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New Book Tells Story Of A Secret Love In A Small Town

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Dennis E. Staples' new novel, "This Town Never Sleeps" (ph), opens with a man on the Ojibwa reservation named Marion waiting in the woods and a clandestine assignation with a stranger, who turns out to be an old classmate. He also adopts a puppy. "This Town Sleeps" tells the story of a secret love in a small town in which secrets can be buried. Dennis E. Staples, a writer who happens to be Ojibwa and a member of the Red Lake Nation, joins us now from Minnesota Public Radio in Bemidji. Thanks so much for being with us.

DENNIS E STAPLES: And thank you for having me.

SIMON: Marion doesn't seem to have a high opinion of his own hometown, Geshig. He spent two years in the Twin Cities, but what keeps him coming back to the reservation?

STAPLES: Well, I think a lot of it is Marion's reluctance to let go of his past because he felt like he missed out on a lot of it. Growing up having that kind of a cynical attitude about his town and not being too involved, I think he feels a pull to the town that represents what he missed out on.

SIMON: Which is what? Can you tell us?

STAPLES: The earliest inkling of that, I guess, is when he is having a recollection with Shannon about joining the football team and how he feels kind of goaded into doing it.

SIMON: Shannon becomes his lover.

STAPLES: Yes, he does.

SIMON: Shannon is not Ojibwa, and he is closeted. Does that just make him more lonely?

STAPLES: I would say so, yeah. He doesn't have anyone to really confide in or talk any of these issues over with. And the little bit of, it seems, connection like that he has other than Marion is a possibly toxic relationship with another seemingly highly closeted man.

SIMON: At the heart of this novel is the memory that Shannon and Marion have of a murdered young man, 17-year-old Kayden, a high school basketball star. And his memory still persists in this town, doesn't it?

STAPLES: It does in a lingering, just kind of a forlorn sense but also in what could be a more supernatural way.

SIMON: Well, and that brings in the zombie dog.

STAPLES: Yes, the zombie dog. I hope you enjoyed that.

SIMON: I did. And tell us, please, about the zombie dog. Well, no, there's not - did I say I enjoyed the zombie dog? The zombie dog scared the hell out of me. But a clever invention. Tell us about the zombie dog, if you could.

STAPLES: The zombie dog was actually the catalyst for the whole novel. There was a night I was working a couple of years ago, and I needed to just take a drive and get my mind off of things. And so I drove from where I live about 10, 15 miles, and I passed through my hometown. And as I passed by, I saw the playground there. And I did remember that there was this old merry-go-round, and nobody ever wanted to play on it. And the explanation that I'd heard from a lot of people was that there was a dog's body underneath it. It wasn't there when I saw it - that merry-go-round had long been removed, but just the absence of the merry-go-round kind of just really inspired the - just the nighttime feel and even the first line of the novel. But I wrote, the dog went under the merry-go-round to die. When a train passed through town, I brought him back to life. And that was it. I just left it there. Didn't know what else to write, but then eventually I crafted a short story out of this and submitted that as my first fiction work.

SIMON: I was touched in particular by a line in the acknowledgments, and I hope I can ask you to talk about it. You wrote, the journey to this novel passed through a lot of darkness.

STAPLES: Oh, yeah. That was a - in reference to a good friend of mine who passed away about a month and a half before I actually started the first draft of this. But basically a lot of the heart and soul of the novel, while not directly based on that, at least at first, it came from me working through this loss that just kind of just really shook me to my core when it happened.

SIMON: The loss of your friend?

STAPLES: Yes.

SIMON: You know, I couldn't find a lot of biographical information on you. Do you, like a lot of great novelists, have a job other than writing?

STAPLES: I do. I work at a casino on the reservation.

SIMON: What do you do in the casino?

STAPLES: I work in the bank as balancing. I'm a lot of the paperwork, running a lot of money.

SIMON: Oh, my word. Are there a lot of stories that pass through your fingers or beneath your eyes in the books?

STAPLES: (Laughter). There have been. There have been a few notable things that have happened that have stuck with me.

SIMON: Have you started the next novel?

STAPLES: Yes and no, and yes and no. I've started it a couple times. And some of the problems that kind of bogged down the first one as far as structure and planning it all out - I think a lot of that - I rushed into that too fast when I was planning it, so that one really got bogged down. But now I'm taking it more at the pace I wrote the first one, which is to start the story and see where it goes.

SIMON: Is it a story set on the reservation?

STAPLES: Yes. It would be a direct sequel involving some of the same characters, same reservation.

SIMON: Dennis E. Staples. His debut novel, "This Town Sleeps." Thank you so much for being with us.

STAPLES: And thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.