David James Duncan
In an hourlong phone conversation, for example, Duncan might comment on everything from the writing style of Milan Kundera to the beauty of spawning salmon.
His books demonstrate the wide range of his interests. His novel “The Brothers K,’’ November’s reading selection of The Spokesman-Review Book Club, is an epic look at a family that endures the political furor of the 1960s and ’70s. Reminiscent of 19th-century Russian literature in its scope (Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,’’ get it?), “The Brothers K’’ blends the themes of religion, politics, family pressures and baseball in a way that earned it a Best Book nod from the American Library Association and Notable Book status from the New York Times.
Duncan’s second novel, “The River Why,’’ is a coming-of-age story in which a young man’s search for the best place to fly fish helps him see how to apply that same attitude toward life in general. Not only did “The River Why’’ earn mention from the ALA and New York Times, but it ranks 35th spot on the San Francisco’s list of Top Books of the 20th century.
“River Teeth: Stories and Writings’’ is a collection of personal experiences, all of which reveal parts, some painful, of Duncan’s own life. Taken together, the stories paint an indelible portrait of the Pacific Northwest experience.
And, finally, “My Story As Told by Water,’’ which was a National Book Award finalist, has a secondary title that seems to explain pretty much everything an interested reader might need to know: “Confessions, Druidic Rants, Reflections, Bird-Watchings, Fish-Stalkings, Visions, Songs and Prayers Refracting Light, from Living Rivers, in the age of the Industrial Dark.’’
Now 50, Duncan is comfortable in his marriage to sculptor Adrian Arleo, and he finds himself drawn more and more to home life with his two daughters, age 9 and 11 (he has a 21-year-old son from a previous marriage).
During the fall semester of 2002, Duncan is teaching at the University of Montana, which is not far from where he lives just outside Missoula. As the William Kittredge Visiting Writer, Duncan is able to limit his need to be on the road selling books. When we caught up with him one Monday afternoon in mid-September, he was in Seattle as part of a tour that he had cut intentionally short.
“The University of California Press and The Sierra Club wanted to send me out all over on this tour, and I said, ‘I’ll go to Portland and Seattle,’ and then I’m going home,’’ Duncan said. “My 11-year-old is already looking very pre-adolescent, and I want to watch.”
Webster: So, I imagine this is one of those deals where you’re talking to somebody about every half hour and preparing for your talk. Are you talking tonight?
Duncan: I’m giving a reading at Elliott Bay tonight and then doing a lecture at the University of Washington tomorrow night. But it’s actually a nice quiet day, today. I’ve got plenty of time.
Usually when I do a phone interview with authors, it’s usually jammed between one thing or another. I’ve never been out on the road myself, but I’ve heard so many stories about how hard it is.
Yeah. Well, publicists think that every possible thing that you can do to sell books is good, no matter what it is.
With all the writing that you do on the outdoors, it’s very easy to associate you with trying to save the environment. And sometimes I know that I get fed up with everything and think, “What good does it do?’’ How much effect can someone have? Even someone as poetic as you, how effective can you be? Does it ever get you down?
You know, it’s discouraging as hell. But I can’t not fight. I live way over in Montana on a stream that flows due east toward the Great Plains, and 20 miles from my house, right now, there are spring Chinook salmon spawning in this beautiful little Idaho border tributary. They’ve climbed 6,000 feet, they’ve swum 800 miles and they’re big beautiful fish in this just wild canyon, and I can’t see just letting that go without, you know, letting loose a good loud cry.
You’re as well known for your fiction, especially “The Brothers K,’’ as you are your books on the environment. Which do you prefer, or is that even a fair question?
I really love the novel form. And I would really rather be writing fiction than doing any of this conservation work. I don’t call my self an environmentalist. I just call myself a fisherman. But there’s not a cattleman out there who would allow the federal government to come onto their range and create some kind of structure that killed 90 percent of their cattle for all time, in 90 years. And that’s exactly what’s happened to every fisherman in eastern Oregon and Idaho. And it’s what’s happened to fishermen all over the Northwest, generally speaking. So really, I’m just the same as a rancher who’s losing all his cows.
What are you working on these days? What are you writing in terms of fiction?
I’ve been working for nine years on three different projects. One is a collection of novellas where all the protagonists are women, all women in the West. And then I’ve been playing with some of the themes in “The Divine Comedy’’ in two, very ambitious novels. The first one of the two is called “Eastern Western.’’ The second one I’m not going to give a title yet. I’d been calling it something crazy like, “Nijinsky Hosts ‘Saturday Night Live.’ ’’ It’s a novel about human folly and reincarnation. But I have hundreds of pages on both those.
With everything else that you’re doing, is it hard to find time to write?
I’m teaching this fall at the University of Montana. It’s just a lot of work, really, but the students are great. The teaching and a couple of little royalty windfalls will allow me to stay home and not have to go on the road and do too many conservation speaking gigs and all that. So I hope to stay home the next two years and finish at least two books.
We chose “The Brothers K’’ as the one book of yours to be featured in our book club. But which one would you have chosen?
My favorite of my books is “The Brothers K.’’ It’s the most free of any consideration except its art. It’s a long read, but I think it’s quite a bit tighter than “The River Why.’’ With that book I had just read “Great Expectations’’ by Charles Dickens and I have these Dickensian (conceits ): “Why give one example of something when I can give three?’’
When you’re out on the road, I’m sure that people must come up to you with tattered copies of “The Brothers K’’ and say, “This is a book that changed my life. When are you going to write ‘The Brothers K’ sequel?’’
