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Wild Lifeby Molly Gloss
Author Q & A
In what ways does Molly Gloss resemble Charlotte Bridger Drummond? For instance, do you share any of Charlotte?s wonderfully unconventional mannerisms, or her opinions concerning women, men, and the business between them? Do you share her delight in scandal?
I?m afraid I?m much more conservative and conformist than Charlotte. No cigars; no reveling in scandal. I would love to read condemned books, but I can?t find anybody who would be shocked by anything on my bookshelves. I do ride my bicycle while dressed as a man, but these days, if I really wanted people to turn and look, I?d have to ride it while wearing an ape costume. As for the man-woman business, I seem to be one of the few people who managed to make a long-term marriage work, so my views of men are quite a bit kinder than Charlotte?s. Many of the male characters in my novels, men like Tim Whiteaker and Blue Odell, in The Jump-Off Creek, and Horace Stuband, in Wild Life, have been in large part modeled on the men I know, who happen to be mostly gentle men. I do share Charlotte?s views on independence and loneliness, and the difficulties of combining a career as a mother with a career as a writer. And we have similar tastes in novels ? that is, we?re always looking for a mythical/metaphorical/utopian/western/adventure novel that transcends its genre!
Other than your own experiences and your own imagination, what were your sources for Charlotte and for Wild Life?
For Wild Life, my sources were the novels and the lives of women who wrote popular fiction around the turn of the twentieth century. I got into those novels and their authors when I was doing research for The Jump-Off Creek. I wanted Lydia Sanderson to be a reader, and I started looking through used books stores for the kinds of books she might have liked, novels with brave heroines in them, written around 1895. Writing was an acceptable occupation for women in the later part of the nineteenth century and into the 1920s, and they weren?t writing only domestic novels, but western romances and scientific romances as well. In those days, a high proportion of dime novels and pulp fiction was written by women. Pretty soon I had a collection of women?s old novels, and that was the beginning of my thinking about the story that would become Wild Life.
Mary Hallock Foote, especially, was a model for Charlotte. She wrote and illustrated a bunch of western romances while raising a family in one western boomtown after another. Her memoir, unpublished in her lifetime, is gorgeously written, full of intelligence and insight. She probably would have written more serious fiction if she?d had the right encouragement and less financial pressure. Mary Austin is another writer I admire, and I used her work as a model for Charlotte?s own later writing, a somewhat mystical style, very poetic, in which nature itself becomes almost a living character. And of course Charlotte Perkins Gilman?s radical (for her time) feminism was a model for my Charlotte?s views on male-female relations. And other women were in the back of my mind, too, all those women at the turn of the last century who managed to subvert or contradict popular prejudices about how a genteel woman should think and behave.
What research did you undertake to create the amazingly detailed view of logging in turn-of-the-century Washington and Oregon? How have the economic and ecological importance and impact of logging in the Northwest changed or remained the same over the past hundred years?
Even while they were mightily engaged in cutting down the ancient forests, men were conscious that they were involved in a historic event. So there?s an enormous amount of documentation, including vast archives of photographs, of the early logging industry. I pored over them ? lived inside those photographs, really ? and read many of the accounts written during and after the glory days of logging by the loggers themselves and by Eastern writers who reported back to their Boston and New York magazines. And the regional histories of logging towns in Oregon and Washington are a treasure trove of detail about the loggers and the timber towns. Of course, logging is still an important economic force in the Pacific Northwest, but in my lifetime I?ve seen tremendous change. When I was a kid, there was still a lot of uncut old growth, many old forests that were still wild and mostly roadless; but now, when you fly over a national forest, you see a patchwork of clear-cuts and plantation plantings of various ages, and all of it crisscrossed with roads. We?ve lost a lot of wilderness since Charlotte?s day.
Three months after her deepwoods adventure, Charlotte writes in the first of her diary entries that we read, out of chronological sequence: "To write, I have decided, is to be insane. . . . once you start to write, you are moonstruck, out of your senses. . . . And here is the interesting thing to me: when this happens, you often learn something, understand something, that can transcend the words on the paper." Is that what it?s like for you?
