Tara Westover at West Virginia University

Last month, I traveled with a small group of English faculty, English majors, and Honors College students from the little town where I live and teach, up to Morgantown and West Virginia University. My department chair organized several activities around the memoir Educated, by Tara Westover. She got us books at a discount; we set a couple of book club meetings; and she got us tickets to see Westover speak at WVU.

It was a perfectly pleasant evening, driving up at dusk and gathering for dinner (at a most strange pseudo-Mexican joint), and then over to the university, which was an experience for those of us from a college of about 1500 students: the ballroom seats several hundred, and was located in a building that reminded me more of the big universities I come from. After a notably awkward introduction, Tara Westover came on.

At this point I had read about half her book, as directed for the book club meeting later that week. So I was familiar with part of her story (and I knew how it finished, at least in broadest terms). Westover was raised in Idaho by fundamentalist Mormons. She did not go to school or see a doctor. At seventeen, she followed in the footsteps of an older brother and self-studied for the ACT, then went off to Brigham Young University in Utah – her first time in a classroom. It was here that she was exposed for the first time to many concepts we take for granted, including (in a memorable example) the Holocaust.

I thought we were attending a reading, but instead Westover spoke about her thoughts on education. She was quite informal and off-the-cuff, although as the talk proceeded I decided it was more practiced than I’d originally thought. (Which is fine.) She retold her story, as in the book, for the benefit of those who hadn’t read it (and in slightly different terms). She spoke of education as having value in broadening our perspectives, and helping us see multiple points of view. This feels like an obvious and simple observation, on some level; but it was a revelation, to think of someone having to learn this in early adulthood from such a limited perspective as she had growing up. I also found very useful one thing she said, about how young people – like my freshman students – can tend to overemphasize the events of their lives (or so it appears to us, a few years older), because their perspectives are so different: if you’re 18, a year is an awfully long time, as a percentage of your lived experience. Whereas it’s a bit easier, if you’re 40, to see how little that test failed or boyfriend lost really matters in the long run. We can tend to say patronizingly that kids that age don’t know what love is (or whatever), but it’s just that their perspective is quite different. We could reframe things. In the same way, she talked about the shape of the narrative arc, and how you can’t see your own arc if you’re still on top of the damned thing; you can’t see where the narrative arc peaks, where the climax is, until it closes. I’m going to try to use these ideas when talking to my freshmen students next semester – about narratives, no less!

Westover’s experiences make her a compelling figure for the college student to consider, especially the first-generation student, as many of mine are. Her talk was often interesting (her story is quite sensational, for one thing), and inspirational. I’m glad we made the trip.

My review of Educated will be up on Monday.

writers in video (audio)

A few links for you today that came from my parents.

My mother sent this recording of a Bellingham local Whatcom Reads program, in which Timothy Egan discusses his book The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (and, in Q&A, a few more – remember Mom reviewed The Worst Hard Time for us). I really enjoyed listening to this one (thanks Mom for the tip that the visual part was not entirely necessary), and I am reminded that I need to try some Egan one day – he sounds in the vein of Jon Krakauer and Erik Larson, who were among the first writers I recognized as creative nonfiction and as something I loved. While I really enjoyed it, I also took exception a few times to some of Egan’s comments: his chauvinism about geography, for example, and his statement that “Indians all have creation narratives,” as if to imply that his/our own culture doesn’t have creation narratives. (I guess it’s only a creation narrative if somebody else believes it, and what *I* believe is just truth?) (Also, any time you say “all the [ethnic group] do such-and-such” you’re probably on thin ice.) These quibbles were not fatal for my appreciation, and if anything indicate that I was engaging. One of these days I will read some Egan…

And, my father sent this episode of Oregon State University’s About Words, featuring Ben Goldfarb about his book Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter. Pops appreciates beavers; we have a mutual friend (and friend to Goldfarb, apparently) named Rob Rich who is a beaver fan and advocate, and writer; and I have been seeing a lot of beavers these last few weeks on my travels. But this short video (very short, after an hour-plus with Tim Egan) is less about the beavers and more about the imperative to write, among other things.

So, a little extra to add to your listening queue! [That’s a tip: although YouTube videos, I did not watch but only listened to both clips, which was fine (visuals were just background). I signed up for a free 30-day trial of YouTube Premium, which allowed me to download these videos for offline viewing/listening.]

Thanks, Mom and Pops!

Colson Whitehead at Texas State University

I feel terribly lucky to have seen Colson Whitehead speak and read from The Underground Railroad at Texas State University’s Witliff Collections last month. He was being presented with the L.D. and LaVerne Harrell Clark Fiction Prize, an annual award in its second year through the English Department there. He won for The Underground Railroad, of course, but this is his eighth book (previously six novels and two nonfiction works).

Here’s where I admit that I’ve not read The Underground Railroad, nor any of Whitehead’s work. I’m ashamed! I’ve heard a lot about it, and it sounded appealing, and it’s won (ahem) the Pulitzer and the National Book Award as well as the Clark Prize. So I knew it was worth going; but I went in a bit blind. Now, I further admit that I did not wait on the long lines to buy Whitehead’s books or get one signed. But I bought one from Alibris as soon as I got home, and I look forward to reading it. I had no idea til this reading that it had such an element of magical realism to it. How strange and exciting!

