Wild Life is the best novel I've read this year. Charlotte Bridger Drummond is my favorite narrator. Gloss deserves the early rave reviews and the national audience that will find and devour this book. In telling the story of a forward-thinking author of western romance novels, she serves a page-turning literary adventure, a story that will captivate genre readers and academic critics, both.
"A masterpiece," Kirkus Reviews concluded.
"I write to please myself, for the most part," Gloss explained. "I try to write a book that I can't find on the shelf to read. The idea that Wild Life has an adventure plot but has all these other satisfying levels - that's exactly what I'm attracted to as a reader."
Charlotte supports her five sons by writing popular fiction. She'd rather be writing Literature, but art doesn't pay the bills. Through her articulate diaries and humorous reports about single motherhood on the shores of the Columbia River circa 1905, we're immediately drawn into her world.
Then a girl goes lost in the woods near a Washington logging camp, Charlotte leaves her homestead to join the search party, and the real adventure begins.
Dave: In the end, I was glad we had to put off this interview for a day because it gave me time to go back and reread. It really stands up to a second reading.
Molly Gloss: I hope that's true. I meant it to be true, to reward rereading.
Dave: Now and then while I was reading, some small detail or nuance would remind me of some other author. Structurally, it made me think of Michael Ondaatje - partly because he was here recently, but mostly just because of the structural complexity and the control that holds it all together. It fits together wonderfully, but you're using about ten different kinds of fragments: letters, journal entries, excerpts from fictional and historical sources, character portraits, and so on.
Gloss: I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't read Ondaatje. I meant to read The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, would be more reminiscent of the pastiche in Wild Life and also of the frontier.
Gloss: He was very quiet at Portland Arts & Lectures.
Dave: He was quiet, talking to him, too. You could tell that he wasn't in this business for the celebrity of it - which is probably a good thing because there's not a lot to go around.
Gloss: He's had his share.
Dave: Your 1989 novel, The Jump-Off Creek, won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, and because Wild Life presents some of the same general characteristics - being a book about a strong woman in the Northwest woods early in the twentieth century - I went to it expecting a more regional story. Not small, necessarily, but "This is a book about where I live." I came away from it thinking, No, this is much bigger. This is a book about people, about any number of universal issues that are just as relevant today as they were ninety-five years ago.
Gloss: Thank you. Thank you.
It's been getting reviews far afield, great reviews, and not in regional papers, but The Chicago Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer...I was hoping for that, but I wasn't sure it would happen. I was afraid that because of its Northwest setting it would be put in that regional box, but it's not happening.
Dave: How did you come upon this story? Where did Charlotte come from?
Gloss: Charlotte comes from my collecting novels that women wrote at the turn of the century. Those books are out-of-print or ignored. You go to the library and you're the first person to check them out in fifteen years. So I started collecting them, particularly the schlocky dramas, the western romances and scientific romances. I wanted to use one of these women as a character in a novel, a woman who wrote those kinds of books.
And I set it here because this is where I live. It seemed natural.
I wanted to give her some kind of adventure. The whole history of how it came to be - dare I say it? - a "Bigfoot" novel, is too convoluted to reconstruct, but one element of it was a night I spent outdoors, alone in the woods, without a tent, on purpose - with my dog but without anything else. I just sat there, basically, in my clothes and didn't sleep much, if any. I didn't have a flashlight. I got the idea from my son, who is a Boy Scout - they do that for one of their badges. When he talked about it afterward, I decided it was something I had to do.
The woods were full of noise. I'm an outdoors woman. We camp a lot, we backpack a lot, but I've always had flashlights, I've always had tents. There's something about a tent between you and the rest of the woods. It was different, very different. My dog heard these noises, and he didn't like them either.
We really felt - both of us, I'm sure - quite other than what was around us. It was scary. And it led me down a certain path of thinking: what is it that divides us from the animals? What is it about wilderness that's frightening to us, really, when you get down to it? That was the beginning of turning the novel in that direction, discovering Charlotte's adventure. Originally, I thought she would be lost for a while and she would attach herself, maybe, to some lost wandering tribe of Indians. But it was something else.
Dave: The book is so many things, which I think is why it was so fascinating to me. We never know exactly what it is we're reading. A journal? An autobiographical novel? You could read it as a statement about fiction and nonfiction, about reality and imagination - or, as a question: where is the line between?
