Nick O’Connell: Writing His Own Story from Queen Anne Neighbors Magazine
When you become a teacher, you begin to think more deeply about the subject upon which you are teaching. Culinary instructors must thoroughly understand the food they are using in class. Language instructors must comprehend the subtle nuances hidden within a language. And writing instructors must have an intimate relationship with the craft of writing so they can help others create their own stories and narratives.
This is what Nick O’Connell has learned over his years as a writing instructor in his Seattle writing classes, travel writing classes and online writing classes.
“Teaching others how to write requires that you understand the process in a very detailed and conscious way,” he explains. “By explaining how to write, I came to understand the writing process much more deeply.”
After pursuing MFA and Ph.D. in English, both from the University of Washington, his love of writing led Nick to start The Writers Workshop in 2001. After teaching at the U.W. for many years, Nick decided he wanted to run his own program focused on the art and craft of writing in his Seattle writing classes, travel writing classes and online writing classes.
“I thought my students would really benefit from taking classes as a part of a comprehensive program, learning all the facets of narrative writing, story ideas, research, interviewing, profiles, personal essays and then moving to more narrative techniques like dramatic scenes, character sketches, scene by scene construction, dramatic outlines. I thought I could offer a very appealing package for students both here and beyond.”
Though there are challenges that come along with running a small business, such as worrying about marketing, websites, and other mundane necessities, the positives definitely outweigh any negatives. The school gives Nick the chance to work more intimately with the craft of writing, imparting that wisdom to his students in his Seattle writing classes, travel writing classes and online writing classes.
“I wanted to develop a more personalized writing program, with small classes, individual attention, and ability to teach a curriculum that would allow students to make great progress in a relatively short period of time.”
Nick has contributed to such publications as Newsweek, Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and Food & Wine. His love of the outdoors led him to contribute to places like National Geographic Adventures and Outside. It wasn’t long until he decided to extend his writing courses to include travel writing courses, as well.
The one-week intensive class introduces students to essential techniques of travel, food, and wine writing and helps students write, submit and publish travel stories. the Travel, Food and Wine Writing Class with The Writer’s Workshop has gone to such places as the Bordeaux and Provence regions of France, as well as Italy and Spain.
One of Nick’s most cherished memories from his time teaching the Travel, Food and Wine Writing Class occurred during a tour of Biondi-Santi Winery, the inventor of Burnello de Montalcino, perhaps the most famous of Italian wines.
“Franco Biondi Santi, the fifth generation to run the winery, gave the tour,” Nick recalls. “He was in his 80s, with a mane of gray hair, a passionate enthusiasm for winemaking, and a generous spirit in opening older bottles of his stellar wine, tasting through it with myself and the class, and explaining his enthusiasm for the world of wine.”
Nick mentions how rare it was for him to give a tour like that. “But he gave one to The Writer’s Workshop.” And though it was years ago, and Santi is now gone, the memory of the visit lives on for Nick.
“I’ll be thinking about it this spring when I visit Montalcino (home to Biondi Santi Winery) with the travel writing class.”
The adventures often include his family, as well. He’s been lucky enough to bring his wife Lisa, and their children along on several trips.
The trips have “added interest and zest to our family life,” Nick says. “My wife, Lisa, often accompanies me on the trip. We’ve also brought the kids along on a trip to France, introducing them to the many amazing aspects of Europe, including the culture, food, language and history.”
Married in 1994, Nick and Lisa first met in a nonfiction writing class at the University of Washington.
Originally from Spokane, Lisa received her B.S and M.D. from the University of Washington and completed a general surgery residency at the University of Utah (as well as a plastic surgery residency at the University of Cincinnati). She still finds time for art and writing. She loves to play guitar and sing and continues to write—mostly about plastic surgery on her blog, but also for other publications.
Together they have three children: Sons Daniel, Nick Jr., and daughter Marie. The family also includes their four-legged border collie/Australian shepherd mix dog, Stella.
