Publishing a book feels like running naked down the street. Though I've made that run more than twenty times, the launch of Bargaining for Eden
feels especially exposed. This is mostly because of Earl.
"Earl" is R. Earl Holding, the 63rd wealthiest American and one of the most powerful and eccentric people in the West. When I wanted to understand the story of a place caught in the flood of New West change, I chose Mount Ogden, in Utah's stunning Wasatch Range, site of the 2002 Winter Olympic downhill races at Snowbasin Ski Area. Once I made that choice, I got Earl, too.
Mt. Ogden and Snowbasin Ski Area from Huntsville, Utah.
(Photo copyright © 2008 by Stephen Trimble)
Earl Holding bought Snowbasin in 1984. He also owns Sun Valley Resort in Idaho, fancy hotels in four states, and Sinclair Oil. He managed to privatize public land ? national forest land ? at Snowbasin, using the Olympics as an excuse ? and the emotional story of that trade forms a major thread in my book. The people I interviewed about Earl used over-the-top words like "lies," and "evil," and "treachery." Vice President Dick Cheney, on the other hand, recorded a video tribute for Earl's 80th birthday party and said, "Earl's life is a testament to good citizenship."
I was intrigued. Here was this incredibly influential man who is famously reclusive and leery of the press, who has the fawning attention of senior members of congress, who has the reputation of being a very good, even ruthless, businessman, who revels in deal-making and acquisition and operating high-end properties, who is comfortably embedded in his conservative Mormon Republican culture. Dick Cheney thinks he is a model citizen. Citizens whose activism I admire find him infuriating.
I didn't set out to write a biography of Earl. But figuring out what makes him tick became a wonderfully engaging challenge. And of course every community has its own Earl. I'll bet you can name yours!
I tried hard to reach Earl in our shared hometown of Salt Lake City, but he never agreed to an interview. The closest I came was shaking hands with him once at a public event. And so I pieced together an "Earl" character from scraps gleaned from Earl's six published interviews over 25 years and the stories told to me by dozens of people. I wanted to understand someone who owns 500,000 acres of land in the West but who can still say: "I won't be satisfied until I own all the land next to mine."
Many despise him, but I don't. He is not my enemy, he is my character ? and since I have a relationship with him as a character, I call him "Earl."
And so now I'm running naked down the street. Just as I used Earl for my purposes in storytelling, reviewers are using Earl for their own ends. A feature writer trying to pump up the conflict in my story suggested that Earl Holding is "the object of my desire and my loathing." Online comments from folks who had yet to read the book suggested that my wife "must have paid a terrible price" to live with me ? and my "pathetic fixation," my "obsession" ? all these years. Other commenters went wild with this opportunity to trash Earl.
Earl is my lens through which to explore our notions of ownership of land, and everyone sees through that lens a little differently. One friend, after she heard me read from the book, liked my "bold move to challenge one of the most wealthy and powerful men in the country." Rick Bass, reviewing Bargaining for Eden in the Boston Globe, found Earl's need to own the mountain a familiar American story, "just business... simply the unimaginative relentlessness of the commercial mind."
My daughter left a job in Salt Lake City this week, headed out for adventures before college starts up again in the fall. Her boss wondered if she was leaving because of her "renegade environmentalist" father, who had written a "controversial exposé of the Sinclair corporation." I guess he thought the whole family was being run out of town.
Not yet ? but I remember when (fully clothed) I typed the last page of my final draft, confident that I knew exactly what my words meant. Now, I've been reminded that you, the reader, will find endlessly unpredictable ways to interpret my stories. But I'm okay with that. Even delighted. I can imagine no better use for my book than for each of you to measure my stories against your own life and find your own meaning.