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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Tim Egan

At a glance
Breaking Blue
by Tim Egan

Sasquatch Books
272 pages, $14.95

As Enterprise Reporter for The New York Times, Seattle journalist Tim Egan spends a lot of time on the road. This summer saw him travel to Colorado and Arizona to cover the disastrous fires there. And he went to Alaska to do a story on global warming.

When we caught up to him on a Friday afternoon in September, he was on his way to the Washington Coast ó to Kalaloch, specifically ó to do a story about what he describes as "the culture wars between tent campers and RVers."

"Theyíve finally matched the reporter with the level of international intrigue and suspense," Egan said with a laugh over his cell phone. "No, really, Friday, driving out to the coast, what could be funner?" His plan: Get the story, "pick up some fresh salmon from the Indians" and return home.

One thing is clear: Egan is enjoying what his life has become.

Fact is, Egan has come a long way from his Spokane childhood. Now 47, and the father of two children, one of whom is in high school, the other in 7th grade, Egan was 5 years old when his family moved to Spokane from Seattle. He grew up on Indian Trail Road, a street with a name that has always entertained his East Coast acquaintances.

"They think weíre like people with feathers in our head," he once said.

Egan graduated from Gonzaga Prep in 1973 and later from the University of Washington with a journalism degree. During his stint as a reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he began work on what would be his first book, "The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest"(Vintage Books, 254 pages, $13 paper), which won a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award.

After applying to string for The New York Times Seattle bureau in 1986, he became the full-time bureau chief three years later. Since then, heís given up managerial duties for full-time reporting, which has given him the opportunity to write three other books ó an as-yet unpublished novel about the wine country of Eastern Washington, the 1999 non-fiction book "Lasso the Wind: Away to the West" (Vintage Books, 288 pages, $13) and the book that weíre most interested in here, 1992ís "Breaking Blue" (Sasquatch Books, 272 pages, $14.95).

In a half-hour conversation, Egan talked about that book and its central figure. He also talks about former Pend Oreille County Sheriff Tony Bamonte, about Northwest life during the Great Depression, about his vain attempts to run a mile as fast as he once did in high school, and about how he feels about having "Breaking Blue" chosen to be featured in The Spokesman-Reviewís Book Club.

Webster: Youíve been busy this summer, but you havenít covered any of the front-page kidnapping stories.

Egan: Which Iím glad about because that seems to be the trend du jour. Last summer the trendy story was sharks biting everyone off the Atlantic. This summer itís kidnapping.

So, your title now is Enterprise Reporter?

Iíve been really that for about four years. I was able to pull a deal where I was able to live in Seattle with my family and then just roam around the country. ... Iíve argued that all you really need is an airport and a cell phone. Letís just say they saw the importance of that. (Cackles).

But youíre glad about being out West instead covering the streets of New York.

I love the West. So itís terrific to be able to write for a national audience about a place that I love.

Our last interview was 10 years ago, in May, 1992. Looking back, what is the first thing that comes to mind about "Breaking Blue" 10 years later?

I'm really happy that the story turned out to be universal, and somewhat ageless. That it really isnít pegged to a certain time. Though the murder happened in the Depression, it wasnít solved until 54 years later. Itís turned out to be a great classic story about not being able to escape your past, about things catching up to you. I still get a lot of letters about that book from sort of two groups of people. I get a lot of letters from cops. In fact, Iíve gotten pulled over by cops and when they were going to write me a ticket, and then cop said, "Oh, did you write ĎBreaking Blueí?" And I said, "Yeah." And he said, "Boy, thatís a great book about cops." Then we started talking, and before you know it I donít get the ticket. Thatís happened like twice. Cops like it because they know thereís a dirty side to cops as well as the good side, that there is this thing called the Blue Wall, that cops protect each other as brothers because they feel alone in the world. But occasionally one of them goes bad. So Iím gratified that I get a lot of letters from cops.

Then I get a lot of letters from people who tell me that Pend Oreille seems like a lost world. It seems like a place ... where does "The Hobbit" take place? Iím not up on my J.R.R. Tolkien. They say that Pend Oreille seems like a fantasyland, like a lost world, especially in the 1930s.

So I guess in order to answer to your question in a long way, Iím gratified that it seems somewhat timeless, Iím gratified that I still get a lot of notes and letters from people who say that itís one of their favorite books. As for me, still, in retrospect, it was certainly the funnest and easiest books to write.

