A Writer's Journey
First-time novelists are often faced with questions about the truth of their books. There seems to be an unfair assumption that first books are inherently autobiographical in nature. I’ve watched colleagues and friends struggle against this phenomenon, but I’ve managed to avoid it nearly entirely. I believe this is because my debut novel is set in Alabama in the 1920s and 30s, at the dawn of rural electrification. It takes place on a farm and in a prison, and it’s written predominantly from the perspective of a man. On its face, it’s obviously not autobiographical. (Note, however, that I continue to get asked whether I am A) an electrician; and B) an ex-convict. The answer to both questions is—for better or worse—No).
After reading Work Like Any Other, a dear friend likened me to a burglar in the writing —“You snuck in,” she said, “all stealthy and quiet, and wiped all your fingerprints off when you left.” She couldn’t see me in the pages, and I take that as a great compliment. This is not my story, after all. It’s Roscoe’s. And Marie’s. Moa’s and Wilson’s. It’s Maggie’s story, Kilby Prison’s, Alabama’s.
That said, I am still there. My life—the deeply personal details of the thirty-seven years I’ve been around—imbues this book. I am everywhere, in fact, a subtle, pervasive haunting.
I do not remember learning to write. I remember early acts of reading—simple sing-song books in my basement kindergarten classroom in Laurel, Montana. The basement was in my teacher’s house. Kindergarten was not public then and there.
The cat is blue. It runs.
I’m sure the cat wasn’t blue.
I wouldn’t be a writer if I weren’t a reader, so this first memory of words read seems fitting. I am a writer, first and foremost, because of books.
And though I encountered books in many situations, I really owe their discovery to my parents, John and Debbie Reeves, voracious readers who modeled the art for me. They read to me, read around me, filled my life with pages of words. I knew libraries and book stores well from an early age. Books, I learned early, were worthy investments, and I did not want in that regard.
The importance of books is clear from the first page of my novel:
His wife and son had been reading together on the sofa, an oil lamp on the table behind them lighting the pages. When he’d first courted the boy’s mother, Roscoe had read with her, but she shared books with their son now.
“What are you reading?” he asked.
“A book,” his son mumbled, snuggling closer to his mother.
Roscoe peered at the cover. “Pernassus on Wheels, huh? What’s it about?”
Annoyance showed on Marie’s face. “It’s about a woman who owns a traveling bookshop. She has a brother she’s sick of caring for.” Her voice was weary, as though she were talking to a troublesome child shirking his lessons. “The brother refuses to work the farm.”
She seemed to recognize her overstep before Roscoe reacted, offering him some kind of conciliatory gesture, an uncertain stretch of her hand that he slapped away. Gerald sank deeper into her side.
“I am not the ugly one here,” Roscoe said to her. “You knew I wasn’t going to become a farmer.”
She’d reached for his arm again, but the anger came quick, the way it did, pushing him taller, shooting him toward that ceiling her daddy had plastered himself. Roscoe wrenched the book from Marie’s hands and threw it across the room, where it broke a ceramic plate that hung on the wall.
Marie and Gerald are bonding over the pages of a book; they are making sense of their world, drawing parallels between Roscoe and a fictional character; and they are isolating themselves, insulating, hiding. Books are powerful; my characters know that as well as I do.
Early on, I was also being shaped by my sister, Annie, the smartest person I knew, a great reader and writer herself. Two-and-a-half years my senior, Annie was my hero. I wrote poems in honor of her greatness, essays and stories. I kept a short piece of her writing up in my room through all of high school, and I recently found it again, and have it tacked up next to my desk. She wrote it in her junior year, I think, and I am still awed by its beauty and eloquence every time I re-read it. She called it “Progress.”
I climbed high up on a mountain where the air was brittle-cool and thin. I was on my mother’s breast. The sky was so close it wrapped around my shoulders as a shawl. All the continents and all the oceans were beneath my feet.
