Coffee with William Kittredge

By Tiana Martin

William Kittredge is a renowned author of novels, articles, essays, books, anthologies, memoirs and more.  He grew up on his family’s ranch in southeastern Oregon and farmed there until he was 33 years old.  He was 36 when he earned an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1969 and began his teaching career in English and Creative Writing at the University of Missoula, retiring in 1997.  He has held a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, received two writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, two Pacific Northwest Bookseller’s Awards for Exellence, and many more, including the Charles Frankel Prize, which is awarded to citizens who have enriched the nation and contributed to the public’s understanding of the humanities through their scholarship, writing and leadership.  He has lived most of his life in Oregon and Montana.

What advice can you give budding authors that are looking for their story but having trouble finding it?  Should they write toward it?

Yes, write toward it and think toward it.  Our problem is that we tend to write and write and write and not really sit back and look at other examples of people we admire and take a look at their careers.  You can start with William Faulkner.  What really made his career was in 1941, when all of his books but one were out of print and Viking Press published The Portable Faulkner in 1949.  It was somewhat chronological and it showed how he worked his way through and into his career, and suddenly he was all over the place—his books were back in print and he wins the Nobel Prize.  It’s just a matter of getting an idea of the trajectory of his work and career, and it’s good for any writer to go to others they admire and see how this worked out for them.  Once you have that kind of controlling idea the stories get a lot easier to write.  You never want to worry about the meaning—they can’t help but mean something—and you don’t want to pin them down.  It’ll mean different things to different people.  One of the things I like to talk about is how we’re readers and how we respond to texts.  You have to understand that everyone is going to make up what these stories and forms do.  It is to incite someone else to make a story for themselves out of their own lives and get them thinking about themselves, their moral positions, whatever is it.  Maybe how they treated their mother last week!  There’s a writer named E.M. Forester, and in Aspects of the Novel he has a great sentence where he says the medium writers work in is the reader’s imagination.  What we do is incite someone or something.  And it couldn’t possibly be what you’re thinking.  In doing so they find their story of who they are in their own culture, who they are in society, who they are with their friends, who they are just with themselves trying to deal with the world—all those dimensions.

And I feel that ties in with your mention of mythology and community stories in “The Politics of Storytelling” from Taking Care, and how each story implicitly tells the reader what is valuable in life.

They don’t tell you—they incite you to imagine.  It’s like the reader’s command.  The reason I say they don’t tell you is because it sounds pretty didactic.  That sounds like nonfiction.  One of the things I totally believe though, and this causes a lot of trouble sometimes, is that I tell my journalism students that there is no such thing as nonfiction.  There really isn’t you know?  When a car accident occurs and the reporter begins to write he chooses events, he chooses an order for them and he makes up a story.  So everything gets distorted.  And if you wrote one and that fellow walking right there wrote one they might be different stories yet accurate in their own ways.

I’ve taught for years and in Missoula they have a wonderful environmental studies program and they also had a creative writing minor, so those students would find their way into my workshop.  One thing I liked about the EVS kids was that they all had a political agenda and they all wanted to make the world more coherent—make it better in some way or another—and they brought that to their writing.

Speaking of environmental studies, I was interested in the seemingly environmental aspect of your writing and I was wondering what prompted you to read Silent Spring?

It had a lot to do with Tulelake in what Rachel Carson writes in the second chapter, which is actually inspiration for the novel I am working on right now.  In the story they killed all the birds, and they were enormous water birds with a population of nine to ten million.  Fifty years ago they dropped to three to four million and they killed off songbirds with all of these pesticides, and the reason I was interested in it was because we lived one hundred miles east of Tulelake in the exact sort of valley, with peat soils, lots of water, swamps, lots of water birds—millions of water birds—and we were doing exactly the same thing they were doing in Silent Spring. We thought we were doing God’s work cleaning up the mess.  When I first read that book I thought, “Oh, forget it,” but then I thought, “Oh no, what are we doing?”  It really puts you in a double bind because on one hand this is what you chose to do; it seems like great work, it’s fun to do, you’re making things grow, you’re working with people, organizing all this work, and on the other hand, it’s bad.  It’s killing life all over the place and it’s working exactly against what you are working toward, so practically had a nervous breakdown—I can see it now but I didn’t know what the hell was the matter with me then.  But I can see now, with years, that basically as the years went by I wasn’t interested really in environmental writing until years after I’d gotten out of the ranch and started teaching in college.  Then the other side of it was I knew more and more people who were environmental writers, and some of them great—Peter Matthiessen, Annie Dillard, and Gary Snyder to some degree.  James Welch was a great Native American writer.  Talk about writers finding themselves.  He was a guy from Montana and he was part Blackfeet and Gros Ventre.  He wrote a small book of poems about growing up dirt poor on a farm, and his first novel, Winter in the Blood, which was a tiny novel about 177 pages long published in 1974, was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times as a perfect novel and he was only twenty-eight years old!  He’s a huge hero.

Tule Lake

People ask me how I know all these people but the community of writers is really small.  Maybe five thousand people in the United States, and if you’re in a community for forty years you’re going to know everyone.  You go to conferences with them, you go to parties with them, and you get to know them.  It’s a small and good community.  You hear a lot of things about jealously but it’s not like that.  Writers are pretty good to each other.

