We’re pleased to introduce you to Anna Keesey if you haven’t met her yet. Her debut novel, Little Century, came out this week and is already getting raves from all over the country. Keesey is a graduate of Stanford University and of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Her work has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including Best American Short Stories. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, Keesey is currently an Associate Professor of English at Linfield College in McMinnville. She was raised in Oregon, but has lived in California, Oregon, Washington, Missouri, Chicago, and Massachusetts. She lives with her family in Oregon’s Yamhill Valley.
“I don’t know there’s much else to add to the bio,” she tells us. “I’m always afraid to start sounding like one of those folksy people who emphasize their authenticity by explaining the the down-to-earth jobs they’ve held on their way to their current relative success (steel worker, hotdog vendor) . . .” Naw, Anna, we’re not going to doubt the downhomey-ness of someone who says one of her greatest relaxations in life is leaning on a fence and watching her family’s chickens while drinking a beer, as she does in the latter part of our interview.
Keesey will kick off her book tour June 14 at 6:30 at her hometown store, Third Street Books in McMinnville; she’ll read July 6 at Paulina Springs Books in Sisters, the high desert country that’s the setting for Little Century.
PNBA staffer Brian Juenemann interviewed her over email.
BJ: You mention on your website that you were charmed by Oregon’s high desert country on family ski trips to Sisters as a child. Will you talk about that?
AK: We lived on an old farm outside of Dallas, Oregon, and it was very much the typical lush mix of rotting Doug fir and blackberry and vine maple, and orchards choked with hay grass and vetch and henbit—gorgeous, rainy, fertile, and all blossomy and rich in the summertime. But when I was about seven or eight, my father—a skiing enthusiast who still teaches at Mt. Hood Meadows—began to take us over to Hoodoo to ski, and then on to Sisters to stay the night. That world felt and looked and smelled so different—dust and heat and hawks and ponderosa pine and juniper. We stayed in a tiny single-wide trailer that smelled heavily of heating oil, and when I went outside, there was the smell: spicy and cleansing. When you looked up, BOOM, the mountains were hanging over you in this kind of massive, unutterable beauty. In the summer the heat was intense, unfiltered, blinding. Living in a drafty Willamette Valley farmhouse, I was used to being cold all the time. I remember distinctly standing barefoot on a patch of pine needles, feeling the sun making my own hair almost too hot to touch, and staring at the irrigation ditch, three or four feet of deep sparkling water that flowed through Sisters. In the high desert you completely understand how important water is, in a way you can’t in the valley. Maybe that was the beginning of my interest in water politics.
BJ: I stumbled upon a blog post by a writer named Brad Lockwood about an Oregon roadtrip he took where he says: “Central Oregon is an inhospitable landscape, making early migrant settlers some of the most stout in American memory. But the arid climate also preserves much of what they left behind—what remains.” His description conjures a kind of ghost world that can be interpreted as either lovely or eerie. Are Century and its townsfolk your Central Oregon ghost world?
AK: Very much. I’ve always been interested in the weird magic of the past—the vanished reality that leaves its artifacts for us to puzzle over. On our farm near Dallas, the original homestead cabin still stood, and I would go into it to play and find very old rusted bits of tools, or kitchen utensils, and they seemed just to be blazing with meaning. The tendency in me was fed also by the fact that my father comes from Pennsylvania, in a town where his family has lived since before the Revolutionary War, and when my brother and I visited there as these long-haired hippie kids from Oregon, I couldn’t believe how old everything was. And that peculiar quality of central Oregon, which allows it to preserve what it has abandoned, is particularly poignant. As you drive from Bend to Burns, that long empty road, there is—or there was until recently—a homesteader’s cabin sitting near the highway in the middle of nothing, as if waiting for someone to come back. I stopped there once on the way to French Glen, and just walked around and looked at how it was built, and imagined what things were like when someone was living there, every day and night. The great peace. The great loneliness.
BJ: In your mind—or on a map—did you have a precise location in mind for the town of Century? What stands, or lies, there now?
AK: I didn’t have an exact location, though I was thinking of the Fort Rock—Silver Lake area, southeast of Bend, where you can see the rimrock crashing up through the thin soil, and feel the tenuousness of any human claim. In Silver Lake, also, one can’t help but feel haunted; in 1894, the town was devastated by a terrible fire that killed many people. But I invented the county in the book, wedged it in somewhere at the junctions of Deschutes and Crook and Lake counties. I was less interested in a definite geographical place than in the effects of that kind of landscape on someone’s heart and imagination, and in its metaphorical potential. That is, I envisioned a demanding place that could represent, in a way, the difficulty for my character Esther of making herself into an adult, and the difficulty of a human society in keeping itself free of evil.
BJ: Your people and place names add a lot of personality to the book. Where did you come up with names like Half-a-Mind and Jack-High? Is it possible that you knew somebody when you were a kid that had a nasty dog named Noggin?
