Keith Scribner writes the hell out of a story. He starts the boulder at the top of the hill and then lets it roll down, breaking branches, killing plants, burning into a ball of fire along the way.x I cannot forget the scenes from his first novel, The Good Life, in which he depicts the mind of an oil executive tied up in a box and kept in a sweltering storage locker, how from this dark place he managed to tell a love story. His work is infused with contrasts, love and death, good and evil, radical and domestic.
His new book, The Oregon Experiment, succeeds at all the Scribnerian strengths—it’s lively, smart, frightening at times, and surprisingly redemptive. He’s also disarmingly unpretentious, generous with other writers, and most crucially, a genius at carpentry. If you live in Oregon and need a deck built, he shouldn’t be the last one you call. We talked a little about the novel and his writing process on a break from Keith’s book tour.
The Rumpus Interview with Keith Scribner
Tom Barbash: You’ve said The Oregon Experiment began with your desire to write about a character caught between his attraction to political radicalism and toward the needs of a young family. Can you elaborate on that idea?
Keith Scribner: My first child was three months old in November 1999 when the WTO came to Seattle. As I watched the street protests and riots on TV, I imagined a character who feels tremendous sympathy for the goals of the nonviolent anti-globalists (and maybe even a little titillation over a busted out Starbucks window), but at the same time feels the strong pull of fatherly instinct which makes him want a safe and secure society for his child. This internal conflict was the beginning of Scanlon Pratt. In time he became an expert in mass movements and radical action, so that in order to provide financially for his child he needs radicalism; his career depends on it. Faulkner famously calls it the “heart in conflict with itself,” and I think it’s the best place to start a novel or story. In Scanlon’s case, he’s pulled between career and family, what’s good for the world and what’s good for himself, what he knows he should want and what he fears he really wants. That internal struggle, I hope, has a familiar ring to many of us. More than one journalist has abashedly mentioned to me that a Sarah Palin presidency might be the one thing that could save their careers and the newspaper industry.
Barbash: Corvallis, where you live and where you’ve set the book, is depicted so vividly and entertainingly. Can you talk about your own relationship to the town, and what it was like to write about a place while living in it—that is to say while your sense of it was still evolving?
Scribner: The point of view characters of my first two books are insiders to the books’ settings—born and raised—so I had to know those places as intimately as they would, or at least well enough to write it convincingly. When I started The Oregon Experiment, I’d planned that the whole book would be in Scanlon’s point of view. As an East Coaster, new to Oregon, Scanlon would see the place as an outsider, and I naively believed my own outsider’s eye would be good enough. Pretty quickly, I realized that a writer always needs to know his setting intimately, no matter the point of view. If a character is to misperceive, the writer has to know the precise nature of the misperception.
That said, I was sure to note a lot of my initial impressions of Oregon so I could write with that fresh eye as I came to take all the particulars of this place for granted. As I think anyone can tell from the novel, I love the lifestyle in Oregon—biking everywhere, making wine, going to the coast and the Cascades and the farmers’ market. The rain is great for both reading and writing.
Barbash: Which of the characters came to you first, and which were the most slippery?
Scribner: As I said, for the first couple years of writing, the whole book was in Scanlon’s point of view. As Naomi, Sequoia, and Clay became fuller and more complicated characters, their own stories came to life, and the single point of view was too constraining. I felt I knew Clay almost instantly—his anger and strict principles and the burden of his personal history were present in the very first scene I wrote of him. He’s the most honestly motivated person in the book, and very admirable, despite his taste for destruction.
Naomi was the most difficult. I wanted her to engage the world in fundamentally different ways compared to the other characters (and especially her husband Scanlon). I took her through a few different careers, obsessions, desires, insecurities before finding who she is now. And if she were not the person I settled on—the genius nose suffering from anosmia with her particular history and feelings of loss—the book flat out wouldn’t work.
Barbash: Can you talk about Naomi’s gift of smell? You’ve really done such a masterful job depicting it. I know you talked to a perfumer, Yosh Han, while researching the novel. Can you talk about that experience?
Scribner: In a novel that’s so much about how our pasts define us and haunt us, I knew that smells—the most direct route to our memories—would play a big role. Oregon smells great, and as I wrote from Naomi’s point of view, I focused more and more on what she was smelling until her primal nature emerged and she became someone who navigates the world with her nose. She became a genius nose and a fragrance designer. The anosmia she suffers in the book—the loss of her sense of smell—completely disorients her and compounds the strong sense of loss that has always burdened her.
Yosh Han was tremendously helpful. I spent a fascinating and intoxicating day with her in her San Francisco studio. She walked me through the entire process as we created the fragrance that Naomi is trying to make in the novel. We had to improvise with some of it—for example, approximating the hormone Naomi uses from a gland of the (fictional) Pacific leaping frog.
I wrote a guest blog for Powell’s Books about my day with Yosh.
Barbash: As you write, how much of the story do you know in advance? How much is discovered along the way? And how much is discovered through the research?