One of the things about the students here is how really decent toward one another they are in class and they really try to say things that are useful and not destructive.  I’ve been in and around writing programs for years and what often happens is a kind of ambition gets a hold of people.   I was in a workshop once and encountered this idea that your success diminishes mine and that’s not the way you want to think.  You are colleagues in a class and there is plenty of success to go around.  Sometimes people just get their ducks in a row sooner than anyone else will.  A lot of it is luck too.  Going off what’s happened in the past, some of students will continue to write and some of them won’t.  I’ve taught for thirty years and I try to figure out who will be a best seller and you miss it half the time.  Some of the really great ones are not writing anymore.  There was a great teacher at the University of Iowa Workshop, back in the fifties and sixties when it was by far the best workshop of that time, and when he quit teaching he said “Well the best student I ever had is presently selling used cars in Cincinnati.  Hasn’t written a word in over twenty years that I know of.”

Is it just a matter of staying on track and keeping the writing going?

Yes, and remembering it’s not just a matter of being smart or well read.  I’m mainly talking about finding your story and what you’re going to write about for the rest of your life.  Take for instance Walt Whitman.  He found a story early on that he wrote all his life, and Virgina Woolf did the same.  Anyone that is a major writer has done this.  Faulkner too, and you can see them in their late twenties beginning to find their story.  Faulkner was about thirty-one years old when he wrote The Sound and the Fury, and then there’s ten years in which he wrote Absalom Absalom, As I Lay Dying, Go Down, Moses and others.  So he was publishing every few months and then it stopped and he drank a lot!  He was tending to the boiler and was pushing through with his writing, but the rest of us don’t work that well!  The sooner students become aware of how important it is to find their story the sooner they’ll learn the writing will find its way and things will get a lot easier.  They need to write about something that is close to them—about their family or their country—and it will paint a portrait.  This emerges in The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz.  You can just see that coming to ground in the novel and there’s that story over and over.

Your memoir Hole in the Sky has been called a “wrenchingly confessional autobiography.”  How do you decide how personal you should go in your writing?

Whatever feels right to you.  That’s all you can do.  You don’t need to worry about someone saying you revealed this or you revealed that.  Just say “So what!”  No one has ever denied me breakfast over it.  If there are things that are really important to you then you really owe the world that weight, whether you’ve had a pretty good life or not, because if a creative writer has any success at all that openness does a pretty good job.  When I complain about writing I think I could be loading barley into a big truck.  I’ve done that and it’s no fun.  You have a moral obligation to get the kind of revilement no matter what.  Some people do and some people don’t, but you have to be careful you don’t turn into a true believer.  There’s a great book published by Eric Hoffer in the early fifties called The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements and he talks about how great it is to have people believe in things, but they can also turn into Hitler!  Hitler was an idealist, except his ideas were a little off.

Throughout the years you have written through many different genres.  What’s it like jumping between them and how do they influence each other?

I tried to write fiction for the first ten to fifteen years.  I was writing seriously and I began to get discouraged because I couldn’t write a novel and I really didn’t have any more story ideas that I liked.  It would take me six months per story but a lucky thing happened in 1979 when a great writer and editor named Terry McDonnel called me up.  He was starting up a new magazine and said, “I want you to write an essay for the first issue.”  It was a big deal in the West being the only glossy, color magazine outside California, and I said, “Jesus, thank you that’s a great thing but I can’t do it.”  He asked why not and I said, “I don’t know how.”  Terry said “I’ll tell you,” and he did.  Took him about three minutes and it worked.  It’s a little schematic plan and the basic part of all these things is that there is a question and there is an answer.  The first part is asking the question, the second part is what the answer seems to be, and then finishing it up with consequences of acting out that action.  It’s the basic human decision and we go through that over and over.  Am I going to enlist in the army?  Am I going to break up my relationship with my true love?  And they get denser and denser.  We go through that all the time and one point about it is that they don’t really work.  They don’t hold water for too long.  What happens is stories go out and come around and make a decision—some sense of the consequence—and they come back out again and then another story starts.  It’s never-ending.  That’s what’s great.  I like to say it’s like fish in the water.  You never want your story to end summed up in the last paragraph.  You want to open up to what comes next.

What has your teaching experience taught you over the years?

Don’t fake it.  Don’t pretend you know what to do with a problem about something in a class if you don’t.  The best thing is to say to the class “I don’t know, and no one in here seems to know so let’s all make a note and think about this.  When we come back next time we’ll think about it.”  Keep bringing it up until we can solve it.  I remember people would ask about “sentimentality” and what makes sentimental fiction as a form not work very well.  Basically, the writing on the page is asking for an emotional response it is not generating, and it just falls on its side.  That’s what melodrama is and a student told me that.  He said, “I figured it out and it works this way,” and I said, “You know I think you’re right.”

I read an article in the New York Times (“Stegner’s Complaint” by Timothy Egan) that says some authors are offended by the term “regional author,” and I was wondering how you feel about it.

Well, I don’t think you can help but be a regional writer.  I feel two ways about it.  Western writers tend to feel ignored and to some degree they are and it’s not unpredictable.  On the other hand I think every writer is a regional writer.  I think Kafka is a regional writer.   Leo Tolstoy, William Faulkner, and Virginia Woolf are obviously people talking about one part of the world.  We all seem to be regional writers so don’t be afraid to be a regionalist.  When people ask me if I’d love to be back on a ranch I say, “Yeah, I’d love to be 300 miles from the closest bookstore.”

Literary Works by William Kittredge:  The Van Gogh Field (1969), We Are Not In This Together (1984), Owning It All (1987), Hole in the Sky (1992), Who Owns the West? (1994), The Nature of Generosity (2000), Southwestern Homelands (2002), The Willow Field (2006), The Next Rodeo: New and Selected Essays (2006)


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