Rock received his BA in English from Yale and has won numerous awards and fellowships for his writing, including Stanford’s Wallace Stegner Fellowship. He lives and writes in Portland, and teaches writing at Reed College. His most recently published book, Klickitat, is set in Portland and is about two sisters, one of whom mysteriously disappears. His next book, Spells, will be out in April 2017.
Rock’s fiction tends to place the reader into the minds of people often overlooked: outsiders, people living on the fringes of society, nomads in body or spirit. His books are often described as unique and intriguing, must-reads and can’t-be-put-downs. This comes from his skill and his writing process, which basically is Rock trying to answer his own burning questions about people, places, and life.
Thanks for making time for this—I know you’re incredibly busy with your own students and your work. I was wondering if you were one of those child writers, growing up with your notebook under your arm at all times. When did you fall in love with writing?
I’d say I was one of those children who was obsessed with reading. I mean, it started with my dad reading Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea to us; but then I was also really fascinated by the natural world. I used to have a lot of these “Golden Nature Guides,” these little books—Mammals, Reptiles, etc—that were like little field guides, and I carried them everywhere with me.
My path to actually writing things is a little windy—which is to say that it forked and circled, not that it was governed by weather and turbulence (though that, too); I think I did some writing in high school and saw how I got attention for it, and then I kind of adolescently became infatuated with being a writer, as a sort of lifestyle, and that was probably influenced by writers I read at that time (Brautigan, Kerouac). So I followed my education in such a way that I had very few marketable skills and then had to write… And I fell in love with it, fall in love with it, differently all the time; when I realized how much it was about sitting by myself and daydreaming, not exactly a lifestyle or identity…
So maybe that’s how you come up with your ideas—just kind of follow your curiosity in those daydreams? I recently finished your book My Abandonment, and I really loved how you fleshed out the story of the father and daughter found living in Forest Park. I’d known about that true part before, and was kind of haunted by it. Your book has me feeling a sense of closure, although I know it’s fiction; it helps just to have the follow-up fully imagined out. Were you kind of haunted by that story as well, and did that drive you to write My Abandonment?
Trusting curiosity is a big part of the process, especially early. Those things that draw us are pulling at something on our insides. With My Abandonment (thanks for reading it), I was writing another novel (The Bewildered) where there was action in Forest Park, and while I was working on that book I was reading the newspaper articles about the girl and her father. In the first article, they were found and relocated into a more civilized life; in the second, they’d disappeared; I kept waiting for that third article explaining where they’d went. At first I tried to fold that story into The Bewildered, but that girl was a distraction, too interesting, just watching (in My Abandonment you witness various things—say, the kids on the water tank—that take place in the earlier book), so I took her out. But then there never was a third newspaper article and my mind, the mind of a fiction writer, kept insistently asking, “What could have happened to those two? How did they live like that for four years? Where did they come from? Where would their momentum take them?”
That’s just amazing, how trusting your curiosity about what could have been led you to creating a whole work of literature, which then helped satisfy my own (and I’m sure many others) curiosity about the girl and her father. My own backyard connects to Forest Park, so I really enjoyed reading about these places and trails just right outside.
I think you were able to capture something about the Pacific Northwest in the way Caroline (the girl in My Abandonment) is bonded to the land, almost as if it’s part of her family. And in the end of My Abandonment, (which I’m not going to give away because everyone should read it for themselves) I found comfort in knowing Caroline would always have that special connection to the PNW land. I’m really glad you gave her life instead of having her just being a side note in The Bewildered… I think My Abandonment was a great text for reading through a spatial lens, and I’m curious about if your research involved a lot of time in Forest Park just being with the land you were writing about.
Ah, that’s sweet. Thanks again for reading it. Well, back then when I was writing My Abandonment I did spend a lot of time in Forest Park—both to find where the girl/father had lived, but also to just imagine how it would be [as] a girl who lived there. And so I spent much time climbing trees, daydreaming, imagining that I was her, taking notes. When I started actually writing that book I was down at Caldera, near Sisters, where I’d wander around and never have to talk to another person; one reason that central Oregon landscape becomes important in my book is because that’s where I was writing and being Caroline.
Caldera is an artists’ residency, isn’t it? So you were able to just be alone like Caroline—that must have been perfect for this specific book. It might have been hard to write about like, Paris society or something, from that environment.
That’s so interesting, how you were “being Caroline.” Do you always enter into your characters that way? I’m picturing method acting, but maybe it’s not so extreme. Does it make you think differently the whole time, or just a few hours per day you devote to entering into that?
There are probably parallels to method acting, but more than dressing as a girl (I did not) or speaking in a different voice (didn’t—though one benefit about being out at Caldera—yes a residency—was that I had days and weeks where I didn’t talk to anyone), it’s a question of figuring out the concerns and voice of a character, especially if she’s the narrator. So the things (Randy the horse, the encyclopedias, etc.) that were present in her daily life were present in mine, the concerns about what she needed and wanted, and the way she talked/wrote (e.g. the refusal to use semi-colons, which are a particular weakness of mine), the small conversations she had with her father, the schedule and strategy of her days—all of that took a long time to build up and understand, but when I understood it I could slip in and out for hours at a time; and then I just followed it.
This has been fascinating. Thanks for making time for us, and for letting us into your head a bit about how you got into writing, and how you continue to fall in love with it in different ways. I just have one more question: which of your own books is your personal favorite—the one you’d like to read for fun if you hadn’t written it?
Ah, the personal favorite question is pretty impossible. I imagine it’s a little like children—it feels wrong to choose, and my relationship to each is different, similarly conflicted. One easy answer is that whatever I’m working on now is my favorite—right now I’m working on a novel called The Weather, which is about 1994, open water swimming, and floating in isolation tanks, ex-girlfriends, etc. And Spells, which comes out in April and from which I’ll read.
The actually published ones? I don’t know. They’re so different, and many feel as if they were written by someone else, a distant relative. It’s strange because some of them are being re-released this year; when I read from The Unsettling earlier this fall, when it came out (ten years after it was published), it was kind of uncanny. I do like that book, as a collection of stories [it] shows so many different decisions, narratively and in terms of sensibility.
Like children, there may be one—My Abandonment—that gets more than her share of attention (e.g. questions, film being shot this spring so much back and forth with director/screenwriter, etc.) and that makes me want to say, “Well, you should meet The Shelter Cycle, which is more ambitious and connected, which I wrote after MA, and which cost me much more, taught me much more.” But in the end, you know, I don’t have nor want that kind of control. The books just fly on out of me and my opinion or understanding of them is beyond vestigial. Authors are the worst!
Peter Rock will be reading in Franz 120 on December 1, 2016, at 7:00 p.m.
*Photo by Ida Rock.