If Carl Hiaasen set one of his novels on a residential stretch of boundary line between British Columbia and Washington, or if Richard Russo's characters had relatives in the Pacific Northwest, the result might be something like Border Songs.
"One thing that's always interested me about the border is that it's practically a magnet for temptation," the author explained. "There's so much illegal commerce going on, and illegal potential around a border, national borders in general. I liked playing with the internal fear of the post-9/11 world — What are we up against here? — while the drug smuggling is getting to the point where you feel left out if you're not involved."
Jim Lynch earned a legion of fans with his debut, The Highest Tide. The former journalist's sophomore effort is that rare follow-up that lives up to — arguably even exceeds — its lofty expectations.
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Dave: A thirteen-year-old boy, Miles O'Malley, narrates The Highest Tide. An adult, Brandon Vanderkool, is the protagonist of Border Songs. Miles is short for his age; Brandon is very tall. Ocean life plays a big role in The Highest Tide; in Border Songs, it's life in the air and the trees.
What's consistent between the books is the way both Miles and Brandon observe the world around them. There's a line at the start of Border Songs about "what [Brandon] had always loved doing, to look closely at everything over and over again." Did you recognize that connection early in the process?
Jim Lynch: Border Songs was to create a highly unusual, highly observant character. I've always been drawn to highly observant people and characters in fiction.I didn't set out to make another nature-observing character. Brandon took a lot time to evolve, whereas I could see Miles right out of the gate. My initial impulse in
What I particularly liked when I was starting Border Songs was the idea of somebody who had lived along the border for a long time, so he sees the area transformed in this post-9/11 world, as opposed to someone shipped in to patrol it after the fact. The story developed from there. Since it's mostly dairy farms near the border, I wanted somebody who came off a dairy farm.
In my past work as a journalist, I'd interviewed Temple Grandin, who writes books on autism and animal behavior. She has always understood animal behavior instinctively, and yet human behavior is a mystery to her. All this was percolating in my head when I created Brandon.
What Brandon shares with Miles, seeing things that other people miss... that evolved over time. It wasn't something I set out to do. Yet if there is a deep thread in me, it's a fascination with nature. When I'm reporting from the border, and riding around with Border Patrol, I can't help but notice the incredible number of unusual birds in the area.
Dave: So you've now written about the abundance of life in the sea, in the trees and the air. Living in the Northwest, it struck me that you haven't yet written about the abundance of life here on land. As a transplant, I'm still in awe. Spill a seed, and next year a plant will start to overtake the yard.
Lynch: I think Tom Robbins said, "If you stick a rake in the ground, it'll grow branches." I just went to Southern Utah, the high desert. I was gone for just a week, and when I came back I couldn't believe how ridiculously green and overflowing with life Western Washington is. Almost freakishly so.
For whatever reason, I'm setting-driven when it comes to writing fiction. The Highest Tide came out of my fascination with the bays that I live on here in Washington. I'd always been interested in the border, and I became more interested as a reporter. I knew where Border Songs was going to be set before I knew what it was going to be.
Like a reporter, I went up there and spent a lot of time researching it.I don't know how well you know Whatcom County, but pound for pound it's as naturally rich a county as we have in these two states. I was drawn to that.
There are so many great writers around here who don't write about what this place looks like. It is exotic. Maybe it took me moving away to realize that it's exotic. But I like a strong setting in fiction, and the West and Northwest is very dramatic in that regard.
Dave: Growing up in Washington, what novels best described the land you knew?
Even though I consider Sometimes a Great Notion one of my favorite books, it's also inspiringly, recklessly out of control — sort of the way Tom Robbins' early books are, too. Those books were so inspiring to me in how much fun the authors seemed to be having, and how they broke the rules of what you were allowed to do on the page. They struck me as rowdy, wonderful novels that fit the terrain so well. I don't know if you would agree.
Dave: I'm a latecomer to Northwest Lit. I grew up in Massachusetts, which might as well have been a foreign country. Schools couldn't possibly exhaust the roster of Massachusetts-born authors. Our home team, so to speak. We didn't read literature of the Pacific Northwest — that just wasn't going to happen — so it was all new to me when I moved here. I was twenty-seven or twenty-eight at the time. I've since read Ken Kesey and Tom Robbins; and, actually, The Brothers K [by David James Duncan] is pretty high up on my all-time list of favorites.
Lynch: It's so important what age you are when a book hits you. If you'd read those books when you were younger, in your teens rather than your late twenties, you might feel differently about them. But it's funny to me, how when we talk about Western authors we're stuck with the east coast mindset of what Western authors are: Kent Haruf, Ivan Doig — inland west. For some reason, the far west isn't really considered Western. Seems like it's an antiquated terminology we use.
Dave: The Wild West. And the coast often gets overlooked. That's true.
