“Begin and End with a Landscape in Peril”: an Interview with Alexis M. Smith Interviewed by Sharma Shields · September 2016
Alexis M. Smith was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. Her debut novel, Glaciers was a finalist for the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction and a World Book Night 2013 selection. In 2015, she received a grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council and a fellowship from the Oregon Arts Commission. She holds an MFA from Goddard College. Her latest novel, Marrow Island, has been called “transporting” (Vanity Fair), “weird and glorious” (BookRiot), and “intoxicating” (The New York Times Book Review). She currently lives with her wife and son in Portland, Oregon.
Sharma Shields holds an MFA from the University of Montana. Author of the novel The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac and the short story collection Favorite Monster, her work has appeared in such literary journals as Slice, Electric Lit, Kenyon Review and Iowa Review. A contributing editor to Moss, she has garnered numerous awards, including the Washington State Book Award. Shields has worked in independent bookstores and public libraries throughout Washington State and now lives in Spokane with her husband and children.
Reading Marrow Island, which has been described by many as an “eco-thriller,” I was instantly struck by your impressive range as a writer. Glaciers and Marrow Island are very different books, structurally speaking. Can you describe how you tackled those differences?
I think the first, biggest difference—and the one I was most conscious of as I wrote Marrow Island—was the more complicated plot in the second book. Glaciers hardly had a plot, and it wasn’t meant to; it was always more meditation than story. With that postcard motif in Glaciers, I could begin almost anywhere and drop in details of the landscape as casually as a traveler. Marrow Island had so much more story that I wasn’t sure where to begin, plotwise. Have you ever gone out for a hike and not been able to find the trailhead? It was like that at first. But landscape has always been my entry to storytelling, from very early days in Alaska, so that gave me a framework: begin and end with a landscape in peril.
But I also needed to have a more specific idea of how the story would end before I could begin. This was true for both books, but especially for Marrow Island. The two different landscapes in that book offered different possibilities for the story, and that, ultimately, saved my ass in terms of plot. I think this could have been a really soggy story, but the Malheur landscape—and the Palouse!—introduced different energies.
In Marrow Island, a colony attempts to rehabilitate an island destroyed by environmental disaster. The narrator, Lucy, knows this place intimately: It’s also the island where her father disappeared. Were there similar historical instances of civil—or uncivil—disobedience that helped guide the details here?
One of the big events of my early twenties was the WTO protests in Seattle. I marched with the Lesbian Avengers one day (we were very popular with the Teamsters, who were marching right in front of us), with the Sisters of the Holy Names another evening. I saw Vandana Shiva speak on the environment and poverty, and Michael Moore speak on politics. Friends were gassed. A childhood friend was the spokes-person for a group of protestors squatting in a building downtown; I had accompanied her to lectures before the protests and was pretty sure my home phone was tapped. It was an experience in civil disobedience and social justice that I’m not sure I will have every again: a coming together of so many disparate groups to oppose the consolidation of global power by and for the wealthy. I’m not sure that it did anything to stop what was coming (global markets crashing; the poor getting poorer; global warming; the sixth extinction), but it was a formative experience and I’m sure that it influenced Marrow Island.
You made an interesting choice in Marrow Island regarding time. An important element of the plot is a fictional disastrous earthquake—the “big one” that everyone is waiting for, which in the world of your book has already occurred long ago, circa 1993. The protagonist, Lucie Bowen, narrates from 2016, so she’s functioning in a world parallel to our own. I think many authors using a plot element like this would have launched the story into the future. I like that you avoided the futurism trope: After all, our planet is in imminent danger, not in the future but now. What made you decide to choose the time line that you did?
I love that you call it a parallel world, because that’s how I thought about it. I don’t know much about quantum physics, but I like how multiple universe theories are the perfect model for what we as fiction-writers do. How different or similar from our reality are the realities we’re creating?
I thought about projecting into the future but it felt wrong. For one: I love science fiction, but I feel like I’d be a shit sci-fi writer. I don’t care so much about imagining future technologies or political systems. I wanted to tell a story about people you could know, trying their best to deal with how we’re fucking up in the here and now, but with different set pieces.
