Readings and Lectures
It’s not every day that you get a chance to hear a National Book Award-winning author who’s from Ireland speak here on campus. But next week, you’ll get precisely that opportunity as author Colum McCann joins us here on The Bluff at 7 pm, Wednesday, February 20th, in Buckley Center Auditorium for a public lecture and book signing. There will also be a book discussion group facilitated by Fr. Charlie Gordon, CSC, on February 19th from 12 pm-1 pm in the conference room on the second floor of the library.
McCann’s book Let The Great World Spin won the 2009 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2011 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, one of the most lucrative literary prizes in the world. In addition, he’s written a total of six novels and three short story collections, had his work translated into 35 languages, and even received an Oscar nomination for 2005 short film based upon his short story “Everything in this Country Must.” Needless to say, McCann is extraordinarily talented and wildly successful—truly an inspiration for those aspiring authors among us. He currently lives in New York with his wife Allison and his three kids, serving as Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing in the MFA program at Hunter College.
I was privileged to interview McCann prior to his upcoming visit, and if you haven’t already read Let The Great World Spin, I hope his absolutely lovely responses might motivate you to turn the first page in a breathtakingly beautiful read. For more insight into what Let The Great World Spin is about, check out Dr. Larson’s highlights of its compelling themes here.
Can you describe your writing process a bit? How do ideas for stories come to you?
I get obsessed by an idea and then I can’t let it go. The only way to let it go is to write it out of me. I am curious about the world, I suppose. And I like living “out loud.” Also I like books that throw me into dangerous, unfamiliar territory. I have to find a way out. It’s like one of those “Escape the Room” games, which my daughter Isabella sometimes takes me to. I want to escape the room of my obsession …. to find the key and open the door and, perhaps, if I’m lucky, enable some sunlight.
Can you talk a little about the experience of being an Irish immigrant living in New York? Feel free to take this question in any direction you’d like.
Being Irish in New York is easy. In general everyone likes the Irish. We don’t cause much of a problem. We like other people. We care about the underdogs. We listen well. We sing — often badly and loudly. We don’t mind embarrassing ourselves. Essentially, we’re hams.
Describe your hometown and what it is that you miss the most about it (alternatively, if you don’t miss it, why not?).
I am back in Dublin enough that I don’t get a chance to miss it. Perhaps I miss a slow pint in Toners pub every now and then, but in general I find my Dublin everywhere.
Do you have a favorite film? What is it and why do you like it?
Oh this is ridiculously self-serving, but it’s true. A friend of mine, Gary McKendry, made a short film of my short story “Everything in this Country Must.” It’s only twenty minutes long, but I love it. It got nominated for an Oscar 2005. Gary’s a genius. He caught the pure texture of the story. If you want to have a look at it, click here.
Cats or dogs and why?
Dogs, dogs, dogs. I have one sitting at my feet this very minute. I’m about to take her for a walk in the park. Ah, that’s the life. Food, sleep under desk, walk in the park, return, sleep, eat, walk in the park at night, sleep again, dream of food. It’s easier than writing.
Which authors inspire you?
My teaching colleagues Peter Carey and Tea Obreht. Michael Ondaatje. John Berger. James Joyce. Toni Morrison. Oregon’s own Barry Lopez whose new book Horizons just took my breath away. And a million others … it would be impossible them all. Oh, and all my students. And all seven billion people I haven’t yet met!
Mr. McCann, you’ve achieved tremendous success as a novelist and author of short stories. Besides the pleasure of your craft, what motivates you to keep writing? What do you hope your legacy will be when future generations encounter your work?
Well, a late friend of mine, Jim Harrison, said in a poem: “Children pry up our rotting bodies with cries of earn, earn, earn.” Which is only partly tongue-in-cheek because I do have two kids in university and one in high school. But I suppose I am motivated by the desire to expand the lungs of my own world. I’m curious about the world and our place in it. I want to know what we can do to acknowledge the heartbreak of what unfolds around us. Also, how do we keep going? And how do we repair? And how can we better, not just for ourselves but for others too. It sounds lofty, but it’s simple enough — how do we make this patch of earth a better place? Books can do that.
Featured Image from McCann’s website.
