Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Stephanie Jaeger interviews Kris Farmen: The Devil's Share



Can we ever own the land--or does the land instead possess us? That’s the question posed in the jacket copy of Kris Farmen’s novel The Devils’ Share, published by McRoy Blackburn of Fairbanks.   Set in the Wrangell-St. Elias wilderness, it’s the story of a young man named Jack who “faces the dangers hidden behind both the smiles of humans and the beauties of the vast country where Canada and Alaska meet."

Without giving away too much of the story, it does include violent acts committed by a young person. What sort of reader reaction do you get to this potentially sensitive issue?

After The Devil’s Share came out, I dropped by a friend’s house in Homer and he stopped me at the door saying he had read my book and wasn’t sure if he wanted to let me in his house.  He was joking and we had a good laugh about it over coffee, but I confess that it has made me wonder if people I know and have read my book now look a bit askance at me.  I suspect writers tend to worry too much about this sort of thing.  Another reader who felt moved to contact me said the violence was brutal but even so she couldn’t put the book down.  Violence is ugly, contrary to how it is portrayed in the movies and on television, and if I’m writing a violent scene then I’m going to show it for what it is.

How did you decide to use recurrent dreams or hallucinations as a plot device in the novel?

It wasn’t much of a conscious decision, it just grew out of the flow of the story.  I’ve always been fascinated by the belief held by many Native American people (including the Athabascan Indians of Alaska and Canada) that the souls of the dead inhabit the same world as we the living, and that’s where many of those scenes, both in town and in the woods, came from.  I would like to point out though that while Jack is a pothead, he’s not doing acid or PCP anything, so these aren’t “hallucinations” in the banal say-no-to-drugs meaning of the word.  Jack is a wild animal, in very literal terms, and as such he’s much more in tune with this spiritual plane of existence than the rest of us.  In other scenes I used dreams as a very straightforward way of flashing back to scenes in Jack’s past that shed some light on who he is and why he thinks what he does about life and wilderness.

What audience were you aiming for when you wrote this book?

Ultimately I wrote it for anybody who likes to read a good story, but I think I was speaking very specifically to a certain population of young men—say in the 15 to 22 age bracket—who dress in black Carhartts, carry around big knives and think they’re badasses because they grew up in Alaska.  Anybody who’s spent any time in rural Alaska will know the guys I’m talking about.  You can find them from Chitina to Nome to Cantwell to Anchor Point.  I used to be one of those guys, and I suppose The Devil’s Share is sort of like the older, slightly more mature me saying to them (and to my former self), So you think you’re a real tough hombre, do you?  Well let me tell you a story…

Tell us about the book's journey toward publication. How long did you spend writing the book from your first ideas to the final draft? What kinds of revisions did you make in the drafts you wrote? How tough was it to find an agent or publisher?

It took me nearly five years to get The Devil’s Share before the reading public, from the first session at the keyboard to that magical day when I got to hold my first book in my hand.  I was actually living in Australia when I started the first draft; I’d been away from Alaska for more than two years and I was homesick as hell, so it was cathartic for me to sit down and visit Alaska in my imagination.  That first draft took about five months; I lost track of how many subsequent drafts I wrote, though I’d guess the total number is somewhere around twenty.  The first few drafts were much longer, closer to 120,000 words, with the present ending being the midpoint of the story.  There is Hemingway’s line that it’s essential to know where your story ends, but Carla Helfferich at McRoy and Blackburn gets the credit for making me see what had to go and what had to stay.  I sent the manuscript to her back in 2007, and she said she would like to publish it but that I should make an effort to land a big-time publisher and/or agent.  Long story short, that didn’t happen, so I sent her a revised draft the following year and she jumped on it.

How much of your novel was based on your own personal experience? What inspired the story? What's your process in writing fiction?

I think Wallace Stegner once said that it doesn’t matter if your novel is autobiography, it only matters if it’s art.  I’ve lived in the Wrangell Mountains, and they’re tied with Cook Inlet for being my very favorite part of Alaska.  Bud’s lodge on Boulder Lake is very much the world I grew up in.  My dad was a hunting guide for almost fifty years (he’s been retired for quite a while now), and much of my childhood was spent in remote bush camps and lodges.  Of course, when I was a teenager I didn’t appreciate what an amazing way to grow up this was.  I can recall sitting in the woods (hiding from my chores) more than once wishing something interesting, dangerous and cool would happen instead of just me having to flesh bear hides, haul water, wash dishes and watch the old men play cribbage.  I think that could ultimately be considered the inspiration for The Devil’s Share. 

I don’t really have a process for writing fiction beyond parking my butt in a chair and banging away at the keyboard.  When a story comes to me it comes quickly, accompanied by a splitting headache.  That’s when I know I’ve got a good one.  The Devil’s Share came to me in a single flash where I saw every scene in the book happening all at once.  With the new novel that I’ve just finished, set on the Kenai Peninsula in the 1880s, it was the main character’s voice that I heard.  He told me about growing up as a Russian-speaker in an Alaska that was gradually becoming American, and about his ability to change himself into a bear.  All I could do for nearly twenty minutes was stare at the floor and listen.  I’m always up for listening to the voices in my head.

Kris Farmen will be signing copies of The Devil’s Share at the historic Hope Library from 11-4 pm on July 2 as part of their First Saturdays event.  He’s also signing on July 9 at Fireside Books from 1-3 pm.

2 comments:

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

Great interview, Stephanie, thanks! I particularly liked knowing how Kris envisioned his audience. I also wanted to add that Kris Farmen wrote an excellent piece about Russian history in a recent Anchorage Press, available online I'm sure. From his final comments, it looks like this overlaps with research for his upcoming novel, which is a great thing. Most of us don't know enough about Russian history in AK and there certainly isn't much fiction dedicated to it -- fertile territory!

Don Rearden said...

Great interview, Stephanie! I enjoyed Kris's book. An Alaskan version of McCarthy's The Crossing. Good stuff.. I look forward to more of Farmen's work.