In 2008, when I went back to work at Powell’s Books after maternity leave, I took whatever sections needed a keeper. I had been the head of Young Adult and Fairy Tales and other sections in Children’s books for a few years. I considered myself an expert, a harbor of knowledge about out-of-print editions and collectibles, as well as all the hot new titles the kids were reading. I took great pride in my work, in the way I could date a Nancy Drew book by the endpapers, or manifest a favorite childhood book for a customer based solely on the name of one character or a vague impression of the cover art, or connect a misfit teenager with a book that would make her feel less alone.
So, when I found myself the keeper of the nautical books—a long, dark aisle of the Sports and Leisure section, shelves floor-to-ceiling full—I had quite a bit to learn. First: how to feign an interest in boats and sailing with customers. The most natural thing to do would be to read something from one of the many subsections (which included boatbuilding, knot-tying, navigation, maps, memoirs, and two shelves of Titanic lore), but where to start? I was born seasick; I had no interest in manly adventures at the mast, let alone a desire to learn how-to.
I drifted toward my home waters, the Pacific Northwest sub-section. It was one shelf, crammed with cruising guides and the odd true-life adventure tale, and there, something caught my eye: a book from feminist publisher Seal Press, The Curve of Time by M. Wylie Blanchet. The book begins inscrutably, with no context and no backstory—almost in medias res—aboard the Caprice, with her captain (the author) and crew (the author’s five children and their dog). What follows are the adventures of many summers in the 1920s and 30s, sailing around Vancouver Island, encountering mountain men and homesteaders and bears, weathering storms and cabin fever and close scrapes with a watery oblivion. I can admit now that I surreptitiously read most of that book on-the-clock (a wicked temptation, but a no-no at Powell’s), atop a ladder, pretending to shelve overstock (no one ever doubts that someone atop a ladder is working).
Let me stop here and say: This is an origin story, though I’m going the long way round. Because—even though I wasn’t called there by some passion, it was, merely, a paycheck I was pursuing by then, in the Powell’s Nautical section—I was up on that ladder reading a book about a mother, braving the sea and the wilderness with her children, as I was also becoming a mother myself, and just completing my first novel, and thinking about a second, a story that would take place on an island in the Salish Sea, just southeast of Vancouver Island.
Interviewers often ask authors about the origins of their books, and most of us come up with a standard response. Mine is “a crazy post-partum dream.” Which is true—I dreamed about an island that had been devastated by disaster—but the details that come to populate the subconscious, and eventually, our stories, are always too many to count, and they mean little outside the context of the creative process. (A brief list, here: “Red Eyes” by War on Drugs; Bridgeport Brewing’s Stumptown Tart beer; carnelian agates; faux bois; the paintings of Emily Carr; borage flowers; a seashell necklace.) When I answer the question of the genesis of Marrow Island, I leave out so much, including this whole accidental reading of The Curve of Time, because it seems so tangential, so self-indulgent. Why linger over every detail? It’s not a recipe, an incantation. But when you’re accustomed to creating a physical object (printed words on a page! bound with cloth and glue!) out of the intangible workings of your mind, it can feel like magic. You might wonder whether you could repeat the spell. You might keep secret catalogs of the ingredients. I certainly wonder if I could have written Marrow Island without that experience—The Curve of Time, and the time and place that I read it—because there was a moment of clarity, a feeling of connection to something so light and remote I still can’t name it, atop that ladder, and those are the moments that carry you through the work of writing, to the end of the story, and on to the next one.
Alexis M. Smith was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. Her debut novel, Glaciers, was a finalist for the Ken Kesey Award and a selection for World Book Night 2013. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her son. Her PNBA Award plaque will be presented at a local bookstore, at a soon-to-be-decided date. Watch nwbooklovers.org for the details. Essays from the other winners of the 2017 PNBA Book Award will be published on Tuesdays and Fridays.