When My Abandonment came out, it found a fair number of younger readers, and even won an award (the Alex) given to books ostensibly written for adults that librarians wanted to recommend to adolescents. And because of that various editors started to ask me if I was interested in writing a flat-out YA book. My initial reaction was "No way, I'm an ARTIST and I write what I write."
But then I was spending all my time reading all of Laura Ingalls Wilder (man, The Long Winter! One of my favorite books ever) to my girls and being just blown AWAY, and then of course I had an idea for a story, but after a few weeks I also thought to myself, "What is my problem, up on this high horse?"
So I set out to write a kind of YA book that could cross-over to adults, thinking that really it was just a matter of marketing, this designation. But it wasn't so easy. Because I do write what I write, can't shed my skin. Some would say that my greatest strength as a writer are a mystery that tends toward the cryptic, and that that is also my greatest weakness. Writing for a younger audience, and with a very sharp editor, made me work harder than ever to be as clear as I possibly could.
Which is to say this was an extremely difficult book for me to write and I'm as proud of it as anything I've done and I don't really believe in genres.
I got in touch with a photographer about an image for the cover of The Shelter Cycle, and in our strange correspondence I told him about how I used to be a museum security guard and passed the time by making up stories for all the art. As I was recalling that, I thought, "That's exactly the kind of thing I should be doing right now."
Basically, it's a long-term exploration—four or five years—of something we all do, when confronted with images for which we have no context: we ask "What is going on here?" "Who is that person?" "What will happen next?" And as I wrote them, five at a time (one from each photographer), a larger story started to emerge.
The images are not merely illustrations for a pre-existent story, then, but the conditions and possibilities and limitations of how they proceeded. The images came first. One way to think of it is that the stories herein, and the larger story they become, were already embedded in the photographs. My attention and intuition acted as a kind of excavation that brought them to the surface, into words.
I am always trying to write things where I'm reacting, where I don't know what's going to happen, what kind of animal it will be.
I also wanted to get back to writing stories—something that I've gotten away from, as it's a form that is so bound to teaching, for me, and I allowed my writing life to be a little more compartmentalized (i.e. short stories: job; novels: writing) than I'd like. So I wanted to find out what kind of stories I could write that I hadn't seen, that I didn't understand, that I hadn't written before. I wanted to push the language a little harder, to make it less transparent. The range of pieces in Spells is broad—pretty conventional narratives, prose poems, rants, little essays, essays written by fourth graders, folk tales, etc—but they do all relate to each other…
Is Spells a multimedia foray, a soundscape, a novel? Is it an investigation of talking animals, dreams, and the troubling the notions of cause and effect and life and death? Are fireflies dangerous to girls?
Yes, yes, and yes to all of these. Thanks for your smart questions.
That is one thing that I am currently investigating (see below).
The church, like any organization, has its own language. Periods of time are often spoken of in terms of "cycles"—e.g. a recovery cycle, a cleaning-up cycle, a settling cycle. "The Shelter Cycle" is how they refer to the period of time between 1987-90, when the shelters were being built. The effects of that effort linger on, so it's possible that this shelter cycle continues to the present day. My book dramatizes the period of the shelters' construction, and also the continuation of that energy.
It would be wrong to conceive of the shelter cycle as a purely physical effort, however; survival happens on many planes. Through high-speed chants known as "decrees," the church aspired to change the world's vibration, to balance karma, and to change bad energy to good. It is not just that emotional turmoil that we feel is similar to physical cataclysm, it is the same. So preparing the shelters and practicing survival skills were running parallel to preparations that were far less visible.
About five years ago, when I was beginning to think about taking on this project, I realized that a young woman I knew—a student at Reed College, where I teach—had been a child in the church during the time of the shelter cycle. Her father had built a shelter for seventy people. She'd graduated and moved back to Montana, and she agreed to meet with me and tell me about that time. Through her generosity, I did over thirty hours of interviewers with ex-members and true believers; in some sense, these conversations confirmed that it was a fascinating topic and also showed me how complicated a project it would be.
The first thing I realized was that the people I was talking to were really smart, and also that they'd actually acted on their faith—something I've never done; they had a sense of humor about the past, and a true generosity toward me, an outsider. I also realized that I didn't know enough about the cosmology to even begin to pursue the story. So I had to spend a lot of time talking to people and reading my books, educating myself so I could try to understand things as my characters would.
