November 08, 2012
Keith Scribner has never been one to shy away from trouble. His first novel, The GoodLife, fictionalized the 1992 real-life account of an Exxon executive’s kidnapping, and his third novel, The Oregon Experiment (hardcover, 2011, Knopf; re-released as a paperback in summer 2012 by Vintage Contemporaries), plunges the reader deep into the heart of the wily Pacific Northwest, home of the WTO protests and an actual secession in the 1940s (involving parts of southern Oregon and Northern California). In The Oregon Experiment, now in paperback, a young couple, Scanlon (a professor), and his pregnant wife, Naomi, have recently moved to Douglas, a small town in Oregon, so Scanlon can collect material for a scholarly book on mass movements that he hopes will catapult him onto the cushy tenure tract back east. Naomi, a perfume designer who has suddenly lost her sense of smell, must make sense of a strange environment in both the lush Northwest and her now-foreign, lactating body. For Scanlon, meeting Clay, a local anarchist, and Sequoia, the leader of a local secessionist movement, is a dream come true. The book, he thinks, will write itself. Unfortunately, it does not contain the ending he envisioned.
I had the good fortune of speaking with Keith about The Oregon Experiment, the heart of conflict, the best way to search for Molotov cocktails on the Internet, and um, breasts.
In your interview with The Rumpus with Tom Barbash, you talked about being moved by the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, during which time your son was three months old. Your feelings of sympathy for the movement combined with the protectiveness you felt for him culminated in the blueprint for Scanlon, the protagonist of The Oregon Experiment. I think a lot of characters, like children, begin very close to who we are-they are us, we place them in situations of interest to us, but at some point they separate and become fully formed, very different people. Do you experience a similar separation in your process? It struck me because you walk a sort of fine line in the novel in that you create characters who are not only understandably flawed but also a bit unlikable and self-absorbed, characters who at times who have to work for our sympathy.
I’ve heard great advice from other writers in that we should keep doing terrible things to our characters to see who they really are. I wonder if you think we should make them as terrible as we can, too, to see how they redeem themselves, from where their humanity comes.
As I held my first child while watching the WTO protests, that internal conflict I felt-what Faulkner calls “the heart in conflict with itself”-was the beginning of Scanlon, and I think it’s where the most interesting (changeable, thoughtful, volatile, vulnerable, stubborn, complicated, deluded, passionate, principled, surprising) characters always begin. Whether that original conflict is one that I recognize in myself or in someone else (or one purely imagined), the characters always develop surprisingly, so yes, the separation is inevitable. They meet challenges and rewards, they are stressed and influenced by experiences that come about through the narrative, and only then do I come to know how they’re evolving. By the time I’ve finished a novel, the characters are as real to me as many of my…well, maybe not friends, but surely acquaintances. And I’d say the same about the great fictional characters: Raskolnikov, Holden Caulfield, and Kent Haruf’s McPheron brothers are as alive in me as some people I encounter regularly.
And I should add that the conflict that sparked Scanlon also sparked this novel as a whole. All of the characters and most aspects of the story explore that territory between ideals and actions, between the political and the personal, the public and private.
I’m interested in the extremes of my characters, putting them in situations that not only bring out their best, their most resourceful, resilient, loving, clever, but also their worst-their pettiness, jealousies, self-absorption, weaknesses, ambition. We’re trained socially to show our best face to the world; novels can peel back that public face to reveal our darker, less sympathetic impulses. None of us would like to be seen by the world at our lowest.
So yes, we get our characters into trouble to watch them react, and though I’d take issue with your phrasing (“make them as terrible as we can”), I’m interested in characters who possess all the very real flaws I recognize in myself and the people I love. To the degree that I can forgive myself for my own pettiness and delusion, and forgive those impulses in my dearest friends, I can forgive Scanlon.
