by Pat Holt
Tuesday, November 6, 2001
LEIF ENGER: WHEN FAILURE SETS THE WRITER FREE
For many people connected with books, the Big, Big question one always wants to ask (okay, I do) of first novelists is this:
What Does It Take for an unproven writer to leap into the unknown, to take risks that go against the grain of current publishing fashions, to follow that inner voice so precisely that all notions of acceptance or rejection on the "outside" are irrelevant?
Over the years,the answers have often narrowed down to one or two words - courage, self-knowledge, resolve, brilliance, dedication, vision, and so forth.
But now, as a young writer named Leif Enger advances across the lobby of Oakland's Claremont Hotel with his two sweet young sons in tow, and the three of them smiling unabashedly because they had just visited Alcatraz with Mom and had a terrific time, I can't believe his answer.
"Failure," he says happily, "can really free you up."
Enger is the author of the stirring and luscious "Peace Like a River" (Atlantic Monthly; 320 pages; $24), a decidedly old-fashioned, even flowery novel, set in 1960s Minnesota, that hearkens back to the era of Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson yet eclipses that tradition at the same time.
"I didn't start out writing a book like this," says Enger, a slim, earnest man with a wiry frame and rough, expressive hands. You can tell he lives on a farm (in Minnesota with his wife, Robin, and sons John and Ty), though he has made his living as a reporter for Minnesota's NPR station.
"For about 5 years, I tried writing crime novels with my brother Lin under the name L.L. Enger," he says. "It was an important training ground in retrospect, but apparently the world was not ready for the Gun Pedersen series." He laughs at the hokey nature of the hero's name. "I still think they were pretty good stories, but they never found an audience.
"After that, Lin and I set out to write something as commercial as we possibly could. This was also a failure. From then on we both felt set free. I could now write what I wanted, and in desperation because of our family circumstances, I started on 'Peace Like a River.' "
Leif created the book's narrator in Reuben Land, an 11-year-old boy afflicted with such severe asthma that he comes close to dying several times. For much of the novel, thanks to his attentive father Jeremiah, Reuben sits with his head under a towel breathing steam from a pan of searing hot water to loosen up the thick, spongy mass that is growing inside his lungs.
"My older son Ty had asthma very badly as a child," says Leif. "We saw no sign of it until he was 3. Cats were a big trigger for him, and he had terrible trouble breathing at certain times of the year, when molds and pollens were in the air.
"There were horrific episodes, brutal attacks by the time he was 7 when we nearly lost him. It was terrifying. Of course as a parent you want to take his place. That's where the seed of book came from - Ty's struggle and my struggle to understand what he was going through. And my wish to do a miracle in his behalf."
Miraculous happenings do occur throughout the book, the first on Page One when Reuben dies at birth yet is dramatically called back to life 10 minutes later by his bible-clasping, vision-seeing, death-defying father, Jeremiah.
Having been lifted up and swirled around, and set down unharmed by a tornado many years before - "I was treated so gently up there, kids," he explains - Jeremiah has come to believe in attending to God's will, sometimes ferociously as he argues with God throughout many nights,but most of the time patiently waiting for signs from God as to the next best step in life.
At 15, his oldest son Davy takes the opposite stance of his father. When his 9-year-old sister Swede is kidnapped by bullies at school, Davy does not want to wait on the Lord; he wants to exact revenge. When the bullies break in the house, Davy (this happens very early on so I'm giving nothing away) shoots them dead. "You think God looks out for us?" he asks Reuben, almost as a taunt. "You want Him to?"
Well, do we? Reuben and Swede don't know. Sometimes they think "the thing to do was snuggle down and wait on the Lord," as Reuben puts it, and sometimes they wonder about their father's visions. "If God told him what to do next," Swede tartly says to Reuben, "how come nobody else heard it?"
Most of the time, they're ambivalent. When an outlaw asks Reuben if anybody led him to a hideout, Reuben tells us, "The question was dismaying. Of course we'd been led; why did everyone keep bringing this up? We'd had leading by the bushel!"
Increasingly, then, Enger leads us deeper into novel's abiding question: Are people led by God from one milestone to the next, or do we have the kind of free will that allows us to act on our own?
Davy makes his choice when he kills the attackers, then escapes from jail. His father waits for a sign and sure enough, an Airstream trailer "just happens" to fall into his possession. Soon the family sets out from their rural home - the Airstream "a great drop of tin glinting on the snowy plains" - to search for Davy in the Badlands of North Dakota, and the suspense builds.