In the process, I was fortunate to go into shelters—amazing structures—and to talk to the people who constructed them. I was forced over and over again to see that one reason I was drawn to the project was the way the beliefs resonated with my own curiosities (The Teachings question whether any meeting of people or things is a coincidence, and I was forced over and over to consider the truth of this.), and to see that some of the more extreme beliefs were closer to ways I already felt than I'd acknowledged to others or myself. In one interview, for instance, a believer in the Teachings said "Listen, you and I are not these physical beings; we're envelopes, we're vehicles of skin in which our souls reside for a short period—we're fortunate to meet here, and have this conversation, but this isn't really who we are" and I thought "I'm going to die, now, out here in Montana . . . " but then thirty seconds later, as the conversation drifted in another direction, I thought, "Actually, that makes sense to me, that's not so different from how I feel."
In the teachings, there's a constant awareness of energy, rising and falling, and becoming sensitive to harboring and gathering and protecting your energy, and generating positive energy to help yourself and others. I've found this to be a helpful way to proceed.
Originally I simply wanted to just write a book about the specific time of the shelter cycle—the years of building the shelters and gathering food and supplies, years' worth of clothing, figuring out how to teach children, deal with waste and animals, etc. But the more I interviewed people, the more I became interested in the stories of people who were children during that time, and how they were dealing with it, twenty years later.
Many of these people remembered the shelter cycle as a period of intense expectation and excitement. Not only did they live in a beautiful place, their beliefs were so vivid, so lived—here they were, surrounded by invisible nature spirits who looked out for them, who helped them, and angels, and then more malign entities, and peoples' actions and thoughts were not only able to affect their future lives, but also events on the other side of the world, the karmic balance of the universe, etc.—and their parents were involved in building very, very cool forts, a huge process that was actually going to save the world.
And then there were the remnants of this in 2010. The people I was talking to were largely not believers anymore, and weren't members of the church anymore. They were, to various degrees, angry or bemused or somewhat apologetic for/embarrassed about this period in their past, however good their intentions. One thing that kept coming up was the tendency of these folks, who had cast off the beliefs, to find themselves decreeing (a kind of repetitive chanting) at moments of stress, despite themselves, as if the belief was still in them and couldn't be cast out, expunged. And then other beliefs—say, the very specific things pregnant women would do, or how newborns should be treated/handled—surface at other times in these peoples' lives. They find themselves doing things against all logic, "just in case," or because it comforts them.
My book follows two people, Colville and Francine, who share this past but are processing it in the present in very different—neither more or less "true"—ways. It's that simple. I knew that the two would be very close as children, and then they would be apart for many years, and then be brought together at a crucial moment, when the vibrations of the Teachings began to resurface in their lives.
No. I think fiction is harder and more interesting. Less fake.
I'm really interested in them. Isn't everyone? Of course, I am curious about my daughters; and it's also true that a young girl's experience is pretty far from mine, and I seem to write best when I choose filters that are further from autobiography.
No, and no, though I've been told a lot of stories that couldn't possibly be true. One day, perhaps, we'll meet (and I'll have some explaining to do), but I feel I've brought enough attention to people who didn't seek it, and have mixed feelings about using real people as inspirations for fiction in this way. So I am not actively in pursuit of them; I am easy to find.
A pen, for a long time. And then many machines, for a short time.
A long work of prose that is generated through reactions to various artifacts from my past, and may be at once a novel and a reflection upon many areas of interest, including but not limited to: open water swimming; letters to old girlfriends; the Loch Ness monster; talking animals; the "bird man of Door County"; isolation float tanks; and the paintings and writings of the watercolor artist Charles Burchfield.
I am also working on extensions of Klickitat in Alaska and Iceland.
And secret projects I can't tell anyone about.
Yasunari Kawabata (especially the Palm-of-the-Hand-Stories; House of the Sleeping Beauties is also devastasting); Lydia Davis; Ursula Le Guin; Hemingway, sometimes; Mary Shelley; Steven Millhauser; The Turn of the Screw by Henry James; The Hunters by Claire Messud; The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker. Man, there's many things I love to read. Cheever, Chekhov, Alice Munro, Stuart Dybek, Diane Williams. Gertrude Chandler Warner, who wrote The Boxcar Children.
I'm glad to hear that you're writing, but sadly I barely have time to keep up with my current students.
Not exactly, but it can be provoked. And it can be fun to talk about.
Yes! And Margaret Vining is my sister-in-law. It's unreal.