The pungent odor of sage mingled with the less distinct scents of juniper and wind dwarfed firs there, near the tree line. It was a pure, wholesome taste I drank with my breath.
Mother Earth’s rebellious child, Man, had not been there before. The cinnamon squirrel silently told me so as he stared from a rotting deadfall only arm’s length away. The snow and obsidian finches landing around me without fear sang the same story.
My eyes turned down, toward the valley. The cold gray spider-web of paved streets, offices, and landfills was partly obscured in air made hazy from the belchings of its heartless smokestacks. New strands of concrete and steel swelled the size of the web with every new-born season. Would it eat this mountain someday? Could it swallow the fragrant juniper, the curious squirrel, the fresh track of a lone bull elk pressed into the soft earth? In the name of progress? To me these things are worth a thousand city-webs of stifled angry people squawking their car horns and mindlessly shuffling in and out of building cages. I was sad that child and parent, Man and Earth, so often cross paths, so rarely share one.
Mother Earth is not paper-money bills, steel sky scrapers, or tangled networks of concrete highways. She is simply the dark moist soil, the tender young sapling, the clear-running stream, and the fiery crimson sunset over crystal-capped mountain peaks. Mother Earth is the rich warm milk a baby suckles at. She is the nourishment that Man has lost the taste for.
Annie was one of my first favorite writers, and I modeled much of my own writing on hers.
I spent elementary and middle school in a tiny town on the Washington coast—Ocean Shores—of which I have many awful memories, but a handful of good ones, too. We lived in Grays Harbor County, and I participated in a program called Young Authors. Participation meant writing a book—a short one, illustrated and published by the author herself—which would be thrown into a giant treasure chest (in my memory), along with the books of hundreds of other young writers. The chest migrated through all of the participating schools for a year, my words in the hands of strangers. This was my first experience with publication.
We were encouraged to put a couple blank pages in the back of our books for readers’ comments. In my fourth grade submission, someone named Bryce wrote, “This is a nice book.” Lisa wrote, “THIS IS RAD! I don’t expect you to write to me, but this book is good I can tell you put a lot of work in this book.” She left her address. I wish I could remember whether I wrote to her. An anonymous “friend” wrote, “Your book is awesome, Dude.”
I think I knew, even then, that I wanted an audience.
My parents moved us to Helena the summer before my freshman year of high school, and I started 9th grade at Helena High with a shattered wrist and a sizable collection of new western wear. The population of Helena High at that time was the same as all of Ocean Shores. I’d bought the western wear in an attempt to fit in. The broken arm was the result of getting bucked off the horse I was sure I needed to ride to complete the cowgirl persona.
I was not a cowgirl, and it turns out most of Helena High wasn’t either.
That was a rough year.
But I had an incredible Honors English teacher whose passion for literature was infectious. Dave Miller was the most amazing storyteller I’d ever met, and I remember—vividly—days when we’d earned, through good behavior, a day of stories, rather than lessons. I am still haunted by the image of a man’s head in the jaws of a bear.
Mr. Miller gave me another gift, as well. I don’t remember the assignment, but I wrote and turned in a poem midway through that year. I’ve lost the original, but I remember the general content and style. Written in first person, with an A-B rhyme scheme, the first three stanzas focus on a yearning to swim and run and fly with animals. In the fourth that desire is replaced by the realization that the speaker does not want to walk with man. I believe the phrase “evil ways” rhymed with “number the earth’s days.” I credit my sister for the subject matter.
Dave read my poem at the start of class one day, introducing it as though it were a published piece by a well-known poet. I had the profound opportunity to sit and listen to my peers discuss my work. They appreciated it. They analyzed it. They thought it was good. And though the encouragement of other young writers in Grays Harbor had been buoying, I see this moment as my first real audience of readers. To know that Dave Miller—this teacher I respected and admired beyond measure—found my work worthy of sharing made me think, for the first time, that maybe I really could do this. Maybe I really did have something to say, something worth hearing.