All along, says Enger, "I was writing this story for my wife and kids. Each time I finished a scene, I read it to them, and I based my rewrites on their responses. Kids have an unfailing sense of what makes a good story. I couldn't do everything they wanted - like find a place for any hidden treasure, for example - but I did work in an idea of my son John, who was 4 at the time.
"John came into my room in his pajamas at 7 a.m. one morning when I was 25 pages into the novel and said, 'How's the book going, Dad?' I can be overconfident on the first draft, so I said, 'It's going really well.'
" 'You got a cowboy in there yet?' he asked. I didn't but I thought it was a great idea, I told him. 'If you can give me a cowboy name,' I said, 'I'll put him in the story today.'
" Without hesitating, he said, 'Sunny Sundown' - clearly he had been chewing this over. So that day Reuben's sister Swede began writing the kind of heroic verse she loves so much from reading old-fashioned adventure stories, many of them about cowboys and the Old West."
Swede is one of the most enchanting characters to hit modern fiction in a long time - a Zane Grey fan and born writer who tells the saga of Sunny Sundown in heroic verse -
"Now Sundown's wound is seeping and he's tilting as he rides; "His eyes are red and gritty as he scans the canyon's sides ... "
- and, sitting on a Mexican saddle she's somehow hitched to a sawhorse inside the Airstream, while typing on the little portable Davy gave her before he left, Swede chronicles the family's search as the landscape unfolds before her:
"And will we find our Davy safe,
"At first, making Swede a poet to get Sunny Sundown in there was a present to John," Enger remembers. "But then I found it useful. The Sunny Sundown saga not only gives us a glimpse of what Swede is thinking, it also forecasts events to come and sets up a parallel structure in the novel."
It's as if the Airstream in the 1960s is riding parallel to our own romantic history of a tumultuous frontier where the terrain is still unmappable, where anything is possible, and where, possibly, the tension between determining one's destiny and following the will of God may yet be resolved.
"I think there is a God, and that he leads us in certain directions, but often we don't see where that's going until later," Leif says. "Most of the time all we can do is try to listen to that inner gyroscope that's trying to keep us from wobbling too much on the tightrope we all walk."
Enger loves to throw out terms like the "inner gyroscope," which is why "Peace Like a River" is so fully satisfying an adventure to read. Here winds turn "racketous" and "a gust gnashed at the window" during a storm. An angry, glowering Swede is affectionately nudged by Davy "out of her nettly gloom." Reuben hears the barn door "screel open." Helping to build up the fire to make a horseshoe, he is struck by the hot glow of the coals. "They were beautiful, a breathing black-webbed orange," in which the horseshoe lies "like a black cutout of itself."
One feels that Enger's earlier failures with the publishing industry also set him free from the spareness of speech and single dimension of radio journalism, but Leif believes Minnesota Public Radio gave him his start as a fiction writer.
"I did features, human interest stories, documentaries and sometimes even breaking news, though in the latter case not as often as editors would have liked. I wasn't much of a deadline guy. Editors were tolerant when it came to letting me do oddball stories, but heinous when it came to being stringent about my overabundance of adjectives.
"But they were all a great help to me in learning how to write good sentences. I can't recommend journalism highly enough as a training ground for writing fiction. It sets you into all kinds of circumstances where you meet people you'd never run into, and it forces you to listen closely to way people speak.
"In radio, you're always noticing people's cadences, the apt turn of phrase, the salient detail. When they say something concisely, you want to get down on your knees and say thank you because that's going to sound so good in my piece. You listen over and over and over to that 25-second statement as you work with the story and all its rhythms, and it's wonderful training."
Still, leaving NPR seems to have opened a love for the loquacious in Enger that allows for grandiosity in story, sweeping digressions (the history of nightshirts, Teddy Roosevelt's asthma), exaggerated heartfelt villains and great, tortuous struggles with God. No wonder Enger "knew" it would fail.
"I don't have all that much patience with novels where characters sit around apartments and worry about why their lives are so disappointing," Leif says. "Those stories irritate me. I wanted to write the kind of story that gripped me as a kid, and still do. Why do we separate Young Adult from Adult fiction today? A good story should be enjoyable to everyone. Did you know Elmore Leonard wrote wonderful Westerns? 'Valdez Is Coming' is a classic."
Maybe "Peace Like a River" will be, too. It's another book that independent booksellers have embraced, selling it to selected customers who've spread the word just long enough by now to edge the book onto regional bestseller lists all over the country.
Leif shakes his in awe at the process. "Independent booksellers apparently read advance copies and passed them around and talked about them so much that even before I walk into the bookstore, they've sold 70 or 80 copies. That amazes me. But it scares me, too. Before publication, when I was told there was 'great buzz' about the book, I got very worried. This is not the kind of book people fancy with 'great buzz,' I thought." But booksellers have the experience and the customers. They know."