“The Brothers K II’’ (laughs).
I wrote way past the ending of that book. I wrote the brother named Everett clear into his divorce, and then he remarried the same woman (laughs). I won’t be writing “Son of River Why’’ or “Son of Brothers K.’’ I’ve done enough with those characters. Those two novels were as full as I knew how to make them. I’m excited about being 50 years old and having daughters and a wife and so many women friends that at last I feel able to write believable female characters.
That’s no easy trick for a man to do.
No. And who knows? Maybe it won’t work. But I really do feel as if these women that I’ve been writing are believable.
That’s a brave thing to do. Why would you do that?
This happens a lot in writing classes. I will have students write something fictional that represents their position, and then I’ll have them write the opposite position. And almost always the writing that does not represent you is stronger, because it’s more detached, it’s more thoroughly imagined. And I’m obviously not a woman (laughs), but I like these women characters.
Why do you think that is?
It’s very mysterious and satisfying to write about something just through empathy and imagination. Also, to be a little more troublesome, I guess, I think that women are much more a force of change in the United States than men. I think that women are more revolutionary by nature. Their connection with children and education seems stronger. I know more women who strike me as open. They just generally go through life more open than men do. So I’m fascinated with all of that. I also want to write about sex before I’m too old to remember what it was (laughs).
Part of “The Brothers K’’ involves the Vietnam War and that whole era. What was it about the war that most interested you as a writer?
There have been wonderful novels written about the war from the soldier’s perspective. I think Tim O’Brien is a wonderful writer. And, you know, Abby Hoffman was famous. But what abour the more sincere people who were resisting the war? What where they really like, and what did it do to their families when they took off for Canada and so on? I felt a lot of those people were disenfranchised the way that the soldiers were disenfranchised, and I was struck by the fact that one group was thrown out of the country on their left ear and the other on their right ear, politically speaking, but it amounted to the same thing. But it actually reached a point in the novel that I could have the draft-dodger and the soldier say that to each other, and that was satisfying.
Did you read O'Brien’s book “The Nuclear Age’’?
No, I haven’t read that one.
I love “The Things They Carried.’’ But when I interviewed him, I surprised him by telling him that I thought that was his best novel. And he said, “Really?’’ It’s a book that talks about what happened to the country, but it talks about it from the perspective of someone who was here rather than in Vietnam. It’s an amazing book.
I’ll have to read that. He blew me away with his latest comedy, too. I think “Tomcat in Love’’ is hilarious. This is the most merciless self-dissection of a womanizer that you could ever read. I mean, it’s very funny.
I haven’t read that one. So many books, so little time. Did you read the piece he wrote for the New York Times about going back to Vietnam? It’s one of those self-revealing pieces. He’s writing it from the perspective of afterward when he had just broken up with the woman he had gone over there with. It’s early in the morning, and he’s contemplating suicide and this and that. You know how writers will use anything. But at the same time it is a way out of the darkness. Many guys didn’t have that luxury. It’s so powerful.
Yeah. All we ever hear is 60,000 dead or whatever it was, but I’ve heard estimates as high as 300,000 deaths if you take into account all the suicides and broken lives. Guys who came back were often in horrible shape. The last five years, a bunch of my vet friends have been dealing with various Agent Orange-related scenarios.
So “The Brothers K’’ was Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and “The River Why’’ was Dickens. So the two new novels, is there Joyce Carol Oates in there somewhere?
I actually would like to write something tight, and my favorite tight novelist is Milan Kundera. I don’t think I’m capable of it, but I think by holding him up as a model I might at least be able to contain my white-water prose.
It would be interesting to read him in has native language. Because so much gets lost in translation.
Well, he does speak English, and his last few novels have been written in French. And the translation from French to English is not that hard. But what’s amazing to me is, I’m working with this French publisher who wants to do “The Brothers K,’’ but I have to do a Reader’s Digest condensed version because there’s this 20 percent expansion that happens when you go from English to French. But there’s a 20 percent reduction when you go the other way, and Kundera is so tight in English it just makes me marvel.
It might help if you changed the baseball to soccer.
I’m gonna have to eliminate two-thirds of the baseball, because that just won’t fly in France. They’re interested in the domestic part, the religion part, the war part. I’m a little too specific when I write about landscape to suit the French, too.
What other languages has that novel been translated into?
You know, it surprises me that it never has been translated into Spanish. Because of the baseball culture, I always thought that it would be. But it never has. That leaves just the French and British editions. But then I’m so damned American, you know. And worse than that, I’m so Pacific Northwest. I’m pretty hopelessly indigenous.
But I don’t think that dreaded word “regional’’ applies because it’s so dismissive. You can write about the world in a small area. Look what Faulkner did. That’s the name that always seems to come up when people talk about regional writers.
But Faulkner was really exploded into popularity by a couple of critics, Malcolm Cowley and Bernard DeVoto. I question whether he would have achieved his fame or his Nobel Prize if it weren’t for that critical response. He was amazing, a writer who was helped by his critics. I think of myself as somebody like Fred Chappell, this writer who is really respected in the Carolinas. Maybe I’m the Fred Chappell of the Pacific Northwest (laughs). And nobody here has ever heard of him.
I’ll have to check him out.
They’re publishing a piece of mine in the Southeastern Review, and a friend of mine who is a professor at Duke, a theologian named Stanley Hauerwas, and he said the reaction back there was universal: “Who the hell is this guy? (laughs) He sure can write, but who the hell is he?’’