Wow, what a great answer! I appreciate your relationship with your characters, the depths into which you plunge to give them life. It’s a curious paradox that a writer finds himself or herself in, I think-it’s almost like going to therapy and being both the patient and therapist.
In that vein, I was especially struck by your development of the two female leads, Naomi (Scanlon’s wife) and Sequoia, both of whom are new mothers (although Sequoia is a few years removed). Naomi is a territorial, feral mother. Her almost-inhuman ability to detect and categorize scents, partially from her work as a fragrance designer, was an unexpected touch to me and really played into her inner beast. In direct contrast is Sequoia, the Pacific Northwest hippie granola, member of a “peaceful” secessionist movement (whom Scanlon advises), warm and giving of herself, when in truth she perhaps is the less authentic of the two, with more to hide.
These dichotomies sew the book together, the matronly and the savage, which I want to talk about more, but first I want to talk about BREASTS. I see the metaphor here about society’s vacillation between anarchy and the womb, between the mommy and daddy poles. But the breastfeeding! Seriously, there’s a lot of breastfeeding and breasts in the book. Naturally, I need to know, given the fixation of the men in this book with breasts: Do all men have a universal desire to suckle at women’s breasts?
I’d love to talk more about your second paragraph, too. In short, Naomi’s genius sense of smell makes her very primal. The nose in humans is practically a vestigial organ by this point in our development, relying so heavily as we do on our eyes and ears. In other animals, smell is essential for survival-mammals (other than humans) born with a defective nose usually die-it’s the first sense to come and the last to go, it allows Naomi access to truths that are hidden from other people.
But on to your actual question here: The breast is symbolic-not only in fiction but culturally-of nurturing, comfort, and nourishment. Whether we’re male or female, I think the breast has this meaning and power. And of course breasts aren’t only life-giving, but sexually alluring too. Metaphorically, Naomi becomes Clay’s lover but also his mother. She connects with her lost son, Clay connects with his mother, and together they heal each other as lovers can.
Are you familiar with the book The Oregon Experiment, about an approach to community planning that was undertaken at the University of Oregon, Eugene, in the 1970s? I was surprised that the secessionist group in your book showed no awareness of it, particularly when Scanlon suggests this name for their movement. Would they be aware of this history, since it happened in their own backyard, even if Scanlon was not? (Although I imagine he would be, too, that it be would known in his field.) I guess the meaning of the relationship, if any, between the actual Oregon experiment and the one in the book eluded me.
Ha! I decided to ignore it. You’re probably right. If my story were not a novel but a nonfiction account, some of the older secessionists in my fictional town of Douglas would know about the 1970s-era architecture and community planning movement in Eugene. In an early draft, after I’d decided on my title, I had a reference to it, but ultimately it felt unnecessary. More importantly though, it felt self-conscious or like I was pandering to the locals. Not completely, but for the most part I stripped the novel of specific references to Corvallis (on which Douglas is based) and the region. For restaurant names, parks, mountains-in early drafts I often used actual places, but they seemed to be drawing attention to themselves as I revised, and I ended up changing most of them. Next month I’m giving a reading at one of Corvallis’s great old bars, Squirrel’s (with a rock & roll band backing me up). Changing Squirrel’s to Filbert’s was one of the last local references I excised. State of Liberty, the long-standing secessionist movement that plays a role in the novel, is based on State of Jefferson in southern Oregon and northern California, but my fictional movement also draws from many others including the Second Vermont Republic and the Western Canada Concept. Lots of people have asked me how I could write this novel without a scene at the Oregon Country Fair (a big hippie festival every summer in Veneta); the answer is that I wrote a few, but the Country Fair is so whacky that there’s not a lot of room to fictionalize it. So these are all different sorts of examples, but I guess the bottom line for me is that actual events and places (and movements) are launching places for our imaginations as writers, but after the imagination has taken over, they can stick out, a reader can get caught on them and pulled out of the dream, they can actually stifle us as writers, so it’s often best for the novel if they’re removed.
