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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Timothy Egan Comes to Fishtrap


Timothy Egan, Summer Fishtrap Gathering
Photo credit: Sam Traylor, Whitman Intern
"I get afraid sometimes when I've signed a book contract," Seattle author Timothy Egan told the Fishtrap crowd Friday night, "because I start out kind of panicky when I don't know where the story arc is." Pulitzer-prizing winning author of seven award-winning books, including Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, Egan came to the Summer Fishtrap Gathering at Wallowa Lake, Oregon, to talk to writers who had been immersed in a week of workshops, panels, digital storytelling, and poetry since Monday.

A generous and thoughtful speaker, Egan shared his three-step approach to writing a book. "First, I go out and see if I can find that story arc.  For The Worst Hard Time about the Dust Bowl, I went to places like Texas and Oklahoma and Kansas - places the hardest hit by the worst environmental disaster our country has ever known - and I tried to find people who had lived through it.  I found dozens, but I focused on the story of just seven women."

Earlier that day at Fishtrap, I had flipped through the book's index, looking for references to the Panhandle of Oklahoma, where my daughter and son-in-law live. The women Egan wrote about had been young girls when the nation's "worst hard time" hit. Now, old women bent with age, lines of disaster were etched in their resilient faces. "The earth pushed back," Egan told us, "against the hubris of our nation."

Once Egan begins to understand the arc of a story - the human journey - he begins to research, going into the archives, diving deep into historical documents.  When researching The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, the heart of the story rose up when Egan read this line in one of Roosevelt's journals, written after Roosevelt lost his wife in childbirth, and later that day, lost his mother. "The  light went out of my life," Roosevelt wrote. "This tragic day changed the course of his life," Egan told us, "and of our nation." Roosevelt entrusts his sister with the care of the infant, and goes West to become a cowboy.  "The West," continued Egan "gave him back his life."

Thus is the power of place.  "You've got to go to the place where the story happened," said Egan of his third step. "Going to the Texas Panhandle, feeling the wind. Come here to this Wallowa Valley," he swung his arm wide, "and you understand the Nez Perce and Chief Joseph."

In a July 17 op-ed for The New York Times, "Heritage and Healing," Egan wrote about his appearance at Fishtrap. "I recently went back to the isolated, alpine hideaway of Joseph, Ore., a little town I’d spent some time in 17 years ago, and was pleased to find a laboratory of hope for small town America... it is a stunning place — set in a cradle of grass and forests in the Wallowa Mountains of eastern Oregon."

Sound like a perfect place for a writer's conference?  Yes, the power of this place was palpable, and no doubt some of the stories and poetry generated at Fishtrap reverberate with this sense of place.  And certainly, Fishtrap reverberated with a sense of appreciation at Timothy Egan's generous storytelling. During a relaxed Q&A session after his keynote, Egan took time to tell us about his latest, favorite book. Anthony Doerr's  All the Light You Cannot See"A novel about the German occupation of Paris in 1940 - a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy - ultimately it's a story about how people, against all odds, try to be good to each other. A remarkable story."

And for all of us at Fishtrap, a remarkable week, giving back to many of us the life we call writing.  Yes, we will remember this place...

Note: Learn more about FISHTRAP: Writing and the West, and the annual Summer Fishtrap Gathering of Writers.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Last Unicorn - Searching for the Saola with William deBuys

In 2011, writer William deBuys joined conservation biologist William Robichaud on a trek into the jungled river country of Laos in search of the elusive and endangered saola, one of the earth’s rarest creatures. The small country of Laos, surrounded by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, holds within its fragile borders a richly diverse, rapidly disappearing ecosystem.  Smugglers from Vietnam, their own country now devoid of its once plentiful flora and fauna, haul out everything from Siamese rosewood to elephant trunk snakes and scaly “pangolin” anteaters.  Most of the contraband is en route to China.

The Vietnam I knew in the late 1960s—when many of my male friends were either drafted into the Army, or recruited by the Air Force or Naval Academy after graduation—was a country divided north from south. I knew Vietnam only by what I saw on the news, or by what our liberal, armband-wearing civics teacher whispered about “the political truth” of this unholy war.

What little I now know, I glean during snippets of conversation while I’m having a pedicure at Diamond Nails—one foot spa-soaking while the other is being expertly exfoliated, toes soon to be meticulously polished.  I often ask the Vietnamese nail technicians to tell me about their homeland.  Most are too young to remember the Vietnam War, but not too young to have intimate knowledge of the chemical devastation to their country’s landscape, which peels back another, deeper layer to deBuys’ story.

Reading William deBuys’ eloquent story The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures (2015: Little, Brown and Company), I found myself immersed in a post-war culture where everything that grows or crawls or trots or flies, is either eaten or commoditized. Including human beings. This post-war world is poignantly, beautifully and humbly rendered by deBuys in The Last Unicorn.

To trek with deBuys and Robichaud into the rarely glimpsed world of the elusive saola is to awaken your senses to “air musky with leaf mold” and to slender apes summoning the day. The songs of the gibbons lie “beyond metaphor, beyond the ordinary meanings of words.”  To travel up the canyon of the Nam Mon River is to stand with men "in stunned silence... at the place where the saola disappeared."

To travel with him through the pages of The Last Unicorn is to follow an illegal snare line along the crest of a jungled ridge only to find a red-shanked douc hanging upside down, snared by one foot, dead.