AK: I just love names. I find them so interesting, and entertaining. And in this book I was trying to give the characters and places names that suited them but wouldn’t seem too obtrusive or quaint, ones that I could tag them with and then forget about as I went on imagining the story. I had pictured Noggin Koerner as an ambiguous figure, someone who’d be confounding to try to understand, which manifested physically in the fact that he was a young man who was nearly bald. “Noggin” seemed like a goofy, cowboy nickname that also had the potential for menace, for harshness. I got his last name from the Andrew Wyeth painting, Evening at Koerner’s, which is a beautiful but eerie image of a house at night with only one light burning.
In their book The Oregon Desert, E. R. Jackman and R.A. Long tell the story of the how the town of Plush got its name: a Native American fellow played poker with a group of settlers, and when one of them laid down a flush, the native guy laid his down and said, “Me plush, too,” and this so amused everybody that they named the town after the incident. I wanted to be able to use the shape of that story for my own purposes, without tying it to a real place. So I altered the anecdote and had the Indian beat everybody by bluffing with a hand that was only jack-high—hence the name of my imaginary town.
“Half-a-Mind” was something I decided on very early. I’ve always liked the expression, “I’ve half a mind to…” (whomp him upside the head, or whatever it would be), and I knew that the book would take up the process of Esther coming to know her own mind. So when I learned about these desert lakes that are sometimes there and sometimes not, I decided to put my half-made, half-minded young woman next to one, and let it stand for her, or some part of her, with a name more explicit than most of the others in the book. I think that’s also why I gave her “Chambers” for a last name. She explores the world around her, but also needs to know the chambers of her own mind. Emily Dickinson wrote, “One need not be a chamber to be haunted,” and holy cow, that line has always stuck with me.
BJ: In the story, we learn that Ferris Picket, “Pick,” laments the years he spent in Salem as a teen, including a stint at a nearby university, which seems to refer to Willamette University. Did you consider having him attend Linfield College, up the road a bit, just for the fun of the reference? You could have put him on the same footpaths that take you from office to class now. For a moment, while reading that passage, I thought that’s what you were up to.
AK: That’s a very funny question, and very smart. The fact is that I wrote that passage a number of years ago, before I was working at Linfield, and after I had taught as an adjunct at Willamette. So I was indeed amusing myself by imagining Pick grousing around as a student at a place I had worked myself—but at Willamette, not Linfield.
BJ: You pay respects to Nellie Bly and display an oddly flattering ongoing tribute to Abigail Scott Duniway throughout the book. Have you worked a feminist Western onto the shelves?
AK: I hope so! I adore those irrepressible nineteenth century women who just went out and crusaded and conducted their business with energy and intellectual authority and healthy doses of ego. For women then, as for women now, a path through life that included both love and work—partnership, home and parenthood, AND an intellectual and professional life—was frequently a treacherous one. It took fortitude and self-awareness and courage to claim and sustain a life in both spheres, and Duniway especially is an interesting example of that. She had a long and sometimes unhappy marriage, was the mother of many children, and worked for decades to improve the lot of women like herself—to clear a space, in fact, in which a girl like Esther in the book could retain ownership of her property if she were to marry, could vote or run for office, could be counted as a full person of rights and intellect and autonomy. But I was concerned not simply in writing about the oppression of women, but oppression in general—the ongoing historical motif of domination and coercion.
There’s an anecdote in the book that I took from the autobiography of Sarah Winnemucca, a member and longtime defender of the Paiute nation. To be a woman or an Indian or poor or an immigrant in the West—well, it meant exploitation and oppression. And as we can see just looking around, that hasn’t changed all that much, here, or worldwide. The unjust systems are more complex than they used to be, and more subtle—there’s a bit less outright murder of the “other”—but the injustice and the suffering are still substantial.
BJ: Bly, Duniway, and, eventually, your Esther are all newspaperwomen. You also take care to explain the process of bringing a story to print, from the political to the physical. “Pressure without slur” is my new favorite metaphor. Do you come from a newspaper family or background?
AK: I don’t, though I do come from a family of feminists and environmentalists. When I began the book, I didn’t know what would happen to Esther, whether she would find a vocation or what it would be, so her interest in newspapers developed rather organically as I went. I eventually read quite a bit about different kinds of old presses and how they worked and how one cared for them. But I was also interested in old west journalism in general, because in researching other aspects of the novel, I found myself peering at reels of microfiche upon which were captured old, old issues of long-defunct newspapers. It was common for someone to start a newspaper, run it for two years, and then close it down, and in little western towns where the only other historical records were a few personal letters and business documents, these little fly-by-night newspapers are it—the only glimpse we have into that particular vanished past.