My first novel The GoodLife, is based on the 1992 kidnapping of an Exxon executive. I researched the case-reading most of the media accounts-but stopped there. At that point I felt I knew enough and I had to let imagination get to work. I was about to go to Trenton, NJ, to get a 42-page deposition of one of the kidnappers, but decided against it, fearing that what I discovered there would conflict with the story and characters that were developing in my head and on the page. That said, there were a lot of details from the actual story that seemed so woven into the news event that inspired me, I couldn’t change them without losing something of the story’s heart. Am I contradicting myself?
No, I completely understand. The liberating thing about fiction is, like you said, to respond to an environment or idea but ultimately run with it and completely make it your own unique signature, the way blues musicians build from 12-bar blues or even the way photographer Sherrie Levine appropriated Walker Evans’ work in the 1970s. Which makes me want to ask, in completely running with The Oregon Experiment, what surprised you about your own book? I seem to recall it said, in another interview, that good fiction not only surprises the reader, but also the author. At what moment did the manuscript run completely off the rails under its own momentum and you just hung on for dear life?
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say this happens every day that I’m writing. I truly began the novel with only that internal pull within Scanlon that I mentioned earlier. The secessionist movement was a surprise, the arrival of Sequoia, Naomi’s extraordinary nose, then the loss of her nose, then a baby she has lost, Scanlon’s nudist father pulling up to the curb in the old RV he bought from an America cover band. Even word choices and small details surprise me, which is to say they were nothing I’d planned before sitting down to write that morning.
A big and more slowly unfolding surprise was how smells and our sense of smell took such prominence in the novel-in the Pacific Northwest setting, in the development of character, in plot and character’s secrets, in some of the major themes such as memory and loss, and in I think the novel’s entire sensibility. As a way to engage the world.
Speaking of setting, and details, this is a somewhat-related question, about research and internet privacy. I have a writer friend who researches serial killers and cannibals, and even I tried to start a domestic terrorism novel about 10 years ago, when I became fascinated with the ELF (and The Fight Club). It never got off the ground because, after a few days of researching the Internet about making bombs and domestic terrorist movements, my girlfriend at the time forbid me to use our home computer for research because she was afraid we’d be placed on a watch list. Did you experience in trouble along the course of your research?
(Of course, the other reason it derailed is because I became more interested in the emotional subplots, such as the love triangle between the local reporter and the girlfriend and boyfriend terrorists and not so much the technical details. But you’ve done that so well, the research, in integrating the Pacific Northwest and their rich counterculture history along with these very real insecurities a young couple faces in starting a family, in making tenure, and how married they are to their ideas and whether they’d sell them out just as easily to live a secure life. So do you write both layers at the same time, ie, the technical details/historical landscape and the domestic interplots, or do you block out a sketch of the emotional plot/action and wind up filling in the little furry trees, a la Bob Ross, later?)
I must admit that when I was spending long hours trolling anarchist websites, I did it on my university computer. Some of these sites have information on how to sabotage logging equipment, design effective Molotov cocktails, and other criminal endeavors.
During the writing I ran into a former student, who was working on a highway construction crew. When I told him about this novel in progress, he was eager to help however he could. I told him I’d love to know how someone might steal explosives from his work site and design a bomb to blow up a dam. I never heard from him again.
For the most part, the writing and research go side-by-side for me. And they feed each other-the story tells me what I need to research, and the research serves not only as a bunch of credible details but as inspiration. Much of Clay’s personal story came from my discussions with local anarchists. I was talking with them for first-hand information on what anarchists do and believe (socially, politically), but of course their personal lives, their childhoods, their family histories, were interwoven with their public and political identities and beliefs, just like characters in a novel. (Check out this The Daily Beast article about Keith interviewing anarchists!) So the research inspires the emotional subplots. The more I learned about how smells are processed by the brain, about making perfume, about anosmia, the more I knew about Naomi. For example, her primal nature arose from the research.
