A2A: Scott Elliott & Lamar Herrin

The novels Fractures and Temple Grove are set at opposite ends of the United States, and their environmentalist concerns are different: the one with hydrofracking in Pennsylvania, the other with logging in the Pacific Northwest. But their authors, Lamar Herrin and Scott Elliott, found plenty of common ground during a recent e-mail exchange… not least of all in their ability to draw out the characters and the relationships that make these more than just “a book about hydrofracking” or “a book about the logging controversy.” In a way, those may be the least of what these two novels are “about.”

Scott ElliottScott Elliott: Fractures is masterful in its ability to take us into interior lives. It’s been some time since I’ve read a novel so invested in multiple characters and the tenuous connections between them, and so ambitious and successful at seamlessly moving us into and out of different characters’ heads. Plumbing the depths of characters’ psyches and putting pressure on them would seem to have a ready analogue in the central subject matter and source of conflict that the book takes up in all of its complexity—the hydrofracking in which deep drilling and the pressure of lots of water laced with chemicals releases natural gas.

I wonder if you could talk about your research into natural gas drilling and also the degree to which you thought about the notion of hydrofracking in a metaphorical sense when you were writing the novel and within the novel—as an analogue for the process of fiction writing, and for the way pressure tests bonds between characters in the novel’s extended family.

Lamar Herrin

Lamar Herrin: My research into natural gas drilling took place mostly on the ground, wandering around drilling sites in northern Pennsylvania and making a bit of a nuisance of myself. Talking to anybody who would talk back and keeping my senses alert. I never managed to get onto a drilling rig floor, at least not in person. But as I began to do parallel wandering on the web, and as one video led me to four or five others, I did manage to accumulate a lot of impressions. It turns out drill workers like to video themselves working, sound effects and all. It didn’t take a great leap of the imagination to smell the smells. I talked to certain people at Cornell University and did the reading I could, but mostly it was groundwork and moving around on the web.

And I talked to people in the towns. Friends have asked me what got me thinking of a novel, and I’ve come to believe it was the moment I walked into the Susquehanna County Court House in Montrose, Pennsylvania (I had gone there, and to Dimock, which is close by, to simply get enlightened, to see what might be coming our way in the Southern Tier of New York State). But in the court house a policeman on duty explained that the desks I saw lined up and down the long central hall had been set out so that property owners could come check their deeds, and so that competing family members (or so the policeman claimed) could see who owned what. Almost all of my novels have had to do with families, and here, I quickly realized, was a plot.

And you’re perfectly right, Scott. The hydrofracking process itself quickly escaped its literal boundaries and became a metaphor that all the characters, to one degree or another, respond to. Plumb your depths and then swing wide. Compulsory integration. The pressure you create when you do that, or the pressure brought to bear that allows you to do that, can‘t help but result in fractures and release what’s been trapped down there for millennia on end.

Did I think of this as an “analogue for the process of fiction writing?” No, not consciously, but I can certainly see that that is what it is. It’s that “compulsory integration” part that does it (which, on the gas-drilling scene, allows one property owner to legally drill under the property of another), that roped all these characters together and allowed me, I guess, to move in and out of their heads.

When I look at your bio, I notice that in coming to Washington State and the Olympic Peninsula, you took something of a detour through the South. Born and schooled in Kentucky, B.A. in Vanderbilt, and a Ph.D. in Houston. I wonder if you passed through Oxford, Mississippi and Yoknapatawpha County on your way to Washington. The first scene of Temple Grove, where the infant Paul Granger miraculously survives a fall into the Elwha River, reminded me of the moment in “The Bear” when Ike McCaslin is welcomed into the wilderness under the looming shadow of Old Ben and likewise survives.

You mention in your concluding “Note” to Temple Grove that you put yourself to the test and backpacked alone over much of Olympic Peninsula and came out “more at-peace.” My question to you is: Just how assiduously did you “walk the talk?” Were you already mapping a novel out in your head? Were you scouting out locations? Taking pictures, taking notes? Or just taking it all in and hoping it would be there later when you needed it? There are so many things to like about this novel, but none more so than its “sense of place,” which comes as close to being conclusive (the be-all and end-all) as in any novel I’ve recently read.

