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From the Washington Post Book World...
Washington Authors --
A Literary Mappa Obscura

MANY OF the Washington State authors mentioned in this 1984 Washington Post Book World piece are desceased now, including Frank Herbert, Raymond Carver, Ernest K. Gann, David Wagoner and Robert Sund. Others, such as Tom Robbins, Doug Unger, Alan Furst and Jane Adams, haven't been seen in these parts for a long time.

But the basic literary mappa obscura of Washington State remains much the same. Washington writers still have a strong urge to seek out obscure, largely isolated spots on the landscape to do their literary work.

Now it's just different people in different places, like Dave Guterson -- who wrote Snow Falling on Cedars on Bainbridge Island -- or Bruce Brown -- who wrote Mountain In The Clouds outside Bellingham on the Canadian border.

So return with us now to the thrilling days of 1984...


cover thumbnail for "Still Life With Woodpecker" by Tom Robbins

Tom Robbins was hot in 1984



Writing in the Rain:
Getting your feet wet in the literary landscape of Washington State

by Bruce Brown

Bruce Brown wrote Mountain In The Clouds -- a 20th century environmental classic and the most important envionmental book of the 21st century -- in this rural Whatcom County house. The house where Bruce Brown wrote "Mountain In The Clouds"

A DECADE ago when an Eastern college friend of mine visited Washington State for the first time, he observed that there was a major difference in the way writers and artists organized themselves in the Pacific Northwest. "In the East, writers tend to group together for mutual support and exchange of ideas," he said. "But out here it seems that as soon as a writer has gotten any recognition, he moves to some remote spot where no one can find him."

While it is not absolutely true that they never congregate, Washington State writers do have a tendency seek places that are obscure. Hidden by foliage and a diversity of styles that defy easy geographic categorization, these writers do not command national attention as a group. Individually, however, they are quite active. This fall will see the publication of new novels by such residents as Frank Herbert, Tom Robbins and Ivan Doig, three names that are emblematic of the literary range of the "other Washington."

"There is no Washington School in a regional literary sense," said Seattle poet and novelist David Wagoner. "Everyone has, been other places too and is very cosmopolitan." What ties Washington writers together is ad so much shared literary style, but an honest appreciation for the beauty of land and water. "The landscape is the thing," said Wagoner. "I grew up in a part of the Midwest where they perfected pollution, and the: earth was ruined. This area is still relatively unscarred by the process, and I take from it a sense of the renewable unspoiled earth." Ernest K. Gann is another Washington writer with strong conservationist views, and a willingness to back up words with action. Gann, who owns a ranch in the San Juan Islands, recently donated 40 acres to the San Juan Preservation Trust, which is seeking to halt encroachment of developers.

A complete atlas of out-of-the-way literary landmarks in Washington State would have to include:

* Quimper -- Frank Herbert, author of Dune and all its successors, as well as other works such as the locally-set Soul Catcher, lives on the east side of the Olympic Peninsula. Although widowed by the recent death of his wife Bev, he has completed the sixth installment of the Dune series, Charter House: Dune, which will be published by Putnam in the fall. The predecessor, Heretics of Dune, is still on national best-seller lists, and the Dino de Laurentis movie of Dune is scheduled for release in December. Herbert reports that his current project is a collaboration with his oldest son, Brian (himself the author of Sidney's Comet), on a new novel. The genre? "Science fiction, of course."

* LaConner -- Although neither is around on a regular basis any more, two noted Washington State writers have made their home in this picturesque town on the Swinomish Slough for more than a decade. The first is Tom Robbins, author of Another Roadside Attraction, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Still Life With Woodpecker. Robbins says his new novel, Jitterbug Perfume, which will be published by Bantam in the fall, is "fairly different" from his previous books. "It's an epic that covers more than 1,000 years and deals with the human need to overcome the tyranny of aging, and the evolution of the floral brain." The other longtime LaConner fixture is poet Robert Sund, author of Bunch Grass and Ish River, the latter published last fall by North Point Press. Sund is now working on another volume of poetry for North Point to be called The River With One Bank.

* Port Angeles -- Raymond Carver, a native Washington Staler and the author of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and Cathedral, two collections of stories which have attracted so much critical attention, is holed up here working on a sheaf' of poems. Cathedral and Fire, a collection of Carver's essays, poems and stories, will both be published in paperback this year by Vintage. Carver, who only plugs the telephone in for a few minutes each day, says he has "written more poems in the last two months than in the rest of my life combined" and will be the subject of forthcoming stories in the New York Times and Life magazine. Another Port Angeles writer and good friend of Carver's is Ten Gallagher, whose new volume of poems, Willingly, will be published this month by one of the state's promising younger publishers, Graywolf Press in Pt. Townsend.