That said, I sometimes fake a technical knowledge, knowing that I’m going to come back later to brush in some detail. Or I do the best I can with book research, hoping for something better. I didn’t meet Yosh Han, the San Francisco perfumer who was so helpful to me, until after I thought the novel was pretty much done. I spent a day with her at her studio and went back to rewrite most of the perfume scenes. And again, all she taught me didn’t just change technical detail, but it brought out more aspects of Naomi, helped me to make new thematic connections in the book, altered the progression of certain scenes.
My favorite character is the young anarchist, Clay, who I have to admit, I hated in first half or so of the novel. But his internal code of morals is so strong and consistent throughout, along with his hidden tenderness, that I completely swooned over him by the end, and I loved (without revealing too much about the plot) the irony you draw in that someone who is lowest on the societal totem pole, who has the least power, and certainly is the least respected sacrifices everything of himself for his convictions and makes the other characters looks misguided at best and opportunistic at worst. Of course, all novels need a moral center, and I thought Clay was deftly done. But I got the sense he was one of the pleasant surprises in writing the book?
Yes, Clay was a surprise to me, and I hope to readers too. He comes into the story as danger, threatening Scanlon and Noami’s budding domestic bliss. He’s full of anger and rage, but as we get closer to him, we glimpse his genuine tenderness and vulnerability. As you point out, he is, ironically, the truest person in the novel, the purest, maybe even the one we can most trust.
I was thinking a lot about Clay during last year’s riots in London. And Scanlon too, who I thought embodied the media, political, and academic reactions to the riots-Scanlon’s impulse to analyze, to focus on a single or set of graspable causes, and to want to understand violent dissent in an intellectual framework.
But Clay embodied the rioters: reactive and spurred by passion. Clay can’t tell you whether his simmering anger and desire to bring down the system are more about being shut out of the American Dream or more about the insidiousness of social class or more about the government’s role in his father’s devastating life. A dark passion drives him. He’s primal, like Naomi with her primal sense of smell, but he’s much more reactive than she is, less controlled, less socialized.
And he is shut out of the American Dream and its promises. Naomi and Scanlon journey West for a better life. Like Sequoia, they can reinvent themselves, start anew. Clay can’t reinvent himself, he can’t recreate the past, and he can’t live within the life he’s made for himself.
You’ve touched a little bit on the underlying themes of The Oregon Experiment, but what did you take away from the experience, and more generally, what do you want readers to take away?
Faced with the strains of parenthood and marriage, of moving to a new place, of separation from family, of haunting memory and loss, all the characters are trying to carve out a life for themselves, find a purpose, define who they are. As I’ve said, to me, they’re very real people, and as you’ve suggested, perhaps uncomfortably real. They’re all flawed, but they’re all trying to find fulfillment and connections. The connections are personal, political, and social, and I think the novel examines how some of those distinctions naturally blend in the course of a life-for example, the small-scope politics of a marriage and community become entwined with larger-scope politics of a nation.
And the temptations and dangers of secession from these (political) contexts pervade the novel. Each one of the characters contemplates secession publicly but also in the most personal and intimate realms. They’re all rebelling in one way or another against the patriarchy-Sequoia’s rebellion against her father, for example, can’t be separated from her political dissent. And this rebellion brings us back to one of your first questions-about the breast and its powerful symbolism in the book as a source of life, comfort, nourishment, fulfillment, rebirth, and renewal.
I hope that the book, like any good novel or work or art, leaves us feeling a little unsettled, but also perceiving ourselves and our world more keenly. People have told me that after reading the book they’re much more aware of smells, that their noses are working better. That seems to me a great take-away from this novel.
Keith Scribner is the author of Miracle Girl and The GoodLife. He teaches fiction writing and literature at Oregon State University. To learn more about Keith The Oregon Experiment, visit his website.