In November’s literary arts profile, we talk to Casey Jarman, the author of “Death: An Oral History.” In his new book, Jarman explores our cultural anxiety about death, how it clashes with capitalism and what renowned writers and thinkers told him about the ultimate existential subject.
As Alexis M. Smith sat down in the post-five year anniversary party clutter of the Eleven offices, she confided that the night previous had consisted of “many, many tequila cocktails.” But she didn’t seem at all groggy, deftly answering questions about the state of the planet, the state of womanhood and the state of Washington, where her new novel, Marrow Island, is set. The novel, about a group trying to remediate a devastated fictional island in the Puget Sound, is Smith’s second novel. Her first, Glaciers, was released by Tin House and was a finalist for the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction and was a World Book Night 2013 selection. In both texts, Smith wrestles with ideas of a vanishing world and writes beautifully of the people who might, or might not, have any power over how quickly that vanishing occurs.
ELEVEN: There’s a lot of potential pessimism in Marrow Island, about humans and their role in the natural world. You have these characters who are remediating this toxic island, but they might also be getting sick, and you’ve also cast them as slightly shady characters. I’m curious where you fall on the pessimism-to-optimism spectrum.
Alexis M. Smith: It’s really hard, because I think I go back and forth, daily. Sometimes I’m more optimistic that we’re gonna get our shit together as a species, and do something. And sometimes the oil trains that everyone said were going to crash and burn, have crashed and burned. And the railroad wants to keep running the trains down the tracks. Then I just start thinking, there really is no hope for us, we’re screwed. Because it doesn’t matter if people can predict what’s gonna happen … we can’t get everyone’s imagination behind it, it seemed like, to do something about it. I think in general, I’m hopeful and optimistic about individuals, and I’m pessimistic about collective decisions. That’s sort of I think where the book comes down on it too, the more collective the decision, the more likely it is to not quite hit its mark.
11: There’s certainly a lot of collective action in the book. You could say it’s more a collective than a cult.
AMS: But then again, I’m also thinking about when the protestors suspended themselves from the St. Johns Bridge last summer. I watched it from my deck, because I could see it from where I lived. And I went down to the park a lot, with my son. It was such a wonderful moment, of people coming together, and sacrificing their own freedom, knowing they would probably be charged with crimes and go to jail for a period of time. That did give me hope. Even though we knew the boat was going to get back through, it was a moment of real feeling, like we can make good collective decisions, but some people have to…that those people, mostly young women, a lot of them were women, they made a really tough decision, that not a lot of us would choose to do. Or blockading the rail lines. I heard there was an action.
11: Twenty people were arrested just yesterday. [This interview was conducted on June 19.]
AMS: Yeah, blocking the rail lines. I don’t know that I’m brave enough to make that decision. Now that I have a kid. Maybe if you don’t have a kid you can sacrifice yourself a little more for the greater good. I go back and forth. My idea with the colony was — I don’t wanna give too much away — but I am on their side, as the writer, as the imagination behind the story, I’m totally on their side and I wanted them to succeed.
11: And yet.
AMS: And yet. And I also don’t think that they were shady. I think they made some bad decisions and I think people do that. I really just wanted to show how individually they wanted to make a difference and they were doing the best that they could.
11: Which is all that any of us can do, and we’ll see if it will be enough. You mentioned that so many of the people involved in the St. Johns protest were women. There’s a very strong feminine energy running through the book, with the narrator’s attraction to her best friend, Katy, most of the central characters being women, and Sister J, the collective’s leader. I’m curious where you see that energy falling, both in the novel and in a larger environmental context.
AMS: Somebody actually asked me a similar question a couple days ago and I had never really thought about how the fact of them being women was important in the story. I’ll just say that. Because I am a feminist myself, and because a lot of my really intense relationships are with women, it just felt natural to tell a story … and part of it is just my limitation, that I know female psychology better. Carey is sort of the romantic interest. He was somewhat based on some men in my life who were really … I don’t know how to describe them. Poets and stoic and powerfully quiet. Real thinkers and real sensitive people and men who always were conscious and aware of how their actions were affecting the women around them.
11: Very conscious of trying to be good men.
