When I first moved to Oregon from South Florida, I was insatiable for new reads. Something about the drastic change (or trauma) of moving 3,000 miles from my friends, family, sunshine, and my home ocean made me retreat deep into literature. I’d always been a voracious reader, but I was devouring close to 300 pages a day.
Around this time, perhaps during my first week in Oregon, someone recommended Brian Doyle’s novel, Mink River. “It’s about a small town on the Oregon coast,” she said. I was aware of Brian Doyle, knew he’d judged Ruminate’s VanderMay Nonfiction prize that year, but I had yet to read any of his work. So I put Mink River on my “To Read” list.
A few weeks later, while visiting a sleepy town on the coast with my best friend, I stumbled upon Mink River displayed prominently in a small bookshop.
“You should read it,” said the shop keeper, watching me leaf through the pages. “He’s a local writer, and a wonderful man. It’s a beautiful novel.”
That afternoon, I read Mink River aloud to my friend over clam chowder and fish and chips in view of the same wild, icy piece of Pacific spotlighted in the novel. We were immediately entranced, barely finishing a paragraph without pausing, shaking our heads, closing our eyes, and letting the lyricism sink into our bones.
Mink River and Brian Doyle’s work—including his two other Oregon-inspired novels, The Plover and Martin Marten—have become critical in my adapting to and understanding of life in Oregon.
Doyle’s lyrical prose, even when working with weighty, difficult topics, carries a timbre of grace that leaves you full-hearted and stunned. I am so pleased that I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about his work, including his latest novel, Martin Marten, released last April.
Ruminate Magazine: All of your prose has a musicality to it, and you’re also known for crafting long, lyrical lists, which I’d say contribute to that quality. How would you describe the connection between sound and music and words in your writing?
Brian Doyle: I sometimes think there is no writer as addicted to music and swing and rhythm and cadence in prose as me; I really do want to push prose as close to music as I can, and play with tone and timbre in my work, play with the sinuous riverine lewd amused pop and song of the American language. I am obsessed with being clear in my stuff, but given that constraint (I never ever want the reader to get confused or start over or get muddled about where the sentence started or who is speaking), let’s have some fun and drive the language hard. Most of all I want to write like people talk and think, in jazzy loose fun free patterns and swirls; no one speaks in little subject/verb/object tropes, so why would we write that way? Why not play jazz if you can? Although this is why a certain percentage of people who pick up my books fling them across the room, shrieking at the bobsled runs of the sentences. I have happily read every zero star and one star review of my books, chortling. The lists, I should note, worried me in manuscript; would readers skip them, thinking them only blocks of ingredients? But I wanted them to act like prayers, chants, litanies, almost poems, almost songs of the small that is not small at all; and I think perhaps they do work that way.
RM: You write across genres—fiction, nonfiction, poetry. I think some writers feel they need to have a specialty or focus. “Oh, I’m a fiction writer;” or “I’m an essayist;” or “I’m a poet.” How do you navigate the question of “What do you write?” as a cross-genre writer?
BD: I ignore it cheerfully, although I love the word essayist, and am proud of being an essayist, and think of that as my favorite and most natural and comfortable form; I have often thought that I could not have written novels had I not written essays, which teach you to just take off with an idea, not knowing where it will take you—that’s hugely useful in a novel, where I have no idea what’s going to happen, and try to just witness and be respectful to the characters, whose voices I hear, but whose actions I cannot control—a lesson you learn as a parent. I like all forms and swerve happily among them as the moment dictates—I tend to start a piece and soon enough it reveals itself as an essay, a story, a ‘proem,’ a witnessing, an elegy, a eulogy, an insistence that everything that ever happened to you is resident in your body if you can find the key—memory not being confined to the head, of course. I mean, where have your hands been all their lives? A thousand stories right there. Also I tend to think that as soon as you say I am an x, you put yourself in a little inky prison, don’t you? I am a writer who is interested in the music of language (poetry), the playful speculation and free-association of prose (essays), the long working out of ideas and witnessing (novels), the play and weave of voice and the huge of the tiny (short stories), witnessing and hearing clear (journalism), etc. I’d like to write one of everything. Someday maybe a play or a comic book or a movie.
RM: You have an uncanny ability to write about the darker, heavier side of life and people. And yet, every word seems to be infused with a sort of light or grace. One feels hopeful even when reading through the heaviness of Pipa’s bus accident and pain of her disability in The Plover. How do you work in dark spaces with light without moving into sentimentality or melodrama?
BD: I suppose because I think that light and dark are lovers; that darkness is part of the gift; that loss and grief and tragedy and pain and sin and crime and death are normal and part of our daily bread; and I am a particular student of grace under duress. I mean, everyone has scars and loads, and what fascinates me most, I think, is how we carry them with such grace and courage, how so often people reach to help someone else carry their load. Dark is quotidian; but so is love and grace and laughter. Both are in play all the time, aren’t they? So in my novels there are hard and dark moments, but on we go, because we must; that is how we sing our songs. Something like that.
RM: I think what strikes me most about your fiction is your ability to write about communities—specifically in Mink River and Martin Marten—with every character fully fleshed. I think this is due in part to the third person omniscient point of view choices in those novels. Can you talk about how you develop your narrator(s) and point(s) of view?