So as I was researching, the preciousness of the newspaper, the earnestness and Americanness of it, the democratic hope of it, moved me strongly. So perhaps it was natural that Esther, a person who is young and confused but who bends in this decent and sturdy way toward justice and humanism, should be attracted to that trade. Also, of course, I was writing the book in the oughties, when the news media were not only the conduit but the subject of national political conversation. The New York Times was duped into printing erroneous information about weapons of mass destruction on the front page; the consolidation of ownership of media outlets was clearly threatening free public discourse. So I was worried—still am—and my need to assert the importance to democracy and justice of a free press certainly flowed into the story.
BJ: “I want my horse, she thinks, and then, I am a girl who wants her horse” is one of my (many) favorite lines from Little Century. Do you ride?
AK: I haven’t been on a horse in quite a while, but as a child, I rode a lot. I had an obstreperous pony named Princess, whom I rode around when I was eight and nine and ten in the way city kids rode their bikes. So I have a very strong old memory of that relationship. And in my family, we are all very attached to our animals. When I’m hurt or frightened, I always want that old comfort: dogness or catness or horseness or goatness. We keep chickens now, and I find it very relaxing just to go and lean on the fence and listen to them. Well, and drink a beer. That combination is pretty darn salubrious.
BJ: A beer, in the heart of wine country! Sounds like something Esther would be bold enough to admit. Are you a fan of Fire Mountain Brewery, next door, in Carlton? I was recently introduced to Bad Henry IPA. Good stuff.
AK: Ah! Bad Henry! I have had it, recently, but can’t remember where—I remember liking it and thinking of trying to smuggle a six-pack to my friends Jon and Allyson in Wisconsin, who have an extremely bad (brilliantly so) six-year-old Henry.
It must be said that I adore wine—the best thing I’ve had recently was a Matzinger-Davies Pinot Noir 2008, though maybe I’m biased because Anna Matzinger is a friend of mine (she’s the winemaker at Archery Summit), and I think she walks on water. Yet it’s just not as convenient to lean on the fence with a glass of Pinot Noir as with a beer. And beer is less disturbing to the chickens. I think they are confused by Pinot Noir, but they grasp the general idea of beer.
BJ: We often like to ask our authors to play bookseller and put a display together. This time, I’m going to pretend to be your boss and insist that Molly Gloss’s The Jump-Off Creek join Little Century as the catalysts for your display. What other titles join the table? Feel free to handsell them to us.
AK: Oh, my gosh. Well, I hope the display table is big and sturdy. I just had the great pleasure of meeting Molly Gloss in person, and I’m delighted to have her wonderful novel anchor the list. I’d add a couple of background books—Jackman and Long’s The Oregon Desert, and Brogan’s East of the Cascades, as well as the beautiful pictorial volume on Great Basin ecology and geology, Stephen Trimble’s The Sagebrush Ocean. I’d include some fascinating memoirs and diaries of women in the West: A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, by Isabella Bird, Alice Day Pratt’s book A Homesteader’s Portfolio, and Mary Hallock Foote’s A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West, which I’ve just finally read.
It’s easy to think of women of the past as being chained, restrained and dainty—as though they were all some kind of cliched Victorian angel—but the independence they show is almost shaming to those of us who are more historically liberated by virtue of our birthdates. The elegance of Bird’s prose, Alice Pratt’s merriment and industry and love of animals, Mary Hallock Foote’s brisk intelligence—they were people of enormous substance and joie de vivre. I’d suggest also the diaries of Emily Hawley Gillespie and Sarah Gillespie, mother and daughter farmers in Iowa, for a particular taste of the relentless work and emotional darkness that could characterize such lives. On a different note, and perhaps oddly, I’d insist on Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, based on Bronte’s own experiences as an English Protestant governess-teacher in Catholic, French-speaking Belgium. It has some of the pleasures of a ghost story, and a soap opera, but above all, it’s a towering, unflinching investigation of female solitude, grief and self-reliance. I know also, that I’ve been influenced all my life by Emily Dickinson’s radical, attentive, spiritually-seeking poetry, so let’s make sure her collected poems are there.
Finally, of course, one must put front and center two of the most beautiful books ever written about women and the land they live on: Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Cather’s My Antonia is better known, but I love the almost sketch-like simplicity of Cather’s writing in O Pioneers!, which is so difficult to achieve, and its story, of persistence and mercy in the face of tragedy. Housekeeping, as well, has been and remains one of the great novels not only of the West, but of the nation, incorporating in the most exquisite language the influences of the transcendentalists—Emerson, Thoreau—and of biblical scripture. The story concerns two young sisters living on a deep cold lake in the mountain west, and how they each come to respond—very, very differently—to the accidental death of their grandfather and the suicide of their mother. It’s a book that makes me, the most dubious of agnostics, feel full of reverence: for the world, for language, for what Robinson has called “the miraculous privilege of consciousness.”