The initial struggle of the move gave way to other struggles, and high school never did sit well with me. I stopped going after my sophomore year, but figured out how to take correspondence courses from the University of Nebraska, along with a few courses through the alternative high school, and ended up getting my diploma a year early, while not attending school (as a teacher, I try to keep that quiet).
I went to college in Oregon, Pacific University, close to the ocean, beautiful, and I came back to Montana that first summer to work for a family in Dillon. I met a boy there, who was working for the same family. He and two of his friends had come out from Ohio to experience the ranch-hand life. I learned later that they were there more to escape criminal and personal repercussions of a soured drug-and-arms deal than to explore their inner cowboys, but even in the face of this strong evidence, I was sure that this particular boy was much more than his soiled past, and I chose to move back to Ohio with him in the fall, rather than return to college. I told my parents I was driving to Oregon, but instead drove south to Dillon, collected the boy, and headed east.
My mother still maintains that it was the writer in me that pushed me off on this particular adventure. “You were looking for stories,” she said.
I lasted about three months in Ohio. I think I wrote some, but mostly I delivered newspapers in the dark early mornings and worked at Perkins for piddly tips and $2.15 an hour.
When I chose to leave, my mother said she’d be happy to wire me money at the first Western Union I could find west of the Ohio state line. She’s a smart woman.
There’s a 300-page fatally flawed novel about that time sitting in a folder on my computer. It will never see the light of day, but it was good practice.
Back home in Helena, I decided to enroll in a few classes at Carroll College while I figured out what to do next. A few classes grew into full time, and I found a home at that tiny Catholic school that I never could’ve anticipated.
That first semester at Carroll, I took a memoir writing course with Murphy Fox, who was the first college professor to help me hone my voice. At that point, I had a difficult time writing fiction—so all-consumed with the life I was living—and so for my honors thesis, I wrote a memoir. I still feel like I need to steal it from the Corette Library…
I took a poetry course with Lorna Milne. The best poem I’ve ever written grew out an exercise she did involving warty, gnarled squash.
I took a fiction course with Ron Stottlemeyer, where I finally ventured into the imagined. My first real short story happened in that class, and I have to say, it isn’t that bad.
Those were my writing courses, but just as significant were my literature courses, where I met two women I am honored to still call friends today—Deb Bernardi and Kay Satre. In Deb’s Jazz and Harlem Renaissance course, I fell in love with Hemingway’s “In Our Time,” a book I return to over and over. With Kay, I studied literary criticism, a tool I use to both explore the books I read, and the words I write (I’ve also taught literary criticism, and I use that course as inspiration).
My friend Cristina came from Austin to visit this past summer, and I took her to On Broadway to meet up with Deb and Kay. The four of us had a wonderful evening, as I knew we would, and afterward, Cristina said, “Those two women are so much a part of you.” She could see their influence in the person I’ve become. I love that.
Carroll also happened to be the place where I’d re-meet my husband, Luke. We’d gone to high school together, and have vague memories of each other there, but our high school careers were about as opposite as they come. Luke was active in student council, eventually president of the whole student body, and I was, well—a high-achieving dropout.
We’d both done our freshman years of college in Oregon—our schools only an hour apart—and we’d both found ourselves back at Carroll.
I don’t believe in fate, but maybe I should.
Luke’s and my first date consisted of copious amounts of alcohol and about seven hours of conversation in his apartment. I wrote quite a bit of poetry then, and the evening inspired a poem I still love, if only for its nostalgia. I called it “All.”
That I want nothing but
comfort in the recesses of your eyes,
blue, dark hair
Like my mother.
Ate an apple out of your bowl
under my possession
though its role, at least, you own
That circle on my
exact replica of yours
onto which I spilled my mind
awaiting the wood’s
absorption of things too much
a part of me.
I am a writer, with broken wrists
and scars of Ohio.
Just yesterday was I there.
All you saw was WRITER
in bold neon.
Broken wrists don’t matter.