BD: Hmm. I am absorbed by all sorts of beings, and one of my pet peeves is how so many books are about human beings, with other beings as sidekicks and props. This seems selfish and rude and blinkered to me. In novels especially I try to just listen to everyone there, and usually I am overwhelmed by the increasing number of beings who want to be in the story. This sounds odd, but it’s happened many times for me—Michael the cop in Mink River, Danilo in The Plover, Cosmas in Martin Marten—I didn’t know them when the book started. Also I suspect that I just am not able to write a shallow character, because they are sort of not characters to me; they are beings, and my job is to pay attention and listen, and usually their talk will give away who they are, which then gives away what they do; dialogue is character is plot, as my late friend George Higgins said, snickering into his wine. And yes, I think the third person allows for a kind of high-above pan-attentiveness; the anonymous narrator has no restrictions on attentiveness at all.
RM: On that same note, the narrator in Martin Marten reads as her/his/its own character, and I’ve come to see them as a kind of holy wise man or even a godlike presence of some sort—speaking (sometimes directly) to the reader in prayer. Is there an answer to the question of who is the narrator in Martin Marten?
BD: Nope. I haven’t the faintest idea. I think it’s something like the story telling itself, you know? I much enjoyed the direct asides to the reader in Martin Marten, the constant direct questions asked of the reader, but I bet that drove some readers nuts. I thought it was fun to play with the orthodoxies of the form, to crack the fourth window occasionally. Gives the story another level of play.
RM: Your last three novels have been set in Oregon (or at least Oregon has a significant presence in The Plover). As someone who grew up on the east coast, what rouses you to write about Oregon and the Pacific Northwest?
BD: Oh, a matter of gratitude, I suspect; with Mink River in particular I wanted to try to write down Oregon-ness itself, the verb and song and brave of the place, its moist grace, its brawny gentle creativity and prickly communal vibe. I have lived here 25 years and Oregon has given me the people I love best, wonderful friends, good work, clean water by the ton from the sky… Also it’s my home and I want to celebrate its unique verve. This is not a place where class and money and status and power matter much; it’s a place where creativity and innovation are really savored. I loved where I lived in the east, New York and Boston and Chicago, but I am a Pacific coast man now, and always will be, I hope. Although that’s a large phrase and encompasses Hawaii and Tahiti and Orcas Island and the Islands of the Haida People.
RM: In Martin Marten, the narrator is bursting to tell more stories, and I see this as one of the central threads of the novel and in your work at large. Can you talk about this element in your work?
BD: I think that for every story we tell there are a thousand we could tell. I think there are more stories than there are grains of sand on earth. I think that it’s a little sad that we have to pick and choose stories and tell only a few. But I do want to gently suggest in my books that there’s way more going on outside that page than on it; I love that feeling that just beyond your peripheral vision there are riveting things happening; feeds the pleasure of a book, I think. Plus I have learned that it’s fun to just hint at a story and NOT tell it—it adds color and mystery and depth and width and breadth and magic. My remote cousin Arthur Conan Doyle was great at this in the Holmes stories, referring to cases that Watson had not written yet. You know, Conan Doyle, Roddy Doyle, Larry Doyle, Canada’s great Brian Doyle—there are a lot of inky Doyles.
RM: You discuss your fascination with the weasel (mustelid) family in your acknowledgements in Martin Marten. Out of all the mustelids, what drew you to the pine marten for the main character in this novel?
BD: Partly, to be honest, the fact that hardly anyone knows what they are, or has seen one; I think I unconsciously wanted to write the first terrific novel about pine marten. But also by unbelievable chance I saw four pine marten four years ago—two adults and two kits—and I suspect that was the proximate spark to do something I had always gently dreamed of doing. Very cool muscled furred alert quick tribe, the mustelids. No one messes with the mustelids. And they are deep woods and clean rivers folk, which is refreshing.
RM: What are you working on right now?
BD: I have a novel coming out in April 2016 called Chicago, about a young man’s first post-collegiate year in that burly bristly shaggy epic busy most American of cities; it’s the first time I wrote a novel in the first person, which was great fun. Now I am finishing a novel set in San Francisco in 1880—Robert Louis Stevenson, my favorite writer of all, lived there for a few months that year, and thought of writing a novel about a man he met, but never did; but I did it for him. And I can feel the tickle of another novel behind me, tapping me impatiently on the head saying let’s go! I am having a great deal of fun writing novels. They are like very long venial sins.
RM: If you were stuck on a desert island, who would be your companion of choice: Martin of Martin Marten, Moses of Mink River, or the gull of The Plover?
BD: O, Moses for sure, with total respect for the illuminated being that is the gull, and for the energetic muscle that is my young friend Martin the marten. Moses has a most riveting cast of mind, and not once that I recall while listening to him in the book did I know quite what he would say next; and he has a grave wit and streak of silly and wry humor and sharp eye for grace that I find I rather miss. He’s a cool guy. You would have a beer twice a week with him if you could.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author of many books of essays, ‘proems,’ and fiction. His most recent books are Children & Other Wild Animals (essays) and Martin Marten (a novel). Headshot photo credit: Hob Osterlund
*Brian Doyle, beloved writer, editor, and Ruminate contributor, passed away from complications related to a brain tumor on May 27th, 2017.
We are so grateful for all the grace and playfulness and tenderness and gut-wrenching truth that Brian shared through his writing. He has inspired us and encouraged us and nourished us with his words and his presence. We will miss him dearly.
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