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Posts Tagged ‘Philip Connors’

Western Reading; Should I Write a Memoir?

April 29, 2011 | by

Dear Mr. Stein,
This summer my husband and I will be taking a train from Portland, Oregon, to Whitefish, Montana. Can you recommend any novels set in that region? I’ve read Jim Harrison, Michael Dorris’s
A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, Stegner’s Angle of Repose and am hoping there are many good novels I’m not yet familiar with set along our route.
Best,
Nora Brzyski

Ms. Brzyski, you’ve landed on a blind spot the size of, well, Idaho. So I’ve asked an expert, Philip Connors. Apart from working as a fire lookout (and many other things), Phil is the editor of New West Reader: Essays on An Ever-Evolving Frontier. He writes:

Happily, the natural beauty along that train trip is matched by the beauty of more books set on or near your journey than I can name. If I were at home, staring at my bookshelves, I’d probably give you a slightly different list, but since I’m on a grand tour of my own, currently in Santa Fe, this will have to be off the top of my head. A list of the great Oregon novels would include David James Duncan’s The Brothers K and Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. The indispensable book on eastern Oregon is a memoir with the sweep and grandeur of a great novel—William Kittredge’s Hole in the Sky, a story of paradise found and paradise lost on his family’s Warner Valley ranch. Washington is Sherman Alexie country: check out his novels Reservation Blues and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Crossing over into Idaho, you absolutely must read Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, which plays out in the town of Fingerbone, a fictional analogue to Robinson’s hometown of Sandpoint; it’s a masterpiece of twentieth-century American fiction. Finally, perhaps the best book set in western Montana is Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It—two novellas and one story, the title novella being among the most beautiful and haunting tragedies written by anyone, anywhere, in any time.

Finally, if you find your attention for long prose works flagging, make sure to have handy the collected poems of Richard Hugo, Making Certain It Goes On, which contains some of the finest poems of place—from western Washington to western Montana—that I have ever read.

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Philip Connors on ‘Fire Season’

April 15, 2011 | by

Photograph by Martha Connors.

To be a fire lookout, Norman Maclean once wrote, isn’t a matter of body or mind, but of soul. Philip Connors should know. He’s spent a third of each year for nearly a decade watching for smoke in the Gila National Forest. His new book, Fire Season, which started as a diary in The Paris Review, is at once a fascinating personal narrative, a history of "a vocation in its twilight,” and a poetic tribute to solitude and the natural world. Connors examines the wilderness and his experience of it by turns from a remove, dispassionately, and up close, with great feeling, and evokes a whole world in charming but disciplined prose. He’s funny but not self-indulgent. He’s plainspoken but not condescending or tinnily folksy. Without being didactic or blinkered, or even obvious about what he’s doing, he offers an impassioned defense of a life and place he loves.

Your lookout tower stands on a mountain that rises more than ten thousand feet. From it you can see the first wisps of smoke below, but you can alsowhen things are calm—write. How much of the book came into being up there in your seven-by-seven-foot glass box in the sky?

Once I signed the contract, I had romantic visions of feeding a giant roll of paper into my typewriter and cranking out a record of events as they happened that season in the lookout, writing it all down the way Kerouac wrote On the Road. Foolishness! As I sat there that summer, the thought of immortalizing my experience between hard covers paralyzed me. I couldn’t get started. So I developed strategies to generate raw material I could draw on later. The most successful of these involved typing long letters to my editor, Matt Weiland, about everything I was seeing, everything that was happening, and just trying to stay unself-conscious about the writing. On my days off I’d hike down with the letters, make a quick photocopy for my files, and drop them in the mail to New York. Anything that moved him or intrigued him eventually led me down a fruitful path. Anything that left him cold I abandoned. This meant that I didn’t start writing the book until fire season was over and I was back in town. I needed time to sift through what of the experience was worth recounting and what was not. The goal became to write a book about watching mountains that left out the boring parts—easier said than done.

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