Back in 1990, Kevin Sampsell started publishing books with Future Tense, an independent small press. …
Julia Stoops’s Parts Per Million (Forest Avenue, 2018) wonderfully recaptures the spirit of Old Portland through fastidious research and uniquely told eco-fiction. Set in 2002, Stoops’s novel follows four charming Portland activists trying to break the story of their lives. Their story–excellently told from three individual narrative perspectives–finds her characters romping through real Portland events like the M20 Protest, and discovering a not-so-real university system nefariously working for the government to produce military projects.
Parts Per Million’s perfectly Portland brand of fiction found itself shortlisted for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. While its locality is familiar and well researched, Stoops’s ability to write highly refined fiction set in a nonfiction playground with thoughtfully endearing characters turns her book into a must read.
ELEVEN: Parts Per Million captures the personality of Portland in 2002 by authentically communicating the social fabric of that time. Can you talk about the research you did to capture Portland at such a specific time?
Julia Stoops: Making the story as realistic as possible was really important to me. I did all sorts of research to capture that slice of our history from June 2002 through the spring of 2003. For instance, apart from the fictional Maryville firebombing report, every news item the characters read or hear is verbatim from that time. Like in Chapter 79 where the crew is disgusted at a TV news reporter representing the huge antiwar protests with, “These kids are chanting the same thing over and over again. It seems to be the only thing they know how to say”–that’s verbatim from an actual local news show. I have a lot of this stuff on VHS. One day I’ll get it converted to digital and go back over it again just for the memories!
Some of the research was first-hand, such as being kettled into an intersection during the August ’02 Bush protest and watching a guy get pepper-sprayed point-blank to his face. Some other details, such as Jen’s experience inside the detention center, came from interviews with fellow activists. And then for the technical stuff like the tricked-out Oldsmobile, the phone tapping and the hacking scenes, I read up a lot, and then relied on several experts to advise me on nuances. Oh, and when Sylvia gives Deirdre a cell phone with a camera? That was the first camera phone available in the US, in the fall of 2002! Researching all that stuff was really fun.
Nevertheless, I didn’t want the novel to be a documentary, and I fudged some details to make them fit better. The news reports are all verbatim, but the source was often changed for aesthetic reasons. And when you’re on the Burnside Bridge looking south, you can’t actually see all the way to the RiverPlace condos–other bridges are in the way. But for dramatic reasons I had to have Jen and Franky look down the river at those condos, which by then had taken on a sad meaning for the crew. Oh, and the street they live on–Novi–is a fictional street between SE Clinton and Ivon. Novi is Ivon backwards.
11: Parts Per Million collects many aspects of your personality into a single volume. What was it like fictionalizing elements of your own character into your book?
JS: I’d say it’s more fictionalizing my own experiences than my own personality, since the characters each have different and distinct personalities. But of course there’s a bit of me in each of them, to greater or lesser degrees. I drew on personal experiences of making and exhibiting visual art to give depth to Deirdre’s evolving reactions to her photography exhibition. And volunteering in the KBOO newsroom in 2002 and 2003 was a big source of all those community radio station details where the crew does their monthly show. I was also teaching media studies at the time, and, like the crew, I was acutely aware of what was going on in the mainstream and alternative medias, and the gap between them in how the build-up to war was being presented and discussed.
Then my experiences of being on the streets during many anti-war protests made it into the book–like a detail from the M20 protests, of being nearby when some folks attempted to take over the Steel Bridge (which didn’t eventuate) with a guy yelling “Steel Bridge!” into a megaphone right near my ear. In the book that megaphone drowns out something important that Fetzer is trying to tell Jen over the phone.
11: What was it like retelling real events like the M20 protests from a fictional perspective?
