People harbor certain assumptions about the Pacific Northwest, and they seem to get more incorrect the farther I get from home. Many folks think, for example, rain. But here in Boise we average just 12 inches of rain a year, only 6 more than Baghdad, and 31 fewer than Cincinnati.
Other folks think, lumberjacks, but China, not the United States, is the leading producer (and consumer) of forest products. And for those who think, hippies, well, pretty much all of my friends own guns.
Heck, some Americans don’t even know where the Pacific Northwest is. A friend with a PhD once had a piece of music he’d written reviewed in the Des Moines Register. He asked me if I knew the critic, saying, “That’s your hometown paper, right?” Um, Iowa is 1,300 miles from Idaho.
Then there are books. Folks seem to assume that the centers of American literature exist in places closer to, well, Brooklyn. But in 2014 I made time to read lots of living writers, and probably half the time I looked at the author’s bio and realized: Hey, this author doesn’t live very far from me.
For example: One of the best books I read last year was Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosio. This update of his older collection, Orphans, represents one of the most engaging and unusual essay collections on my bookshelves. D’Ambrosio grew up in Seattle and writes in Portland.
In 2013, I heard Karen Russell read her devastating short story, “Madame Bovary’s Greyhound.” I’ve reread it twice since (it’s in the Best American Short Stories 2014). Guess where Russell lives now? Portland.
That’s not far from Keizer, Oregon, where Gina Oschner writes strange, beautiful stories. Which in turn isn’t too far from Eugene, Oregon, where Jason Brown writes and teaches; his short story “Driving the Heart” is one of my favorites of all time.
I read Denis Johnson’s weird, cool, gothic novel Already Dead this year: he writes in northern Idaho. Brian Doyle’s The Plover is an exuberant love letter to the sea; he lives in Portland. Adrianne Harun wrote her spooky and mesmerizing A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain in Port Townsend, Washington. I read more of Jess Walter’s work this year; he is funny, daring, and brilliant. And he lives in—drum roll—Spokane. So does Shann Ray, whose American Masculine twines violence and tenderness in a way I haven’t seen since Annie Proulx’s Wyoming Stories.
Several years ago I read Alan Heathcock’s dynamite first book Volt. In November, at an outdoor reading surrounded by propane heaters, I heard him read the story “Smoke” in his preacher’s voice. It’s a phenomenally moving piece of fiction, and he wrote it three miles from my house in Boise.
Patrick DeWitt, who wrote The Sisters Brothers, lives in Portland. So does the legendary Ursula K. LeGuin, who I heard give a barnburner of a speech in November at the National Book Awards. Timothy Egan, whose columns you probably read in the New York Times, lives in Seattle. Marilynne Robinson grew up in Idaho, and her new novel Lila is an exquisite, fascinating work—no chapters, just one long unfurling tour de force.
Then there are the novels I haven’t made it to yet. I’ve heard that Molly Gloss’s Falling From Horses might be her best book. More than one bookseller told me that I have to read Rene Denfield’s debut The Enchanted. Both these writers live in Portland. Don’t forget Barry Lopez (Oregon), Robert Wrigley (Idaho), Kim Barnes (Idaho), the always fascinating Walter Kirn (Montana), and David Abrams (Montana), whose Fobbit is a fundamental brick in the wall of books coming from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. I’m forgetting dozens more.
Oh, we also have some of the best bookstores you’ll ever enter: Powell’s, Annie Bloom’s, Elliott Bay Book Company, Sunriver Books & Music in Sunriver, Village Books in Bellingham, Auntie’s in Spokane, Iconoclast Books in Ketchum, BookPeople in Moscow, Rediscovered Bookshop in Boise—I’m not even using the internet to think of these.