Charlotte constantly reminds us, "I'm not an artist. I don't write Literature. I'm supporting five kids." Yet she writes this incredibly literary book. She did write it. But what did she mean it to be? We don't know.
Gloss: Me think she protesteth too much. I think she did have the ability to write far above what she was writing - and she does.
Dave: There's a lot of humor in the book. Part of it is just Charlotte's wit. But also, she complains incessantly that publishing houses have become whores. They'll publish anything if they can make a buck. "It's getting worse and worse," she says, "and God knows what people are going to be reading..."
Gloss: ...ninety years from now.
Dave: Right. So much of her commentary about the world speaks to our contemporary lives.
Gloss: And that commentary comes directly from reading those works from the turn of the century. Either from memoirs of women who wrote at the turn of the century - their letters and journals, that sort of thing - or from newspapers and magazines. Writers are lamenting the demise of the publishing industry in 1905, exactly as we're doing today. Willa Cather was writing in the 1880s and 1890s in some of her columns about this very sort of thing, the same thing we're complaining about now.
Dave: There are so many excerpts sprinkled through the book - there's a great one from Willa Cather near the end. It seems like you were having fun picking and placing those.
Gloss: Originally, there were probably twice as many as there are now. Both my agent and my editor loved them but thought there were too many and persuaded me that they were right, so I went through and really winnowed and pulled out lots of things. I tried to be judicious, so the pieces that were left made some comment on the novel or tied the events of 1905 directly to the events of 2000.
Dave: The friend who recommended Wild Life to me had read it because she's on an award committee, and it was one of the titles sent to her for review. She was only ten or twenty pages into the story and she was already raving about it.
It's a great adventure - just as pure story - but I think it's a great literary work, too. Whether you simply want to be caught up in a good story, turning pages, or reading for the language and the craft, it works.
Gloss: The reviews each take a different perspective, but they all seem to understand that the book contains many layers and can be read in any number of different ways. I've been very gratified by that.
Dave: Were there particular books that were inspirational, books that you'd call precursors to this one, other than those turn-of-the-century ones in your collection?
Gloss: I can't think of any direct antecedent, I really can't. I enjoy writing in different voices, and this book allowed me to do that in a more complicated way than I have before. I didn't think that was particularly unusual when I was doing it - it didn't occur to me that I was doing something most books don't - then my agent looked at it and my editor looked at it, and I realized it was different. It seemed natural at the time.
Dave: I didn't know until this week that you'd written a science fiction novel. That's fairly recent, right?
Gloss: Ninety-six, it came out.
Dave: I think of you based on The Jump-Off Creek and, now, Wild Life, which puts your stories back a ways in time. But I imagine there would be a lot of common elements to writing fiction in the future versus in the past.
Gloss: More than most people would realize, even. The Dazzle of Day, the science fiction novel, was really not the anomaly, even though it looks like it is.
When I first began writing, I was writing western short stories. Then I looked around and realized I had nowhere to send them. I wrote them because I grew up reading western fiction and western literature of all kinds, but there were no short fiction markets for westerns. By that time, Louis L'Amour owned the book market, as far as I could tell. There were no western movies, no western t.v. series - it was just a dead field.
But I'd begun to read science fiction, and I realized that I could probably write science fiction that would allow me to explore some of the same questions. You can put people on unpopulated landscapes and give then pioneer-like situations - it just maybe wouldn't be on this planet. That worked like a charm. I wrote a number of science fiction short stories, all of which got published pretty rapidly. All of them had rural farm or ranch kinds of settings and questions I enjoyed exploring.
My first novel was a young adult fantasy novel called Outside the Gates. My agent was a science fiction agent. When I wrote The Jump-Off Creek, I thought that was the risk. I thought I was taking a big jump to write a book about a woman in the west. I was afraid my agent wouldn't even want to handle it.
It took her a year to sell it, then it was another year before it came out. During that two-year period I went to work on what I considered the safe ground, a science fiction novel, and that became The Dazzle of Day. When The Jump-Off Creek came out and made a splash, people would ask me what I was working on, and when I'd tell them their faces would turn white; they'd be taken aback.
I seriously considered not finishing The Dazzle of Day. I thought I should write another book about a woman in the west. But I couldn't. I loved those people and where they were and what I was doing as a writer.