JS: It was exciting. As the fall of 2002 unfolded and I realized I wanted that historical moment to be the backdrop of Parts Per Million, I stopped taking a sign to protests and started taking a video camera. I have a lot of mini DV tape stored away. I also vacuumed up every bit of ephemera I could: Anarchist broadsides, irreverent anti-Bush guerilla art, newspaper clippings, random bumper stickers. I even have an “AgitWare” mug featuring the faces of Bush and Ashcroft interspersed with apes.
11: I wanted to ask about the book cover, which you painted, and Gigi Little designed. Can you talk about the book cover and how it represents Parts Per Million?
JS: The cover you see is the second version. The first version was gray and gritty–literally! The title and my name spray-painted on a sidewalk. The distributor’s reps advised against using it, as they felt it would not sell as well. I’m not about to argue with a book distributor’s long expertise with how covers work in the marketplace, so Gigi went back to the drawing board and we used one of my paintings as the basis for the new cover. The piece is from 2001, part of a series I did the same time I was writing the first draft of Parts Per Million. The novel is set in 2002-2003, but the story arc was laid down a year earlier!
I was exploring the motif of a man in a suit standing alone in a desert, holding something in his hand as if struck with a realization, or waiting for something to happen. The man in a suit was growing into the character Nelson in my novel–who doesn’t wear suits much but always goes around in a tan corduroy sport coat and a tie. He was this everyman character: unremarkable, but at the same time somehow deeply interesting. Like he was a metaphor for potential. I drew and painted that man in the desert over and over.
For the book cover, Gigi split the Nelson figure into two, and it was perfect! Another metaphor for how he is split off from his past, not integrated into his present life, but full of potential that you start to see towards the end of the novel.
11: While your book is set in the early-aughts, how would your characters react to 2018’s political climate?
JS: Gosh, good question. I think they’d be a lot better organized. They were getting their act together, organization and strategy-wise by the end of the novel, and by now, fifteen years later, I think they’d be a local force to reckon with! Part of what progressives were processing in 2002-2003 was a climate of utter strangeness. There was this continual sense of “This can’t be happening.”
Nelson articulates that bafflement near the beginning of the story when he says–of Bush’s doctrine of preemptive strike–“No way… That’s against international law… The U.N. wouldn’t let him. Right?” He still believes on some level that the positive, democratic structures put in place by earlier generations still work as they were meant to. Fifteen years and countless examples of the decay of those values later (The U.S. used torture!), the characters would likely be more revolutionary. Perhaps out of the forums would have come a movement for general strikes, for example.
11: Perhaps adding to the conversation?
JS: One thing the characters would feel positive about is the growing public conversation about race, and the evolving efforts by white people to figure out how to be more inclusive, not just to be welcoming and safe for people of color, but also to accept leadership from them.
11: Jen and Fetzer tell their stories from the first-person perspective, while Nelson tells his in third-person. How did your decision to share their narratives from different perspectives shape your characters?
JS: The first draft was written in third-person omniscient, which is all I knew before I studied the craft of fiction writing. I’ve always been fascinated by stories told from multiple points of view, so I was excited to learn how to write in the voice of the characters. I experimented with that for a few years and the voices naturally fell into a shape that relates to their personalities. Jen is impulsive and irritable, so we get her in first-person present, almost in real time. Fetzer is the oldest and wisest, he’s processed the events of the story, so his version of the narrative is retrospective, in first-person past. Nelson’s experience, like Jen’s, unfolds in the present, but he’s the least grounded of all POV characters, so I kept his voice in third-person to underscore the disconnect he feels.
11: The Thermals, a beloved PDX band, released an album called More Parts Per Million in 2003. I think Jen would have listened to it between radio shows. Have you heard it?
JS: I did not know about this! I wish I had. Jen definitely would have played this album between segments of their show. In earlier drafts of the manuscript, the crew opens their show with Casey Neill’s “Dancing on the Ruins of the Multinational Corporations.” I had to shorten the MS to make it a marketable length, and that detail, along with many others, I sadly cut out. But if there were ever a museum of Parts Per Million, that album would be in it!