Lynch: Even though there are so many more people on the coast, and so much more going on. My editor, Gary Fisketjon, was talking about how he had to get people over the hurdle of thinking that a Northwest novelist who writes about the Northwest isn't too regional to appeal to readers in the east. He was saying that when Richard Russo writes about upstate New York, he isn't accused of being a regional author. It's an odd conundrum.
Dave: There's something to the notion that the east is common to the heritage of all Americans. Whereas most people living back east never ventured west. I don't know that there's any substance to that thinking as it relates to storytelling, but I do think the idea exists.
Lynch: I like that. That explains it as clearly as anything I've heard, actually. I think you're right.
Dave: Did you find that The Highest Tide was received differently outside of the Pacific Northwest?
Lynch: When I wrote it, I thought it might be amusing for people around Puget Sound. I didn't think of its potential beyond that area, so it stunned me that it not only did well in other parts of the U.S. but also overseas, particularly in England, where it was more of a bestseller than it was in the States.
The reviews were pretty consistent. I didn't notice any regional observations or prejudices. I recently went back to Grand Rapids, where it was the One County, One Book read. So here are these people that are close to the Great Lakes but so far away from salt water, and they seemed to have as much fascination for it as anybody, anywhere. That was encouraging. They might have missed some of the detail, but for them it was a vicarious trip to the ocean. I was pleased that it extended beyond this region.
Dave: In Border Songs, Brandon creates art. Unconventional art. How did you create Brandon's art? In other interviews, you've mentioned Andrew Goldsworthy as an inspiration, but did you actually try to make any of those pieces, or did they exist only in your mind?
Lynch: It came in part from wondering what Goldsworthy would do, given the materials available to Brandon in Whatcom County. Driving around Whatcom County, among the many things I was doing was trying to look at the world through the eyes of someone fascinated with landscape art. What could they do? Some of it I tried to make on my own. Other stuff I just imagined.
Dave: Did you have any particularly unsuccessful experiments making art?
Lynch: Just about all of them. I never felt particularly gifted in any of the things I was trying to do. But even just stringing together a bunch of leaves and dropping them in the river can be somewhat satisfying. Stacking boulders, trying to make a cone, I made a fool of myself. I didn't have any real success.
Dave: Border Songs is told from a third-person perspective. Given Brandon's difficulty with words, that point of view seems almost inescapable, but still I wondered if you'd always planned to tell the story this way. You could have made Sophie the narrator, for example.
Lynch: I wrestled with it a lot, but ultimately I wanted it to be a community transformation story, a community that straddles the border. I wanted the narrative to come from a variety of directions; and I wanted there to be a crescendo of understanding about Brandon that didn't come directly from Brandon, since he's not very internal. I needed all those different perspectives to look at him.
In part, I was also inspired by the challenge to create more of a symphony of voices, as opposed to a solo. There are all kinds of upsides and downsides to jumping into as many heads as I did, but I thought it fit best with what I was trying to accomplish.
It definitely wasn't easy for me. A first-person novel is so much like acting: Once you're in character and you find that voice, it rolls. This was more of a challenge. Finding the way to express Brandon, who doesn't have much of an interior monologue — he was the hardest character to figure out.
Dave: A writer once told me that if she's ever stuck, she'll have a character tell a lie. A handful of implications immediately present themselves. Just about everyone in Border Songs is lying about something, or hiding something. The story's third person voice allows you to reveal and withhold as many of those bits as you like. No one person is responsible for bringing truth to the reader.
Lynch: And I like that a lot. One thing that's always interested me about the border is that it's practically a magnet for temptation. There's so much illegal commerce going on, and illegal potential around a border, national borders in general. I liked playing with the internal fear of the post-9/11 world — What are we up against here? — while the drug smuggling is getting to the point where you feel left out if you're not involved.
I particularly like characters such as Brandon's father, Norm. I kept piling the shit higher and higher on his shoulders, and enjoyed him bluffing and lying and sweating his way through it all. And I like the idea of having one character like Sophie, who is much like a journalist herself, trying to get her arms around what all is happening. She corrals all the secrets and misdirection that everybody is managing.
Dave: In the same way that you can live alongside a bay and have no idea how much life it fosters, there's a way in which people are too consumed by their own concerns to notice the drama of the lives around them.
Lynch: We do focus on all kinds of things that don't matter while substantive stuff goes on unattended. I'm as guilty of that as anyone. We're easily distracted from what's significant or important or has soul, whatever.
Dave: At once point in The Highest Tide, I jotted in the margin: "Science. Fiction." Two words, with a period between them. Those two elements work very much in tandem.
It reminded me of the reason that historical fiction is so popular: Readers enjoy being swept away in a good narrative, but they also appreciate gaining a deeper understanding of history in the process. Both of your books, to varying degrees, work in a similar manner, where science stands in for history.
