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Posts Tagged ‘wilderness’

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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David Vann on ‘Caribou Island’

February 10, 2011 | by

Photograph by Diana Matar.

David Vann’s Caribou Island is my favorite novel of the past few years. I read it last summer for possible excerpt in The Paris Review. It’s the story, set against the striking landscape of the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, of Irene and Gary, whose thirty-year marriage is collapsing. The story is disturbing; I read it quickly, consumed. I loved the book so much that I was reluctant to see that an excerpt wasn’t working. The story was so powerful as a whole—it was irreducible. I recently had the chance to talk to Vann.

You alternate between characters’ points of view, and between their stories. How did the shape of the book come about?

None of it was planned. I was writing seven days a week, a few pages every day, and those were where the chapters ended. It really was such a blind process writing the book. I didn’t know each day what the characters would do or say; I didn’t know when a chapter would end; I didn’t know what the next chapter would be or where it was headed. And so with each chapter, I felt like it had come to where it closed, and then each time, luckily, there was some clear sense of where to go next.

How long did the book take to write?

Five and a half months.

Wow.

I started it fourteen years ago when I finished Legend of a Suicide, and I only got forty-eight pages in, and then I just couldn’t figure out how to write a longer arc. I didn’t know whose story it was or where it was supposed to focus, so I put it away. That’s when I went to sea and became a captain and wrote A Mile Down: The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea. I couldn’t get Legend of a Suicide published, so I pouted for a while and didn’t write for five and a half years. Not writing was partly pouting and partly because I was stuck. I couldn’t figure out how to do a novel. And I felt like my brain wouldn’t do a longer arc. But in January 2009, I was walking on Skilak Lake, walking out across the frozen lake toward Caribou Island, and I felt like I could see all of it. It seemed really clear that Irene had to be the focus, she had to be the main character right from the start, and that the story had to begin really late, and that their marriage would already be in trouble. The whole thing would feel like the final sequence in that way. I think that was why it was easy to get from chapter to chapter and why they’re fairly short and quick, as if they’re really all the final sequence.

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