Mark your calendars: this Wednesday evening, November 14th, at 7:30 pm in the UP bookstore, Portland poet and Adjunct Instructor Matthew Minicucci will treat us to a selection of his prize-winning poetry. Minicucci is the third and final visiting author of our Fall Reading and Lecture series here on the Bluff, and you won’t want to miss him! His most recent collection, Small Gods, was a finalist for the 2016 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Press. Minicucci has been the recipient of many awards and fellowships, testaments to the poignancy of his poetry. His work has appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review, The Believer, the Gettysburg Review, Oregon Humanities, The Southern Review, and the Virginia Quarterly Review, among others.
Can you tell us about how Small Gods, your most recent collection of poetry, came to be?
By Wes Cruse
In preparation for his upcoming visit to campus, I sat down with author and PSU English Department Chair Paul Collins to discuss his newest book and his thoughts about writing. Collins’ work has been published in The New Yorker, Slate, and The New York Times, and his books that have been translated into a dozen languages. They include Not Even Wrong: A Father’s Journey Into the Lost History of Autism (Bloomsbury, 2004), and Blood & Ivy: The 1849 Murder That Scandalized Harvard (W.W. Norton, 2018). Come hear him speak and read at the UP Bookstore on Monday, Oct. 8th at 7:30 pm. You won’t want to miss it!
Can you tell me about how your most recent book, Blood & Ivy: The 1849 Murder That Scandalized Harvard, came to be?
That came about in part because the last few books I’ve done have been historical crime books. With this particular case, a few things pulled me to it. One, the obvious: how unlikely it seemed that a murder happened in a medical school full of cadavers. It seems like the setup for a mystery novel, except that it actually happened. It was also historically significant. It was a significant turning point in medical forensics. The other pull to this story was that this was happening during the American Renaissance, the period during the 1840s and 1850s in and around Boston, Harvard, and Concord where there was this amazing blossoming of American literature. All of those authors are kind of intersecting at least indirectly with the principal characters in this case. The case was appealing as an opportunity to evoke that particular era.
What inspired you to begin writing?
Oh, wow. That’s a really good question. It was something that I always did. I started writing stories as a kid. But for me the moment where the light bulb came on was as a teenager. I might’ve been like 13 or 14, and I read Slaughterhouse Five. And I just was floored by it. I just sort of went ‘Wow, you can do that with narrative?!” And then my second reaction was, “I want to do that!” I think that was a lot of it for me. When I first started writing in elementary school, I just wanted to write funny stories. There were various humor essayists and columnists that I was reading as a kid who probably influenced me when I was really young. But in terms of having some adult notion of an art form and thinking “Wow, I want to do that,” that probably happened about the time of late junior high or the beginning of high school.
What excites you about your work?
For me, it’s the discovery process. I love working with the craft, writing a scene and nailing it. But that is a fairly ephemeral feeling, I think, for almost any artist. You know, you finish writing a scene, or composing a piece of music, or whatever, and you’re like “Yeah! I got that one.” Then, the next day you’re back to square one, facing a blank screen again. So it’s really more the process of doing the research that I really enjoy. I love finding new stuff and kind of bringing it back to life. And that’s true of writing articles, too. My favorite pieces are always the ones where it’s like a full-out resurrection of a book, author, or piece of history that just seems to have been forgotten. There are not many articles that really can rise to that standard. Usually you’ll find someone, somewhere who’s written something about it. But every once in a while, there’s a story where you just go “Wow, no one’s written a damn thing about this,” and I love that. I love finding stuff like that.
What are some of your hobbies besides reading and writing?
I love traveling, and I love music. I play the piano and I play the drums. Drums are really my main instrument. I try not to annoy the neighbors too much.
Out of all your works, which is your favorite?
It’s funny because some I feel are good on technical grounds, that the finish on them is really good. But the one that’s closest to my heart is Not Even Wrong, the one about my son. I’ll probably revisit that one someday. It came out in 2004, so I was basically writing it in 2002-2003. It’s a memoir about the first year after my son was diagnosed with autism, intertwined with a history of autism. Obviously, a lot has happened since then, for one. He’s taller than I am now. And also, just a lot in terms of the medical understanding of autism and a lot of information about the history of autism has come out of the last couple decades. So, it’s something I’ll revisit someday. I suspect that when I do, that will become my favorite book. It’s personally meaningful.
What advice would you give to writers?
A few things I guess. The first is the most hackneyed piece of advice of all, but it’s true: read. Read omnivorously and read a lot. There are two other things. One is that if someone is interested in writing books, you have to care about the subject, so don’t write about something because you think someone else will like it. You have to write about it because you like it. If you don’t, you won’t finish it; or if you do, it’ll be a miserable experience. So, you really just have to find the thing that you like or that fascinates you and go on the assumption that at some point someone else out there is going to be fascinated by it, too. It’s almost the only way to sustain a book-length effort.