Noble, you said, what could be more
noble, than to write.
That night was twenty years ago, and Luke has been supporting me and my writing ever since. He has supported me emotionally and financially, intellectually, cognitively. He has challenged me when no one else was brave enough. He’s called my bluff. He’s questioned my choices. He’s made me laugh. He’s traveled with me, been my one-person entourage. He is my finest editor, my idea-wrangler, my confidante, my best friend. My favorite person. More than anyone in this room, I am here because of him.
During my time at Carroll, we didn’t have a designated creative writing teacher. As noted, various faculty members took up various genres, but there wasn’t a consistent, dedicated creative writing program. That program was established when Loren Graham came—the year after I graduated.
I felt a bit ripped off by the timing.
However, in one of my On Broadway evenings with Deb and Kay, after a couple years away from Helena, back trying to figure out what to do with myself and my writing, they suggested I get in touch with him. I wanted to develop my craft, and I wanted to apply to graduate programs in creative writing again (I’d tried right after graduation, and I’d gotten into none).
Loren graciously agreed to meet with me—a stranger he’d never taught—and we had coffee at the General Merc. I brought him a couple stories to read, and he talked about different writing programs he knew. His advanced writing workshop was full the next semester, but he again—graciously—offered to let me sit in and give feedback to his students, while he gave me individual feedback on my work.
Enter my first and most important writing mentor, still to this day. In the acknowledgements in the novel, I write, “I became a writer under the mentorship of the poet Loren Graham.” This is true. The writer I am today—the one who has managed to get a book out into the world, published by Scribner, translated into several languages—that writer doesn’t exist without Loren. Under Loren’s guidance, I moved from novice to—somewhat experienced (I’ll never call myself a master; this craft is ever-changing, ever-challenging, ever-growing). I started to see some of my short stories published, and—when I applied to creative writing programs for the third time, I got into several, fully funded. (The second attempt happened in there somewhere, and met with more success than the first, but not nearly as much as the third.)
I was thirty when I hit that milestone, seven years married, with a six-year-old and a two-year-old, a cat, two dogs, a house.
Luke and I had carefully discussed each program I applied to, and we’d agreed at the beginning that we’d go to any of them if I got in. I only applied to programs that would offer full funding. I wouldn’t ask my family to take on more debt.
We decided on the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas-Austin. A three-year program, it offered equal fellowships to all of its writers. I believe writers need time and money, and the Michener Center gave me both.
We stayed in Austin for seven years.
Our oldest daughter, Hannah, started as a first grader at Lee Elementary (named after the confederate general Robert E. Lee), and I volunteered in the library there under the exquisite librarian Suzanne Wofford. I thought I knew book lovers, but Suzanne raised that bar—she is devoted to books, breathes them.
I spent most of my time in that library shelving the returns, growing familiar with the Dewey Decimal System. I volunteered in two other public elementary libraries during my time in Austin, and it is a process I miss and crave. Someday, things will settle enough that I’ll be able to take regular shifts at my youngest’s elementary library, here in Helena.
I wrote Roscoe’s library shifts after coming home from my own.
Our librarian is a twig of a man named Ryan Rash. With a note of great accomplishment in his voice, he tells me that he’s gotten me a standing Friday shift in the library. “Your foreman at the dairy isn’t willing to let you go for more than a day a week, but it’s something. And don’t go thinking I’m doing you a favor, now. I need some kind of literary talk on occasion, and you’re one of the only damn men who reads in this whole place, so it makes sense. The boys I have in here the rest of the week can barely keep the numbers straight.”
Because compliments are so hard to get, I take Rash’s words as one.
The Fridays are welcome, the library always dark and cool, something deep and musty about the place. The collection is small, but it takes time to sort and shelve. I enjoy wheeling Rash’s creaky cart down the narrow aisles, stopping here and there, slipping a book into its slot. The organization is comforting, a great structure that can catalog and number everything.
