Below is the full version of an interview Ooligan Press conducted with me recently in which I hold forth about this and that and sailing and rivers and writing. You can check out the edited version here on their blog.
What was the inspiration for writing this book?
Life experience, really. Jobs I’ve had at various marinas in the Portland metro area. And living aboard a sailboat on the Columbia River for several years at the turn of that last century. And curiosity about why a seemingly shimmering, envious, laid-back lifestyle (living on the river) can be so crap-tastic to actually live. I don’t recommend it. I guess whatever doesn’t kill you, you can write about. That’s the short answer.
How long had you been working on it prior to submitting it?
Prior to submitting it to Ooligan? About 8 years. I’ve had a few gumption-filled seasons trying to publish it in the last decade. I worked on some other writing projects. I had kids. I lost faith a few hundred times. It took some years to wrestle through whether I really wanted to write or merely to live the life of a writer. That’s a pithy anecdote that has to be worked out in thousands of difficult choices from day to day: the imaginary lifestyle vs. the moment-to-moment work and lower-back pain. Or is that just me I’m talking about?
I saw a little bit into what life would be like if I were to turn away from writing for too long. For me, it really does seem like a life-or-death choice. That sounds like a cliché but it doesn’t feel like a cliché to have lived with that tension. The habits of writing or not writing can have a hint of desperation for me. It really does feel like the difference between living a life and living a death. I have to keep writing, not just for myself, but to spare my wife and kids a lot of grief. A very good friend told me once: “You haven’t been writing recently, have you? I like you better when you are writing.” He was channeling Madeleine L’Engle, I think. So I partly keep at it because I want like people to like me, which can feel like a life-or-death reason even if it is a lousy reason.
Did you do a lot of research to write On the Waterline? How much of it was based on your past experiences living on a sailboat and working in marinas?
The great-grandmother of this manuscript was born during graduate school, when I was trying to view the stories I was writing through the lens of creative nonfiction. “The fourth genre” it was being elevated to in the late 90s to the early oughts. That’s a lofty way to categorize, it seems to me now. So there were all these questions about research methodologies with regard to researching lived experience – for memoir and literary nonfiction especially. I got pretty lost in research, to be honest, sifting through memory and looking into calendars and weather patterns, and tide tables for specific days and weeks that were important to the narrative. Historical records of the elements can uncover some significant details when you are evoking memories and specific events. Trying to come up with a whole research methodology (much less practicing methods once you identify them) can also make you a little nuts. It’s always easy to use research as an excuse not to write anything. That might be partly why this manuscript gravitated toward fiction, and that I find fiction more freeing in general.
Research for the fictional aspects of this novel are more rooted in narratives (both oral and written narratives). Especially the historical elements about the Columbia and Willamette Rivers and some of the details around the inundation of Celilo Falls. I did an oral history project with a local Native American elder that opened up the book of those years before the dams went up. There are a number of Indians still around, still bearing witness to that time, and there are libraries of books about “The Mighty Columbia.” There was a dramatic production a few years back. We need more music and art than Woody Guthrie’s corporate-sponsored “Roll on, Columbia roll on.” We need more art from Native American perspectives, especially.
What authors inspire you?
There are a number of poets at the top of the list: I love so many of the popular poets: Billy Collins, Sharon Olds, Jane Kenyon, and Ted Kooser. William Stafford is a writer I am constantly revisiting. I’ve tried getting my hands on as many audio files of Bill Stafford’s poetry readings as I can find. For a while, I had audio of his readings playing over and over every day, until he started showing up in my dreams and offering me observations and suggestions. Sometimes, his voice still rings clearer in my head than my own voice. I love a lot of the work of his son, Kim Stafford too.
