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Powell's Q&A

Marjorie Kowalski Cole

Describe your latest project.
In Correcting the Landscape newspaperman Gus Traynor publishes an alternative weekly in Fairbanks, Alaska. Gus has an independent nature and a lust for community, but lacks the discipline to build a business. As he once said, "I won't be kept inside any building I don't want to be in."

His crew on the Mercury includes his sharp-tongued sister Noreen, an illegal immigrant from Ireland named Felix, and an Athabascan woman and single mother, Gayle. Fairbanks almost becomes a character in the novel as Gus explores the town's social stratifications, its mixed loyalties and its connection to the boreal forest that surrounds them. A longtime bachelor, he is caught off-guard by the self-possessed Gayle. Their friendship opens his eyes to another side of Fairbanks. Editorial decisions cause ad sales to drop off and the newspaper tips toward insolvency, even while Gus's personal investment in this community deepens.

A body found in the river forces change for both of them. With his friend, Tad, a self-serving land developer, Gus decides to risk his reputation and most precious friendships one more time.

Writers are better liars than other people: true or false?
Writers are not necessarily liars. Fiction requires honesty. Writers are, often as not, in pursuit of truth — as in, "what does it really feel like to [fill in the blank]," or "why is the world ignoring this or that; I need to tell the world about [fill in the blank]." There is consolation in the truth. "Get thee behind me, Satan," Jesus said to a false comforter.

In order to capture and hold an audience, writers emphasize selected details, ask you to imagine you're in Verona or Venice, invite you to indulge in "the willing suspension of disbelief." But for out-and-out deception, surely the laurel goes to such masters as trompe l'oeil painters, photographers who enhance portraits, town boosters, certain politicians and religious personalities, and warmongers.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
"A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavor to do, he drowns — nicht wahr?... No! I tell you! The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up."
—From Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim

What is your favorite literary first line?
"In any memoir it is usual for the first sentence to reveal as much as possible of your subject's nature by illustrating it in a vivid and memorable motto, and with my own first sentence now drawing to a finish I see I have failed to do this!"
—From Paul Theroux's Saint Jack

What is your favorite indulgence, either wicked or benign?
This is my favorite question! How lovely to consider all the choices. My current favorite is salt. A breakfast of fried eggs, country ham, grits, butter, honey, and lots of salt and pepper would be a delight. Another would be to get under a wool blanket on my couch on a Saturday night and watch some escapist movie from Netflix, my feet on my husband's lap, a bowl of salted popcorn at my fingertips.

Why do you write?
I was born to write; I'm a bookworm. My fingers don't itch to race over piano keys, cut into an infected belly, fix a watch, or build a house. My fingers itch to make marks on a page. Writing takes care of my nervous energy and connects me with the world. Writing makes a place for me in the world.

Talk about your vision of the ideal life.
"Earth's the best place for love," Robert Frost wrote, and my ideal life would be to live in dependency on the natural cycle of things — hiking and gardening in June, picking blueberries in July, gathering mushrooms in August, rapping my banjo next to the woodstove in December. Maybe there could be a few animals outside, like a couple of goats, and no sound of traffic, ever. Each day would have an important routine; each season would bring new routines.

Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
I love the paintings of Rembrandt, Lucian Freud and John Singer Sargent. Their subjects are so real, so particular, so human, so fallen. I love each painter's aesthetic — his distance and yet compassion for the subjects. These painters are equally good with both skin and clothing, with naked sprawl and with costumed pose. I once returned an overdue book with plates by Freud to the library with great reluctance and complained to the librarian, who said: "keep it one more day, and write a poem about the painting you love most." She was a genius. I was then able to keep the painting and give back the book.

I am also inspired by homegrown music like the blues, Fats Domino, John Prine, Pete Seeger, Leonard Cohen, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris. Songs that express our sexuality, our spirituality, and our politics get right inside me and make me feel like producing something, too. spacer

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