The O’Connell’s consider Queen Anne to be a great place to both live and raise kids. They have lived on north Queen Anne since 1993. “We moved when we bought a house and got married. We both loved Seattle and the Queen Anne neighborhood.”
“I love Queen Anne because it’s a real neighborhood,” Nick says. “People look out for each other . . . we look out for each other’s kids. I like our neighbors and the larger community; they are a vibrant, caring group of people.” They hope the neighborhood can remain a single-family neighborhood and avoid the city’s attempts at upzoning it.
It’s the connections that make Queen Anne stand apart to the O’Connells, even after they’ve traveled the globe.
“Last summer our neighbors Steve Albright and Paula Cipolla hosted a weekly informal Friday evening gathering on their deck. Many of the neighbors showed up,” Nick recalls, “demonstrating that this is a strong, appealing, friendly community. Informal events like that make Queen Anne a great place to live.”
As a family they enjoy wine bottling, kids sports, and Irish step dancing. Nick also helped coach his son’s soccer team, back in the day. Nick can often be seen out in the community riding his bike, volunteering at St. Anne’s, and singing in their church choir. Always active, he enjoys skiing, climbing, swimming and running.
Their family motto is simply to “embrace life.” Thankfully, when you see the world through writer’s eyes, you see possibility in the smallest of details and breathtaking stories in the subtlest of moments.
Personally, Nick considers his novel The Storms of Denali to be one of his proudest achievements. “I put all I know about writing into that novel,” he explains. “As well as much that I know about human nature. It took many years to complete and publish, but it was worth the effort.”
It’s near impossible not to embrace life when you spend your days surrounded by the timeless craft of storytelling, the eye-opening adventure of travel and the in-depth relationship that teaching nurtures. Not only have the O’Connells found ways to fully embrace life, but they’ve done it on their own terms. When it comes to his life story, Nick has chosen to write his own.
NEWS FOR THE WRITER’S WORKSHOP
Here are upcoming readings, events and news for The Writer’s Workshop, which complement our Seattle writing classes, online writing classes and travel writing classes. Please get in touch if you have questions and comments about these events or news at The Writer’s Workshop (firstname.lastname@example.org)!
HOMAGE TO RICHARD HUGO: WHITE CENTER READING HONORS CELEBRATED POET
Few writers have influenced Northwest literature as profoundly as poet Richard Hugo, who brought the region to life in his poetry and prose, including the White Center area where he was born and raised as well as rural Montana where he moved to become head of the University of Montana’s creative writing program. Other than Seattle’s Richard Hugo House, there hasn’t been much local celebration of his work, until now.
The Writer’s Workshop will celebrate his career with a “Homage to Richard Hugo Night” on Thursday, Dec. 21 at 8 p.m. at Mac’s Triangle Pub, (9454 Delridge Way SW, Seattle, WA 98106) where Hugo used to hang out. In addition to writing poetry and teaching, Hugo spent a lot of time in bars. The Triangle was one of them.
The reading will include an unveiling of a framed Richard Hugo photo to be placed on the wall of the tavern, followed by readings at 8 p.m. by Nicholas O’Connell, founder of www.thewritersworkshop.net, from On Sacred Ground: The Spirit of Place in Pacific Northwest Literature, White Center resident Jeff Smoot reading from his essay, “Finding Richard Hugo in White Center,” forthcoming from the online literary magazine, www.thewritersworkshopreview.net, and other poems/ stories about White Center and/or Richard Hugo. After 9 p.m., the event will continue in an open-mic format where people can read their poems/ stories (hopefully on Hugo-esque themes) on into the night.
“I’d like to gather some people together to share Richard Hugo’s story, talk about his White Center roots, and read from some literary works about Hugo and his poems,” says Smoot. “Then open up the mic to anyone who wants to share a Hugo story, read a Hugo poem, or read any White Center-themed writing. I’m hoping this might become an annual event that preserves Hugo’s White Center legacy in some way.”
Hugo and other poets of the Northwest School sought to discover a place that resonated with them and allowed them to discover their own voice. Hugo referred to such a place as a “triggering subject,” a locale that fired a writer’s imagination.