And they certainly know how to appreciate a writer as authentic, decent and true as Enger. When we get up to leave, Leif tells me that he bought his first video camera going on tour, and that his kids are chronicling the journey in their own way, using the flexible wire characters that come with the "Bender" books (from Klutz publishing) as stand-ins wherever they go.
"At Alcatraz, the boys turned the camera's view from Robin and me to the bars of a cell, where we see the Bender family - Joe, Brenda and their dog, Fender Bender - climbing out the bars." Leif laughs with pride at the goofball inventiveness of the two boys.
The best part of the trip, will come when Enger drives from Colorado to Jackson Hole, then to Mississippi, the boys watching the West disappear into the South from the backseat, Dad thinking about his next book, Robin maybe reading aloud from a favorite novel everybody loves.
"Don't we all lead adventurous lives?" Leif asks. "Swede thinks we all live EPIC lives, and I agree. A little heroic verse would do most of us a lot of good, I think."
Something about that idea - the innocence and the wisdom of it, the notion of something larger always unfolding - touches the heart in the same way "Peace Like a River" has that sustained quality of a memorable event. Tears come to the eye in many a scene created by Leif Enger, and this was just one.
Dear Holt Uncensored
Re your story in #277 on Fern Reiss's book, "Terrorism and Kids: Comforting Your Child." Excellent article on Ms. Reissís problems and solutions in getting her book published. I wish that my parents had had such a book when I was a youngster in Washington state in the early days of World War II.
However, Ms. Reissís statement, "Tell your child that in the entire history of America, since your great, great, great, great, great grandfather was alive, no bombs have fallen on the United States mainland," is not entirely correct. There were incidents where the mainland of the United States was attacked, and the rumors which served to blow these attacks all out of proportion were quite frightening to us. The attacks, by Japanese submarines, which did little or no damage, consisted of shelling a few locations on the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington. There was ONE bomb dropped on Oregon from a Japanese aircraft that had been launched from a surfaced submarine. The bomb exploded harmlessly in the wilderness.
The U.S. government did suppress news about another, bizarre series of Japanese attacks on Oregon and Washington states. One of the strangest military operations of the war, it did indeed cause American civilian casualties. The Japanese had designed and built large paper balloons and suspended from them incendiary and explosive devices. (It was reported that these were built in quantity by Japanese school children.) The balloons and their dangerous cargoes were launched from Japan into the jet stream; they were intended to land in America and subsequently set fire to the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Incredibly, several hundred did come down here, although very little damage was done by them. One, strangely enough, landed in high-voltage lines near the city of Hanford in eastern Washington stateócausing a power outage for several days at the huge plant where radioactive elements were being processed for creating the atomic bombs that ultimately would destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki!
A more tragic result came later from a paper-balloon bomb that had landed in Oregon. It was discovered in the closing days of World War II by Sunday-school participants having a picnic in the woods. One child reached out and touched the device, causing it to explode. Several people were killed. During the entire war these were the only civilian casualties on the American mainland caused by enemy action.
In these days of daily warnings from our government of impending terrorist actions, broadcast repeatedly by the media, Ms. Reissís book, published on an admirably fast track, is timely. It could be extremely valuable to many parents who must deal with their childrenís fears during this crisis.
Holt responds: I heard of these submarine launched attacks and paper balloon-hung bombs but thought they were rumors and urban legends. Is there a good source you can quote where readers can find documentation?
Rudy Marinacci replies: Here is a key statement re: Japanese attacks on the United States mainland in World War II, from: http://members.tripod.com/~earthdude1/fugo/fugo.html
This article and a whole lot of others about the FU-GOs, as the incendiary Japanese paper balloons in World War II were called, can be found on the most wonderful search engine there is (in my opinion) GOOGLE! Check m/search?hl=en&q=Japanese+Incendiary+Paper+Balloons+World+War+II&spell=1 Probably more information than you ever wanted to know. And note too, typically, the facts vary a bit from article to article. Also note: picture of a balloon: http://www.wpafb.af.mil/museum/history/wwii/jbb-1.jpg
Pictures of the balloons being shot down by American aircraft http://www.wpafb.af.mil/museum/history/wwii/jbb-2.jpg
Many other fine articles and facts are listed including a NEW YORKER article: "Balloons Of War,Ē by John McPhee, NEW YORKER, 29 January 1996, 52:60.