Scribner: I usually start with “the heart in conflict with itself” and some general ideas about story and character trajectory, setting, and themes. Most of the rest comes in the writing. Very often I have a scene or moment I’m writing toward—it might be ten pages away, or a hundred—but it provides me with that forward movingness that John Gardner calls “profluence.” I’m a big believer in a couple things we’ve all heard before: that if the writer isn’t surprised, the reader won’t be, and that you haven’t gotten anywhere until you’ve moved beyond the initial impulse for the story or novel.
Research can open up possibilities for me—in both story and character—as I’m writing. The clandestine church-moving scene is based on an actual event that occurred in one of the hippie towns up in the mountains between Corvallis and the coast, and the fate of the anarchist in the novel who firebombs the SUVs comes from the story of a Eugene anarchist a few years ago. Watching Yosh Han work, hearing her talk about her olfactory world, helped shade Naomi’s character. Talking with anarchists allowed me to see how they think. I wrote an op-ed for The Daily Beast about the research I did with anarchists.
It’s important to remember that research needs to spark imagination and not stand in for it. I want it to lead me to complications I couldn’t have found without it, rather than merely displaying the research for the purposes of credibility.
Barbash: The Good Life was such a terrific, groundbreaking, fiercely dark and still humane novel, and Miracle Girl worked in an entirely different way, consummately relevant and darkly satirical. Can you talk about your evolution in the writing of these books—how did the process of writing a novel change for you?
Scribner: I’ve just said that I discover the story as I write, but of course The Good Life was based on a true story—the 1992 kidnapping of an Exxon executive by a former Exxon security guard and his wife. So I did know the outlines and major events of the story before I began. That novel is in five points of view (I took great inspiration from DeLillo’s Libra), and about a hundred pages in I started writing scenes on note cards and tacking them to a bulletin board. I’ve stuck with that system through all three books. I tack up the scenes after I write them, which allows me to move scenes around and see very easily how it will affect the whole. I have a hard time keeping the whole novel in my head so this gives me a quick visual picture of what I’ve got. It helps as I’m thinking about structure and pacing and any of those big elements that I can lose track of when I’m deep in a single scene.
So that’s something that hasn’t changed, and what also hasn’t changed is that I’m interested in exploring character in personal, social, and political contexts. In real life the various aspects of a person are intertwined, influencing each other, reacting to each other, so for my characters it needs to be the same.
I also can’t imagine writing a book that doesn’t have humor along with serious and often dark elements. Humor is present in nearly every situation (as Catch-22 demonstrates)—I can’t see refusing to acknowledge it.
So how has my process changed? I think I’ve gotten more patient in my writing, which allows a novel to become more complicated. My own life is more complex than it was when I started The Good Life, and I think I need to get that complexity into my fiction. I wouldn’t have imagined the pull in Scanlon that I described if I hadn’t been holding my own child in my arms. One of my criteria for fiction rising to the level of art is that it deepens the reader, makes the reader bigger than she’d be had she not encountered the art, just as big life events—the death of a parent, the birth of a child, a serious illness—can make us bigger than we were; or from the other side, had we not experienced the art, we’d be less. As my own life becomes broader and more complex, I demand more from what I write, and what I read.
Barbash: How has your teaching affected your writing?
Scribner: Teaching has always been very stimulating to me. I get to see what young people are writing about—their concerns, fears, obsessions, aesthetics—and what they’re reading. Until I taught creative writing, I never articulated basic ideas of storytelling and craft that were shaping my work on a gut level. Teaching literature allows me to spend time rereading writers I admire—a seminar last term on Russell Banks, for example, and next term on Tobias Wolff and Joan Didion. Every year I teach a 100-level intro-to-lit class, and it’s one of my favorites. The class is very large and satisfies a university core requirement, so I get students from forestry and engineering and computer science, many of whom have not been readers of literary fiction. I have ten weeks to turn them on to literature, and when I succeed it’s immensely gratifying.
And while that’s all true, the problem with teaching for a writer is that you always have a completely virtuous excuse to not write.
Barbash: The Oregon Experiment taps into the political unrest in our culture as a whole, yet uses as its laboratory a Pac 10 university town in the Pacific Northwest. How do you make this leap as a novelist?
Scribner: Novels explore the lives of particular people in particular places to reveal truths about human nature in general and insights into who we all are. Often I think the more particular the subculture, the more precisely the work can arrive at “universal” truths. Why does Alice Munro’s Rose from West Hanratty, Ontario, resonate so deeply with readers in San Francisco, New York, and Milan? It doesn’t matter whether we’re reading about Cheever’s Westchester County or Proulx’s Nova Scotia or Wyoming. Penetrating fiction about true and palpable characters will reveal truths about all of us. In The Emperor’s Children Claire Messud is writing about a subculture that happens to be in Manhattan, just as Kent Haruf does for Holt, Colorado. When we’re reading Evan S. Connell, we’re not just reading an intimate story about Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, but we’re coming to know our parents better, and our grandparents, and our culture as a whole.
Read the Rumpus Review of The Oregon Experiment.