AMS: Yeah, but at the same time, really conscious of how that makes them different from other men, or the culture, the really macho culture that comes out of some rural communities, or working class communities, or religious communities. And actually, some aspects of him are based on a trans man I dated for quite a while who was a wildland firefighter, who gave me a lot of information about that world. But I think it’s important to keep telling stories where women are agents of change. But it wasn’t actually conscious for me when I was writing it.
11: I’m curious about the research that went into the book. You write about two things with a lot of beautiful, vivid prose: mushrooms and the islands in the Puget Sound. Did you spend time on those islands as a child? Did you return once work on the novel began?
AMS: I didn’t actually go back, but yeah, we lived in Washington state from the time I was ten until I left and moved here when I was 20. We used to take the ferry quite a bit. My grandparents lived in Edmonds. The many, many islands of Puget Sound were part of our…
11: Part of your world.
AMS: Yeah, from a pretty young age.
11: When was the last time you were up there?
AMS: Probably right before I moved to Portland. A college friend and I took off and were just like, let’s get on a ferry and see where we go.
11: So not recently.
AMS: We did plan a trip up there when I was on book tour for Glaciers, and then the whole family got Giardia. So yeah, it was all from memory and research.
11: And how about mushrooms?
AMS: Mushrooms are everywhere. Which is great. You don’t have to go very far. I run in Forest Park, or I did more when I lived in St. Johns. And I would just bring my phone with me and whenever I saw something I would take pictures of it and when I got back home, I would look in the guide books and figure out what they were. I read this great book called Mushrooms, Molds and Miracles.
11: By the same guy who writes all the mushroom books?
AMS: No, it’s not Stamets. Mycelium Running was a huge one that I read very early. Paul Stamets is a really great champion of the environment through mycelium. I read his book, this book by Lucy Kavalier, who wrote Mushrooms, Molds and Miracles. There’s so much out there. I got really obsessed with it for a while. I couldn’t go on a run in Forest Park because I was stopping every two feet to take pictures of something. I have to admit that the idea of mushrooms as the vehicle for remediating the island after the fire was not my idea. I had this crazy dream and I started developing this idea. I knew that in this dream there was this island that had been devastated by some kind of man-made disaster, a toxic spill or something. We lived in Alaska when the Exxon Valdez spilled. There were things like that that I think my consciousness was drawing on. So in the dream it was just this island and I knew that half of it was still destroyed and the other half was bright green and I was flying over it in a float plane. And I also knew there were nuns there which was weird. It just made sense. I knew I wanted this to be a story, I just didn’t know all the real details of it. I was sitting across the table, describing this story that was developing for me to my son’s father and I was like, I don’t know how they’re going to make this miracle happen. Like, will it really be a miracle, or is it going to be more magical, is it going be something unexplainable? And he was just like, mushrooms! And he just went and got Mycelium Running and was like, “Here, read this book.” So that was totally not my idea.
11: What was the transition like from working with Tin House, a smaller press, to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt? Any pros or cons?
AMS: Honestly, not yet. I loved working with Tin House and they are still great cheerleaders for me and I will always be a great cheerleader for them too. The only real difference between Tin House and Houghton Mifflin, in this experience, is the first print run was larger and my paychecks were larger. I’m really lucky to have had really good experiences in both the smaller, independent press and the larger publisher.
11: Did you work with an agent for both?
AMS: No, I didn’t have an agent for Glaciers. I tried to get an agent and they all said, “it’s too short, we’ll never sell it.” The ones that bothered to respond.
11: God bless small presses.
AMS: Tin House was willing to take a risk and publish a novella, really. They call it a novel, but it’s a very short book.
11: Without giving anything away, I wanted to ask about Marrow Island’s ending. It’s a beautiful ending and I know you’ve said you had that ending in mind when you started, but I’m curious how closely the ending in the book hued to that original idea.
AMS: I tend to be really attached to that first ending at first. That’s sort of what happened this time. I ended it on some words I thought would be really important. In the first draft. When I got it back with notes from [my editor] Jenna it was like, I just want you to think really deeply about this. She’s like, I’m not pushing you in any direction, but these are things I want you to think really deeply about in the ending. The scene itself that I’d imagined, and the feeling, are still there, but it did end up going in another direction, I think definitely for the better, or I wouldn’t have kept it. But yeah, I think it’s really important to be attached to something, but also at some point be willing to thank it for its time and let it go.»
– JP Kemmick