Thinking Souls: An interview with Peter Brown

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First-time novelist Peter Brown struggled mightily to get down the 408-page odyssey that is The Fugitive Wife (Norton, 2006). An investigation of the turn-of-the-century Alaskan gold rush, as well as brutal and beautiful farm life in rural Minnesota, the book charts the course of a young woman’s flight from a bad marriage, and the inevitable consequences of her journey. Thick with detail and swimming in atmosphere, The Fugitive Wife offers readers in search of a good summer read a complete world to escape into. But, as Brown explains below, the seamlessness of the prose belies a much more difficult process.

How long did it take you to write the book?
I think it was about three and a half years. It could have been quicker than that. I just spent a lot of time avoiding it. I guess that’s true of a lot of writers. I don’t have the discipline most writers have. But I lived with it 24 hours a day. The scenes and the characters inhabited my imagination all the time.

What was your journey to becoming a writer? Did you feel like you were always one? Do you feel like this is a new phase for you?
Some of each. I’ve always been at war with myself and writing. I’ve always felt that I had an appetite for it, and a good ear for writing. But I didn’t have the courage to fail at it. I wasn’t a very good risk-taker. I think it was too important to me, to my sense of self, to risk it and fail at it. I could fail at a lot of different things, and I wouldn’t feel as beat up on my self-image than if I undertook this. So it took me quite awhile to come to it.

I did write some short stories in the late-‘80s, and had some success with that. Then I published a number of nonfiction books. They’re business-related books. One is a book called Jumping the Job Track: Security, Satisfaction and Success as an Independent Consultant (Three Rivers Press, 1994). I made my living as an independent contractor, and a lot of people were interested in the subject, so I thought, “Why don’t I take what I learned about writing fiction, and see if I can knit it into a book about consulting?” I tried to give it a very story-like, anecdotal quality, but at the same time, it has very practical information. And that was successful.

Then, I was busy with my work. In ‘98, my wife and I had promised ourselves we would take a sabbatical and go live in Italy for a year, because we’re getting older, and that was something that we’d always do that.

So I put my consulting business on ice, came home from Italy, and then I had to decide, “What am I going to do next?” I was staring at: “Well, you’re either going to write your darn novel, or have to tell yourself why you didn’t.” So, I just decided it was time. I dug into it.

I have to say that there were many times along the way that I would turn to my wife, Ellen, and say, “There are quicker ways to humiliate yourself than to spend three and a half years struggling with this dribble.”

I had lots of downs. I had my share of ups, but I mostly struggled. It was a real struggle. And I said that to my agent, after she read the manuscript. She was just delighted with it, and I said, “It was harder than I ever expected, and it turned out better than I ever expected.” She said, “Well, it seems effortless when you read it.” I said, “Good.”

There was a lot of learning in the course of writing.

What were some of the things that you learned?
Well, you’re taught to “show, don’t tell.” I showed everything. But not everything is worth showing. Sometimes, it’s better just to tell it, and move to the part of the story that’s worth slowing down and showing. So I had a problem. Everything had the same pacing to it.

Another thing I learned was that… every chapter, I wanted some kind of interesting beginning that would put my reader into it. And then I wanted some kind of rising action, and have it turn in some way, and leave the reader wanting more. So it’s kind of like a microcosm of the arc of the novel.

I found that when I staring and starting a chapter, I was very down. I just didn’t know where the story went. How would I know where it went? It’s fiction. Why am I not writing nonfiction? With nonfiction, you write what happened.

And then, when I would finally start writing, and it had some energy in it, I would get picked up by that energy. And I would get into it, obsess over it, and write the thing, and then I would just feel so excited about it. Then the next day, I would be so down again. Because I would be staring at another chapter that hadn’t been written, and I didn’t know what was. To me, it felt like immaturity – this kind of very high and very low. And I just can’t imagine other seasoned writers, how they face into that, knowing this, over and over and over again.

The idea that you can breathe life into something that doesn’t exist at all, that you don’t have the germ of an idea for, to me, is almost impossible. And yet, when you get that one clever idea from a photo, or an anecdote, or something that happened to you as a kid, and you get that in there and it gets that thing going, suddenly you can do it. I don’t know why that is. But it’s sure damn hard to get the thing started.

There’s some sort of family history tied up in the story, right?
My family has a trunk with things handed down from prior generations. One of the things in that trunk was a collection of diaries and photo albums that my grandfather Brown left behind. He died in 1930. I never knew him, but he had been to Nome and the Gold Rush. He’d also brought back some artifacts – walrus tusks and some little seal-skin kayaks and things.

