Q: STEAL THE NORTH takes the reader up the west coast from Sacramento to Eastern Washington—can you discuss why you chose these particular settings?
A: The obvious answer is that these are the settings I am most familiar with. I was born and raised in eastern Washington. And I have lived near Sacramento for many years now. California is definitely a part of my novel, but it is not the main place. Eastern Washington, with its coulees, cowboys and Indians, large rivers and dams, wind and sage, is the backdrop.
I love the west, the mountains, open expanses and ruggedness. I can’t imagine living anywhere else (although Europe for a year would be a dream) or writing about other landscapes. That being said, California, even northern California, is very different than eastern Washington. I would argue that California is different than all the other state in the West. For example, I live almost an hour north of Sacramento in a farming town with a Sikh and a Hindu temple. Within forty five minutes of my house, and surrounded mostly by rice fields and orchards, are numerous junior colleges, two state universities and a U.C. Roadside fruit stands line the highways selling locally-grown figs, kiwis, almonds, you name it. In my novel, California is a place of refuge for Kate, my protagonist’s mom. And it is where she chooses to raise Emmy, her daughter and my protagonist. It’s a safe haven, but not the blood and guts or heart of the novel.
In my short stories, characters are eager to leave eastern Washington. Just as I was eager during high school to escape the sagebrush and miles of “nothingness.” And so I did. But as I grew older, I realized how much, like it or not, I had been shaped by the landscape of my childhood. I had left it, but it hadn’t left me. Returning for visits, I began to see beauty where before I saw ugliness. I had to accept the starkness of my homeland, and once I did, the place captivated me. I longed for the coulees, the wind, and even the sage. I especially longed for the rivers. Emmy is my first character to yearn for eastern Washington. Hers is the first migration north, rather than south.
Q: Your protagonist’s mother runs away from her hometown and the fundamentalist Baptist Church. Do you have a personal connection to the church?
A: I grew up in two different Baptist churches, the second one being far more fundamentalist. I have many anecdotes. I remember, as a teenager, rafting down the Snake River in a long dress. Girls weren’t allowed to wear pants, let alone swimsuits, even for outdoor activities. Each year on the Fourth of July, families gathered at the church to watch apocalyptic movies. I was educated through the tenth grade in an unaccredited basement academy by deacons’ wives, some of whom, like my mom, hadn’t even finished high school themselves. Students were instructed to circle the church should state or federal agents try to close down our school. For a while our church became paranoid of devil worship (it was the 1980s after all). Signs and symbols became evil: McDonald’s golden arches, Proctor & Gamble’s astrological logo, and so forth. A segment of our church didn’t believe in going to the doctor for any reason. My parents weren’t part of this segment. We weren’t allowed to own a TV, radio or secular books. The public library was as off limits as the movie theatre—in part because of the atheist manifestoes and pornography that supposedly lined its shelves, but also because by the door was a totem pole. I snuck to see E.T. with a cousin when I was a young teenager and literally feared God’s wrath for months.
However misguided, the church, in particular the less fundamentalist one, gave my family a needed sense of community. Eastern Washington is an isolated place. The overall population is small. Individuals and individual families in much of the rural west tend to stick to themselves. On top of that, the landscape can seem empty, overwhelming, indifferent. In the church we had a large extended family. I still love some of those church members dearly, although I’m not in touch with any of them. My characters, Beth and Matt, are partly a reflection of that abiding love.
Q: Without revealing too much, what does the title STEAL THE NORTH mean?
A: The title evokes the Native American myths in the novel. It also evokes native myths in a larger context. Coyote, Raven, and other Animals—in the time before humans—stole the sun, stole fire from the Sky People, stole each other’s wives, stole food, tails, fancy clothing. Emmy steals the north (her birthright) from her mom, the dad she’s never met, and even her beloved aunt and makes it her own. Reuben and Emmy steal the north for themselves: by taking long drives, but also in the way lovers take intimate possession of places. And then, of course, the north was stolen from the Indians by whites.
Q: Spirituality is a strong theme in STEAL THE NORTH. How did you start to make comparisons to the Christian church and Native American spirituality and culture?
A: I kept coming across parallels while writing this novel between the Christian church and Native American spirituality and culture. The healing ceremony that brings Emmy to eastern Washington for the summer doesn’t seem as bizarre after Reuben explains that his people still have healing ceremonies at the end of the twentieth century. Reuben admits he is a “sweat lodge junkie.” His confession makes Emmy’s conflictions with purity seem not as ridiculous. I did not set out to equate these two very different religions and cultures, but I kept finding parallels. If nothing else the Native American spirituality in Steal the North tempers the harsher Christianity. In reality, many tribes have melded their native religion and Christianity. This melding drove the early missionaries nuts. I find it beautiful. A grave on the Colville Reservation often has a cross, a feather, maybe also a basketball, a pile of rocks, and a Bible.
Q: What inspired you to write Native American characters?