“Hugo discovered his triggering subject in White Center,” says O’Connell. “Writing about it resulted in some of his first published poems and some of his best writing.”
If you’d like to read at the event, please contact Nicholas O’Connell (email@example.com). The Writer’s Workshop (www.thewritersworkshop.net) is an online and on-campus Seattle writing workshop, specializing in fiction, nonfiction and travel writing classes.
Writer’s Guide to the Book Tour and Beyond
I revealed some of the secrets of running a successful book tour at a talk last Thursday, Sept. 11 for the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association. I’ll include below the abstract of my talk. Contact me if you need more.
WRITER’S GUIDE TO BOOK TOURS AND BEYOND
Copyright The Writer’s Workshop
Nicholas O’Connell, firstname.lastname@example.org
To make sure that your book reaches its audience, sells a large number of copies and makes you famous and fabulously wealthy, you will need to devote time to promotion, a dirty word amongst many writers, but one that is essential to accomplishing all of the above. Even if your publisher bankrolls most or part of the promotion, you should get involved in the process, because it’s very likely you know better than they do the audience for the book.
COMING UP WITH A PLAN
How much money can you and your publisher put into promotion? Do you have an advance for this? Don’t go into debt to do this, but even $1000 can make a big difference.
How much time can you spend on promotion? A month? Three months? A year? Three months is probably a good time line for most authors, as this is the window most magazines and newspapers use in deciding whether to review a book.
WHO IS YOUR AUDIENCE?
All authors would like to sell their book to the entire world, but it’s unlikely everyone will buy it. Who is very likely to buy your book? Is there a specific audience begging to get their hands on your title? Target these people.
DEVELOP A MAILING LIST
You can start with family and friends, but you’ll want to expand it by asking for the email and mailing addresses of people who might attend your readings, take your classes (or take classes with you), or belong to the same organizations as you do. You’ll also want the names and addresses of newspaper and magazine editors, relevant bloggers and online editors, radio and television producers.
CREATING A WEBSITE
A website serves as a clearing house for critical information about yourself and your work. Many of the materials in a traditional press kit can be included on a website, including a press release, descriptions of your writing and publications, ordering information (with links to your publisher or an online bookseller), an author photo and bio, excerpts from reviews you have received in the past or from book blurbs, and selections from your works-in-progress. If you can’t afford a website, use a Facebook page, or a blog such as Google blogger. Creating a website is cheap and absolutely critical to sell your book.
Social media are a great means to get the word out about your book and to develop a community interested in hearing about your work. There are lots of social media useful for authors, including Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and Good Reads. You probably won’t be able to use all these media, so ideally choose one or two to concentrate on. Pick one that you like and can update regularly.
SETTING UP A READING TOUR
Come up with a plan that fits with your budget and time. Where do you plan to read? What city? Region? Nationally? What venues? What is the logic behind the selection of locations?
Once you have a plan, contact bookstores, libraries, universities, organizations, community centers, and other venues that host readings. If you can, send the event coordinators at these locations a free copy of your book. Allowing a two- to six-month lead time, ask the event coordinators if you can schedule a reading, slide show, lecture, question-and-answer session, or book signing. Confirm arrangements with a follow-up e-mail.
Several weeks ahead, contact local media to publicize the event. This could result in considerable publicity for your book. In this way, you and your book can be covered as an event, not simply in a book review, greatly expanding the possibilities of pr.
The tour should be enjoyable. If it’s fun for you, readers will notice and buy your book!
Book Tour Schedule for The Storms of Denali
Trails End Bookstore, Winthrop, WA– July 12, Thursday, 7 p.m.
Auntie’s Bookstore, Spokane, WA – Thursday, Aug. 9, 7 p.m.
402 West Main Avenue
Spokane, WA 99201
McCall Idaho Public Library – Thursday, August 16, 6 p.m.
218 E. Park, McCall, Idaho
Rediscovered Books, Boise, ID – August 17, 7 p.m.