I had thought I was setting out to write a novel that was based on his experiences going to the Gold Rush. And in fact, in his photos and his daily diary were tremendously valuable. The experience he had leaving Massachusetts and Seattle and up to Nome, and building the bridge at the beach at Nome, and then having that fail and going into the interior are all benchmarks that I followed in constructing my own story.

But I populated it with my own characters. I had limited interest in the hunt for gold. I wanted something that would be more interesting to me, and for me, that will always be the relationship between people.

So when I invented my female character, Esther, I cast about in my mind: Where is she from? Who is she? I decided that if she were from Minnesota I would have some sense of her. Then, for some reason, I decided that she might well come off a farm in the Red River Valley. That was where a surrogate grandfather to me had grown up. This was a man who was born to Norwegian homesteaders. He lived next to me where I grew up. He had been raised on a farm north of Morehead, and was a tremendous influence on me. I knew quite a bit about his personal history from his niece, who told it to me after he had died.

So the moment that I placed this character on that farm, she had a quality, a personality, a streak of iron down her back, and an attitude and an opinion that she was able to march through the pages with a real presence.

But I had no intention that it was her story; I thought it was his story. She just was a more interesting character. And in her story, the fact that she had married badly, was leaving this failed marriage, which few women did at that time in our history (1900), it ended up gripping me more than the gold-hunting part of it. That part of it became a nice backdrop.

It’s interesting that you say that she took over the story. Could you talk about that?
You know, it’s mysterious. I’ve always been suspicious of a novelist saying that this or that character took on his or her own life, and did things as if they were completely out of the control of the writer. And I still am a little suspicious of it, but not nearly as much as I had been.

Because there’s some aspect inside of me, I wasn’t really aware of it, that Esther came out of. Marilynne Robinson says that her character John Amos in Gilead (Picador, 2006) found her. And as soon as I read that she’d said that, I thought, “Well, I kind of feel that way about Essie.” There’s something about Essie, some quality, that is just this strong life force.

What I find delicious in reading is when the character comes up against obstacles. In some ways, even the smallest obstacles, and how the character responds to them, becomes more interesting than the big ones. Because it’s so much more revealing of instinct and impulse and attitude and life philosophy. So I was interested in how Essie came up against issues at the farm, or when she got to Nome.

In the point of view of the novel, we definitely get into Nate’s head, but a lot of it’s in Esther’s head. I’m always very interested when artists step outside their own subject position. As a White male, you’re stepping into the subjectivity of a woman.
I was at one of the Talking Volumes events, listening to Jonathan Safran Foer talking, and I was quite struck by what he said about how his voice is more accurate when he throws it – when it comes out of another character’s mouth — than when it comes out of his. I had that feeling with this novel.

I’ve tried different forms of writing. I’ve tried writing memoir, I’ve published nonfiction, I have a few short stories. But I had a feeling that more of my philosophy of life had the ring of truth coming out of Essie, or coming out of Leonard, or Nate, than I could give it, writing as myself.

So I had this choice of point of view, and it goes between the three principal characters. Even in the narration, you can tell if the things being observed in the narration are usually through the point of view of one of the characters. There’s no omniscient person narrating.

I occasionally did have some problems inhabiting the personality of a woman. Sometimes, I found myself trying to think my way through something, and I realized I needed to feel the emotions of the moment. I needed to somehow try to project myself into that situation, and get the emotions to come forward, and write more from my feelings than from my intellect.

Which is a more dangerous proposition.
It is more dangerous.

One of the struggles I had was that I didn’t know how people in 1900 talked about sex. I didn’t know how a man and a woman’s courtship would begin to catch fire. So I felt that I needed Essie and Leonard in one scene, and Essie and Nate in another, to have an unguarded time. The way I found to do that was to put them at odds with each other a little bit.

Essie and Leonard, I have them arguing over whether to put up the ladder to the hornet’s nest. There’s a certain tension in that scene. She’s bossing him around, and it pisses him off, and they kind of have words back and forth at each other. Then there’s the tension of getting that nest out and throwing it on the fire. And there’s the release of having achieved that thing, and that they did it together.

I found that writing dialog back and forth, when the characters are slightly heated up, I was able to write it more quickly, and without thinking so much, and write it with more emotion. And then, the characters could speak through my pen, if you will. It’s kind of a technique I developed for myself at several points in the novel, to try to get past the block I have when I think too much about something.

