Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Brendan Jones: Discovery of a Tribe

The trope I heard over and over again this past weekend in Seattle, at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference – fifteen thousand writers under one roof, can you imagine? – was “it’s so nice to be back with my tribe.” Fair enough. You’ve slaved away for the rest of the year in relative silence and solitude, wrestling with your memoir, perfecting that villanelle, and now, finally, you come together with so many others fighting the same battle.

For this writer, this conference was more a discovery of a tribe, rather than a return to one. It’s a tribe I began to suspect existed when I first picked up Nancy Lord’s Fishcamp shortly after the turn of the millennium. I read the slim volume on a 400-acre cattle farm in Kentucky, and immediately decided I needed to return to Alaska. Whoever says books don’t make things happen is just plain wrong.

So it was nothing less than thrilling to kick off the conference by joining Nancy for dinner the Wednesday before the conference. To speak of her novel, which she’s working on now, as well as about the dearth of fiction in Alaska. Seriously, what’s up with that? The question was partially answered for me a couple evenings later by Robert Hass, who shared a panel with Alaska writer Eva Saulitis and Gary Snyder. More about her sharp and beautiful essay in a moment – but Hass spoke about how the West Coast has yet to be imagined. This seems especially pertinent to Alaska. One thinks of Eowyn Ivey’s book The Snow Child, and of course Seth Kantner’s Ordinary Wolves, David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide and Caribou Island, and Don Rearden’s The Raven’s Gift, and Mei Mei Evans’ novel Oil and Water, which I look forward to reading. And of course to Deb Vanasse’s upcoming Cold Spell, and John Straley’s pantheon of mysteries, along with his new book Cold Storage, Alaska, which was just reviewed in The New York Times, and has been receiving a bunch of attention. And I’m sure I’m forgetting a bunch of others – but compared to just about every state with the exception, perhaps, of Delaware, there’s really not a lot. Can you imagine the list of say, books about New York City, or even Montana? So why don’t more people write fiction about Alaska?

For my money, Alaska writers are impelled to spend so much time de-mythologizing the state from Outside conceptions. It’s exhausting, like playing that whack-a-mole game at the county fair. Just when you think you’ve explained that there are no igloos in Sitka, someone asks whether you voted for Sarah Palin. Not to mention that reality, as people love to say, is so much more interesting than fiction. This applies in particular to Alaska. As the other saying goes, you can’t make up this s—. So why try?

I attended mostly Alaska panels, and had the pleasure of finally meeting the wonderful Linda Ketchum, at 49 Writers, as well as Deb Vanasse, who has been so helpful and encouraging with these blogs. Former Alaska State Writer Laureate Peggy Schumaker moderated panels that included Erin Coughlin Hollowell, whose book of poems Pause, Traveler sits now beside me. Circus World Museums, Corn Palaces, evocative poems interweaving travel and love. Among other great readers I also got to hear Nicole Stellon O’Donnell, who I first ran across in Sitka – her book, Steam Laundry, is nestled onto my bookshelf on the tugboat. I worry about the saltwater warping it, but somehow a wee warp seems appropriate for a book with such a title. 

Peggy also moderated that panel with Gary Snyder, Eva Saulitis, and Robert Hass I mentioned before. I admit to having one burning question for the Q&A. Though I wasn’t called on, it was a question I thought long and hard about: Was Gary Snyder wearing a Filson vest? It sure looked like it to me.

In seriousness, I thought Eva’s essay, which she read following Hass’ poems, entrancing. A careful, funny meditation on the role of imagination and creativity when it comes to science, and studying orcas. She was asking a lot of the audience: after a day of panels, to think through such difficult matters. But the fluidity of her prose, and the passion behind her argument – that wonder and science go hand-in-hand – came across beautifully.

If there’s one book that I cannot wait to get to it’s Tom Kizzia’s Pilgrim’s Wilderness. When I say that my upcoming novel is about Alaska, this seems to be the first question people ask: “Have you read Pilgrim’s Wilderness?” When I say no, not yet, they look at me like I’m nuts. The book, someone mentioned, is now the top-seller at the bookstore in Homer, overtaking Harry Potter. But until I get it in my hands, I’m busy reading The Storms of Denali, a high-octane tale by Nicholas O’Connell, who I also got to meet on Friday. If you’re looking for a good story, something you’ll have trouble putting down, check it out. I’m already halfway through.

Finally, leaving early Sunday, sure that I was departing from this circus world of writing, there was Don Rearden, waiting for the light rail. The two of us did our earnest best to discuss the state of fiction in Alaska cogently on Sunday at 8 a.m., after a weekend of more silliness and late nights than I’ve experienced in a long, long time. Would we be at the next one, in Minneapolis, in 2015? I think we were both up in the air. But one thing was certain: Seattle 2015 was pretty darn cool, at least for this guy. It truly did feel like finding my tribe.

Since I posted/moped on about the trials and tribulations of my own manuscript in this blog, I’ll mention that I arrived back in Oakland to an email from my editor saying that my book, The Alaskan Laundry, is slated to be released in Fall 2015. While disappointing at first – it was supposed to be Spring 15 – it is also flattering, to be released with the heavyweights. It will mean more work, to bend people’s ears among all the fall releases, but we’re up for it.

In the meantime I look forward to hopping on the 7 a.m. flight from Oakland up to Anchorage on March 13th, and meeting 49 Writers members that same day at 7 p.m. at the Blue Hollomon Gallery – please come if you can! I very much forward to meeting more of the tribe in Anchorage. And teaching the workshop on Saturday, March 15, on the first twenty pages for submission to an agent. I’ll see folks soon!


Erin said...

Brendan, you are certainly part of our tribe. Alaskan writers, a generous and quirky and wonderful group!

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

Yes, up against the fall heavy hitters! It can only mean that your editors have confidence in the book, right? Sorry I still haven't met you in person but so happy to be reading your posts. Alaska on the fiction map: Yes!

Brendan Jones said...

Erin, if quirkiness is a requirement I think I'll fit right in. Andromeda - really enjoyed your blog on final edits. I hope so - who knows, we'll see. I can't wait to read your book! Best of luck with all as it wraps up, and I very much look forward to meeting.