That is exactly how I feel when I?m writing, and how many other writers have told me they feel; and as far as that goes it?s also how readers feel, because with our best books readers are brought to that place inside the story and they become for a while the people in the novel, they lose themselves, and live body and mind in this other, imaginary world. It?s an experience that is both rare and distrusted in our culture. For centuries now, I guess, we?ve been carefully learning to separate our bodies (our hearts!) from our minds, and to distrust anything that comes into our consciousness on a tide of emotion. In the scientific tradition, if you want to understand something you have to stand back from it, observe and measure it, separate your heart from your mind and reason your way toward an understanding. Getting lost ? losing yourself ? in a book is an unreliable, inexact, not-reproducible way of knowing and learning about the world. But of course the only time people in this scientific age experience body-and-mind united and whole is when they live inside their imaginations, watching a movie, reading a novel or writing one ? putting on someone else?s (imaginary!) life like a coat and wearing it for a while.
You have said, "One of the questions I always seem to be holding in my hand is the question of the human response to wilderness." Why is that question of continuing importance for you? How have your own experiences in the great outdoors affected you physically, spiritually, and imaginatively?
I live in the city, but I do get out a lot, into the woods. The West is a very urban culture, surprisingly so, and most of us who live in the West live in cities. What that means, really, is that most of the land around our cities is uninhabited, or at least sparsely inhabited. So now we go out of the city and suddenly we?re surrounded by wildness, or what these days passes for wildness. It?s something that?s very present in our lives. I was born in the Northwest, I grew up here, I?ve always lived here; and so I naturally bring this place to my writing. And because we are such a mobile society, it?s incumbent on those of us who?ve stayed rooted in one place, those of us who know a landscape, to regularly report back to the others, to tell the old stories, to bear witness. Just to say: Look, here is how it was before you came to this place. Here is what we?ve lost, are losing. Of course, the hope is that when you write from a deep knowledge and understanding of one place, you are writing about something much larger. If there?s such a thing as a Northwest tradition in literature, it has the land, the wilderness experience, at its base. Not at the center, necessarily, but underneath everything. Whatever else writers like Ken Kesey, Don Berry, and H. L. Davis have written about, the land is there, completely embedded in the work. And I guess that?s the way it is with me. I?m not always writing about wilderness, but the landscape and the way people relate to it are always a part of whatever else I?m writing about.
What past authors have influenced you? Which authors do you return to as sources of continuing inspiration and refreshment?
Growing up, I was pretty hooked on animal and adventure stories ? all the Ernest Thompson Seton books, The Jungle Book, the Tarzan novels, Doctor Doolittle, Black Beauty ? in fact every horse and dog book ever written ? Jack London, Mark Twain, The Swiss Family Robinson. When I was about twelve I got hooked on the formula westerns my dad was reading, and I tore through all of Ernest Haycox and Luke Short, Wayne Overholser, all those guys. By the time I got more picky, I?d stumbled onto the kind of western novel that was a cut above the formulaic stuff: A. B. Guthrie?s novels, Willa Cather, Dorothy Johnson, Jack Schaefer ? Shane was my favorite novel for just years and years. H.L. Davis is an Oregonian too, and his Honey in the Horn won a Pulitzer. Then I read The Lord of the Rings and that was a big turning point. I tore through a lot of fantasy and science fiction. I loved ? still love ? Ursula K. Le Guin. I read all the early science fiction, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells especially. And I loved T. H. White?s The Once and Future King.
I?m more difficult to please these days, because I?m still looking for the adventurous story with something going on at a deeper level, and prose that knocks me out, and that combination isn?t easy to find. I love Patrick O?Brian?s seafaring novels, Cormac McCarthy?s Border Trilogy, Pat Barker?s World War I trilogy. The writers I?m reading these days seem increasingly to inhabit an enchanted world ? I?m thinking of such books as Leslie Marmon Silko?s Ceremony, Toni Morrison?s Beloved, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas?s Reindeer Moon, Carolyn See?s Making History, and Karen Joy Fowler?s Sarah Canary.
In a previous interview, you said that you meant this book "to be true." What, then, is the truth about Sasquatch, or See-Ah-Tiks? Are sightings still being reported in your part of the world?
Oh yes, sightings are reported all the time. There were two sightings in Oregon and one in Washington right around the time Wild Life was released, and my friends said it was a suspiciously convenient coincidence. In fact, they were accusing me of traipsing around the woods in an ape suit. Well, I am a bit like Charlotte ? I?ve got an adventurous streak and a wild imagination, and that may be why I want to believe in the Wild Woman of the Woods. I?ve never had a close encounter myself, but I?ve sure been told some stories, sightings that are pretty hard to debunk.
Here?s what it comes down to: I want to live in a world in which it?s possible to believe in giants living deeply secret in the forests. When the wild woods are entirely gone, that possibility won?t exist for any of us anymore.
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