So, early observations: Colson Whitehead is very funny and personable, and humble. One hopes for this in all our heroes, but one is often disappointed. I guess, though, writers tend to do better than other kinds of heroes/celebrities. Maybe because we spend so much time alone and doubting ourselves, and we’re so overjoyed when we are recognized. To this point, Colson took a question from (I think) a student who asked if he knew what a helluva book he’d written, before all the Pulitzers and whatnot started rolling in. Colson responded that the last 30 pages of the book are the best work he’s ever done. So, in a word, he thought it was good. But as he also pointed out, you never know if anyone else will agree.

I was astonished to learn that he conceived of this plot eighteen years ago, but waited til he had the writing chops, and the personal maturity level, wisdom, etc., to write it properly. He waited for fourteen years to begin. This… blew my mind.

He read from chapter one, in which the protagonist Cora is a slave on a Georgia plantation, in her late teens. I learned that the rest of the book follows Cora and another slave named Caesar as they escape north along the Underground Railroad, which in this imagining becomes a literal railroad; and each state they pass through becomes a different “state” in American reality. (I have the impression that this means different time periods and alternate versions of culture and policy. I believe he mentioned a state of Black utopia and a state of white supremacy. But don’t trust me; I haven’t read the book.) These ideas mesmerize me. I can’t wait to read it.

When he got ready to take questions, he said he would also welcome any tips the audience had to offer. This tickled me.

I learned more interesting trivia about the book and the writing process. When asked about his choice of a female protagonist, he said his last several were male and he wanted to mix it up; but also, that female slaves faced a different set of challenges than male ones, and he wanted to dig into that. He was asked about the structural element of interwoven chapters visiting with secondary characters, which is intriguing. And he commented that those secondary characters were “auditioning” with him, the author, vying for those positions; also an intriguing concept.

I also learned that Colson Whitehead as a writer is all over the damn place. He’s written fiction about John Henry; time travel; consumer culture; race relations; and zombies. He’s written nonfiction about the history of New York City; and the World Series of Poker. He says he believes in choosing the right tool for the job, be it realism or something on the spectrum of fantasy. His next book will be either science fiction set in the world of Star Wars; or a romance set at the beginning of the Russian Revolution, for which, as research, he’s been watching a lot of The Golden Girls. He does a mean impression of both C3PO and R2D2. This man, y’all.

I’ll be driving into San Marcos for more readings at Texas State, for sure.

guest musings: Pops on Brooke Williams at Village Books

Pops again, on Brooke Williams’ recent visit to Village Books. Background: I think Pops and I both know Brooke exclusively from The Story of My Heart.

Brooke Williams is the kind of old guy you would enjoy having visit at your house: wryly humorous, self-deprecating, a creative thinker; an academic to a fault, but in an earnest, generous, unassertive way.

He is touring now in support of his new book, Open Midnight: Where Wilderness & Ancestors Meet. He & Terry Tempest Williams are recently back from touring China, a trip he describes as changing his perspective significantly by resetting his sense of time: their millennial scale of the past contrasts so much with an American sense of history, problems, solutions. Yet, he also describes meeting a group of Chinese nature activists who freely quoted from Abbey, Snyder, Thoreau, TTW & more – drawing lessons from these “recent” thinkers and finding analogues in their own centuries-old philosophers.

Yes, climate change & Trump were an explicit context for many of his comments. He described wondering “how do we find new answers, new ways to be in the world?”

In discussing his book he talked mostly about the writing process, how thoughts & information came to him, how the book came together, with only brief illustrative readings. It was a casual, entertaining, cogent & developed presentation, without being “canned” in any sense. His book includes imaginings – “things I made up” – so he expressed relief that the editor accepted his insistence it be listed as non-fiction. This was an impressive element of his talk, returned to often. I admit some initial skepticism with the idea of made-up non-fiction; but with his book-story, I am more than persuaded. More likely, this is a fine example of creative non-fiction at its most creative. He had wonderful examples of finding facts in his research, which aligned so closely in a pattern that filling in the gaps with reasoned imagining made perfect sense.

By making his book a journey of discovery, the process is part of his story; so the imaginings become part of the “true” narrative, even when that includes feeling the hand of an ancestor on his shoulder. Another way: it is an organic part of the reading process that we embellish or interpret with our own experience & knowledge. Williams is simply – and transparently – offering his own view as a first-cut in this effort. What memoir does not include some of the subject’s imaginings?! That said, there are certainly spiritual & meditative elements to his story; i.e. he explores the literal possibility of “genetic connection to a place.” A full reading of the book would no doubt hold further challenges.

Before ending, he crossed over a line for me, where the arts purport to offer solutions to real-world problems based on such imaginings & speculation. For Williams, and many others, this means changing consciousness of how we view the world, in order to change the course of history. There is plenty of skilled non-fiction available describing the breadth of human knowledge on such questions, without having to resort to extremes of imagination; Harari’s Sapiens is a foremost recent example, albeit imperfect. I am thankful the arts provide comforting form to our feelings & fears, especially in hard times. I cannot go further than that; for more, I take heart in the sciences.