Lynch: I'd agree with that. There were times while I was writing The Highest Tide that I felt I was bordering on literal science fiction. I felt the same about magical realism, to some degree. I was trying to describe real things as precisely as I could, real things that are somewhat fascinating and felt almost magical. I was bending into genres that I never intended to; the material just took me there.
My wife is my first reader. She said something to me a couple years ago, when I was rewriting the same two novels over and over again that never sold. She said she just wants two things out of novels, ideally: "One, to learn something. And two," she said, "to take me someplace unusual."
I like the idea of using my reporting background to pack my stories with interesting material, packing a tall tale with a lot of realism, getting the details rich enough to make the story come alive. I like to go beyond the writerly maxim of writing what you know because I want to write about whatever interests me.
Lynch: Yes. I'm a big Wallace Stegner fan. Plus, I've always thought that Stegner had a judge-like quality. I have a book of his on tape, and he seems to have the best reading voice ever. The ultimate voice of authority.
Dave: The Highest Tide was adapted for the stage, right? That must have been a memorable experience.
Lynch: It ran for three weeks up at Seattle Center Theater. That was one of the most amusing aspects of the whole publishing experience for me. I got to meet the cast — and they were really well cast. It was so unusual to meet all these people that I'd invented.
Dave: What are early readers talking about in relation to Border Songs? Are they interested in the same points that were of utmost interest to you?
Lynch: It's a small group so far that's read it. Some people's fascination is all about Brandon, this unusual character. That surprises me a little bit because I saw it as a large cast of characters, and hopefully they all have their own attraction. As I mentioned, I saw it as more of a community novel.
I expected more commentary — maybe it'll come later — about the Canadian marijuana industry. I have been interviewed by Maclean's Magazine up in Canada, and I'll be going on the equivalent of Good Morning America in Canada. In Canada, they seem to be interested in an American who feels compelled to write about the border. They think of Americans as never looking up and not really thinking about the Canadian border.
Dave: Meanwhile, the Mexican border has been very much in the news. But, as you write in the book, there are miles and miles of completely open border between the U.S. and Canada. I'm not sure what can be done about that.
Lynch: That's just it. It's the illusion of security that we want to maintain.If you drive along the border and see how wide open it is just in the area that you can drive along, it's obvious that any reasonably smart criminal, terrorist, et cetera, would have no problem crossing it. No matter how many cameras we put up, it's a four thousand-mile stretch with two thirds of that basically unguarded.
Dave: What excites you about the new book that readers might not guess?
Lynch: I usually don't think much about book covers, but this one excites me, the way it came about. When the novel was finished, Gary [Fisketjon] said, "I would love to have Walton Ford do a cover for us." At the time I didn't know Walton Ford's work, so I Googled him. He does all this surreal and naturalistic art, where he takes reality and gives it a twist. That's what I try to do with my fiction, take reality and bend it slightly.
Looking through Ford's work, I came across a painting of passenger pigeons falling through space on a branch, with a serene valley down below that looks kind of like the border I'm writing about. I mentioned it, and sure enough the art director at Knopf was already pursuing the rights to that exact painting.
You probably haven't seen the whole cover yet, and the way it wraps around the book, but it's very interesting.
Something else that comes to mind: In many ways, one of the best things that came out of The Highest Tide was that it created more interest in the next novel I was writing. When we went out in the open market, I was thrilled for the chance to publish with Knopf. Gary Fisketjon is the only editor I've ever wanted to pursue. For the past twenty years, I've been aware of him. Do you know his background, that he grew up in Salem?
Dave: I do. He's quite a figure in Oregon's literary landscape, and a good friend to Powell's.
Lynch: To work with an editor who's not only amazingly gifted from sentence to sentence, in a dense way that I've never really been edited in my life, but who also adores and understands the Northwest at a certain level, that was the coolest thing that came out of The Highest Tide.
Dave: What are you working on now?
Lynch: I'm working on a novel set in Seattle. It's an urban novel that jumps back and forth in time from the...
Oh, I'd rather not talk about it. Whenever I start talking about it, I'm afraid that some better, faster writer will take my idea and run with it.
Dave: That's okay. But if you're writing an urban novel, it's bound to be distinct from The Highest Tide and Border Songs. Are you excited to try anything in particular that you haven't managed in the first two books?
Lynch: This one will jump around in time more. And I think it will have more in the way of a built-in suspense, more high-speed narrative momentum, while at the same time being literary. At least that's how I see it in my mind at this point. I've barely started writing it. I've spent a lot of time researching and immersing myself in Seattle.
Dave: Are you writing nonfiction still?
Lynch: Not since I left the Oregonian in 2004. I got out of journalism just before the free fall.
Jim Lynch spoke from his home in Washington on May 25, 2009.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State