180 North 8th Street Boise, ID 83702
All Things Sacred, Galleria Building, August 18, at 7 p.m.
351 Leadville Ave N., Ketchum, ID
Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, WA – Sept. 4, 7 p.m.
1521 10th Avenue Seattle, WA 98122
Icicle Creek Arts Center, Leavenworth, WA – Sept. 8, 7 p.m.
7409 Icicle Road
Leavenworth, WA 98826
Black Diamond Retail Store, Salt Lake City – Thursday, Sept. 20 at 7 p.m.
2084 S 3900 E
Salt Lake City, UT 84124
Office: 801 993 1318
Maine Outdoor Adventure Club, Portland, Maine – Oct. 3 at 7 p.m.
Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church
524 Allen Avenue Portland, ME 04103 (207) 775-MOAC (775-6622)
Appalachian Mountain Club HQ – Boston, MA – Thursday, Oct. 4 at 7 p.m.
4 Joy St., Boston, MA 617-523-0655
AMC Joe Dodge Lodge at Pinkham Notch, NH – Saturday, Oct. 6 at 7 p.m.
Route 16, Gorham, NH 03581 603-466-811903581 Appalachian
REI Soho, NYC – Monday, Oct. 8 at 7 p.m.
The Puck Building
303 Lafayette Street
New York, NY 10012
University Bookstore Seattle, WA – Dec. 5 at 7 p.m.
4326 University Way Northeast Seattle, WA 98105
Inklings Bookstore in Yakima, WA – Dec. 6 at 7 p.m.
5629 Summitview Avenue Yakima, WA 98908
Le Reve Bakery, Seattle, WA – Dec. 9 at 4 p.m.
1805 Queen Anne Avenue North Seattle, WA 98109
Eagle Harbor Books, Winslow – Jan. 17, 7 p.m.
157 Winslow Way East
Bainbridge Island, WA 98110
Tacoma Public Library – Jan. 29, 7 p.m.
1102 Tacoma Avenue South, Tacoma, WA 98402.
Seattle University’s Search for Meaning conference – March 9 at 9 a.m.
Pigott Building, 901 12th Ave Seattle, WA 98122 (206) 296-6000.
Barnes & Noble – Denver (Glendale) – April 9, 7 p.m.
960 S Colorado Blvd, Glendale (303) 691-2998
American Alpine Club in Golden, CO – April 10, 7 p.m.
710 10th St. – Suite 100 Golden, CO 80401 USA, 303-384-0110.
Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder, CO – April 11, 8 p.m.
633 S Broadway St Boulder, CO 80305 (888) 499-8866.
J. Loussac Public Library, Anchorage – Sept. 19, 7 p.m.
3600 Denali Street Anchorage, AK 99503
Talkeetna Roadhouse – Sept. 20, 7 p.m.
13550 E Main St Talkeetna, AK 99676(907) 733-1351
Gulliver’s Books, Fairbanks – Sept. 21, 6 p.m.
3525 College Rd Fairbanks, AK 99709
Here’s a recent Anchorage Daily News story about the novel: http://www.adn.com/2013/09/07/3062610/storms-of-denali-tracks-the-mental.html.
Wenatchee River Institute – Sept. 27, 7 p.m.
Vin du Garage: Home Wine Making Chez O’Connell
Nicholas O’Connell discusses home wine making and the appealing quest of making great vino, even in the garage. From Examiner.com: http://www.http://examiner.com/wine-in-seattle/making-wine-at-home.
Traveling in France: Pauline Frommer of Arthur Frommer’s Travel Show interviews Nicholas O’Connell
Nicholas O’Connell discusses France’s gîte program, wine touring and adventure travel. Go to Travel Show, Jan. 28, 2007: http://wor710.com/pages/76425.php
From the Ground up: A Conversation on Pacific Northwest Literature with Nicholas O’Connell
Christian Martin: First off, what is Pacific Northwest literature? How did you define it for your book?
