IMAGE: Jennifer May
Oregon adventurer, teller of affecting, rough-edged tales (Refresh, Refresh and this month’s The Wilding), undercover ghost hunter. He appears 2 pm Saturday with Anthony Doerr on the Columbia Sportwear stage and as part of the “Capturing Regional Voices” panel with Robin Cody, Matt Love and Brian Doyle at 4 pm Saturday on the Wieden & Kennedy stage.
What are your favorite themes to write about (or that you’re most guilty of rehashing)?
Man in the wild and the wild in man.
Name three books on your nightstand or shelf right now.
The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard. The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor. Phantom Noise by Brian Turner.
What’s your personal writing ritual?
I like to keep my mouth wet, so depending on the time of day, it’s either coffee or bourbon. My father, years ago, brought back from China a small Buddha and I often rub its belly for luck. I work in silence—no distractions—no music, no phone, ideally no Internet.
The most beautiful word in the English language is:
“Murder.” Several people just scoffed, reading that, but say it out loud: It’s like its own little poem. And it’s charged with so much electricity.
What authors made you want to pick up a pen in the first place and why?
Brady Udall (author of The Lonely Polygamist) was such an author. I was an undergrad when I read his book of stories, Letting Loose the Hounds, and for the first time I felt a sense of recognition, like: This is what I want to do. He was from the West. He had a dark sensibility laced with heart and humor. I ended up emailing back and forth with him, and his encouragement is the reason I applied to grad school to study under him.
Name a book you think is highly overrated. Be honest.
Ulysses. If I had taken a class where the book was assigned, where a professor walked me through it, I’d probably love the hell out of it. But on my own, I’m stupid, and when you’re stupid, you call smart things “overrated.”
The dumbest thing I ever did is…
Just one? The time I shot marbles from a slingshot at cars on a passing highway…the time I killed a rattlesnake with my boot…the time my friend and I hurled circular saws at each other…the time my buddies and I played “war” with .22s…the time I tried to do a backflip on a ski jump and landed on my head…I could go on. I’m lucky to be alive many times over.
The best piece of advice I ever got was…
From Michael Perry (the author of Population 485, Truck, and Coop), who said (re: writing assignments): “Always say yes. Always.” Especially with the glossy magazines, this has served me well.
What’s your literary guilty pleasure?
I actually did an NPR piece about this recently. Look it up online for the podcast. Wherever I go, I collect the “haunted” collections. Haunted Wisconsin. Haunted Florida. Ghost Stories of New England. Etc.
The closest I’ve ever come to quitting is…
Writing? Never occurred to me. Not once. Even when I heard, on the first day of grad school, that I had a better chance of making it as a Major League Baseball player than as a writer. I’ve got a “go the distance” Rocky mentality that has served me well.
Most recent nightmare:
Just the other night I had an extremely bizarre one. There was a zombie apocalypse, which is bad enough, but Frank Rich was also ripping me a new one, writing columns for the Times about what a terrible writer I was…not kidding.
Your cure for writer’s block:
I work on many simultaneous projects in different genres. So if I’m feeling exhausted by my novel, I punch out a short story. If I feel like I’m tired of short stories, I work on an article or a craft essay. Or a comic book pitch. Or a screenplay. Keeping a lot of irons in the fire means I’m never bored at the keyboard.
A dead person you’d like to meet (they’d be alive during the meeting):
Hemingway, for whiskey and arm-wrestling.
What was your favorite book as a kid?
The Gunslinger by Stephen King. Read it over and over throughout middle and high school. And before that, Hatchet by Gary Paulsen.
Please paste a short paragraph from a story, poem, article, blog post, etc., you’re currently working on below:
The father told the boy how he once brought down a tree on himself. He hadn’t been paying attention to the wind, the hillside, the angle of the saw, and when the tree split and groaned and began its crashing descent, it was too late. The butternut collided with the tree next to it, and then shot toward him, pinned him to the mud with its tremendous weight. His breastbone shattered like a plate. There was nothing the doctor could do for him—no cast for his chest, no way to set the bones. They wrapped him in Ace bandages and told him to rest. But around this time he came down with a cold—and every time he would cough, every time he would sneeze, the bones would break anew. He could feel it, like a puzzle suddenly crumpled, and even hear it, like a faint fluttering of wings.