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Books by Barry Lopez
Lessons from the Wolverine
If, when you are reading the work of Barry Lopez, you occasionally feel you're glimpsing a shadow of the man who wrote it, don't believe it. Lopez is adamant that the writer should not intrude on the reader without good reason. "It really is not about me, except the part of me that is my imagination." This is not a matter of privacy. Rather, Lopez is concerned about the integrity of his relationship with his readers and the trust he has with them. "I don't believe the reader needs to know very much about me. If something happens to me that's an informing part of a larger story, yeah I'll tell it without a qualm. But most of the time I'm guarding against that, thinking: Wait a minute, exactly why do we need to know about you here?"
The 56-year-old writer has been a resident of Oregon for the last 30 years. Born in an agricultural part of southern California, Lopez was transplanted to New York City when his mother remarried when Lopez was 11. The author of eight book-length collections of short fiction, a novella length fable and six works of non-fiction, Lopez is a recipient of a National Book Award for Arctic Dreams.
Known most popularly as a nature writer, Lopez might be more accurately described as a writer's writer. His thoughts on the process and practice of writing are well-polished and when he speaks on the subject -- something he does with little prompting -- he does so with articulate passion. "You have an obligation to be engaging and that means using language in ways that make it sparkle for people."
The language in Lopez' most recent book, Light Action in the Caribbean, at times sparkles with an almost numbing intensity. Lopez is noted for the concision of the language he uses in his short fiction and this latest work shows Lopez' talents to good advantage. The stories are varied in tone, subject matter and location, moving from the modern American West, Peru, China and, as the title suggests, the Caribbean. "I want somebody to read a collection of short stories and say, 'Yeah, they were all different but there's something that kind of holds all this together.'"
Linda Richards: Light Action in the Caribbean is your first work of fiction in six years?
Barry Lopez: My first collection of fiction in six years. The stories in Field Notes were akin to these stories. They were fiction. And since then there was a book that came out two years ago called About The Life which was a collection of essays. People use the terms so casually: essay, memoir, it's all sort of relatively confused, I think, for the person looking to find out: What's the potential here for truth for me as a reader? But my work is very traditional in the sense that non-fiction is a world of very consciously thought out ideas or events that can be verified outside my experience. Whereas short stories are a much less intentional form.
I don't know where a story is going when I start. I don't have a point to make. If you have a point to make that, to me, is an essay or literary reporting or whatever the term is for reportage that is informed by a larger awareness of social, political and ethical questions. But these stories in Light Action in the Caribbean are almost entirely made up. There is a story in there, "The Letters of Heaven" which is based on the real lives of two saints. But where I take them, as far as I know, they didn't go. It's just something I made up.
You say you start a story with no idea of where it's going. Is it a sort of stream of consciousness that takes you?
No, I don't think it's stream of consciousness and I don't mean to be flippant about it because it sounds casual to say: Well, I don't know where it's going, I just sit down and start. As though, either you were brilliant or you had a great connection to the universe and it just poured through you.
The preparation for a short story for me is largely unconscious in that I can't sit down and put on a piece paper: I'd like to talk about these events, my experience and sort of work my way toward a feeling of well-being in humanity or something. What happens to me, because I work with narrators that are more 19th than 20th century, in the sense that the narrators are not me and I don't mean that as a clever kind of mask, you know: This is not about me. It really is not about me, except the part of me that is my imagination. So, the way a story most often starts for me is I will hear -- actually hear -- a sentence. And that will be the first sentence of the story. And then I will maybe have that sentence in my head for two seconds or 20 years sometimes. But I'll sit down at the typewriter and type that sentence and then I'll get what the next sentence is and I'll have a feeling for where this is going. But the narrator of my story -- because most of my stories are first person narrators -- they're all different people. But they are generating where the story is going. I've sometimes consciously thought: Well, you know, most of my first person narrators participate in the same ethical universe of which I'm a part. I'm not writing in the first person voice of Hannibal Lecter. But I did once think: I wonder what would happen if I tried to write in the first person and had as the narrator somebody I didn't like and I despised? So I did. And that story is in Light Action in the Caribbean. It's the story called "Rubén Mendoza Vega."
I expect that most adults who read work of mine will know that I am aware that most of us have been on our knees in a room alone at some point in our lives wondering: Why push it any further? Why not just God take me now and end this misery? And every one of us has experienced to some degree -- and some to a terrible degree -- cruelty visited upon us in an unjust way. So I expect people to know all of that and what I want to do as a writer is write credibly about the other thing. That is: Is it possible to have a worthy life? Is it possible, for most of us who are not saints, to live in a place where we feel ethically comfortable with what we're doing and feel capable of love and capable of receiving love? Can we actually attain those things or are we just part of the disaster downline from the industrial revolution and the Age of Empire. And I think it is and that's what I write about.