Nicholas O’Connell: I had three criteria in mind when I was deciding what was specifically Pacific Northwest literature: the first was that it would engage the Northwest place. There are a lot of writers who live in the Northwest who write about other places and other things. As important as their work is, I wanted to focus on people who made some use of the region or its history in their work. The other criterion was that it be good, that the literature had literary qualities that would distinguish it from other kinds of writing. The third thing would be that the person who wrote it lived or had lived within what I defined as the Northwest, that being the boundary between the US and Canada, the Rocky Mountains, the Siskiyous and the ocean. That boundary is a blurry boundary because people do come and go– they fly all over the world– and yet there is something about the place that exerts this fascination over a lot of the writers who live here.
CM: As you point out in your introduction, Glen Love has brought forth the idea that poems and stories transform “what was once space-foreign, unfamiliar territory, into place, a familiar home ground’s Has our regional literature done this here?
NO: I think that it is starting to do so. One of the things that still needs to happen is that enough people who live in the space have to read the literature for it to become place. My book tries to help in that direction, telling people “Hey, there are all these great stories, novels and poems out there that say something really insightful about living here.” And so, gradually, those stories will make that transformation from space to place.
I think, to a certain extent, it’s happened already. One of the things I find remarkable about this area is the wealth of the native literature and native cultures. People aren’t always clued into it, but if you are, you realize that the tribes had names for all of these places. They had stories for it all. There’s a great story about Deception Pass, where an Indian maiden married a serpent underneath the water there. When she went underneath the water to visit him, her hair became the seaweed that you can see attached to the rocks there in the Pass. Stories like that make that transformation from space to place.
Its a kind of activity that happens slowly. Stories have to get into the culture; they have to become part of the totality of the culture for that to happen. But when it does happen, then the culture as a whole respects the place and is a lot more deliberate about what it does with it.
CM: Once a space is storied?
NO: Yeah, because then it’s not just a potential field of dirt for a parking lot, it’s a stream that could support salmon or it’s a place where we have all these stories about. So then we just have to treat it differently.
CM: Your survey of Pacific Northwest literature opens up with Chief Seattle’s famous speech from January 1854. Why did you decide to start here?
NO: I have this philosophy as a writer that you start with what people are familiar with, and then you take them to something that’s new. I recognized that many, many people had heard Chief Seattle’s words. I mean, they’ve been emblazoned on the back of T-shirts. There’s a cachet about him that I knew would be an easy place for general readers to enter the story. As much as I tried to make the book interesting to academics, I’m really addressing it to the people of the Northwest. I started with that story about Chief Seattle and then, through him, started my discussion of these fascinating stories which are more unfamiliar to people.
CM: You then discuss the rich oral tradition of the people indigenous to this place – why is the speaking of stories a part of a place’s literature? Doesn’t literature have to be written down?
NO: That’s something I had to struggle with. Our idea of literature is a book that you buy at Elliott Bay or Village Books. Whereas, for the tribes, it was often the stories that they would tell around a campfire while munching on a piece of dried salmon in the winter. There is a difference there, and yet I think the book that we buy serves a similar function as those stories.
Another one of the Indian stories that I mention after Chief Seattle is about fishing with Coyote. Coyote is trying to catch these salmon and he has to defecate and then consult his excrement to find out how to do it. It’s a funny story but it ends up having a really strong point, and that is This is how you approach this really valuable animal, the salmon.” The stories, for them and for us, have a pedagogical as well as an entertaining dimension to them. That’s what I see that they have in common.
CM: Your book boils thousands of years of native storytelling traditions down to 12 1Ú2 pages. Later chapters on more contemporary authors like “Realistic Writing” and “The Northwest School” gets closer to 50 pages. How did you decide where to place your emphasis?