I prefer the numbers in Dewey’s system to Rash’s alphabetical sorting of the fiction. Dewey put literature in the 800s, but library folks like to give it a spot of its own, let the customers find their favorites by name. As though convicts have favorites. Taking the fiction away from the numbers breaks the rules of classification, and it bothers me like misplaced pails and caps in the barn. Any misplacement throws off the whole system, and the 800s are too small without their novels.
The use of electricity is in the 600s, applied science. Religion is in the 200s. If there were any books on the death penalty, they’d be in the 300s—social sciences—but we don’t have any of those. Rash has a copy of the Manual for Institutional Libraries that warns prison librarians to ensure that their collections are “censored carefully. Nothing should be accepted which represents vice attractively, contains sensual suggestions, or deals with crime and punishment.”
Our library has seven books on dairy farming—600s. Cotton is in there, too. All the agriculture. It’s strange to me that electricity gets filed under the same number. Dewey must’ve seen the running of power through wires as the same as running shoots out of the ground, seeing them all as applications of science. If Rash can stand for electricity and agriculture to be lumped together under one number, there’s no reason he can’t let the fiction lie alongside the poetry.
That friend who said I was stealthy in the writing of this book—Look close enough, and you can find a few fingerprints.
After graduating from the Michener Center, I took a position at the Khabele School, an independent school, grades 6-12, housed in beautiful mansions downtown. It was actually one of the first places I ever noticed in Austin. On our first full day in town, I took my daughters to the main branch of the library, so we could all bask in the floors and floors of books, and afterward, we explored the neighboring blocks. Khabele was just a couple streets down, and I remember thinking, “What is this magical place?”
Way back in 2000, when I didn’t get into graduate writing programs, I did a quick shift and decided to go to Willamette University to get a master of arts in teaching. I figured teaching would complement writing, and in the very least, I’d have holidays and summers to focus on my work.
I’d taught in various capacities since then—three years with the Helena School District’s gifted and talented program, a couple years in programming at ExplorationWorks, a year as an adjunct professor at Carroll, several years as a writer-in-the-schools instructor in Austin. And I’d finally come to accept that teaching wasn’t an alternative to writing, but a second calling. I need to teach as much as I need to write. The two careers balance each other. Where writing is solitary, teaching is social. The conversations I have in the classroom inspire the words I put to the page.
In those three-and-a-half years I spent at the Khabele School, I wrote alongside my students. They were participants in this writing life. They watched my novel grow. They listened to it change. They gave feedback. They held me accountable.
I was teaching when I got the call from Peter Straus, my agent, saying he loved the book and wanted to represent me. “Listen,” I told my students, “I might be getting the most important phone call of my life during class. If I get it, I’m going to step out.” They celebrated with me when I stepped back in.
They celebrated with me when the book came out.
I was just back in Austin, and the parent council at Khabele hosted a coffee and book talk for me at the school.
I miss that community fiercely—the students, the colleagues, the parents.
I don’t know what teaching will look like for me in the future. I know I can’t teach full time at the middle school or high school level and still get the writing done that I need to get done, but I know that I need to teach. Right now, I’m teaching one introductory writing course at Helena College, and I love the time I get with my students—the conversations, the writing, the ideas. Again, I’m inspired, and again, my students are participants in my writing life—they’ve been very patient with all of the traveling I’ve had to do this semester, all the distractions. We’re working on research papers right now, and I’m way behind in mine (I like to write what my students write), but I’m hoping to have my project on creativity and the brain done by semester’s end. I expect them to hold me accountable.
For most of our time in Austin, we lived on the east side, an area unlike any place we’d ever lived. We were the only white folks on our block, and—though the movers we hired told us to close our shades, lock our doors, and stay inside—we sat out on our porch and got to know our neighbors.
The African-American family across the street quickly became friends. Four generations under one roof, the great-grandmother, Juanita, was the legal custodian of the three kids who lived there. Leander was in 8th grade when we moved in, Le’Asia in fourth, Elisia just two years old. Le’Asia’s in 9th grade now, Elisia is doing well in elementary school, and Leander is off to his freshman year at Tuskegee University, the first in his family to go to college.
