So far, what’s been the most surprising (and/or difficult, and/or enjoyable) part about writing your book?
I was surprised by the tiny stunning revelations of research – I spent a lot of time on the internet, in obscure books, and on the ground looking for worlds I had first assumed were long lost. The material planet is rife with peculiar artifacts – old memories of old memories; snippets, random anecdotes, weird archives; pieces and parts. In the book I claim I’m attending to ghosts, but the only way I actually know how to “commune” with the dead is by allowing myself to be absorbed into very real objects – including residual sentences – that I can touch, taste, see, hear, and smell.
The most extreme events of the stories are founded on stuff I found once I learned to search for surprises rather than answers: Julian Eltinge’s sold-out performance in Butte a few months before Leon Wheelwright’s small-time female impersonation act. The flammability of moldy cheese. The rightness of cork for prosthetic legs. How elephants behave in Idaho rivers. The names of Pacific steamships. A nearly unbelievable lightning strike. Verses that still cast shades of frontier spells. Human stories constellate, wrong but real, among the concrete remnants of individual lives. I guess this is Clara Larson’s wisdom, the source of her vague existential terror – at least as I wrote her.
Maybe the biggest surprise – actually, shock – of the project came toward the end of the first full draft. I used some leftover flight miles, stayed in a cheap motel near Providence, Rhode Island, and let Siri help me search for a lost place called Farnum. She couldn’t find it; I talked to a gathering of old men in a hardware store who told me to vote for Donald Trump as they drew me a map to Farnum Road – a colonial-era throughway that meandered through dense forest once inhabited by disparate acolytes of Anne Hutchinson.
Farnum Road was originally a private enterprise, a toll road connecting fabric mill villages owned by the earlier Spragues of “Tooele Valley Threnody” in Before Us. I was able to trace a rough palimpsest of family settlements through the larger area, and I discovered (clueless Utahn that I am) that seventeenth- and eighteenth-century New England family cemeteries stand like time-warp islands, enclosed in their trees and original stone walls, in the middle of Walmart parking lots, city parks, subdivisions, and strip malls.
“These dead had become so alive to me as I had written them
that I couldn’t process the brute facts of decay.”
Family branches lay beneath my feet, site to site, but at some point I stepped from twenty-first-century asphalt into eighteenth-century peat to find the grave of toolmaker John Lindenberger, centered among the people he’d married into after the Revolution. A heartbreaking row of children’s markers lay contorted by tree roots and ground shift. Several little siblings were named after one another, a relay of loss and replacement, all dead before the exodus that eventually led this family to the alien shores of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, and to the frozen vistas of Teton country.
Standing inside that ancient stone wall was mortality shock: these dead had become so alive to me as I had written them that I couldn’t process the brute facts of decay: mossed and rotted marble carved with now-unintelligible maxims. Slate markers, immune to mold and lichen but splintered and broken, cleaving names, dates, and death doggerel. Vines and roots and alarming sinkholes. These people had been dead for a very long time. Their world was gone, and yet was still exactly here. It scared the hell out of me. Yet it allowed me to recall why I had listened for reverberations of these representative human lives in the first place.
I’ve played with real human lives and their deeply idiosyncratic meanings in this book. I’m sure many of my relatives will see it as an inexcusable heretical romp, but truly I don’t intend it to be. For me the book is a reminder that we are (were) utterly real in life and in death. The only Real we have registers through the mortal senses. Real for me is not the same thing as Eternal. Even so, standing above the sparse remnants of the DNA that made my mother, I had to confess how much I want “Real” to mean “Forever.”
Tell us about your dream book-launch party.
Well I’ll just get cheesy on this one. My dream book launch for Before Us Like a Land of Dreams would happen in the perennial May of my grandmother’s uber-floral backyard in midcentury Utah. I’d read the most sentimental parts to the aunts and uncles and cousins, who once anchored my sense of good and true belonging before dogmas and politics and borders rendered us mutually unintelligible. I would claim one hour to give my children that warm sensation of endless family – people who should know them, speak their names warmly, ask in earnest who they have become and what they have to give.
After, though, we’d leave the bloodline to their doctrines, and fly like the Mormon undead to my house at the base of Mount Olympus to celebrate among colleagues, lovers, desert rats, teachers, friends, wary neighbors, students, the many now-grown children who have eaten dinner at our table and raided the candy jar and hunkered in during dark seasons and bright moments. I’d select readers among the living people I secretly exploited to animate the rewritten dead – I know who they are, and likely they will recognize themselves.