NO: As the Northwest progresses further in time, the chapters get longer. That is mostly because I figured that for a lot of people, the native stories were interesting up to a point, but if I went into the too far, they might start to lose interest. The chapters that follow it, like the one on the explorers, as interesting as I think as some of that is, the writing just doesn’t come up to the same level as the “Northwest School” of writers or contemporary writers. So I consciously spent more time on the modern writers because, well, it’s not like England where we have this really rich, long tradition of really interesting pieces of literature. Ours is more limited and so I didn’t feel that I should devote something like 50 pages to it. I mean, you could, because there are thousands of these really interesting tribal stories from all over the place. But that would be a different book.
The difficulty of this book was what to exclude, but I had to very firm about my selections or it would’ve consumed all of my life putting it together. It’s not that one shouldn’t pay attention to the other writers, but I really wanted to pick out some who I thought we’re really worth reading and really worth paying attention to. My main goal is that the general public would get engaged in the reading of their place.
I also had the thesis of “What was the tribes’ response to the environment?” And I followed that same question – what is the response of this group and that group to the environment– all the way through. That question gave unity to my book. There are many other issues that could’ve been explored. But I had to stay on track.
CM: The Northwest has been filling up with outsiders since its discovery. How have these migratory trends shaped our literature?
NO: It’s made a lot of people unaware that there is a history here that preceded them. That was one of the interesting things about doing this book – was surprised that nobody had done it before. When people arrive, they tend to think, “OK, things start now” and not 200 years ago. And that gives an openness to the Northwest – that’s the good side of it, this willingness to try new things, which is a characteristic of the West Coast, of places like Seattle, which is very appealing and different from a place like the East Coast where things have always been done a certain way. If you want to depart from those ways, you have to give a reason why. Not here – you just kind of plunge forward and see what happens.
I think now there’s been an accumulation of enough really interesting history and literature that one can begin to start doing something with it, asking “OK, what is it that we have here? How is it unique? How can we build on it? How can it give a sense of who we are and where we’re at in the culture? How can it tell is what’s the right sense of what it’s like to live here.” The Pacific Northwest is not like every other place. There’s a particular pattern to life here. It’s enriching to find it and to see how you can fit into it. You know, how to spend long winter afternoons reading and then long summer afternoons out hiking. Literature from here can show how you can best live this particular life in this particular place.
CM: Is all of the post-Native regional literature flavored by the fact that everyone here came from somewhere else? Is all of our literature stories of the “immigrant’s experience?”
NO: Yes and no. Look at somebody like Ken Kesey, who was born in Oregon to a family of loggers and seems to be rooted in the place, fully engaged with living here. Then there are people that engage the sense of immigration continually. Like Jonathan Raban in Waxwings, writing about Seattle’s dot-com boom and bust and all the people that came with that. Because this is still a new place and there are new people coming here all the time, that is a strong issue for some writers. But for other ones, now that a lot of people have been here long enough and stuck their roots in to the place, other kinds of stories begin to emerge. I’m thinking of a book like A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean, which is about what he calls his “family river,” the Blackfoot River in Montana, and just how strongly he and his family identify with that place. They are these tough bastards, and they’re tough at least in part because they’re tough enough to stand up to the river. Idol say there’s kind of an interplay between the immigrant and the resident.
CM: Kesey is a brilliant example of the resident: he is all Oregon.
NO: Yeah, he was an amazing guy. Hoes kind of an Oregon redneck in some ways – a logger, a shit-kicking guy, and yet he was one of the first to experiment with LSD down at Stanford, and then he led his Merry Pranksters all around. He’s often know mainly for that, and yet, after all that, he became a dairy farmer and just sunk into his place.
CM: Many of the writers you focus on in your study have come from somewhere else: Norman Maclean, Theodore Roethke, William Stafford – what qualifies them to be Northwest writers? Is there a minimum residency requirement?