You just finished a novel after seven years, right?

And itís so hard, Dan, so hard to create people from scratch. It has to hang together. It has to be real. And thatís really hard. Itís much easier to have a blueprint of something that happened as I did with "Breaking Blue" and then build around the blueprint of the facts.

Do you ever hear from Tony Bamonte?

We talk about a couple of times a year, we exchange letters. And he sends me his historical books. Heís sort of an interesting, what is the word Iím looking for, amateur historian-slash-writer-slash detective type.

Has Hollywood shown any interest in "Breaking Blue"?

Itís been through three different movie options. The group that has it now, I guess theyíre the group that made "In the Bedroom," which was nominated for an Academy Award. So Iím guardedly optimistic. The last time someone made a movie in Pend Oreille County, you know what that movie was, donít you?

"The Postman" with Kevin Costner, right?

Exactly, his worst movie ever, arguably. It was such a disaster that they might think that it ("Breaking Blue") has a pox on it or something. The producers who have the option on the book now have always told me that one of the things that really interests them is the idea of recreating Spokane Ė and to a lesser extent rural Pend Oreille County Ė in the 1930s. They were really sort of jacked about recreating that era that has never been portrayed. Not much in books and certainly not in film. People always thought the Depression was all about the Dust Bowl or Chicago or something. They never thought about a town like Spokane where people would rob and kill over black-market butter.

You once said that most histories of the Inland Northwest are "just pablum," something that "Breaking Blue" isnít. But your book didnít start a rush toward other books telling the real history.

You know why? Because most histories of mid-sized towns are written by and for boosters. What happens typically is that the Chamber of Commerce or a group or well-endowed types will pay a writer to write a history, and they want it to be like the old Spokane Progress Report was in The Spokesman-Review in years past. Just nothing but shiny prosperity and they gloss over the inadequacies, and they donít tell the stories of the characters. Last year was Seattleís 150th birthday, and the history that was written just wasnít very good, because it was written as a booster-sponsored thing. And real history should tell the whole story. Itís like any real marriage, or any real human being. Itís going to have fights, itís going to have scraps. People are going to walk in and out. Itís going to have a lot of low points. Official histories never tell those. Itís just like a path of one great thing after another.

Whatís changed about you in the past 10 years?

Iíve become a more cautious writer. Itís harder for me to write as fast as I once could. I think I understand human frailty better. I was told when I was younger and I tried to write novels that you need life experience, and I really believe that now. When I was in my 20s I was really full of it, and I thought I could do it all. That old line about youth being wasted on the young is true. But my tastes havenít changed all that much. My passions are still history and the outdoors. I try to stay in good shape. My mid-life crisis thing is Iím trying to run a five-minute mile, which I was able to run at Gonzaga (Prep).

Whatís your best time?

5:20. After that you reach the stage of diminishing returns. You just get injuries so much.

Do you still have family in Spokane?

I do. Three brothers and a sister. My Parents now live in Sequim.

How many children are in your family?

Seven (heís the second oldest, the oldest son). My mother was from one of these classic Catholic families. At one point, she had six babies, all of whom were one year apart. She was cranking them.

What last thing do you want to say about "Breaking Blue"?

As I said, I get these wonderful letters from people, and it just makes me feel great. Or Iíll run into somebody, and theyíll tell me it was their favorite book, and Iíll tell them that it was my favorite book to write. Again, it was so much fun to research. I donít think Iíll ever have a better writing or researching experience.

Why is that?

A lot of those old cops were dying, and they wanted to tell this story. They wanted to have their consciences poked. And so a writer and researcher, that was a golden thing. You show up with a notepad, and youíre like the angel of mercy and all they want to do is unburden themselves of this guilt. And the writing was just a joy.

Where were you when you wrote it?

I did half in Seattle, and half in New York when was I was on the (Times) metro desk. Iíd go into the New York Public Library in the morning before I had to go to work. Iíd have my manuscript. Iíd stay in that room that had manuscripts from Mark Twain and Dickens and all these great writers, and Iíd hope that some of that great aura would rub off on me. It was just a sweet experience. I look back on it and I just cherish it. And so to have it be such a great writing experience and now 10 years later to still get wonderful letters and reactions from people. Itís one of those rare writerís things, it keeps on giving. I feel really lucky.

Weíre glad to have you as one of our first Book Club authors.

Iím really quite honored to have it chosen for your book club. I really do appreciate it.

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