What inspired the earthquake?
Those of us who grew up west of the Cascades have been living with the idea of “the Big One” for most of our lives. When I was in high school in Seattle in the early 1990’s, we had earthquake drills and emergency kits at school. My mom left the Northwest for New Mexico fifteen years ago after the Nisqually Quake—she had lived through the massive Good Friday Quake of 1964 as a child in Alaska (my father did as well)—and she just didn’t want to live with the possibility of another one. I have pretty intense anxiety about disasters myself, and I think that’s where the quake in Marrow Island came from—I wanted to imagine my way through a big earthquake. I interviewed my Grandma Betty about her memories of the Alaska quake, and letters from my Grandma Margie to her mother in Washington informed a lot of my description of what it was like during and after the quake on the islands. Setting it in the past allowed me to present a vision of survival—like the one my grandmothers and parents described, and as much as that was an artistic choice, I think there was definitely some therapeutic value for me, too.
Mushrooms are also a really significant part of this book—I don’t want to give too much away by saying how, but there is a thin line between their ability to heal and their ability to kill, and in one gorgeously written scene, the latter proves to be more merciful. Tell me about the mushrooms, the metaphors they carry, the research you clearly undertook in learning about them, how you spun them into a flesh-like character. The mushroom kiss scene, I should add, is one of the most powerful scenes I’ve read in a very long time. (Gives me goosebumps even now. I won’t say any more than that.)
Yes, I think the title for this book could have been The Shrooms. But that totally would not have made it past the publicity team. (My editor, Jenna Johnson, on the other hand, is a mushroom fanatic, so she might have approved.)
As for the significance of the mushrooms, my readers (and my friends) are smarter than I am. It wasn’t until late in the book that I had a clue what I was saying metaphorically with the mushrooms. Life and death and decay are certainly on the surface here, but what you describe as “the thin line between their ability to heal and their ability to kill”—I was working that out the whole time I was writing, though it seems so obvious when people say it back to me, now. I researched quite a bit—reading and interviewing people and learning to identify mushrooms—and when you get so close to the actual thing, you can forget that in your story they’re going to operate on more than the literal level. Which is fine—premeditated symbolism doesn’t always shake out the way you want it to—but after I figured it out, in revisions, I struggled a bit with how to let the symbolism come through. It can feel like you’re smacking your readers upside the head with it, when you’re writing it. So, yes: the mushrooms are the key signifier in the story. And I’ll let readers figure out what the signified is…
That was one of the more fanciful scenes—along with the mushroom kiss scene. I loved writing it.
This reminds me of another book I love in which mushrooms allow both life and death, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Who are you reading right now? Did any books specifically inspire or serve as guides for this novel? I know you and I have discussed in the past how we both gravitate toward reading women writers almost
I love I Have Always Lived in the Castle, as you know. I, like many writers I know, have chosen spirit guides (and probably a few unchosen, who influence us despite our best efforts to ignore them). We cycle through them, so as not to exhaust them and ourselves, I think. Glaciers was very Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin. Marrow Island was mostly Margaret Atwood (yes, I know she’s still alive). The book I’m brewing now is Jackson, Barbara Comyns, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Zora Neale Hurston.
So much of Marrow Island is about recapturing time and place and relationship. Lucie thinks of her father, who died during the quake, but even more deeply she thinks of Katie, her best friend from childhood. You write very beautifully about the attractions girls have for one another, as friends and as sexual beings, and the longing between the two women to regain their relationship’s foothold. I thought of Elena Ferrante as I read, the Neapolitan novels. I wonder if Katie and Lucie’s relationship was your starting point in the book? Or did their friendship come to you as you wrote? It feels beautifully organic to the story.
