In this month’s literary arts profile, we talk to Portland author Jim Newman about how his work as a television journalist on WCCO-TV and OPB informs his satirical novels.
The work of Peter Rock is deeply indebted to Portland’s many idiosyncrasies. He writes about man’s connection to the natural world, about drifters and misfits, about a tenuous relationship with a mysterious spirituality. He’s currently putting the finishing touches on an art book called Spells, in which he pairs stories with hand-picked photographs, and for which he received a 2014 Guggenheim fellowship to pursue. His first young adult novel, Klickitat, about two sisters struggling to come to grips with their place in the natural world, comes out April 13. Join him at Powell’s that evening to celebrate its release on Amulet Books.
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ELEVEN: Do you want to tell me about the genesis of Klickitat?
Peter Rock: There’re sort of practical reasons why I wrote it and then there are other reasons. Certainly one of the big things that drove me to write it was just thinking about sisters. I have two sisters who are very strange. My wife has two sisters who live about half a mile from us. And I have two daughters, who are, in fact, sisters of each other. And my wife’s sister also has two daughters who are about the same age. So I’ve spent the last eight years, especially before they got into elementary school, driving these four girls. At the same time, reading a lot of things … starting kind of younger, with Beezus and Ramona and then, traveling on through all of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which is very sister-intensive. I guess, you know, I’m always interested in writing about things I don’t understand very well and that’s something I will never understand.
I think writing The Shelter Cycle changed the way I think about the world in general, but it also made me want to write about things that are invisible in some way, that are ineffable in some way, the ways in which we might be communicating with things that we can’t easily see or apprehend. There’s a story in my book, The Unsettling, called “The Sharpest Knife,” which is partially about a girl who finds writing in a notebook. It’s a story, for something that I wrote, that I like quite a bit, but there was a question of whether or not I was going to answer where this writing was coming from. And in the story there is an answer for it, which I think is a good answer for that story, but it always seemed like I … not exactly bailed, but that there was another way to take that. So that was an idea I wanted to think about.
I had, from The Shelter Cycle, and also from My Abandonment, somewhat, I had so much information about survivalism and children surviving in the wilderness that I was kind of curious about. So those were all things that were sort of around. As you no doubt know, everything we write is in some ways a reaction to what we just wrote, or an attempt to get away from what we just wrote or to make new, different kinds of mistakes.
My Abandonment, the book before The Shelter Cycle, won this award called the Alex Award, which librarians give to books that were written for adults, ostensibly, that cross over to adolescents. It’s a book that in many ways is the inverse of Klickitat, in that it’s the story of a girl who lives in the wilderness and is integrated into the world.
11: Which is based off a true, Portland story.
PR: Yeah, so I started hearing from a number of different people, and I have friends who write in different genres, and I started hearing from editors, “Why don’t you just write a YA book?” My first reaction was like, fuck no, I’m an artist, why would I ever do that? And then, as I said, I was reading Laura Ingalls Wilder, who is just an amazing writer, just astoundingly great sentences. And of course, this idea occurred to me of what a story might be. At the same time, for an hour and a half every night, I was reading these books and thinking, why do I have an attitude about this, what is my problem?
But at the same time, I guess, in terms of my psychic health, it’s good for me to have projects I’m working on all the time, that may or may not surface. And I was getting toward the end of Spells and I was thinking, I’m just gonna write this thing a chapter at a time, I’m not going to get involved in a huge research project. I wanted to write something that was kind of just organically generated.
11: When you say organically generated, did you have a pretty good idea of what the book would be, or were you trying to be looser than usual?
PR: In some ways, with a book like The Shelter Cycle, which was very much based in history, and was very true to the events of that time, you do a lot of reverse engineering. So instead of a classic Alice Munro way, finding out about your characters and then seeing where they go, it’s much more like, here are the events, what kind of people would be in this situation and then try and figure out who the people are. More trying to figure out the characters and the logic of the story.
11: So the story sort of molded the characters, instead of vice-versa?
PR: With The Shelter Cycle, yes. But also, I was interviewing … it was the real people I talked to, that molded it. But with Klickitat it was more, I sort of wrote the first chapter and I looked at it and thought about what I would do, where it would go. It wasn’t until a year or two years or so, that I had a kind of draft and I thought, what do I think about this? I didn’t know. I hadn’t been in contact with anyone, I hadn’t mentioned it to anyone. So I sent it to my agent. I said, “I think it’s a young adult book.” And he read it and he liked it, but he said, “I don’t see why this is any different than anything else you’ve written.” Like, you have no idea what young adult is. And that turned out to be kind of true. There’s a way to tell the story. The book is so much different than it was when I first wrote it. It was much crazier.
11: Did you tone it down to help with that YA aspect?
PR: I think I brought it into focus in different kinds of ways. I think one of the things that’s true about my work in general is… my agent is wont to say that my greatest strength is that I’m a very mysterious writer, bordering on cryptic, and my greatest weakness is that I’m a very mysterious writer bordering on cryptic. Looking at projects to do, I’m always sort of thinking about, how can I get better, how can I challenge myself in some way. So one of my challenges this time was, if I believe I am writing a book that is for a younger audience, which, really, to me, it doesn’t matter, but in another kind of inversion, this is a book that is ostensibly written for young adults, that hopefully adults will like.
But I think clarity was a part of it. I have never been edited in such a severe way in my life. My editor would just say, “I’m 35 and I can’t understand this, an adolescent is not going to be able to follow this.” I think with my other books, there are some gray areas, where editors are like, “I have no idea, but you’re smart and it probably makes sense.” The world of YA is a more commercial world, in some ways, but there is also more money for design, more money for time and editing. I know what it feels like to send something off when I think it’s done, and this book I sent off five or six times with that feeling, and it kept coming back.
11: Were a lot of those edits at the line level, over specific word choice?
PR: No, it was more sort of questions of conclusion, questions of how clear can we physically be about a given situation. I still don’t understand what all the rules of the genre are, but there are things in this that are problematic I realize. One is that, really dark and violent things can happen in young adult books, of course, but usually there is a logic to why they happen, where people who are punished, are punished justly, in some way. Especially, if there are things that happen that are beyond reality, they either happen in a world that is fantastic, and safely so, with its own rules, and not so much integrated with the real world, and they’re explained at some point. And there also needs to be a happy ending.
11: So it was almost a question of how far can you trust your young readers to suss out the underlying meaning?
PR: I believe, because I have children and I have a lot of faith in young people’s ability to put up with a certain level of confusion and chaos and that they will recognize that as believable, as opposed to having everything explained to them. So those were some of the challenges. But mostly it was just a question of trying to figure out, who is this girl, what is her voice, what is going on with her, what are her hopes, what does she want, what can’t she have?
11: You write about drifters and also the connection to the natural world a lot. Where did those twin themes emerge from?
PR: I think the natural world part is something I’ve always been into. When I was little I would always carry around those Golden Nature Guides and I wanted to be a ranger. I see that now with my girls, who are doing all sorts of weird survival stuff, they’re just so into all of that. And I think part of that is a reaction to the world we live in now where there’s a million things going on, and people who want my attention, and there’s so many distractions. A lot of that desire for a simpler life is a fantasy and it’s delusional and I recognize that, but also there’s something great about that yearning. When that father and daughter were found living in Forest Park, the reaction was so Portland, it was so delusional in some way, because people took it as a judgement upon us, that they seemed to be doing so well with so little and they were so happy and they just wanted to be left alone. »
– JP Kemmick