One other thing I would encourage people to do is to try out different forms of writing. When I started out I was absolutely certain I was going to be writing fiction, that I was going to be writing novels. All the classes I took were in fiction. As it turns out, my almost accidental exposure to writing journalism was crucial. Later on, I decided to try to write a screenplay, and they wound up at the bottom of my desk right away. But, it was an incredibly useful experience because in screenwriting you have to think in scenes, and you have to learn how to write dialogue. It was one of the best things I ever did for my writing. It’s the same for anything like that. A journalist who takes a poetry class, or vice versa, they’re gaining a new set of tools, working a different set of muscles, and it’s going to be useful.
By Keaton Gaughan
In anticipation of her up-coming campus reading, I sat down with poet and esteemed UP alum, Sarah Bokich, to learn a bit more about her, her newest chapbook, and life after UP. You can peruse our exchange below. Come hear Sarah read from her newest publication on Thursday, February 8th at 7:30pm in the Campus Bookstore. Hope to see you all there.
KG: Can you tell me a little bit about your recent collection of poems, The Rocking Chair at the End of the World?
SB: While a few of these poems were from an earlier period, the majority I wrote between 2012-2016. I had a lot going on during those years—I experienced a major loss, got married, and gave birth to my daughter. These experiences drastically changed my worldview and I wrote to process it all.
KG: Which works of literature have been particularly formative or moving for you as a poet? In a similar vein, was there a particular source from which you derived your inspiration for this chapbook?
SB: My favorite poet of all time is Philip Levine, who had such a genius for characterizing the subjects of his poems. I also like his use of plain language, with sudden brilliant and memorable lines interspersed. For this particular collection, I also drew a lot on Silvia Plath who so deeply experienced the complexities of motherhood.
KG: Prior to contacting you, I was reading some of the pieces you’ve had published in various publications. I really enjoyed the two-part series, “What Will Happen to the Men.” Both pieces are important and powerful, I was curious to know if there was an event perhaps (or a life full of events, possibly) that acted as the catalyst for such a series?
SB: There is a lot more anger and intensity in the poems I’ve written recently. Some of it comes from getting older and feeling more comfortable with expressing myself and pushing back against a male-dominated culture and workplace, and some of it is in reaction to our current political climate, where an anti-woman sentiment is so prevalent.
KG: Additionally, one of the poems that you graciously allowed us to preview from The Rocking Chair at the End of the World, titled “Trading the Animals” was really interesting. Tell me about writing that piece, your process and specific inspiration if there was any.
SB: This poem was based on a story I heard on NPR. A reporter did a piece about zoos and how they can’t buy and sell animals—they have to trade them. The trade of puffins for a Komodo dragon is a real thing from that story. I ended up taking on the persona of the zookeeper to write the poem.
KG: Being a successful UP graduate, is there any advice you can impart on the creatively inclined or potential future poets at UP?
SB: It is totally possible to integrate creative endeavors into your life after graduation! Poetry isn’t my profession—I’ve been in the tech industry for nearly a decade— but writing is a consistent part of my life that has afforded me some incredible experiences and friendships. Whether you take a workshop, read at a local open mic, or submit to one of our wonderful regional publications, there are a myriad of ways to participate in Portland’s rich literary community. I co-host an open mic at the Attic Institute on Hawthorne the first Friday of every month and would love to see some UP writers there!
Be sure to catch Sarah Bokich this Thursday, February 8th at 7:30pm in the Campus Bookstore.
by Keaton Gaughan
Leni Zumas, author of the upcoming fiction novel Red Clocks (selected for Publishers Weekly’s “Top 10 Literary Fiction” list), will be visiting campus later this month as part of the University of Portland’s 2017-2018 Readings and Lectures Series. Her reading will be November 15th at 7:30pm in the campus bookstore.
Zumas teaches in the MFA creative writing program at Portland State University. She is also the author of the story collection Farewell Navigator, and the novel The Listeners, which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. In her work, Zumas approaches and examines the female experience on both a deeply personal and a broader, more universal level. Her words, strung together with purpose and precision, flow effortlessly across the page. I had the pleasure of conducting an interview with Leni Zumas. You can read our exchange below.