Katie and Lucie’s relationship was there from the beginning, and I thought a lot about whether their romance would be the central one of the novel, but it didn’t work for a story about disasters. Their relationship is very much the kind of intense relationship young women have—and have been having for millennia, I suspect—when they’re becoming women together. Becoming a woman is a process of sheer panic meeting utter despair (the earthquake can be read as a metaphor for sexual awakening/onset of menses). We officially become sexual objects at the same time we are able to become mothers. It’s a ridiculous mindfuck. And the only way to navigate it is with other women (a former nun leading the Colony wasn’t a happenstance detail, either), though as you said of mushrooms earlier, the ones who are most likely to heal us are also the ones who know exactly how to hurt us the most. I don’t want to give too much plot away, but it felt right that Katie and Lucie’ re-lationship should be a ghost story.
Finally, I want to ask something related to the Inland Northwest, where I live. Being from Spokane, I loved this passage when Sister Janet comments on the strangeness of the phrase “Inland Empire,” “The mountains, the rivers, the Palouse, all the way down to the Columbia. It doesn’t feel right. Using a word like empire in this day and age. As if we could ever own any of this. It owns us.” Can you tell me a little bit about your experience with the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary? And with the Inland Northwest?
I went to a school in Seattle run by the Sisters of the Holy Names, who have a Provincial House (which is sort of like a regional headquarters) in Spokane. One summer a group of my classmates and I went on a pilgrimage to the Provincial House to spend some time with the sisters there—many of them elderly and retired from their posts out in the world (many of them were teachers; they’re a teaching order). As a non-Catholic, my experience of Catholicism through the Sisters of the Holy Names was one of women living in community with each other, with education and social justice (in the name of Jesus, of course) as their missions.
I was the only outspoken feminist and openly gay, but I was nurtured in their community. You can see the influence here on the story, I’m sure. The sisters in Marrow Island are more fanciful than the sisters I met at the Holy Names provincial house (they are not all named some variation of “Rose,” obviously, that’s an inside joke, of sorts)—and obviously Sister J is entirely made up. One thing that I wished I had been able to better express in Marrow Island in general—and there was a moment in the very last revision in which I tried to add a paragraph, but my editor nixed it as a panic-add—was that the presence of the Church, like the Colony, was another expression of the imperialist instinct of white people, whose intentions may be good or not, but whose mere presence tends to obliterate the existing culture and/or ecosystem. In my research on the San Juans I came across stories of missionaries marrying young Coast Salish women as cultural/economic transactions. And stories about Coast Salish children being removed from their families and shipped off to boarding schools in Spokane. We now know the enormity of this practice, and its legacy on the land and the indigenous people here. Sister J’s “empire” comment came somewhat in response to this. They called themselves Marrow Colony, and in that way, they might as well have been the lost villagers of Roanoke.
Can you comment on your experience as a writer in the Northwest? Apart from its clear influence on the landscape in your novels, how has living in the Northwest, with its writers, its readers, influenced your writing life?
Being a regional writer isn’t something I set out to do, but I’m proud to be one (if that’s what I am after only two books) especially at a time when the Northwest is seeing a population boom of writers and creative types from other parts of the country who maybe don’t relate to the history of the place, are still learning about the geography, or the geology, or the plants and wildlife (or don’t care—that happens, too). Portland has become such a polished, urbane place, full of great writers, yes, but, I feel like a rare beast here, writing about the Northwest landscape as a living, breathing thing. Regionalism doesn’t seem to appeal to as many readers as cosmopolitan dramas, or even domestic ones, for which place is just a set piece.
I’ll admit to being grumpy about this. Some foreign publishers called Marrow Island “too American,” which just baffled me. How are natural disasters and climate change “too American”? I think they meant “too regional” in its setting. Emily Carr, the Canadian artist and writer, painted some of the most incredible landscapes of her time, but she’s not known like, say, Georgia O’Keefe. Why? Is it because the Northwest is still being “discovered”? I’m of two minds about this: I relish being a rare beast and knowing the lesser-known places and plants and writers (like Carr, and M. Wylie Blanchet, whose book The Curve of Time is my favorite memoir ever written); but I also can’t stand the idea of regional writers as purveyors of novelties. Our landscapes may be strange—and they are dramatically variable from one mile to the next—but the stories that run through them are universal. I want to hoard the secrets of the Northwest, but I can’t help myself—they’re all I want to write about—therefore, I want them to be taken seriously.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Two.