Scott Elliott: Thanks very much for the comparison to Faulkner. I’ve spent a lot of time in Yoknapatawpha County. My first novel, Coiled in the Heart, is a self-consciously Southern gothic novel, an homage in some ways to a Southern literary tradition and my attempt to understand a Southern identity. As writers, I think we learn to write a landscape, in part, by borrowing little things we notice in the work we most admire. I think Temple Grove does owe a debt to Faulkner in its mythic approach to landscape, in the way it attempts to forge a capacious take on a place. I wanted to write a big mythic story tied to the land, commensurate to this lush powerful landscape that I’d come to love through long association.

I’ve told people that the novel had its genesis when my maternal grandparents literally collided in Seattle Providence Hospital in the mid-thirties, my grandfather a doctor, my grandmother a nurse. They settled in Port Townsend, a small town where the Puget Sound meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca, when he took a position as the town doctor. This meant that my mother grew up there and that, despite the fact that she married a Citadel graduate basketball star from a small town in Kentucky, she wanted to introduce my brothers and me to this place. So, while I grew up mostly in Kentucky, my mother is at heart a Pacific Northwest girl and always wanted to return us to the Olympic Peninsula. We went out in the summers and lived there for stretches of time here and there. Experiences of the place lodged in me on a deep, marrow level over the years. Another southern writer, Eudora Welty, writes that by the time we’re eleven we have enough experiences to serve us for an entire writing life. The place was calling out to be written, welling up when I was ready to commit to a second novel.

As for walking the talk, I did deliberately begin to develop the story that might help me sing this place, which came first, while hiking the entire length of the Elwha River in the Olympic National Park one summer. This was about a 50-mile hike from Whiskey Bend trailhead, over the low divide and down the Quinalt River. Some of the main elements of the story—a clash between a father in the timber industry, a son who’s an environmental activist, an ancient grove of old growth Douglas firs, a three-month-old boy’s fall into the Elwha River and his miraculous survival, a mother with ties to the Makah tribe—all began to come into focus on this hike. Later, after I had a draft, I lived for a time in a trailer on the Sol Duc River and visited some of the locations in the novel and walked the talk in these places to see what I might have missed.

At various points, quietly but consistently, Fractures limns in references to American literary and historical figures. Most of these references come through, or are closely related to, Mickey, the youngest son and the family’s black sheep. One exchange in which Mickey is linked to literary figures occurs between Frank and Ray, the family patriarch and his lawyer:

“Your youngest [son, Mickey] marches to the beat of a different drummer, Frank.”
“Who said that, Ray?”
“If I’m not mistaken, Henry David Thoreau. Walden? Miss Dickinson? You were there, too.”

Later, the oldest, most distant and successful (at least on the surface) brother, Gerald, takes the long view through Lewis and Clark in trying to put hydrofracking in perspective:

“The country had been settled not because Lewis and Clark had clawed their bloody way west, but because they’d gone and come back and sewn up the wounds so that they didn’t show. They’d gone and come back. Then Gerald remembered Meriwether Lewis hadn’t come back, not really. Wilderness was wilderness, regardless of which side of the Mississippi you found it on. In Lewis’s case, the Natchez Trace.”

There’s so much going on in this passage. It makes us think about internal and external wilderness and gives us insight into how Gerald thinks and into what Mickey might have been thinking. Merriwether Lewis is thought to have killed himself during a horrific night in a tavern on the Natchez Trace. I read the Lewis and Clark expedition reference here as a justification, through Gerald, for hydrofracking, the thinking that we need to sacrifice some land in order to move on to our country’s next energy phase. The healing will come later.

Are we living in a time when to quote Thoreau and Dickinson is to court discredit, to make one’s audience think they need to double check your facts? How does the charismatic landman, Kenny, who works for the gas company, fit into this, with his vision that he sells to others of the gas coming from what had millions of years ago been a peaceful ocean?

Lamar Herrin: I’m not sure how to answer this question, Scott. My first impulse would be to say that Mickey is a character (not unfamiliar) who thinks a lot about who “we” are without ever coming to satisfactory grips with himself. Thoreau makes the effort to be “one of us” and then goes off and hides (and not just in Walden). A famous and charismatic loner. Whereas Lewis and Clark go off into the farthest reaches and then come back, and Gerald admires that. He goes off and comes back too. He remains a family man. And in that sense he would not be opposed to the gas drilling, which is, after all, among the Joyners a consensus act. But Gerald also remembers that it was Lewis who didn’t come back (from his internal wilderness, that is), that for every sane and straight-spoken William Clark there must or might be an introspective loner, who speaks an elegant, Latinate English but who finally can’t survive.

If Thoreau had been a member of the Corps of Discovery Expedition, I wonder what he would have done.