KG: To start, I’m interested to hear a bit about your new novel Red Clocks in your own words. Would you mind telling me about the novel?
LZ: It’s a book that follows the interconnected lives of five women. One is an Arctic explorer in the 19th century; the others live on the Oregon coast, present day. I’m very interested in bonds among women—friendship, competition, romance, caregiving, mentorship, sex, political alliance—and I wanted to dig into the complexity of these bonds. The world of Red Clocks closely resembles our own, except that there’s a new Constitutional amendment that gives full human rights to embryos at the moment of conception, which means abortion is outlawed, as are certain types of fertility treatment.
KG: Which works of literature have been particularly formative or moving for you as a writer?
LZ: Virginia Woolf is the writer who has most fiercely and enduringly inspired me. I love her mind and her sentences, especially The Waves, To the Lighthouse, and A Writer’s Diary. Toni Morrison and William Faulkner were big influences. Anne Carson’s long poem “The Glass Essay” gave me structural ideas for my first novel, The Listeners. I’ve learned a lot from Grace Paley’s short stories and from W. G. Sebald’s essay–memoir–novel hybrids, particularly Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn.
More recently, I’ve been awed by Fred Moten’s poems and essays; the nonfiction book Living a Feminist Life by British–Australian scholar Sara Ahmed; John Keene’s story collection Counternarratives; and the novella Why Is the Child Cooking the Polenta by Romanian–Swiss writer (and circus performer) Aglaja Veteranyi.
KG: In a similar vein, was there a particular source from which you derived your inspiration for Red Clocks?
LZ: Oh, lots of sources: my obsessions with polar exploration, witches, and all things nautical; a book on the criminal prosecution of animals; medicinal plants of the Pacific Northwest; and my experience of trying to have a baby on my own. I also researched laws proposed by actual politicians (including Mike Pence and Paul Ryan) to restrict abortion rights, adoption rights, and access to fertility treatments.
KG: I commend you for taking on such a controversial topic like the abortion argument in times where this fundamental right is under attack. Have you experienced any sort of pushback regarding the arguably controversial topic choice?
LZ: I wanted to explore the lived consequences and implications of an abortion ban, but I wasn’t aiming to deliver a verdict. What I love about fiction is that you can plunge into messy, complex, ambivalent situations without needing to decree right and wrong. The reader may ponder right and wrong; she may wonder how she’d choose to act in a situation the characters face; but she isn’t being told what to think. Fiction can dwell in uncertainty. As for pushback: not yet! But the book doesn’t come out until January. Maybe I’ll get some in January. Fingers crossed?
KG: Do you have any advice for aspiring feminist writers?
- Don’t try to be pleasing.
- Don’t try to sound like anyone but yourself.
- Be curious about texts outside the canon, texts in translation, texts of and about the margins.
- Acquaint yourself with the writing of women on whose shoulders you stand, including (to name only a few) Angela Davis, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Gloria Anzaldúa, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Kathy Acker, Sei Shōnagon, Grace Paley, Gwendolyn Brooks, Hélène Cixous, Zora Neale Hurston, Eileen Myles, Phillis Wheatley, Virginia Woolf, Susan Sontag, Ntosake Shange, [and] Simone de Beauvoir.
- Put more energy into making your work than into selling it.
Be sure to check out Leni Zumas’ reading in the UP Bookstore on November 15th at 7:30 pm.
*Photo by Sophia Shalmiyev
by Monica Salazar
Award-winning, contemporary German author Julia Franck will be visiting campus for the University of Portland’s Readings & Lectures Series this November. In her writing, Franck explores Germany’s dark, complex history and how major political events shaped the lives of everyday German citizens—especially women—during the twentieth century. I sat down with Dr. Alexandra Hill, a German professor here at UP who has written extensively about Franck in her academic publications, to ask her a bit about Franck’s work.
MS: How did you come to know Julia Franck and her work? How did she influence your academic work?
AH: I was a German major in college, and I studied abroad in Berlin in my junior year and bought her second book, called Lagerfeuer; the translation of the title in English would roughly be “The Love Servant.” It was the first book I bought in German to read for fun. I loved it. Then, when I was in graduate school, her next book came out; and I was in Berlin again, so I went to one of Julia Franck’s readings and had her sign the book.
When I came back from that time in Berlin, it was getting [to be] time to write my dissertation, and I was coming up with all these ideas that I thought sounded nice and scholarly and academic. In the end my advisor said, “You love Julia Franck, why not write about her?” And I was like, “I can do that?!” I made another trip to Berlin just to meet with her. She was so nice, and I interviewed her over two days. We have kept [in] contact through e-mail since 2006; and since then, she has won the German Book Prize.