NO: I don’t think you could say, you know, 10 years minimum before you get in-region residency. I think of them as Northwest writers once they fully engage the place in their work. Jonathan Raban does that in some of his stories. In Passage to Juneau, you get these wonderful descriptions of all of the weird sea creatures that inhabit the bottom of Puget Sound, and a lot about the tribes and the weather. What comes through that book is this intimate knowledge of place. It’s not stuff he just read in a travel book or something he heard on the radio. He’s felt it. He’s experienced it. It’s immediate, felt life. The ability to do that, to break through the surface of this place and to see it with some depth perception, that’s what qualifies somebody as a Northwest writer. Whether they do that after a year, or after a lifetime, I don’t think it really matters. It’s that insight that they have that counts. Usually it takes people a while, 10 years, maybe a lifetime, to really feel settled here, to really get a sense of what it’s like.
CM: What specific elements does a work need to have to be “Northwest literature?” Does a work need to “be full of clams and salmon and all that,” as poet Sandra McPherson once chided, to belong?
NO: That’s a funny question. I write for these national magazines, and I jokingly say that I have to refer at some point to clams, salmon, coffee, grunge music and Microsoft in order to tie it to a New Yorkers’ view of the Northwest. It doesn’t, obviously, depend on those subjects alone so much as it is grappling with the natural environment or the history of this place. My definition is broad: anything that is central to the place, dealing with that kind of subject matter, and then writing a great story or poem in turn. I don’t like to define it too narrowly. Partly because writers always take that as a challenge: “You think that Northwest literature is just about clams and salmon, well I’m going to show you something. I’m going to write about toadstools and trains and geophysics and make a Northwest story out of it!”
CM: Your broad definition then is that it needs to grapple with some element of the particular place and it needs to be a good story?
CM: But the Northwest holds so many other successful writers – like Richard Bach, Ann Rule, Rebecca Wells, Chuck Palachiuk – that aren’t necessarily very nature- or place-based.
NO: Those are writers who live here, but they write about other things, other places. While I think that that’s great, they haven’t fully engaged this place yet in their work. And those are the kind of writers that I’m interested in in this book. I think the value of engaging this place is that it gives the writer a chance to do something new. You know, this place hasn’t been written about for thousands of years. Indians have been telling stories about it, but we have-not had novels or poems about this place for very long. Even with the book that I wrote, I felt like I was doing something new. And art thrives on the new. It has to be fresh. It has to be different. So, the writers that excited me were the ones that were engaging this place and doing something different. A guy like Barry Lopez, for example. Or Gary Snyder, who was taking all these strands of Asian art and Native culture and biological thought and combining them into this really, really interesting new style of poetry. So I was attracted to and wanted to highlight those writers contributions.
CM: And so, by looking at writers like Lopez and Snyder and their new creations, you conclude that “the relationship between people and this diverse and mysterious landscape” has become the “primary theme in the Northwest literature?”
NO: That was something I discovered as I was researching my first book [At the Field’s End; University of Washington Press, 1987, 1998]. I read all of this Northwest literature without preconceptions and that relationship kept coming up again and again and again. The more I started looking at it, the more I found a lot of writers that were really interested in this particular thing. It became what I consider the dominant issue – not the only one – but the dominant one.
CM: Do you think our more popular writers like Sherman Alexie or Tom Robbins, who aren’t necessarily exploring nature or nature themes, are still exemplary of Northwest writing?
NO: Oh yeah, Tom Robbins’ first book Another Roadside Attraction is just saturated with place, it’s permeated with the Northwest. It is one of my favorite books. And a lot of Sherman Alexie’s stories, maybe not so much the more recent ones I’ve read, but his early stuff is very grounded in the Spokane area and on the reservation there.
I quote Flannery O’Connor in the opening of my book: “Art begins with the particular.” And one of the things that makes art or fiction or poetry distinctive is that it’s very, very specific. It may make a large point but it does it through individual people, certain situations, a very specific locale. So I think that sort of from-the-ground-up integrity makes for good writing. I try to follow that philosophy in my own writing. The more you can get your teeth into the place and the person and the individual nuances of the story, the better story it’s going to be. The newer it will be.
CM: What is the Pacific Northwest’s contribution to American letters? Do we exert any influence on the state of our national literature?