When I wrote this character, Rubén Mendoza Vega, I thought I was writing [about] somebody I despised. And on the surface he is. He's a pedant. He's completely unaware of his own son's suffering and why his son committed suicide and he's an insufferable self-referential personality. But what I realized after the story was over was that I have some compassion for him because [beyond the] elaborate ruse of footnotes and bibliography is a man living in denial. In the end of the story I really don't despise him. I feel compassion for him and just want to take him aside and say: Why don't you just let all this stuff go? Just let it all go and think: Why did your son take his life? Maybe one of the reasons that he did is something that could be the pry bar to open up your own life and at the end of your life now have a real life instead of being the pedant that you are.
Do you find you want to give your characters sympathy so that the reader can relate to them rather than just being voyeuristic over someone else's misfortunes?
Oh yes, I think so. I think it's a good question because there are many frames of mind that you can take as a writer. I don't think any one of them is right and the others are wrong. But my frame of mind in non-fiction is that I much prefer -- am only capable really -- of being the reader's companion rather than the reader's authority. I don't believe in definitive books. I don't think anyone has ever written a definitive book. Because the nature and scope of human imagination -- our ability to know -- is so immeasurable and so uncontainable that only an idiot would claim to have written something definitive. So you can't really be the reader's authority except in a limited sense. And you can only in non-fiction be an authority insofar as the reader grants you that authority. If you start out on page one telling us all that you know in kind of pompous tone of voice, most readers are holding you about that far away. Unless they're susceptible and non-analytical and in a frame of mind to get into celebrities or something, you know. Television is full of people who never experienced international terrorism who are suddenly on television telling us about international terrorism because their music tours have taken them to the Far East or something. So the only position for me to maintain in non-fiction as a writer is a companionable stance in which I think ethically I am concerned for the reader. I have asked the reader for his time or her time and I owe to that reader a level of research and conception and execution that measures up to the time you've asked for.
Fiction is a different thing.
Long fiction, short fiction or both?
Both. Fiction is a different animal from non-fiction short or long, essay or long book. Over here with non-fiction the linchpin is factual truth. What's going on has got to be based in a factual world that is shared by everyone. So if you say: The Prime Minister did this, then you've got to be able to look that up at the library and see that that's what he did, otherwise it falls apart. The basis for fiction is emotional truth. It's got to be the case that the reader reading the work of fiction says: This is plausible, this could happen. I know this. And one of the reasons I would say that is in non-fiction you're often reading something that maybe you didn't know.
What happens in fiction is people most often say: I knew that, but I'd forgotten that. That is how we are or that is how our emotional landscape is. But you very rarely read anything in fiction that you don't already know; you're just reminded of what you forgot. So it's a different thing, to answer your question about what the relationship is in fiction with the reader, but I think for me it's the same general idea. My concern is for the fate of the reader. For the fate of the community of which I am a part. Which, in many instances, has for me no racial or national or class boundaries. And when I look at my mail that's what reflected. The people I hear from are not primarily from a country, from a gender, from a race or from a class. They are people who are writing often in a state of high seriousness about what they want to make of their lives and how reading the story has reminded them of what it is that they're trying to do.
When you say "looking at your mail," you're talking about letters from readers?
Yes. And there are many, many times where I've started to cry because someone has opened themselves up on the page. People in their letters are straining to say: Thank you for saying that there is another human being that is concerned about these things. Well, it may in the reader's mind be confused with me as the writer or me as the author or narrator: it might get confused in there somewhere but what they're saying in essence is: Your story touched me and as a result of that I have once again dedicated myself to taking seriously these questions in my mind. And not being misled by all the superficial cacophony that defines things for most of us from the time the alarm clock goes off until we go to bed at night.
You know, my ideas about story really are shaped by time I spent with aboriginal people in the high Arctic in Canada and in Alaska and the Northern Territory in Australia. I think when I was a very young man I wanted credibility and I saw that if I had some kind of truck with native peoples that it gave me a kind of authenticity. Well, it's an adolescent thing and you live through it and you come out on the other side and you think: I get it, they're them, I'm me. I need to know something they know so I'm going to be an apprentice here for a while and then I'm going to go back and say it imperfectly to my own people.
So what is it about story? If you try to strip away the commerce of it and this nonsense about celebrity, what is it, really, that story is supposed to do? