Brian Doyle’s first novel, Mink River, published to critical and bookseller acclaim earlier this year, is set in a small town on the Oregon Coast called Neawanaka. An unusual novel, it has no main character but is rather a woven narrative encompassing the stories of many characters, including Irish-Americans and Native Americans, as well as Moses, the talking crow.
Doyle lives in Lake Oswego with his wife (although he doesn’t like to say “my wife,” preferring to say “the woman who married me”) and three children: a college-aged daughter and twin 16-year-old boys. He works at the University of Portland, where he is the editor of Portland Magazine. A four-time Oregon Book Award finalist, Doyle is the author of The Grail: A Year Ambling and Shambling through an Oregon Vineyard in Pursuit of the Best Pinot Noir Wine in the Whole Wild World, The Wet Engine and six collections of essays. His writing has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, American Scholar, The Sun, Orion and in the Best American Essays. His latest essay collection is Grace Notes, 37 snapshots of the spiritual in everyday life. In October, Red Hen Press will publish a collection of short stories, Bin Laden’s Bald Spot & Other Stories, which was recently hailed by The Daily Beast as one of the best debuts of this fall.
Doyle spoke to a crowd of more than 60 people at Paulina Springs Books in Sisters in the midst of an August thunderstorm. Over half of those present had read Mink River, which is very unusual for us. Three local book clubs were reading it. Doyle is a great storyteller, and the audience was riveted as he talked about far-ranging subjects— from his book to his children to meeting the Dalai Lama. He often had us in stitches.
Doyle and I spent an hour at Sisters Coffee Company before the event. He immediately jumped in and began talking before I could ask any questions, and I frantically tried to keep up with the flow of words and now and then managed to wedge an actual question into his river of stories.
How did Mink River come about? Twenty years ago I wrote a short story with some of these characters, and then I was really proud of myself. I got it published, and I thought I was done. I wrote a short story. I was cool. But these characters would not stop talking to me. I wrote the book to see what would happen. I would wake up in the morning and touch each character and see “Who wants to play today?” Invariably someone would say, “Me, me!”
Something many Mink River readers have remarked on is the presence of many long and detailed lists, like lists of things in Auto and Other Repair, in Nora’s studio, etc. Many of us had some trouble with this style of description, but others liked it. Why did you choose write so many lists? I’m an ingredient junkie—what can I say? In the book, sometimes the lists act like chants or litanies or long rivers of words. Maybe it’s partly a Catholic thing. One thing that makes me better as a writer is to be Catholic. It means you’re soaked in the pregnancy of miracle, soaked in ritual. When you’re young you run away from ritual, but as you get older you begin to see it’s a fine skeleton to hang a life on.
Also, one of the lists, where Worried Man and Cedar are getting ready to go to the mountain, and deciding who should carry what, is kind of an homage to The Wind in the Willows, a riff on the part where they’re handing out weapons—“Here’s a sword for the Mole, here’s a sword for the Toad, here’s a sword for the Badger!”
Also, you chose not to use quotation marks. Why is that? I thought it was my responsibility to make it crystal clear who was speaking, but I dislike quotation marks. I dislike any kind of mannered form. I want the story to be as naked as possible. If I could inject it into your vein, I would. I have people say ‘I had some difficulty getting into the book.’ I can see why. It’s very congested at the beginning. Lots of people are talking. I know whose fault that is. It’s the writer’s fault.
Did you have trouble getting into it at the beginning? No, I wrote like hell! I wrote to find out what was going to happen. Everyone was going on a journey and that’s pretty much all I knew. The greatest lesson I learned was ‘Something’s got to happen.’ I cut out a lot of beautiful description because nothing was happening.
So you didn’t have a plot in mind? Oh, I had a huge plot. I pissed it all away. The only thing that survived is the trip to the mountain, and that even changed.
You live in Portland, a major city. Yet Mink River is a moving evocation of a small town where everyone knows each other and no one has any money. Have you ever lived in a town like that? No, the smallest town I’ve lived in is Portland. One thing you have to remember is that not everything has to be based on something real. The imagination is a vast thing . . . I wanted to tell the town. I wanted the town to tell itself. There are what, twenty people in the book? And they all talk and tell their stories. One of my heroes is Blake, and Blake is adamant about the imagination. You’ve got to live in it, push it . . . Thousands of people now are going to live in Neawanaka, or visit it. People on the Coast ask me if it’s their town. It’s not any town. If everyone thinks it’s their town, that’s great.