NO: I think we’re starting to exert a lot more influence. Norman Maclean tells this great story about his book A River Runs Through It being rejected by a big New York publisher with the line, “These stories have trees in them.” Things have changed a lot since then. For one, the quality of the writing has really increased. When you have somebody like Ivan Doig or Barry Lopez or Ursula Le Guin living in a region and writing about it, they can’t be dismissed as merely regional writers, which was a big debate 30 years ago. That debate has pretty much disappeared. The best writers who live here are considered totally legitimate within the national sphere.
The thing that we have to offer is this continued engagement with place, with place as perceived through some quite different ways of looking at things, whether it’s these kind of Asian artistic traditions serving as prisms for people like Ursula Le Guin or Robert Sund, the guy who lived in a shack in the Skagit Valley, or Gary Snyder or Charles Johnson, my mentor at the University of Washington. The same thing with this really rich Indian tribal tradition. Writers are taking that and using it and engaging it in their stories. It’s been done elsewhere by people like Louise Erdrich, but not as completely as it’s being done here. So this continued examination of place and of nature – as well as the sense that this place is sacred – is what the region’s contribution to national literature will be. That’s not to say that other places don’t have these qualities, but I think that we have it in a kind of super-abundance.
CM: Is the literature exerting any critical or commercial influence in a publishing center like New York?
NO: Oh, very much so. I was having a conversation with Paul Loeb, a Northwest author who writes mainly about social issues, and he was griping that it was hard for him to engage New York publishers with issues like his book on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. He said it would be so much more easier if he was writing about nature, because that is what everyone back there expects from a Northwest writer.
CM: So it’s been reversed: before, it was a liability to have too much nature in one’s book and now in New York they’re asking, “Where’s the nature?”
NO: Right. Nature’s become popular again!
CM: What’s new about the findings of your literary survey? What’s makes it different from others who have investigated Pacific Northwest literature before?
NO: I think that what my book does that’s different is that I state directly what Northwest literature is about. Early scholars were looking and trying to find something, but it took awhile for enough history and literature to accrue before people were able to say definitively, “This is what it’s about. This is what we’ve done here.” I was very influenced by scholars like George Vann and Glen Love; I read their books and I thought “Gosh, they are really on to something.”
It was a personal thing for me too. I went to school on the East Coast, and people would always ask me, You’re from Seattle? Does anybody write books out thereto I had this sort-of, I’m not sure if it was an inferiority complex, but I wanted to prove something, just for myself. I wanted to find out what it was about living here that I just loved; I couldn’t really put my finger on it. Writers like Glen Love and George Venn, they had put their finger on something that I recognized as true. So I took their direction, and I expanded it into On Sacred Ground. That’s what’s new. People had been mentioning that Northwest literature was about nature, but nobody had written the book. It was waiting to be written. And I was the one who did it.
CM: One characteristic of Northwest literature is the search for reconciliation and right livelihood between human culture and the natural world. But you ask towards the end of your study, “Will the vision of unity of people and place ever become a reality?” Is the literature still important if it provides blueprints for a plan that never happens, inspiring a vision never realized?
NO: I think that literature is civilization dreaming; it’s our culture dreaming ahead. Not all of the dreams work out, but literature is what gives civilization its ideas. It’s not that writers come up with all the ideas themselves – it’s often they listen to the culture and then they write a story about it – but literature is sort of leading the way, giving the larger society some idea of what things should or could be like in the future.
Ursula Le Guin’s book Always Coming Home takes place a thousand years from now after industrial civilization had destroyed itself through all these wars and everything and people start up this new culture. One that is semi-based on American Indian culture, but with computers and so forth. But the key characteristic of it is that it lives in the Napa Valley of the future in such a way that it doesn’t harm the valley. There’s this kind of unity between human and natural culture, a kind of unity that allows the two of them to kind of balance each other.
So I think writers provide these visions and then it’s up to the rest of the culture to see if they can follow, or whether they want to. I don’t think of writers as always being correct, but they have this ability to project and to give an idea, a plan, of what might be.
Christian Martin is the Features Editor of The Bellingham Weekly (www.bellinghamweekly.net)