In addition to my dissertation, I’ve published articles about her; a lot of my publications in general focus on her work, and in our e-mail correspondence, I ask her a lot about contemporary issues in German culture. Her books look at the daily lives of women and how these big political decisions that are usually made by men trickle down into the everyday lives of the people who have to experience the consequences of them. Her books on the one hand might seem like they are focused on everyday details, but at the same time, they are telling the history of an entire country.
MS: What was the socio-political environment like in Germany when Franck was growing up?
AH: She was born in East Germany in 1970, and then in 1978, her mother took her and her sister to West Germany. So they actually—even though they were Germans—had to spend nine months in a refugee camp. That experience, I think, had a really strong impact on her. It informed her writing in a lot of ways. She is also interested in Germany’s history in World War II and Germany’s history with National Socialism—in part because of [the] ways that [these events] affected her own family history.
In [her novel] The Blindness of the Heart, she follows a young woman who grows up between the two World Wars and lives through Germany’s Nazi rise to power and exposes how these political events affected the lives of everyday individuals, especially women. There is also a personal connection in her writing because she has taken some moments of her family history and has used them as a starting point in her fiction. Her books aren’t autobiographical, but in a lot of ways, she draws on experiences of people who are close to her. In The Blindness of the Heart, she asks the question, “What was it like to be a woman raising a son in World War II all alone?”
MS: How does Franck portray women differently, and how does she challenge traditional female roles?
AH: When I interviewed her the first time, I asked her why all of her mother characters were negative. Franck thought about my question for a long time and responded that they are not negative; they are just people, complicated people. And the point is [that] we try to idolize mothers; we make them into these abstract symbols of love and childhood and safety and all of these beautiful, glorified, feminine ideals, but her point is that mothers are people also. They have anger and selfishness, and they don’t necessarily live for their children. The negative response readers have to these women says more about their assumptions of motherhood than it does about her books. We think these women are cruel because we are bringing our own idealized versions of motherhood to these texts, and when these don’t line up, we get frustrated. Some people have gone so far as to think that she is anti-feminist because of her portrayal of women, but I disagree. I think it’s much more interesting and much more truthful to let female characters be a whole range of things. There are all of these masculine roles where the man can be a jerk, and he is cooler for it. Then, the fact [is] that we expect female characters to always be positive; that’s creating expectations that are just too narrow.
MS: Which book would you want your fellow faculty members and UP students to read?
AH: I would say The Blindness of the Heart is probably the best place to start because it has this amazing scope; it’s telling the whole story of Germany from 1910 to [the] 1960s, and I love how she captures those moments in history. Also, I think the complexity of the characters and the heartbreaking story are other big reasons I would suggest this book.
Julia Franck will be reading in Franz 120 on November 2nd, at 7:30 pm.
*Photo by Thorsten Greve CC BY-SA 3.0 de
by Elizabeth Barker
As students at the University of Portland, we are fortunate to have many amazing artists share their work with us. Recently, UP alumni Kunal Nayyar, from the primetime TV show The Big Bang Theory, came to share some wisdom at a Q and A before midterms. O. Alan Weltzien is going to join this list of speakers, and you definitely do not want to miss this one.
Weltzien, a current English professor at University of Montana Western, will be sharing his passion for the outdoors and literature with us at his reading. Weltzien has already tackled the trifecta of English study: being a “confirmed bookworm by age ten,” a published author, and a distinguished professor. Fully immersed in literature and nature alike, he uses these passions to carve out a space for eco-literature in Dillon, Montana.
This combination of space and literature is no new venture for Pacific Northwest literature fanatics, but Weltzien is also quick to pay homage. He gushes about this bursting genre, saying, “The personal or social relationship between the self and a given topography or two represents an abiding, fascinating, endlessly new and variable genre for people like me. I love writing, whether [it’s] called eco-fiction or eco-poetry or some other label, that foregrounds physical setting.” This concept should not be that new for students of Professor Larson’s Pacific Northwest Literature class, which is centered around the theory of literature relative to space. How lucky we are to be in a place where literature and the outdoors collide so beautifully.