* Ferndale -- Up near the Canadian border, Douglas Unger is fighting to save. his wife's family farm from inheritance taxes in a situation that bears some resemblance to the doings in Unger's first novel, Leaving the Land, published this spring by Harper & Row and already in its second printing. An old friend of Carver's, Unger is presently dividing his time among battling blackberries on the farm, teaching at Syracuse University in New York and working on another novel.

* Anacortes -- Just returned from Rome and North Africa (where he joked that he felt like "a ruin among the ruins"), Ernest K. Gann is working on a sequel to his 1974 novel about the strife between Romans and Jews, The Antagonists, which was made into the TV show Masada. Gann says the as yet unnamed novel will be published in a year and a half by Simon & Schuster, which recently reissued his classic Fate Is The Hunter in paperback. Twentieth Century Fox has made Gann's recent novel, The Aviator, into a movie starring Christopher Reeve, and will release it this summer.

* Bainbridge Island -- Alan Furst's Shadow Trade was published in paperback this spring by Dell, and he a new "historical/espionage" book coming out from Simon and Schuster this fall. Furst won't divulge the new book's title, though, claiming "it's too good to print." Elsewhere on the island across Puget Sound from Seattle, Jack Olsen is working on a follow-up to his recent Son: A Psychopath and his Victims, which deals with Spokane, Washington's South Hill rapist case. Olsen's new book treats the case of a man who killed game wardens in Idaho and will be published by Atheneum.

* Seattle -- Ivan Doig's new novel, English Creek, will be published this fall by Atheneum. Set in the fictitious Two Medicine National Forest area of Montana, English Creek is reportedly more like This House of Sky than any of Doig's intervening novels. Doig says the new novel will be the first part of a Montana trilogy, the second book of which will be out in 1987.

Elsewhere in Seattle, David Wagoner is teaching English at the University of Washington and working on both poems and a "Depression-era novel set in Gary and Chicago." Last fall Wagoner's 13th volume of poetry, First Light, was published by Atlantic/Little, Brown. Jane Adams has a nonfiction title How to Sell What You Write, coming out this spring from Putnam, and is working on her novel, Resolutions, which will be published by New American Library. William Arnold has taken a leave from his job as film critic at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to write a screen play for his recent novel, China Gate. Arnold is also the author of Shadowland, the biography of left-wing Seattle movie star Frances Farmer that spawned Mel Brooks' film Frances. Over on Portage Bay, William Prochnau is on leave from the Washington Post writing a second novel. Prochnau's first, Trinity's Child, about to be produced for the screen by Bruce Gilbert of The China Syndrome and On Golden Pond. Other Seattle authors include David Boeri (whose People of the Ice Whale was recently published by Dutton) and Grant Fjermedal (whose, study of a potentially revolutionary new method of cancer treatment, Magic Bullets, will be published in the fall by Macmillan), but it is impossible to mention all those deserving it.

Seattle is also the home of a vital and varied regional publishing industry. In addition to the mainline publishers like the University of Washington Press, Madrona Publishers, The Mountaineers and Pacific Search Press, two interesting new houses run by women have sprung up. Catherine Hillenbrand's Real Comet Press has published humorous originals like Esquire cartoonist Lynda Barry's Big Ideas, and The Skies Were Not Cloudy All Day by Dennis Redman. The Seal Press meanwhile has concentrated on feminist literature, including the work of one of its founders, gifted short story writer Barbara Wilson. Smaller Washington publishers of note include Copper Canyon Press, which published poet Tim McNulty's Pawtracks) and Graywolf Press, both of Port Townsend. .

More than once -- while sipping hot sake or watching the sunset in some obscure spot -- I have heard Washington State writers complain of the lack of a clearly defined local literary landscape, or a strong set of regional associations like cotton or cowboys or cod. Numerous popular and serious works of literature have been set in Washington (from Betty MacDonald's The Egg and I to Sheila Ballantyne's Imaginary Crimes), but rather than capturing the essence of the state, they seem to have dispersed it like a mist burning off Puget Sound in the morning "The Northwest has been called a 'literary territory incognito,' " noted Seattle Weekly book editor Tim Appelo, "and I think it still holds true to a degree." Appelo, who recently judged the state's annual literary awards, added that in terms of numbers "the good work is statistically insignificant."

And yet Washington may boast greater literary activity than a larger state like Texas, which has more mythic landscape than it knows what to do with. Washington State's secret is that many of the drawbacks are advantages from the standpoint of a writer. "New York is very exciting, but Seattle is a better place to work," observes Jane Adams with a laugh. "There is nothing like k good rainy day to send you to the typewriter."

"Writing in the Rain" originally appeared in the May 6, 1984 issue of the Washington Post Book World.
© Copyright 1984 Bruce Brown


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