And then a wake for the lost, and soon-to-be-lost. Maybe a drag show. A séance? Stereoscopic photo booth, a big Victrola, poetry, an encompassing and motley banquet: heat and spice, raw, simmered, kneaded, fermented – sushi, naan and chutney, hot pots, focaccia and pesto, kimchi, mole, ghost peppers and corn tortillas, margaritas, whiskey sours, G&Ts, Utah beer, Bloody Marys, ginger ale. Orange soda for Maya, and ice cream.
Describe one of your favorite places. What makes this place special to you?
I love the stark landscapes of the Utah-Nevada line. Ruby Valley is breathtaking and still. I’ve strained my eyes my whole life to make visual sense of the contours of basin and range. The closest I can come is to compare it to broken, moving, and refrozen blocks of pond ice, writ huge: planes tipped upward as they collide or float apart, jammed against one another, angled jagged peaks and sharp drop-offs, tails plunged into depth, valleys filled in and flattened by debris. The simplicity and complexity together are maddening. And calming. The distances and the nearly imperturbable quiet trick me into believing in this planet’s eternity. Being there comes pretty close to standing outside of human time. In the “Devil’s Gate” section of the book, I gave Steven Porter his last mortal minutes there, even though I have no idea where he actually died.
“Torrey House answers a gaping publishing gap
that I’m certain many of us Great Basin writers
have felt acutely for decades.”
Why Torrey House?
I began writing Before Us Like a Land of Dreams under a loose first-refusal agreement with a publisher east of the Mississippi River, and I’m grateful for the correspondence and encouragement that kept me writing through those first terrifying stages of composition. But it became clear as the manuscript progressed that this was a profoundly Western meditation, and that it ought to find its alliance with a Western publisher. I have admired Torrey House’s commitment to place and environment from its inception – they answer to a gaping publishing gap that I’m certain many of us Great Basin writers have felt acutely for decades.
I kept quiet but I’ll confess now that I took a really foolish risk: once the manuscript was free to submit in its final form, I sent it only to Torrey House. I knew it was the right place. But waiting out the acceptance was excruciating; I had no back-up submissions. I couldn’t help wishfully scripting perfect moments to receive news that my favorite publisher wanted my book. The actual moment I heard from Torrey House was better than any scenario I could have invented. It’s going to come off like feel-good fiction here, but I was with a cherished longtime friend. He’d been nearly fatally ill that season but was recovering. We were driving home from finding him a place to live in Colorado Springs as a visiting professor. We stopped in Blanding to take a long stare at the Bears Ears after a careful convalescent walk through Hovenweep. My phone chimed with the message. I may have burst into tears.
What are your favorite Torrey House Press titles?
I loved Braden Hepner’s dark and brooding Pale Harvest. I was a bit envious when I read it, though, because I was writing about the same haunted Idaho Mormon country at the time. I think Hepner’s book captured the unbending beauty of a hard landscape, as well as a post-homestead cultural cling to emotional starkness. It’s a kind of courage in those characters, but also a quailing cowardice – maddening and heartbreaking and admirable. Confounding people – family I recognize.
Currently I’m reading Chip Ward’s Stony Mesa Sagas. I know the county he’s set the piece in, and I love reading someone else’s perceptions of a place that evokes powerful and conflicting emotions in me. There’s a bit of Flannery O’Connor and Levi Peterson in his characterizations, which is wonderful – but it’s also clear that Ward’s compelling and contentious people are grounded in close and loving attention to real-life prototypes. They belong to themselves, and to their own gorgeous peach-colored land, and to their complex histories and trajectories.
Just out as I write: Alison Hart’s Mostly White, Amy Irvine’s Desert Cabal, Eli J. Knapp’s The Delightful Horror of Family Birding. Holiday gifts – to myself and my own cabal. I had the pleasure of hearing Amy Irvine read from her book a few weeks ago on my campus – lucid, beautiful, fierce but never harsh; powerful writing about our enculturated relationships with the hard Western nature we love to its peril. I was also lucky to recently mediate panel readings from Nature Love Medicine at Southern Utah University and Utah Valley University. Thomas Lowe Fleischner, Jana Richman, and Nalini Nadkarni knocked our students out. College students don’t always understand that writing comes from real people, with heart and passion as well as hard-earned expertise. Several of my students wrote that the experience changed the way they comprehend education and its relationship to the actual planet they inhabit. What better reason to write – acting on our tenuous but crucial faith in the future, and the generations that will inherit the earth?
What are you most looking forward to in 2019?
Well, I’m looking forward to Torrey House releasing a book I have poured my heart into for the past several years, but that’s a no-brainer. I’m also looking forward to learning how to frame a wall with space for a big window, because I want to turn my garage into a cozy little apartment and studio for many future family returns. Accessing the joy of power tools was one very lovely gift of a painful divorce, many years ago.
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