Joe Wilkins’s writing in Orion and elsewhere evokes the difficult and formative weight of his home place—eastern Montana’s Big Dry. In his new memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers, Wilkins gathers flashes of his early life there, and arranges them in ways that are graceful and hard and beautiful. I wrote to Joe via e-mail, after a day of feverish, spellbound reading, during which my dinner went cold and the evening’s chores went pleasantly forgotten.
In the book’s prologue, you write, “In story we learn to live like human beings in the dark houses of our bodies.” I love that line—it’s the kind of sentence I’m tempted to write down, tear from my notebook, and pin on the wall. Can you say a bit about the power of story in your life?
My grandfather was a wonderful teller of tales. After Sunday dinner we’d all sit in the front room and read and talk until late. And no matter the topic at hand, my grandfather had a story for it, a story that deepened or turned or somehow complicated the conversation. There were seldom any morals, seldom any clear arguments or ideas. Yet the stories mattered; they were full of things to think on, to wonder at and hold close. And I did. I carried and still carry my grandfather’s stories.
I carry other stories now, too: Nearly all religious traditions are built of story. Every history book tells a certain kind of story. Stories unfold on television and computer screens, we tell stories at the boss’s dinner parties and at our children’s bedtimes. Whether we are aware of it or not, our lives are built of stories. And too often, I think, we simply receive the stories of the wider culture and unconsciously live our lives toward those ends. We should consider our stories more. Those told to us, those we see fit to tell.
My grandfather’s stories helped me see into my own self and into the world around me. My grandfather’s inheritance to me, his love and belief in the power of stories, has helped me craft the life I am happy to lead; that inheritance has helped me craft every poem and essay I’ve ever written, too. With The Mountain and the Fathers, I’ve tried to honor the power of stories and harness that power to honor and speak truthfully of the people and the place of my childhood and young adulthood.
What is the story of the West, as you’ve come to understand it? Even for those of us who aren’t from the West, the traditional narrative of westward limitlessness is feeling pretty frail these days. Is there a more accurate, more helpful story we should tell ourselves?
There’s a way in which the story of the West is the story of America on steroids: here, in this new place, we might be and do anything. In lots of ways, this is a good story. Many things are possible, and we should always know that we can be better people, that the world can be a better place.
Yet there are limits. Always have been. And so a kind of schizophrenia sets in: We are told to believe in limitlessness, and we try, but we crash up against reality. Then we get bitter, turn inward, look for someone out there to blame.
A better, healthier Western and American story would be one that honors possibility and imagination but strives for community and sustainability.
What’s so heartening to me is that all across the nation there are folks telling stories like this (pick up an issue of Orion for lots of good examples!). We need to keep telling them. In the face of all those received, dead-wrong stories, we need to insist on the truer stories.
This is a book about fatherhood, in all sorts of senses. Your notion of fatherhood extends, I think, to land itself: before your grandfather, before your father, before Joe Wilkins, there was Montana. How does your idea of fatherhood dive deeper than or explode the usual meaning? How is the confluence of things as elemental as dirt and water at the root of all this?
Yes. Absolutely. I very much wanted the landscape of eastern Montana to be an active presence in the book—a handsome, fragile, stern father. Like a father’s particular gait or slope of shoulder, eastern Montana has imprinted itself on my physical being in all sorts of ways. No matter where I travel, I feel hemmed in by too many trees or too much ground cover and am always searching for a high, clear plain of land to walk up and get a good look at things from.
In The Mountain and the Fathers, the land matters in a narrative sense, too. My grandfather was where he was because of the land; my father came back to Montana because of the land. We are all parented by the landscapes of our youth. No matter where we stand, we stand on grass and dirt and seeping water. The land makes us, allows us.
In an early chapter, you describe a rare moment of closeness with your father, in which, as a young boy, you climb into bed with him and study the curve of his shoulders, the curl of his hair. Somehow, being male, it feels as if these kinds of memories ring especially close to me: your experience of the power and love and distance fathers wield all at once, often without knowing it, is my experience, too. Do you consider this a particularly male book? How might a reader who’s not male—who’s a daughter, say, or a mother—come to memories like this one?
Whether male or female, we all have a father, or fathers, and we’ve all tried to come close to them, to understand and know them despite that fatherly distance. And so I hope memories like the one you point out speak across gender lines. And, really, I’ve never been one for men’s or women’s books. A few months ago, in The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan wrote that “to really love Joan Didion … you have to be female.” I read that and thought, Well, that’s odd, because I really dig Joan Didion.
In book after book, the passages that strike me most deeply are the ones where across vast difference I can see and share some human moment. I remember, years and years ago, first reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I wasn’t a young girl, I wasn’t growing up in Brooklyn, I didn’t have an alcoholic waiter-singer for a father, but, wow, that book just knocked me out. Persistence, pain, place, the succor and complication of family—it’s all there. That’s one of the great powers of literature: across lines of gender, race, class, or geography, we might step into some other’s shoes and understand them as a human being, like us, struggling to make a way in the world. No matter the reader, that’s what I hope The Mountain and the Fathers accomplishes.
Your story of life on the Big Dry is particular and specific—but also infused with some current that touches a wider pool of experience. Maybe it’s the struggle to understand one’s parents, one’s home place, and our duties to all of these things that’s so recognizable. Did you understand, at first, the ways in which your story might be universal?
Like I mentioned above, I absolutely hope The Mountain and the Fathers speaks to all kinds of readers. When I first started the book, I was consciously writing toward lots of things that felt important to me—fatherhood, place, loss, history and myth, the many contradictory sides of any single human being—but very often I didn’t know exactly how or where these subjects would show themselves in the narrative. As I wrote and rewrote, though, the major themes emerged organically, and then it was my job (and my wonderful editor’s, Dan Smetanka) to wrap those ideas around one another in a way that served the narrative and allowed a kind of thematic force to gather.
You’ve published a book of poems, Killing the Murnion Dogs, plenty of wonderful essays, poems, and reviews in Orion and elsewhere, and, of course, a memoir. What’s next?
My second book of poems, Notes from the Journey Westward, comes out from White Pine Press this fall, so I’m excited for that. And I’m beginning to collect poems for a third collection as well; it’s a book that speaks with a number of different voices and is more concerned with the landscapes of the Midwest than the West, so it feels like a big departure from the first two, which is kind of fun.
But my major project right now is a novel. What a crazy thing to do, to write a novel! So much work, so much blind groping—but I’m having fun. It’s a sort of postmodern mystery, built from bits of story spliced into a community history and all centered on a murder that takes place in a homesteading community in eastern Montana in 1919, which was a year of intense drought that ruined many, many homesteaders.
And beyond those projects, I just keep toying with poems and essays and stories, I just keep trying figure things out.
Joe Wilkins’s most recent piece for Orion, “Eleven Kinds of Sky,” appeared in the January/February 2012 issue. His essay in the September/October 2009 issue, “Out West,” was a finalist for a 2010 National Magazine Award. Scott Gast is editorial assistant at Orion.