It didn't come out until 1996, and it pretty much sank like a stone because people who liked Jump-Off Creek weren't willing to follow me into science fiction. But The Dazzle of Day is every bit as much about the frontier and the human response to wilderness as The Jump-Off Creek - or Wild Life, for that matter.
Dave: And Dazzle of Day was reviewed very well.
Gloss: It was. It was a New York Times Notable Book.
Dave: They do seem to be complementary platforms, science fiction and western adventure. There's more common ground there than if you were to write a book about life in contemporary Beaverton, certainly. Have you considered writing a contemporary novel?
Gloss: I've written a couple contemporary short stories, only one of which has been published. I'm attracted to other times. I think there's something about the pace of life in which I can place my characters that I find more difficult to discover in today's world. The attention to the importance of the daily round of one's work, instead of attention to making money then making more money - that kind of thing.
I'm interested in the ordinary workaday lives of people, where maybe digging post holes or cutting a tree down is what you do all day. That interests me very much, though I don't know if I can explain why.
Dave: In another interview, you mentioned Ursula K. Le Guin as an influence, another Oregonian.
Gloss: And someone who has crossed boundaries and genres.
Dave: What are you reading now?
Gloss: I'm reading The Poisonwood Bible because so many people have recommended it to me, and I'm enjoying it, though it took me a little while to get into it.
I don't read as much as I should because it comes out of that same pool of time as writing. But I find I'll like a book very much, then go look at the author's other work and not be as excited. Beloved blew me back on my keester, but I haven't found another Toni Morrison book that did the same thing for me. I loved Leslie Marmon Silko's novel, Ceremony, but I haven't been able to read her other work so much.
I love Cormac McCarthy, particularly All the Pretty Horses. The other two in The Border Trilogy were so much darker; I still liked them, but I liked All the Pretty Horses better, I think, because it wasn't so bleak.
Dave: You've been writing and publishing for a while now. These days, when you sit down to write, are you working on it the same way? Do you find that your goals have changed?
Gloss: I write to please myself, for the most part. I try to write a book that I can't find on the shelf to read. The idea that Wild Life has an adventure plot but has all these other satisfying levels - that's exactly what I'm attracted to as a reader. I want a book where something is actually happening, a plot is happening, instead of somebody sitting there whining about their dysfunctional childhood, which seems to be the case in so many modern books.
Dave: It wasn't until I was about halfway through the book that I actually felt fear for Charlotte out there in the woods. She's always so confident and composed. Technically, if readers went back and started piecing together various dates of journal entries and the rest, they could probably figure out certain inevitabilities of plot, but there are so many fragments coming at the reader so quickly that they tend to just wash over you. It's like stained glass, all the small sections filling a greater frame.
Were you writing from beginning to end? How did you put this together?
Gloss: I did write from beginning to end, although the prefatory letter was written later, when I was nearer to the end of the story
I did know the general trajectory, the shape the novel would take and the things I wanted to get in there. There was a modest amount of rearranging of pieces. Some wound up in very different spots than where I had originally expected. I wasn't completely aware of the shape, but I had a pretty good idea.
Dave: How would you describe Portland as a place to be a writer?
Gloss: I love it. I'm a native Oregonian, and I've always lived in the Portland area. I lived out by Gresham in a very rural part of the county for much of my growing-up years. I've traveled a lot, so I've seen a lot of other places, but I haven't found any place I'd rather live than Portland.
It's a great town for writers for a number of reasons, not least of which is the rain. I do almost all my writing in those nine months when it rains. I do very little writing in the summer.
And I think it's a great town for supporting writers. We have this huge per capita bookstore number, and there's a community of writers here who are very generous with one another. Craig Lesley, who had a book published a couple years ahead of me, then had another published right around the same time as Jump-Off Creek, was enormously generous to me. I could hardly believe it.
It's hard to say exactly what it is about native Oregonians that makes them so engaging and fun, but they do tend to be great conversationalists. So much time shut in by the rain and dark, I suspect, that when the summer comes around and the wet gray blanket rolls away, they rush out of their homes and socialize compulsively. I do it, too, but I learned it from them. A friend who visited from back east last July asked, "Why do strangers keep starting conversations with me?"
Molly Gloss stopped by the Annex to talk about Wild Life about a week before her most recent appearance in the City of Books, July 31, 2000. In addition to being a fine author, she's every bit the Oregonian. I bet she talks to people on the bus.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State