Sometimes I feel like a chameleon. I grew up on a farm in Iowa (first 18 years, plus four years of graduate school), lived in Michigan (six years), South Dakota (three months), Oregon (three years), Alaska (half a year), Idaho (one-and-a-half years), Washington (16 years), Norwich, England (one year) and Minnesota (twenty years). As a writer, I’ve been published in anthologies featuring Michigan writers, Oregon writers, Idaho writers, Iowa Writers, Minnesota Writers and Northwest Writers.
My first publishers were small presses in the Northwest where I was living at the time—Confluence, Copper Canyon and Graywolf. Then North Point in California, Knopf and Holt in New York, and now back in my current home turf with the publication of my first adult novel, The Fall of Alice K, with Milkweed Editions in the Twin Cities.
Now here’s my daring suggestion: as writers, I think we do more to define where we live than the places where we live define us.
Idaho never looked the same to me after I read Wallace Stegner. Montana never looked the same after I read Richard Hugo. Give me Ken Kesey’s or William and Kim Stafford’s Oregon any day. And Washington? I can’t look at a salmon without thinking of Judith Roche’s work, or pass through Humptulips without thinking of Tom Robbins.
What about such obvious connections of writers to place—Willa Cather to Nebraska, for example; Terry Tempest Williams to Utah; or Flannery O’Connor to Georgia? Of course, where they lived had something to do with what they wrote, but if you’ve read these writers, I can’t imagine your passing through Nebraska, Utah or Georgia without the landscape being transformed by your memories of their writing.
As an Iowa farm kid, I find it rather odd that it wasn’t until I moved to Port Townsend, Washington in 1976 that I started writing furiously about the Iowa farmboys of my youth. There aren’t many farm animals on the beach that I walked hundreds of times in Port Townsend, but one collection of those Iowa boy-stories won a Northwest Booksellers’ Award in 1986 (You Know What Is Right). I brought Iowa farm experience with me to the Northwest—and the Northwest bought it! And I hope the Northwest readers who savored my boy-stories will not be able to drive through the boring countryside of Iowa (with its stretch of I-80 that feels as far as the I-90 stretch through Montana) without having that fly-over landscape transformed by their memory of my Iowa-boy stories.
My kids grew up in Port Townsend, Washington. I watched them absorb the world of sea gulls, Douglas fir, seals, ferries, log trucks and fishing boats. They could imitate the sounds of seals and sea gulls with what rivaled the oral accuracy of my pig squeals and farmboy cattle calls. Although neither of them is a practicing writer today, their inventive childhood renderings of the Port Townsend world enriched my experience of the place. Their imaginations, fed by the stuff of their environment, transformed that environment for me. When I visit their old stomping grounds in Port Townsend, I see and hear that world through what I remember of their experiencing it.
In recent years, living in St. Paul, Minnesota, my mind does often arc back to the Northwest. In the YA novel, Cosmos Coyote and William the Nice, I had an alternative-culture Northwest teen transported to a religious farm community in Iowa. Both Iowa and the Northwest were remade by the characters in the novel. In my first adult novel just published by Milkweed Editions, The Fall of Alice K., the Iowa landscape is again a major player, but I’m hoping—and believing, actually—that no one will be able to read this novel without having their notion of Iowa altered forever.
Jim Heynen is the author of The Fall of Alice K. Best known for his short-short stories about ‘the boys,’ Heynen has published widely as a writer of poems, novels, nonfiction and short fiction. He was born on a farm in Northwest Iowa and currently lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with his wife, Sarah T. Williams. He’ll read Oct 10 at Village Books, Oct 12 at Elliott Bay Book Company and will appear at the Author Feast at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers tradeshow Oct 14.
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