Frank Joyner is an architect who resurrects (restores) things, will not let them die. And the landman Kenny Brewster, whose father abandoned him (left him for dead), admires Frank for that. He would “resurrect” that gas (this is a stretch, I know). I don’t think any of these Joyners is entirely of one mind, least of all Jen Joyner, Frank’s daughter. She thinks of the pipeline running from what will be the Joyner well as a lifeline that can connect her lonely (and fatherless) son to the rest of the world. With a subject matter as controversial and polemical as hydrofracking, the last thing I wanted was characters entirely of one mind. Mickey Joyner, I guess, is the most fractured, the most many-minded of the bunch, but it’s a matter of degree, not of kind.

Somewhere in all of this, I believe there is a meaningful American story, and that, I suppose, is the reason the novel is laced with quotes and references to American history and literature. But you’ve pointed something out, Scott, I wish I had caught before it was too late. In the exchange you quoted between Frank Joyner and his lawyer, “Miss Dickinson” was not meant to refer to Emily Dickinson but happens to have been the name of an early English teacher of mine. In slipping into my personal past, I accidentally entered a major American current, when all I’d really wanted was to pay tribute to a teacher I happened to have loved. So it goes.

Are politics and protest and the promotion of a cause possible in a novel which seeks to be good literature? I don’t think the cause-driven The Jungle is good literature, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin either. Both had a demonstrable effect on the nation’s history, but I find it hard to read them when I’m looking for complex and compelling characters. This must have been a question you wrestled with. There are a number of politically hot topics here, in addition to whether or not to timber the Douglas firs. This issue was always on my mind when writing Fractures, and I’m assuming it was on your mind, too.

“As on many previous occasions in the Olympics, he felt that these trees were creatures assembled to listen and give advice, whose incomparable wisdom was based in silence, and he thought how sad it was to live in a world where it was necessary for the loud clanging of a hammer to drown out the trees’ silent council, a world in which, in order to save something, you had to pierce it with metal.”

This passage is deeply in character (Paul’s), and in character it promotes a cause. Plus, it is beautifully written. But this is not easy to do at every turn. “Good lumber improves people’s lives.” Not sure I’d argue with that. And I certainly wouldn’t argue with “How could you live well and live with yourself?”

Talk a bit about how you avoided the pitfalls (and I think you did) of writing a polemical tract when there seemed to be a loaded political question at every turn in your narrative.

Scott Elliott: I couldn’t agree with you more about The Jungle and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, both works of undeniable historical importance but not what I would ever reach for or recommend to someone looking for a work of art, the best representation of multilayered literature. There’s a way in which a whiff of an agenda damages the sense one has in reading a great work of fiction that anything could happen, that things are undecided and could go either way. Great works give the impression that the author is committed more to forging what Henry James has called “an immense exquisite correspondence with life” than taking a side in an argument, in the worst of which cases the novel begins to feel like a 300-page op-ed and you wish the writer had gone that route instead.

This disavowal of sides is sometimes frustrating for readers accustomed to the rutted sides in these divided times, but in some ways it’s exactly what we need most—the ability to take on a more capacious vision that seeks to understand different sides, including some angles onto a subject never before considered and an openness to yielding to the other side.

I’m glad to hear you think Temple Grove avoids these pitfalls. I think Fractures avoids them even more skillfully. I sometimes think that I write novels because I have an outsized gift (that sometimes feels, to myself and others, like a paralyzing curse!) for being able to see multiple sides of a variety of questions. I’m moved, ironically, to strongly champion this ability! This is my cause! What in other spheres might seem to be a weakness, for the novelist engaged in his craft is a strength—this ability to understand, to seek to empathize with, to get under the skin and embody lots of characters, even those, perhaps especially those you think you don’t agree with or understand at the outset.

The act of writing fiction (and reading it), because it involves looking long and carefully at all the characters and sides with which a work of fiction is concerned, is great at fostering a love for others and a deeper understanding of all the sides and facets of a complicated question. Perhaps better than any form we have.

One of my goals in Temple Grove is to let two characters from very different cultural spaces, who are related to one another without initially knowing they are related—this father and son—come to understanding each other in a way that transcends the initial easy, seemingly intransigent categories they at first use to define one another. The fiction writer’s allegiance to strange, perhaps seemingly incongruous specific concrete details that are the lifeblood of fiction also help him avoid the pitfall of the easy polemic.

8 December 2013 | author2author |