Thursday, May 5, 2011

Andromeda: Interview with Kim Wyatt, publisher of Permanent Vacation: Twenty Writers on Work and Life in our National Parks



First, Kim, I love the title. But I have the idea that your writers are probably revealing that working in a national park is no vacation, really. Or is it? What did your essayists love best or least about the experience? Who is drawn to this kind of work and should we all hurry to quit our own day-jobs anytime soon?

I was trying to get at the idea that working and living in the parks requires a certain kind of person, someone willing to check out from the mainstream. For me, it was a vacation, in a sense, from college and a mortgage, but it also taught me how to really live in the world. I learned firsthand that there are other ways to be, ways that might be better for body and spirit than joining the rat race. Essentially, once I moved to Yosemite at eighteen, I was ruined for the “real” world.

The essays I received fell into four general categories: those hooked at an early age, the seekers, the work, and the legacy. I received few adventure-type essays, but mostly interior pieces about the writer’s relationship with the people in the parks or the land. I think this must be because I put “existential” in the call for submission. Unequivocally, the essayists love the landscape, and feel a deep connection to the land, if not the park. For many, the park is a touchstone, a place that revealed to them who they are. A place to explore the natural world as well as oneself.

Although park life isn’t for everyone, I would recommend that everyone work at a park at some point in his or her life. It’s one of the magnificent things about our country, the national park system, and I’m looking forward to volunteering someday.

The parks themselves – how are they doing? I appreciated documentarian Ken Burns’s titling of his series about national parks as “America’s Best Idea” and hope we remember to take some pride in the basic concept of public lands, open to all. Based on the essays you read and selected, are our parks healthy? Needed? Serving a different purpose now than they were a century ago?

Based upon my selections, the parks mirror the best and worst impulses of humans: our ability to think outside of ourselves, and, conversely, to think only of ourselves. The effects of human interference are present in many of the pieces, but also present is the fact that the parks will exist in one way or another long after we are gone. Insufficient funding, pollution, territorial battles, non-native invasive plants, and mineral rights, etc., certainly diminish the park experience for some. And in Alaska, the oil debate is ongoing. The parks are absolutely necessary, but we need to vote, to pressure politicians, and to pay park fees. Where can we better to learn how to become a steward to our planet?

How did you get the idea, how did you find the contributors, and can you point out the Alaskan writers or featured Alaskan parks in the collection?

I got the idea for the book because I lived and worked in Yosemite National Park for ten years and it changed my life. After high school, I could have gone to college, but instead I went to Yosemite. Just for the summer, I thought, but by the end of the summer it made no sense to leave.

Alaskan writers represent in this collection. I received more submissions from Alaskans and people who had worked in Yellowstone—it seems those two places make writers. Jeremy Pataky, Christine Byl, and Tom Walker are names you might recognize. I loved all three pieces at first read. Jeremy writes about some of his experiences in Wrangell-St. Elias, and Tom and Christine about living in or near Denali. I think all three of these writers should be widely read, and I hope to help expand their audience.

Tell me more about Bona Fide Books. I also love the name of your bricks-and-mortar location: the Center for Wayward Writers. It sounds like you’re working hard to build a sense of literary community in Lake Tahoe, just as we’re trying to do here in Alaska.

I started Bona Fide Books in 2009 after my friend the artist Melissa Lanitis Gregory died. I was working as an editor on well-paying but unsatisfying projects, and she was feeling pressure to make art that sold. One moonlit night in Lake Tahoe, we made a pinkie pact to be brave and unapologetic in pursuit of art. She died shortly after that, and I decided to start Bona Fide Books to showcase new writers. My long-term vision was to build a literary center, and partner with schools and literacy programs. I was thinking it would take about 10 years, but once I started Bona Fide Books, the writers came out of their cabins and found me. So I opened the Center for Wayward Writers, where I offer classes, provide workshop space for local writing groups, and host book launch parties and receptions for local artists. The local humane society even found us, and we are starting a reading buddy program in May: in the afternoon, a child who doesn’t like to read will come in and read to a dog who likes to sleep. So, we’ve got good things going on. There is so much talent in the Lake Tahoe basin, I feel lucky every day to be doing what I’m doing, and it doesn’t hurt that I am doing it on top of a mountain.

The plan is to publish 3-5 books a year. This year we have three coming out: Permanent Vacation, Mud Cakes, a poetry collection by Jason Schossler, who won the first Melissa Lanitis Gregory Poetry Prize in 2010, and Tahoe Blues, a collection of microfiction and essays about like at Lake Tahoe. (I saw Michael Engelhard’s Cold Flashes, and thought Tahoe needed something like it.)

Bona Fide is the publishing arm of what will become the Tahoe Center for Writers, slated to open in August. We plan to keep Bona Fide small and just publish work we love.

Can you tell us more about yourself, Kim? I know you have an Alaska connection.

I moved to Anchorage from Yosemite in 1994. I’d always wanted to move to Alaska—in pursuit of bigger mountains, I suppose—but it didn’t work out before then. I ended up getting an MFA in creative nonfiction from UAA, and was on the board of Radical Arts for Women. I also freelanced for the Anchorage Daily news, and wrote features about working on a charter boat out of Seward and reviewed art, music and theater. You could say I became a writer in Alaska, under the tutelage of Gretchen Legler and Nancy Lord, and for that reason, among many others, it holds a special place.

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