Weltzien is the well-known editor of The Norman Maclean Reader. However, his own contribution to literature is just as notable and important as his work preserving the writings of others. For true insight into Weltzien’s own work, check out his book Exceptional Mountains: A Cultural History of the Pacific Northwest Volcanoes. He says that the aim of his work is for readers “to be grabbed, to feel moved or at least piqued or amused, in some fashion. I want them to remember some of what they’ve encountered when they read my stuff. I hope it makes a difference, however slight, in the reader’s world or view of the world.” When reading literature in regards to space, what more could one want? To feel the cold mountain creek, hear the grizzly bear splash, and smell wild huckleberries sweet and tart in the air—without getting on a plane to Dillon—can only be achieved through literature.
Through the design of the brick-clad buildings and the grand sequoias lining the pathways of our university, there lies a screaming idea that roots us in academia and study. Weltzien says to enjoy the constructed environment, but make sure to escape every now and then. “I’ve been taken with [Gary Snyder’s] Buddhist notion of hiking as a form of walking prayer. I think outdoors time, whether day hiking or backpacking or technical climbing, can bring us to ourselves as no other experience can. I think time away from the built environment can teach us about ourselves in ways that no inside domain can. Certainly higher altitudes brings me a kind of fierce joy I’ve not known elsewhere in my life.” Study hard, walk harder!
For some parting advice, Professor Weltzien urges students, “Don’t be afraid of experimentation; of learning how a given image or memory or subject might variably turn itself into a poem, an essay, or a story. I’d like to try a novel and have had a specific subject and treatment for one in mind for a decade, and I have to get other projects out of the way and commit to it! The more you write and rewrite, the more you learn your particular strengths—and weaknesses.”
Make sure to come see O. Alan Weltzien speak at the University Bookstore on Tuesday, October 24th at 7:30 pm!
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.
Novelist Willy Vlautin is the next guest in our Autumn Readings & Lectures series hosted by the University of Portland’s English Department. He has published four novels: The Motel Life (2007), Northline (2008), Lean on Pete (2010), and The Free (2014).
For all the violence and tragedy that fuels the characters and storylines of his works, Willy Vlautin is one hell of a friendly guy. His band, alt-country quartet Richmond Fontaine, just recently back from their final European tour, have been playing the Portland scene for over twenty years. His novels—The Free being the most recently published—recall John Steinbeck and John Updike in their intimate portrait of day-to-day survival and mundane tragedy in the lives of ordinary people.
It’s easy to assume the people who rarely have their stories told don’t have a story to tell. The people who inhabit Vlautin’s stories are burdened by their choices. They’re burdened by their need and, often, their inability to escape. These are people who want to change, who believe change may be the only thing that can save their lives, and yet they do not. This is the magic of Willy Vlautin’s writing. It’s a sleight of hand, to show us we don’t know the people we think we know.
Between your records and novels, you’ve created enough fascinating (and tragic) characters to populate an entire seen-better-times logging town. How do you build these characters, and would you say it’s the characters that inform the stories and songs?
I think of things in stories first. A broad idea of story from start to finish. Inside that initial idea are the themes I’m interested in. From there I’ll get the characters. I’ll run into the first few and then they meet people after that and so on. Usually I write the first draft and then develop the characters more after each edit. Like getting to know someone, it takes a while. It takes time and interest and desire.
Living in the wake of Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize, it seems a lot of people are trying to to redraw the lines between literature and music as distinct modes of storytelling. As an artist working in both mediums, sometimes at the same time, as with Northline, do you see any real divisions? How has being a novelist informed your songwriting and how has songwriting informed you as a novelist?
They are much different crafts that’s for sure. Writing takes much more time in the nuts and bolts sorta way. You have to put down the pages. You have to get a character from Mexico City to Toronto and he’s driving. A lot of days pass, a lot of things happen along the way. Songs are like dreams, they have more mystery. Where the hell did that melody come from? How come when you add harmonies the song suddenly makes you want to cry? Music has magic, I really think it does. They are different mediums but they are both crafts and they both can transport you into a different world.
Earlier this year you just put out your last record with Richmond Fontaine (for the foreseeable future?), what do you see yourself working on in the near future? Will music take a backseat to writing, or do you have other projects in mind?
You’re right, RF just finished its last big tour. Next year I’ll start work on my new band The Delines. I’ll probably do that band and stay at home more and try and work on my novels.
Willy Vlautin will be reading at the UP Bookstore on Monday, November 28th at 7:30 pm.
*Photo by Dan Eccles, from the New York Times Sunday Book Review.