Friday, June 10, 2005

Literary Portland

I spent a year in Portland—more than ten years ago, unbelievably—and I still feel a big connection to the city and people there. Lately I’ve been receiving via email a bunch of reminders of my favorite parts of literary Portland, so here they are:

Powell’s City of Books is possibly the best book store in the world. Aside from the great readings they host, they also have just about anything you might be looking for, including long out of print books. They even have a nice supply of books by…Ken Foster!

My sister moved to Portland before I did, and while visiting her one summer I enrolled in a one week writing course called “Dangerous Writing” which was led by Tom Spanbauer as part of the Haystack Summer Program. I wouldn’t be a writer if I hadn’t taken that class. I place all the blame on Tom.

But actually it wasn’t just Tom. A whole community of Dangerous Writers sprang up around him, including Chuck Palahniuk, Jennifer Lauk, Joanna Rose, Roger Larson and others. You can read more about all of them/us at Dangerous Writing.

Meanwhile, a friend emailed me this link after hearing about it on Oregon Public Radio. Apparently, some people are collecting stories for the Portland Story Project.

This lead me to another site: Portland Stories.

Meanwhile, the city wouldn’t be complete without Barbara Eiswerth. Aside from being a fantastic artist, she is also a former student of my dad. You know how certain odd moments are lodged in your brain forever? One of mine is of standing in my father’s office, watching the winter ice break on the Susquehanna River. “You have to come see this,” Barbara said. And if you see her paintings, you’ll know why.

There are a million things I've missed, so feel free to add comments.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

My Crazy Pit Bulls

Originally uploaded by kfoz.
Sula has befriended a man that works at the florist across the street, and she pretty much refuses to go into the backyard in the morning because she wants to go visit him, or nothing. Yesterday she came back having been petted all over and Brando sniffed every inch of her, then on his walk he traced her steps to the middle of the florist parking lot and sat exactly where she had met her friend. He sat waiting to meet this man, but no one showed up.

This morning Sula went over again, and when she came back I took Brando immediately (because he'd been crying the whole time we were gone) and he practically lept into this man's arms. It was as if he had been reunited with an old friend, and he tried everything possible to climb into the man's truck.

Now I'm worried that this guy knows my mean dogs aren't really very mean.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Writing and the environment

Last week was insanely busy, so I now have a backlog of items to share, including--later in the week--some tidbits from interviews with Michael Cunningham and Sean Wilsey.

Meanwhile, I recently spoke with Roxana Robinson for the Westchester Journal News. She was preparing for a talk on "Mountains as Metaphor" at the Hudson River Museum, so much of the conversation dealt with the environment, the Adirondacks, and American painting (which in retrospect seems to inform her fiction more than anything.)

Here's an excerpt:

Ask novelist Roxana Robinson when she became a writer or when she became an environmentalist and the answers to the two questions are likely to be the same. “It’s a little like asking someone when she first thought of herself as a walker. I grew up in beautiful open farm country, in rolling fields, and I spent a lot of time outdoors, with animals,” Robinson says. “As I grew older, and I watched the landscape beginning to change, I became increasingly concerned about what was happening. So, yes, pretty much, I've always been an environmentalist. The natural world means a lot to me. It's frightening to me, to see what's happening.” As for writing, “Writing was always an integral part of my life, but there was a big gap between knowing I liked to write and actually writing things that the world wanted.”

Robinson combines both of these lifelong sensibilities in her novel Sweetwater, which has recently been brought out in paperback in conjunction with her latest collection of stories A Perfect Stranger. “I don’t set out to write stories,” she says. “They sort of appear from time to time. The main project is always the novel.” In Sweetwater, Robinson stays close to the theme of family, the complications of which have enlivened all of her previous fictions. But this time around, Robinson wanted to cast the intimate dynamics of family against a larger, literal landscape: the environment in general, and the Adirondacks specifically. For Isabel Green, the novel’s protagonist, the tensions of assimilating into the culture of her husband’s family are heightened by her environmental sensibility and her intuitive sense of conflicts beneath the surfaces of both the people and the serene, gorgeous lake where they spend their summers.

Robinson, a resident of Katonah for twenty-seven years, has frequently set her fiction in Maine, but with Sweetwater she was looking for a change of pace. “Since I was writing about the natural world, I wanted to choose a place that everyone has a sense of—and everyone has a sense of the Adirondacks.” Part of that familiarity, she says, is routed in the history of American painting, and the philosophical movement known as “the sublime.” “What it meant was nature in a guise that was beautiful and majestic and much more powerful—a sort of inhuman power. This was nature at its most awesome and majestic--Niagara Falls, The Yosemite Valley—nature that was uncontrollable and therefore slightly dangerous,” she says.

But it is the work of Georgia O'Keeffe that Robinson has found most inspiring. “She uses emotion as the presiding energy in her work, and requires it to be beautiful, and creates images that are both immediately, intuitively, familiar and somehow mysteriously unknowable. That’s what I’d like to do.” Not surprising then, that Robinson is also the author of a massive, critically acclaimed biography, Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life.

As much as the environment informs the fictional world of Sweetwater, Robinson was careful to keep moralizing at bay. “I think novels should actively engage the reader on lots of different levels,” she says. "But a desire to instruct is very dangerous in a novelist. To include in a novel a passionate feeling about a large issue need not be didactic. Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres is very much about the environment, and about the vanishing of the family farm. Anna Karenina is about social codes concerning marriage; it's also about the issue of liberating the serfs. Really interesting fiction can be read on lots of levels, and contains all sorts of issues within them.” Robinson looked to the classics, including Tolstoy and Woolf, for “examples of characters who feel passionately about social issues, and who make fools of themselves because of it - which is what happens to zealots. It's what happens to the character in Sweetwater - she can't help herself, she goes too far in her zeal.”