I fall head-over-heals when I read Carol Shields, Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robinson, Mark Helprin, Patricia Hampl, Susan Sontag, Louise Erdrich, and David James Duncan, to name a few. They inspire me both to be a better writer and to stop what I’m doing right away and write down the thoughts that start simmering when I read them. That’s problematic, though, trying too much to be “a moon to the sun” of great writers and thinkers. I don’t think that “finding your own voice” is a clear-cut process. Everyone has their own journey to make. You can’t control inspiration, or know what is going to inspire you. There are the more respectable, literary writers that I feel safer mentioning, but some of the writers and voices that inspire might be considered mere guilty pleasures. I’ll let you decide if any of these names I’ve mentioned are somehow “lesser” than others. It’s really a matter of how willing you are to listen and engage the particular voice in front of you, even those you wouldn’t like to be in the same room with.
There are some obvious common denominators in what writers inspire me: I’m drawn to work that engages themes of religious faith or spirituality in general. I’m a sucker for characters or narratives that are wrestling with, or recovering from, or embracing big spiritual ideas. I’m so grateful for Marrilyne Robinson, who, in a lot of ways, has made it safe for literary fiction to blaze those kinds of trails at an artful level that we’ve probably not seen since Flannery O’Connor (at least at the Iowa Workshop and its particular influence on the American literary landscape).
One detail that really struck me in reading the manuscript is the inclusion of Celilo Falls, and another legend around it (we at Ooligan have previously encountered Celilo in Robin Cody’s Ricochet River). The story of the falls is certainly one worth telling, and few people in generations since their destruction know a lot about them. What made you decide to include them? What do you want readers to understand about Celilo?
I hadn’t anticipated that I would write about Celilo in that way: further building on its mythology, but I think I see what you mean. I first started hearing about the web of Native American social and cultural communities that grew out of traditional fishing sites like Celilo from Indian testimonies about them. Oral Histories. I went to a few pow-wows and other gatherings. I was a clumsy, introverted, conspicuous outsider, for sure. I’m like those white folk stopping along the freeway to gawk at Celilo back before The Dalles Dam went up.
But back to your question… I think people would benefit by understanding that we are still living in the shadow of those dams and the shadow of a stagnant, official narrative that grew out of that post-world-war, Army-Corp expansion into the west. We are still trying to gain a historical understanding that is more nuanced than the caucasian story of the history of river management. That is not the most important narrative to tell, in my mind. The system of dams on the Columbia was, and is, a force of nature, and I think the narratives we inherit are also a force of nature. Words and stories matter. It’s not as if the dams are just relics of a world-war, cold-war era that we can simply unmake, even though that is something I fantasize about a little in this manuscript you are publishing. Larger economic interests are still expanding into the Columbia Gorge because of those dams. Google is continuing to expand along the river thanks to cheap electricity. They may want to “do no evil,” but their expansion may do little lasting good for the river and the communities around it. And for crying out loud: Nestle came really, really close to setting up a water bottling facility on Eagle Creek, in the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. To bottle up water there. It took concerned citizens blowing the whistle to bring that to the attention of the larger public. It’s amazing: you can’t develop in the large sections of the Columbia River Gorge-you can’t build or rebuild a house there, even in established neighborhoods-but Nestle almost got in. And that Nestle story isn’t over yet, it sounds like.
When I first learned about the inundation of Celilo Falls, I was living on the river at the time, and traveling up and down the river. You are alert to things below the surface when you are on a boat, as much as you are to what’s above it. What is below the surface of the water is both tangible and mysterious. I’ve run aground and slammed into rocks that were just out of sight below the surface of the water. There are tangible, looming hazards just underwater that you have to reckon with. When you exit out of the lock doors just above Bonneville dam and you sail upstream from the locks toward the Bridge of the Gods, and the town of Cascade Locks, and Hood River, the river can feel pretty ominous. If you have a depth-finder on, you can see evidence of that canyon underneath you just above Bonneville dam; you can take soundings that are unbelievably deep. Most of the rest of the river downstream can be dangerously shallow for a boater. Above Bonneville, you feel safer with all that depth, right up close to the shore, even, but you can feel pretty haunted as well. There are haunting, compelling stories buried down there. I’m not just romanticizing about that. It’s not just that Indians used to hang out on outcroppings that are now buried way down there. And ancient burial sites thrice buried: underground, under silt, underwater. There are narratives that we don’t know how to hear because we are still dismissive and condescending toward a native culture that we don’t understand. There are people still alive who bear witness to a landscape and a way of life that sounds like a myth to us because it existed in places that are now inaccessible. We can’t see it anymore so we don’t really believe or comprehend it. I think that is partly because we can’t take physical steps into that physical place. There are lots of stories and ways of living that we are blind to.
