “It was weird,” he tells me. “There was a little bit of the impostor syndrome.”
I also ask him what he wore, since I’m always fascinated by the fashion at the ceremony. A tux with no tie, he says. And I think, perfect.■