DeBuys does not portray himself as indefatigable.  He admits to not being physically equal to the grueling pace set by the team leader, biologist William Robichaud.  Each night brings bone deep, muscle weary exhaustion. Yet I can envision the journals, into which deBuys poured both the beauty and harshness of each day, laying restless beside him—repositories vibrating with strength of prose and the vivid, keen imagery of this sensate world.

I am grateful that at the close of each day, or during brief quite moments on the trail in search of the illusive saola, deBuys found the energy to record this quest in the pages of his journals so that we might take this journey with him. We are the richer for it, which is not a small thing in a disappearing world.

Perhaps I will buy a copy of The Last Unicorn for the women at Diamond Nails. Perhaps one of them remembers a grandfather's tale from long ago about a mysterious, dark eyed creature in the woods traveling unharmed across a borderless land.

Notes: View more photos in a slideshow of William deBuys travels in search of the saola. Read “A Wildlife Mystery in Vietnam: The discovery of the saola alerted scientists to the strange diversity of Southeast Asia's threatened forests” (Richard Stone, Smithsonian, 2008).  Read "Sticking it Out" guest essay by William deBuys in the Colorado Plateau Advocate magazine, Spring 2015.  Read The New York Times March review, "Searching for a Magical Creature."

Friday, May 29, 2015

Auker's THE STORY IS THE THING and Brooks' PAINTED HORSES


According to the inside flap of Malcolm Brooks’ debut novel Painted Horses, in the mid-1950s America was flush with prosperity and the West was still very much wild.  Like Painted Horses, I was born in the 1950s, a child of both prosperity and wildness.  I learned how to toddle my way down mountain trails used by deer and elk about the same time I learned which fork to use for shrimp cocktail.  I learned how to trust our paint horse Bingo as he high-stepped over rocks and around fallen branches.  Then we moved and I learned what it meant to say goodbye.  Life, I discovered, was not going to be a linear journey.

Nor is the journey you will take while reading Painted Horses (Grove Atlantic, NY, 2014).  The opening drops you smack dab in the middle of backstory that unfolds in real time—the smell of the ancient muck of an archaeological dig in London rises up from the page even as the female protagonist sinks her toes into the mire. In a deft literary turn to the West, we find her suddenly disembarking a train in Miles City, Montana, wandering down a muddy path and coming face-to-painted face with a tethered war horse.  Enter John H, and a new female protagonist. She was a loyal horse but also a captive mustang.  At that instant, I was tethered to the novel, eager for the round-about ride.

Reading Amy Hale Auker’s new novel The Story Is the Thing (Pen-L Publishing, AR, 2014), also requires a dexterous reader who enjoys navigating a winding path.  You’ll meet Uncle Bill, an old man riding a stocky bay horse, his face weathered by the decades, his eyes studying tracks on the dusty trail.   The next chapter leads us to the daughter of Bill’s ranch boss three days after old Bill’s funeral.  Within minutes, Katy has the squat wood-burning stove in the ranch house burning, the teapot hissing, and the pewter urn holding Bill’s ashes on a bookshelf.  He has left her a stack of yellow pads on which he meant to write only the truth of the previous summer, but somehow a far more complicated story finds its way from his arthritic hands elegantly onto the pages.

Sixty years after I first toddled down those mountain trails, I’m back riding them horseback.  Our old paint horse Bingo is gone and my parents' ashes have been scattered to the western winds.  The gray Arab horse I now ride brought me face-to-face with the past as the ongoing journey circles back.  I find myself thinking of the fully fleshed characters (human and equine) that inhabit the pages of Painted Horses and The Story Is the Thing—an oddly fitting title for a book, but a good reminder for all of us that yes, the story is what matters.  The story, for all of us, is the legacy we leave behind.  

NOTES:  In 2012, Amy Hale Auker won the Women Writing the West Willa Award for her nonfiction book Rightful Place (Texas Tech University). Malcolm Brooks received a 4-star review from USA Today for Painted Horses, also a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Keeping Your World Safe within the Pages of a Book: Learning from Kazuo Ishiguro

I recently attended a very public evening, and less public morning, with renowned British author Kazuo Ishiguro.  He read from and discussed his new novel The Buried Giant, his fourth since writing Remains of the Day (awarded the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1989).

Here was my chance to sit at the foot of a master storyteller, to learn about his creative process, and about the emotional impulses and insecurities that haunt even one of the world’s most prominent writers.  Thank you, Lighthouse Writers, for organizing this event. 

Ishiguro was born in Japan, but moved with his parents to Great Britain when he was only five.  He talked a great deal about memory, and how it defines individuals and cultures.

“I became an adult with the memory of a very precious place, Japan, in my mind—a Japan that didn’t really exist.  I wanted to preserve this remembered place and I thought:  If I write a novel, I can recreate this world, and then this world will be safe within the pages of that novel."

In listening to him, I realized that my own desire to keep the memories of my beloved Wyoming ranchland safe within the pages of a book was the deeply rooted yearning that urged me forward during the entire writing of my memoir In Search of Kinship.

I had never before articulated this desire in quite that way, yet it was into that well of desire that I dipped my emotional bucket each and every time I sat down to write.  And now, with the Wyoming Highway Department's plans to reroute a major highway through this land, the memories contained within the pages of In Search of Kinship are all the more poignant.

Three of Ishiguro’s books now inhabit my writing office: The Remains of the Day, The Buried Giant, and Conversations with Kazuo Ishiguro.  Anytime I wish to once again sit at his feet as a disciple, all I need to do is reach out a hand and the maestro is there, extending his art and his passion, inviting me into his world.

Note: Watch video of full book scene from The Remains of the Day.