Lan Samantha Chang says that the job of the writer is to explore and convey the human consciousness. How do you get across the consciousness of someone who lives in such a vastly different world?
That was a daunting thing. In hindsight, I identified three things that I really needed. I needed the language to be right, first and foremost. Because the way a character speaks tells you about the character. Essie’s very thrifty with her language. She’s sort of stingy with it sometimes, and it gives you some sense of her. It gives you a sense of her education, as compared to the way Nate speaks. So the way a character speaks is something I needed to hear, and I didn’t have it when I started.

I also needed to know was the tools, the artifacts of their daily lives – whether you were in the kitchen, or on the farm, or digging gold, or putting on clothes, or buying something at the store. I needed some familiarity with that.

The third thing I needed was the sense of the place that they were inhabiting. I needed to know what it smelled like, and how the wind felt, and all of those things. So I spent time up in the Nome area, and I spent time up in the Red River Valley area.

I somehow felt if I had those three things, I could write the story. So I tried to read nonfiction of the time. I tried not to read fiction, because I didn’t want to be influenced by fiction. I read some Teddy Roosevelt stuff; he’s kind of the archetypal male. And I read letters between my grandfather and the major – two of the figures in the story.

I studied steam power, and I studied about ships. When my characters leave on that ship to go to Alaska, I wanted that to be accurate. I ended up, through the Internet, finding the deck plans for the ship my grandfather had sailed on. They were in London, and I found them through a maritime newsgroup.

So the research process for you is pretty in-depth.
Yes, it was. My wife had a quote from William Styron, which was something like, “The historical novel is best served by short rations from the historical record.” So the story is the most important thing. She said, “Why don’t you write the book, and then do the research?” She was afraid I would just get bogged down in research. And of course, you don’t really know exactly what you need to research anyway until you have more of the story.

Well, I couldn’t exactly do that – I needed to do the research. But I did it hand-in-hand with the story. I didn’t go to Nome until my characters arrived off-shore on the ship. And then I couldn’t get them ashore, because I hadn’t been there, and I didn’t know what it was like, beyond these photos. And a photo isn’t the same.

Having read other people’s diaries besides my grandfather’s, I knew what I wanted to see up there. I managed by email to get in touch with an Eskimo who has a fishing camp on one of the little streams that my characters were going up. And he agreed to let me hire him for the day, and take me down those streams to the sea and back up again. Besides what I had read in the diaries, I wanted also to see that. Actually going down those streams, I could read passages of the diaries, and he would take me aboard, and I could see these old buildings from 1900 that were still there. They’re collapsed, but they haven’t rotted away, because nine months of the year they’re frozen. So it was a very striking experience to actually stand on the place. It hasn’t been overrun by suburban development, like much of the country has. It’s still a wilderness. So I had that form of connection.

Correspondence, through newsgroups, with people I met who were willing to help me out, helped me enter their worlds was another invaluable form of research. People like an oldtimer who ran a threshing crew out at Worthington, who I met at a steam thresher event in Northwestern Minnesota. Or a sea captain – I developed an email correspondence with him. He put at sea in the Merchant Marine, and I could ask him questions about shipping and Norton Sound, or the conventions of how many whistles you blow if you’re leaving port, or how they would have attached the tug boat to the great barge. And he was delighted to help me out.

Then you get phrases, or a point of view from somebody that you couldn’t have imagined, because you’re not at sea, or you’re not in threshing wheat. Those are the pieces that to me, bring the spark of life to writing.

It’s interesting – it’s almost like part of the research is bringing other people into it.
I think so, because your own imagination isn’t going to be enough. For some people it is, but for me, having the chance to interact with other people whose world overlaps the world that you’re writing about in some way is essential.

With the machinery with the threshing accident, I wanted to know how this threshing separator worked. So this guy was showing me how, if you put your hand up by where the chaff is coming out, and it feels like you’re being pelted with hard things, it means you’re losing grain and the chaff, and you need to adjust the sieves and the blower and the separating part. Well, that’s brilliant, because that’s what Essie understood, that a lot of people didn’t understand. Essie was as much of a farmer as any of those guys in Perley.

But if I hadn’t been there and talked to that guy, who was a nut for this equipment, who would do this, just as an afterthought kind of thing, I never could have imagined that little gesture. It’s just a little gesture.

So it’s important to me to have connection to people whose life experience or passions rub up against those of my characters.

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