A native elder told me once when he was trying to describe Celilo Falls: “It was kind of like the Niagara Falls of the west, though not quite as big.” He described a place that was incredibly powerful and loud, with water and mist in the air all around. Words fail us. I’ve heard it described by non-natives too as being “not as big as Niagara Falls” which kind of diminishes the place and makes it seem more like an acceptable level of collateral damage. Maybe the transformation of the landscape is partly why stories about Celilo lend themselves so easily to mythology. I’m not 100% sure that mythology helps the actual place and its people. Hopefully it helps more than it hurts.
Oh boy, that seemed like a straightforward question about why some of the story of Celilo ended up in my manuscript. More than you bargained for, probably.
What attracted you to Ooligan specifically? What are you most excited about now that On the Waterline has been acquired?
I’m really impressed with the variety and quality of Ooligan publications. I was good friends with Tony Wolk back in the day and heard about the creative, collaborative interactions he had with the press when you published his Lincoln novels. I eventually had to stop being a college student, but I love university communities. If anything, I’d love for my writing to help students in some way, and Ooligan is a way in that direction. Small publishers are heroes. And Ooligan’s professional, passionate community is invigorating. They are a super-team of top-tier super heroes.
What I’m most excited about? The publication process is intriguing to me. I’m becoming less and less of a proponent of the auteur theory that great artists are mostly self-made and could make art in a vacuum if they had to. Probably the best artists in Portland are homeless or trying to pay the bills with other work, or are relatively unknown, or are moving away from Portland altogether. An art community depends on lots of people, not just one or two or three Artists with an upper-case “A.”
I’m honored to be considered for publication, especially with all the really great, unacknowledged writers out there. I’m excited about seeing fruit coming out of a lot of my hard work inside and outside the university. Maybe this publication is just one obvious apple on the tree for me. With Ooligan’s help, maybe it won’t be one bad apple.
You currently work as a technical writer for the Oregon DFW. How do the skills required to write in a technical mode relate to your creative writing skills (is there a lot of overlap, or do you feel they’re more exclusive)?
Mostly these days, I test software there at ODFW, though there is still some technical writing. I think they haven’t gotten rid of me yet partly because I’m willing to face a blank page and scrawl some first-draft drivel onto it. It’s amazing how good the engineers and software developers I know are at avoiding writing a sentence. And I’ve been willing to write sometimes when no one else wants to. Any other out-of-work Humanities majors out there may take note: if you land an interview somewhere, tell them how unafraid you are of writing up the stuff that everyone else is worming their way out of.
It’s much easier to note the differences between technical writing and exploring creatively with writing as an art form. But there are similarities too. Technical writing can be like calisthenics or Pilates for limbering up your brain and fingers for when you can carve out time to work creatively. You can always use more practice at being clear and concise. I’m sure there is good mental balance in stringing together words for disparate purposes. Muscle memory is good for other levels of memory, as I understand. It helps to have lots of writing projects under your belt, where you have learned to be OK filling up the trash can and reworking things in light of your audience. It especially helps you to work through distractions and your particular habits of avoidance that arise at different points in writing projects.
That wonderful local poet, Shelley Reece, once told me that the writing life for most of us is a Batman-like existence. The work of some heroes has to be done at night. And the more rewarding work of the night shift depends upon the daytime facade. How I got into a 40-hour-per-week software-testing existence when I have no computer science background is still mostly a mystery to me. Mostly, I do it badly. And I often use up all my batarangs during the day, and I don’t have any left to throw at night. Or at night I cruise out of the batcave with four flat tires on the batmobile. Or I fall asleep at the console in the bat cave while the bat signal shines across a lonely, cloudy Oregon sky. But I don’t get to drive a Lamborghini during the day. Wait, you didn’t ask me a question about Batman, did you? Did I mention that I have kids?