A: I grew up between the two largest Indian reservations in Washington State: the Colville and the Yakama Reservations. Grand Coulee Dam divides my home county from the Colville Reservation. I was born in Moses Lake, Washington, a town named after Chief Moses, whose descendents live on the Colville Reservation. Native Americans are very much part of the area where I grew up. There’s extreme prejudice against them for being “drunks” and “lazy,” for being allowed to fish in places where whites can’t (part of their treaty rights), and lately for being allowed to help manage some of Washington State’s natural resources. I wasn’t taught as a kid to respect or even recognize the existence of these marginalized people—in fact, the opposite.
Our Christian school took frequent fieldtrips to the enormous dams on the Columbia River. Dams scared the hell out of me, so I’d sneak into the tiny Native American cultural centers adjacent to the visitor centers. The museums fascinated me. I didn’t realize as a young girl that the museums were afterthoughts by the Bureau of Reclamation: a nifty place to display the tattered remains of indigenous cultures whose centuries-old and sacred fishing sites were now drowned forever in backwater.
Most places in eastern Washington (rivers, towns, dams, schools, lakes) are named after Indians, as if to honor them, but in reality Native Americans live for the most part in extreme poverty. You can drive on highways and roads in eastern Washington, where to the left is reservation land and to the right is non-reservation land. The difference is incredibly sad and unfair. Native Americans in Washington state have survived, despite everything whites have done to their land and heritage. Just as I think contemporary southern literature is still haunted by the legacy of slavery and racism against blacks, so is western literature haunted by the near annihilation and continued marginalization of the Indian. In a way, through the act of writing Steal the North, I stepped back into those tiny museums.
The last three summers I have returned to eastern Washington to do research on the Colville Reservation and along the upper Columbia. For years I have done extensive reading and research on Pacific Northwest and Plateau Indians. But most importantly, I lived by the Colville Reservation for eighteen years. I went camping and fishing as a child on the rivers and lakes that border the reservation. People and place names such as Okanogan, Tonasket, Methow, Chewuch, Wenatchee, Wanapum, Cle Elum, Klickitat, and Suquamish were easy for me to pronounce.
Perhaps it’s because I grew up so isolated (geographically and in the church) that I feel compelled to represent Native Americans who are even more isolated in the same part of the country. Their isolation keeps them united as a people, as a nation, but it leaves them without jobs and resources. The landscape of eastern Washington—the coulees, sage, wind, rivers, lakes—is shared by whites and Indians. It has shaped both cultures. The main difference is that Indians have lived on the land for thousands and thousands of years. The land holds the bones of their ancestors. They see themselves as the appointed caretakers. The legends that explain the land originated in their languages. Their spirits continue to linger, as Chief Seattle warned whites, everywhere. I sensed these spirits as a child. You just had to listen. I’ve always been a listener. And I’ve always been an observer. Too often people think of Indians as relics from the past. My novel shows them as they are nowadays: kids in high school, struggling with algebra and playing football; healthcare workers; dancers at powwows; riders at rodeos; teenagers cruising in trucks and eating gas station nachos; old people waiting at medical clinics; all ages drumming at churches; elders wearing Nikes and praying beside creeks for the salmon to return.
Q: When you form characters do you ever incorporate aspects from people you know?
A: Absolutely. My characters are a mix of the following: reflections of people I’ve known, my imagination, and careful observations of strangers. Beginning fiction writers are sometimes afraid to look at the people they’ve known through the lens of fiction. They feel they must record the truth to the minutest detail. And truth is important, but the only truth they must be faithful to is the truth of art. Just because something really happened to your aunt or your neighbor does not automatically make it truthful in fiction. In fact, sometimes the complete opposite of real life works best in fiction. A personal example: in real life it was my mother, not my father, who was the religious heavy. So while fiction is certainly informed by real life, it by no means has to adhere to it. My favorite type of characters to write are the ones that seek me out, like Rueben in Steal the North. I did not plan to have him narrate, but he jumped off the steps of his sister’s back porch and said, “Hey, let me tell my story.” His chapters practically wrote themselves. On the other hand, Kate was the hardest character to crack—probably because she hit too close to home. I rewrote and rewrote her chapter.
Q: Who would be in your dream book club? Where would you meet and what would you talk about?
A: My absolute dream book club would be with all the writers I deeply admire, except Shakespeare, who should remain in his lofty orb. The book club would take place on the banks of the Columbia River. With George Orwell, I would talk politics and current affairs. With Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and Leo Tolstoy I would talk characterization of their impressively complex female characters (Tess, Isabel, Anna). With James Baldwin I would talk about humanity. With Louise Erdrich, Alice Munro, Harper Lee, and Jhumpa Lahiri I would talk craft (or rather beg them for lessons). With Emily Dickinson, well, we would just sit in silence and watch the river. A real life book club would include people from all walks of life: other writers, avid readers, working class, housewives, librarians, teachers, waitresses, farmers, scientists. But any book club sounds fun to me. I have never lived in a town with a bookstore.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am working on a second novel. It is similar to Steal the North in that there will be multiple narrators, land is important, and love is central. Main difference: the characters definitely misbehave more in this second novel.