Domestic animals are, above all else, companions. They accompany us in our daily lives. In this companionship, we allow them to witness so many parts of our lives; what they think of us ends up being a deep and unknowable darkness.
In October 2015, Trinity University Press published Annick Smith’s gorgeous memoir, Crossing the Plains with Bruno, which is, loosely, the story of driving—with her chocolate lab, Bruno—from Montana to Chicago to pick up Smith’s 97-year old mother and take her to the family’s home on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Bruno is Smith’s witness as she tells stories to the reader, mimicking the way that memory works. In December, The New York Times Book Review hailed the memoir as a discursive gem, saying, “While Smith’s storytelling choices can sometimes be as circuitous as her route across the grasslands, she maintains an engaging spirit. Her readers will be surprised— and often delighted— to see where her thoughts drift next. An illuminating meditation on time, place, friendship and family.”
Smith is perhaps best known for co-editing, with Bill Kittredge, The Last Best Place, an anthology of Montana writing. She was also a co-producer on the Robert Redford adaptation of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It.
I talked with Smith after an event in Portland, Oregon, where she’d come on tour.
PT: Poets and poetry seem especially important to the narrative. You conclude at least three sections with poems– one by Billy Collins, one by Robert Dana, one a traditional poem from the Akimel O’otham (Pima) people of Arizona. You also have excerpts from other poems sprinkled throughout the text. Can you talk a bit about the role of poetry in your life?
AS: Poetry. Where to start? Poetry has marked and charmed my life from infancy to old age. I grew up with Hungarian and French nursery songs that my grandmother and mother sang to me as a child.
Later— while editing a book about William Blake at the University of Washington Press in the 1960s– my mind opened to new dimensions of perception and I began scribbling verses.
At that time, I was one of the lucky ones allowed to sit in on graduate classes taught by the brilliant teacher and poet Theodore Roethke, who led us into and through the poems of Yeats and Stevens. I am especially lucky to count Richard Hugo and William Merwin as friends whose work has been basic to learning my craft as a writer as well as to enhancing my life with pleasure, empathy, and art.
I have tried writing poems, published a few, and have a poet son, so it’s no surprise that my road trip across the plains with Bruno would include a CD of Auden, Yeats, and other greats to grace my hours on the pavement. And, silly or fanciful as it may have been, I brought my signed copy of Poetry for Dogs to entertain myself in motels and faraway bedrooms. After long days on the road I sometimes read poems aloud to Bruno, noted them in my journal, and included them in the book.
And finally, I’m sure that the free associative style of my book— its jumps and rhythms and triggering landscapes—are deeply indebted to a poetic consciousness or unconsciousness that underpins my impulse to write.
PT: Now that you mention it, I love the structure of the book, which sort of mimics the way that memory works. You set out on a drive, and something in the natural landscape– or something Bruno does– triggers a digression in the text. At what point in the process of writing did you decide that the structure would be like this?
AS: I think the book’s structure just happened. It is my natural form. From the beginning, I wanted to mimic the events and sights that caught my attention along the way. And I wanted to record what I thought at those pivotal moments, often noting the connections in my journal.
I was surely influenced by Richard Hugo’s theory of composition as told in his book, The Triggering Town—a theory and practice about using visits to unknown places to ‘trigger’ buried emotions, insights, and memories not associated with that place.
I knew my book would never be a conventional narrative, but the structure had to be like it is because my head is like that: Free associative. Digressive. Nonlinear.
Of course that doesn’t mean the writing was easy.
PT: You’ve said at readings for Crossing the Plains with Bruno that the book was quite difficult to write and took many years. Can you talk about this?
AS: For me, hearing writers say that their work took a long time is somehow soothing.
I wrote parts of the book over seven years, juggling anecdotes and incidents and trying to make transitions work while keeping the spine of the story—the road trip itself—true and coherent and interesting.
With advice from readers and editors, I cut chunks out of early manuscripts that were even less relevant than the digressions I left in. For example, I cut a pre-journey backstory about being in Hawaii and Texas. I cut my favorite fanciful anecdote about a totem pole in BC called All Frogs, which transitioned in my mind into the birth of my twin sons in England—an event that had to be included in the book, but without the totem pole.
And, finally, my editor at Trinity University Press told me I had to cut a long section called, “All Dogs,” about all the dogs I ever had. I hated to let those dogs go, but I’m keeping the cuts. Who knows—someday they may become another book.
It was fun trying to fit the pieces together, but it was an endless process, and crazy-making.
PT: So much of love resides in the small gestures of life, a fact that’s at odds with dramatic writing. You buy Listerine for your mom, share coffee cake from a Swedish bakery, you ride up and down the elevator at the Breakers. Yet these moments are dramatic, as well. Can you discuss your approach to the “everyday” things in the story?
AS: I think that “everyday” objects and actions serve as triggers to memories and meditations and emotions as much as— or more than— dramatic events or conflicts or spectacular landscapes that stand only for themselves. This is not a new idea. Think of Proust and his bite into a madeleine pastry. That taste on his tongue triggered a whole series of books— a life recollected.
Scents are also notorious for evoking memories. For me, the scent of lilacs did it. Or a highway rest stop triggering Laura Ingalls Wilder. If you are me, you don’t remember the details of her Little House on the Prairie, but you see the chair in which you sat when you had polio and read that book. You remember the emotions her story evoked, its relevance to your life then and now, and the fantasies of a little girl that would come to shape her future.
Sounds can be equally evocative, like a snatch of a Hank Williams’ song, Your Cheatin’ Heart, that reverberated through stages of my life from young love to heartbreak to the a road trip with a lover, to the present-day death of a dear friend.
We live in everyday occasions and our lives are filled with ordinary things. The scent of Listerine brings back my mother’s breath. The taste of raspberry coffee cake from the Swedish Bakery we stopped at every summer of my childhood is emblematic of those summers. That’s why I will stop there the next time I visit our cottage in the dunes, and why I will buy only that kind of coffee cake.
Who knows what particular ordinary object, scent, taste, smell, or sight will touch off a burst of memory, an insight or emotion? It’s different for every one of us, but the experience is similar. And if a writer can evoke the triggering objects in a reader’s memory and open doors of empathy and understanding, that’s our highest goal, I believe.
PAULS TOUTONGHI is a first-generation American. He has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, Rookie, Granta, Tin House, One Story, and many other periodicals. He is the author of two novels, and the forthcoming true story, Dog Gone: A Lost Pet’s Extraordinary Journey and the Family That Brought Him Home, which will be published by Knopf in June 2016.