Le’Asia twice came home to Helena with us in the summer. The second day of her first trip, she said, “There are no black folks here.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry.”
We befriended the two dogs in that family’s back yard, too—a small Pit bull named Cinnamon and a large Rottweiler named Brusier. Neither was fixed, so it wasn’t very surprising when Cinnamon turned up pregnant, her belly growing round.
Brusier regularly jumped the fence, and he had a violent streak, so we got him neutered and helped get him rehomed. But Cinnamon was loved by her family—in a different way than I’d been raised to love dogs, but loved all the same—and I set about caring for her. Cristiana, the young grandmother of the family, laughed at me as I attempted to listen for puppy heartbeats through Cinnamon’s abdomen with my daughter’s stethoscope. (Margot has a medical kit; she wants to be a vet.) I cleaned out one of the derelict dog houses in their back yard, brought over some old blankets, told Cinnamon to have the pups there. “This is your spot, girl,” I said, scratching her ears. I bathed her and brought her treats, made sure she was eating.
The puppies came on Superbowl Sunday. We’d watched the game at a friend’s house, and I will always remember Cristiana out in the street when we drove up that night, hands waving over her head, hollering, “The puppies are here!”
Rather than birth her pups on my blankets in the comfort of an above-ground doghouse, Cinnamon chose to dig under an old shed on the property and have them there. I lay on my stomach to get a look at them, shining a flashlight into the dark. I left them alone for the night, but I couldn’t stand the idea of them under there for long, so I set to digging them out the next day.
It was this experience that led to Maggie, the best of the prison dog fleet in my novel, having a litter. Her master, Deputy Warden Taylor, puts old blankets in a shed for her birthing area.
But Maggie isn’t answering her master’s order, now. Two days later, she’s nowhere to be seen, and only the mewling gives her away. She’s burrowed under the shed on the back side where we couldn’t see her digging. When I squat low to peer in, I can see the rise of her head and back, bony shoulders and haunches. The rest of her lies deep in a curved bed, dirt and wood obscuring her body and the puppies she must have birthed overnight. I can’t see even one of them, but they are noisy little things, bawling like kittens.
Like me, Taylor can’t stand to leave the pups under there, and he orders Roscoe to dig them out.
I set to digging with the hoe, my left arm fronting the work. On my fourth drag, I wrest loose the hardened remains of a giant rat. Its body is intact, the skin stretched tight and hard over the bones, something in the soil preserving it this way, rather than eating it back into dirt. The claws are long and yellowed, and the teeth are the same color, jagged extrusions from the sunken skull. The nose is a hard, blackened ball atop them, the whiskers like blackened string. The tail coils toward the hind legs, spiraling in on itself like a pig’s.
I dug that rat out from under my neighbor’s shed.
The pup that doesn’t make it—the one Maggie puts in a hole, a mother’s instinct telling her it’s not right—that pup was Cinnamon’s. She dug that hole, a half-grave for a half-dead dog. I did not respond the way Roscoe did, but we mourned together, that tiny dog in a hole behind us.
Again—this novel is not my story.
Yet, my stories flow through it.
And I suppose that’s the thread I’m pulling through the story I’m sharing here, right now.
Books are amalgamations. They are true and honest and false and deceitful.
My parents are in this book—bits and pieces of them—and my sister. Luke is there, Hannah and Margot. My teachers are there, my colleagues, my students. And so much I’ve known only through words—history passed down for me to use.
To celebrate this moment is to celebrate every moment leading up to it, which is why talking about this journey is so daunting—the moments don’t stop. There is no arrival.
There are just more stories, more things to notice, more neighbors, more dogs, more libraries, conversations, expressions, particular songs playing in the grocery store, inexplicable coincidences, haunting dreams.
And books—always, there are more books.