People told me I had to ask you about the talking crow. It wasn’t a question in my mind, because it seems quite normal to me within the framework of the book. But it’s a big point of interest in the story, so: Why did you write a talking crow? In a funny sense, I didn’t. I was typing in Owen’s shop, Auto and Other Repair—one of those list scenes, listing everything around—and Moses was sitting on the football helmet. Moses opened his beak and started talking. And he was really fascinating.
People ask me who was the hero of the book. Moses is the hero—but there is no hero. Maybe the town is the hero. There’s no hero. Maybe that’s a good thing.
Who are some of your favorite authors—the authors who have had a major influence on your work? Robert Louis Stevenson—greatest writer that ever wrote English, period. He wrote masterpieces in every genre except plays. Terrific novelist, great essayist, great poetry. Mark Twain is the great American writer. Steinbeck. For me as a Catholic—Flannery O’Connor. As an essayist: E.B. White, Annie Dillard, Edmund Burke. Nobody reads Burke anymore. Plutarch. As an Oregonian: Barry Lopez, Ursula K. LeGuin, Robin Cody, Molly Gloss, Craig Lesley.
Some people have compared Mink River to Sometimes a Great Notion. Was Ken Kesey an influence on your writing? Not deliberately. I got a great review that said “the only book Mink River could be compared to is Sometimes a Great Notion, and Brian Doyle’s writing is more kind-hearted.” I would like Mink River to be one of the ten greatest Oregon novels. I’d also like teenagers to read it. I’d like it to be inflicted on them in high school.
There’s a lot of Gaelic in the novel, some of it used very amusingly. Where did you learn your Gaelic? My grandparents were all from Ireland. I have a very Irish family through and through. It was the language spoken by my people for thousands of years. I feel a responsibility to know the language spoken by my people for thousands of years. In the same way, Salish was spoken in Oregon for thousands of years, and there’s a lot of Salish in the book. So in the book I was trying to resurrect not one but two languages. Languages are prayers, languages are stories . . . I’ve always been fascinated by Gaelic. It’s a sinuous language. I have a friend who says “Dialogue is character is plot.” How people talk is part of who they are. Owen is very Gaelic, so he speaks Gaelic. Worried Man speaks Salish. What they say is what they do is who they are.
You’re the editor of Portland Magazine. A lot of writers work in editing or publishing, but others feel they need to get out of that to do their own writing. Do you feel your editing work helps or hinders your creativitity? Being an editor was hugely useful to me. It taught me to stop being prissy about writing. It’s not about you, it’s about the story. Smell the story, get the story, clarify the story. A day job is a pragmatic thing; I gotta feed my kids. I do writing for fun. There’s a playfulness in my writing that reflects that. I don’t have to smell the money. I just want to catch and share stories. Every time you catch and share a story with someone, it matters. In old Irish villages, there was a person called a “seanachie”, a storyteller, or story catcher. That was someone’s job. Stories are really important and crucial. They’re nutritious. If you don’t have stories, you’ll starve. The New Testament is a travelogue. All religion aside, it’s a story. It’s been around for two thousand years and it’s still a good story. The Old Testament is a bad fantasy novel, but the New Testament’s fun. It’s mysterious and kind of Zen.
What’s next from Brian Doyle? I have a book of short stories coming out called Bin Laden’s Bald Spot, and I have a little book of spiritual essays called Grace Notes. I’d really like to write a lean little novel, like a short story on steroids. I’d like to try everything. I’d like to write a play. I didn’t know what I was doing writing a novel. Now that I’ve written one I’m going to work as hard as I can to forget everything I know. There was a terrific sense of joy and wonder and discovery.
I don’t see Mink River as a book begging a sequel, but there are a lot of loose threads to continue to wonder about. Do you think any of the characters will show up in future stories? People ask me all the time if there’s going to be a sequel. No, I don’t want to visit Neawanaka again. I will in my head, but not with my fingers. There’s one character, one thread, I keep thinking about, but I don’t want to say anything about it. I don’t want to jinx it. I have to tease it out and see what happens.
Amanda MacNaughton is a front-line bookseller and the Events Coordinator (in that order) at Paulina Springs Books in Sisters and Redmond, Oregon. Although she has worked there for six years, her job still comes with surprises, not least of which is the wonder of meeting an author after you’ve read his or her book and putting the author and the book together in your mind.