The role of the arts is also posed by comparative essays I found recently from Scott Russell Sanders & Bob Pyle, writing separately about the very same forest in Oregon. Sanders described an obligation for the arts, based on unique human intellect, to contemplate & interpret the natural world; in contrast, Pyle’s chipper humility on the very subject, and deference to his counterparts in the sciences, is refreshing. As usual, Pyle’s eye on our world is such good tonic for over-seriousness by & about our species.

I think you’re continuing to make progress, Pops, toward understanding what this “creative nonfiction” nonsense is that your daughter is studying. (Note: I use ‘nonfiction,’ but I don’t know that your ‘non-fiction’ is wrong.) I came into this field with a fairly righteous feeling for what should be called true, or nonfiction. But it has become more clear to me that what the author imagines is part of her truth. Her memories, even if others deny them, are truly her memories–although I think she owes it to her reader to acknowledge others’ denials. Full disclosure, I say, for what is remembered and what is known and what is imagined; but all of that can be CNF. As for the roll of art in solving real-world problems, I think there’s room for any number of strategies and solutions, but none is for everyone. And I’d certainly hope/expect that Brooke would agree with you on the value of science. I guess without reading his book neither of us can know how far that concept goes or how offended we’d be, and I didn’t hear the talk. I do think that art can not only offer comfort, but real changes of heart, in how we relate to the world and each other. A Google search will give you various articles, for example, on the value of fiction in teaching empathy and improving real relationships–in other words, how taking in art makes people better at living as people. So I think there’s more there than simple comfort (or symptom relief). But art does not replace science.

Thanks for another thoughtful discussion.

Brian Doyle at Chuckanut Radio Hour

You will of course remember my glowing review of Brian Doyle’s most recent novel, Martin Marten, which remains the best book of 2015 to date (and may well make it through: I rarely award more than one *10* in a year). The same week that that review published over at Shelf Awareness (and my teaser posted here), he came to my little city to speak at a local event, the Chuckanut Radio Hour.

The Chuckanut Radio Hour is edited and aired on local radio a few times afters its live production, and it costs $5 per person (plus fees, naturally) to be part of that live audience. My parents and I went to see this edition, because Brian Doyle! I hadn’t been before (my parents had). The show describes itself as

…a radio variety show that began in January 2007. Each Chuckanut Radio Hour features a guest author and includes guest musicians, performance poet Kevin Murphy, Cascadia Weekly columnist Alan Rhodes, an episode of “The Bellingham Bean” serial radio comedy, and some groaner jokes by hosts Chuck & Dee Robinson and announcer Rich Donnelly.

(Chuck and Dee are the owners of Village Books, our local top-shelf independent bookstore.) I have wholesale stolen that quotation because it’s quite accurate, although in this edition we missed Alan Rhodes and instead took an extra musical number by guest artists 3-Oh. The band was good, and funny, with covers and originals; the spoken-word/poetry was good; “The Bellingham Bean” was quite funny (and guest-starred the versatile Brian Doyle to boot). The hosts’ jokes were, yes, groaners. But of course we were there for the author. Brian Doyle turns out to be a falling-down fine comedian in his own right, who knew? Also a very good storyteller, although that is less surprising. He didn’t really need an interviewer – just a microphone and a stage, and free rein. He monologues quite cheerfully, energetically, happily, and oh so funnily. He then continued this performance after the show was wrapped up, as we lined up to get our books signed (did I cheat by having him sign my galley?) and talk with him: the line was long because Doyle was so generous with his time and attentions, and I am grateful.

That’s two very good author-talk experiences in a row. If you get a chance to see Brian Doyle live, do! And for now, go get yourself a copy of the new Martin Marten: it’s outstanding and unique. And join me in investigating his earlier work, too, which includes two novels (The Plover and Mink River) as well as a bunch of essays. Here’s to local theatre etc.!

John Vaillant at Village Books

Way back when I interviewed John Vaillant – in, I think, September of 2014 – I was living in Houston and getting ready to move to the Pacific Northwest. He mentioned that he’d be speaking at Village Books in February. And here we are: I went to hear him read and talk with Husband and Pops.

You know that I enjoyed his book; and I’ll tell you now that our interview was one of the most enjoyable (and moving) that I’ve ever done.

What I learned from this event is still more to his credit. It’s incredibly rare for an author who is this good with words – no, wait. First of all it’s rare for an author to be this good with words. But for an author like that to also be this composed a speaker; this articulate about the writing process; this calm and easy with an audience, this engaged with the people he’s speaking to; to have a strong speaking voice, read his own work beautifully; and then to be extremely funny to boot… well. I’ll cease raving and tell you just to go see him if you get the chance.

Also, I’m well convinced that his two earlier books, The Golden Spruce and The Tiger, would be up my alley. Sadly, as ever, my reading schedule is booked (ha), so we’ll see when I get around to them.

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