The balloon campaign was not the first time the Japanese attacked the American mainland. It was, in fact, the fourth attack. In February 1942, even before the Doolittle raid, Japanese Submarine I-17 shelled an oil field up the beach from Santa Barbara and damaged a pump house. That following June, Submarine I-25 shelled a coastal fort in Oregon, damaging a baseball backstop, and in September, that submarine's crew assembled and launched a small float plane that dropped incendiary bombs, starting a few small forest fires.
My son Mike, an author ("Mysterious California") and nitpicker almost as bad as his father, reminded me that the mainland of America had also been bombarded early in its history. Remember what caused the Star Spangled Banner to be written? "the rocket's red glare..the bombs bursting in air...gave proof through the night that our flag was still there"....the War of 1812.
NOTE: Jennifer Jonsson sent a similar comment about the balloon bombs and responds with this source (which is also quoted in the Fu-Go link noted above):
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Here's a link with information about the balloon bombs from the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base military history site:
I'll quote a little bit:
One of the best kept secrets of the war involved the Japanese balloon bomb offensive, prompted by the Doolittle raid on Tokyo on April 18, 1942 as a means of direct reprisal against the U.S. mainland. Some 9,000 balloons made of paper or rubberized silk and carrying anti-personnel and incendiary bombs were launched from Japan during a five-month period, to be carried by high altitude winds more than 6,000 miles eastward across the Pacific to North America. Perhaps a thousand of these reached this continent, but there were only about 285 reported incidents. Most were reported in the northwest U.S., but some balloons traveled as far east as Michigan.
Fern Reiss, author of "Terrorism and Kids," responds: Your readers are right. The information will be corrected for the second printing, and thanks to the alert readers who responded with this correction.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In regard to the letter by Catherine Wilson [about the anti-gay message written on a U.S. Navy bomb headed for Afghanistan], I would say that the original "Fag" scrawled on the munitions is deplorable, but what exactly does she want done? The sailor who wrote it can be condemned as a jerk, but even jerks have freedom of expression, even in the Navy. Since we don't condemn the US media when it covers manifestations of ignorant prejudice, such as when a Jew hater defaces a synagogue with Nazi swastikas -- which are shown in all their infamy on the nightly news -- should we assume that the media hates all Jews?
And how does Ms. Wilson know that nobody else has written a racial, religious, or other epithet. I can tell you from my personal perspective (past military service) that scrawling slogans on munitions is a tradition in the military, and not just that of the United States. It seems to me that Ms. Wilson is expecting military personnel to behave in accordance with the rules set forth by the Civil Rights Commission. I hate to break it to her but war and the passion it unleashes does not work that way. It is hard enough to get people to abide by international humanitarian law, Rules of War, and the Geneva Convention (None of which, by the way, govern the scrawling of some kind of insult).
With all due respect one can only do so much at one time. Do you think we might deal with the threat of al Qaeda and anthrax before opening up a third front on the civil rights battlefield?
Holt responds: The reason the Associated Press was criticized in the B.A.R. newspaper story was that AP pulled the picture as soon as "voices rose in protest" about it. Gay activists thought this not only cowardly but antithetical to journalists' call to get the truth out so that readers can make up their own minds about such matters. Though painful, it's important to know that a culture exists in the military that condones such messages, and that there are still proponents of the "one thing at a time" approach when it comes to civil rights.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Similar to the analysis of urban legends is the study of memes. See: http://www.memecentral.com/
The meme is an amusing metaphor, if nothing else. I happen to think that there's a Gresham's Law of Thought where bad ideas drive out the good. The meme elegantly fits into this scheme.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Recently I discovered that someone I know, a former colleague, had been using my name, among others, to post favorable reviews for his books on Amazon.com. The editors at Amazon presumably have an ID system where you have to give your password to post one of these things, but they obviously do not enforce it. Although they removed the review at my request, they say they will not give me any information about how it got on there in order to protect the confidentiality of the perpetrator. I'm pursuing it, but I bet I'm not the only one. If others have had a similar experience, I'd like to know.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Reference the difficulties ordering from publishers, and the triage issue...
I'm a small publisher, and here's what I'll do. If you want to order (please do) a single copy, or just a couple of one of my books, and Ingram won't accommodate you, I will. I keep a couple copies on hand, and I'll ship you one, or two, or whatever. It won't be at the 55% discount you'd get from Ingram, but at my cost plus a buck and shipping. If it sells for $11, and I can ship it to you for $8, we should both be happy, right? I'll do it just to get my writers the exposure. If you can't pay for it until it sells, cool. I'll suck on it a while just to get it into the bookstores. Just send an email to www.tarbuttonpress.com.
Buy something from http://www.crimeandspace.com/ We need to do all we can to keep the independent bookstores in business. peace,
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
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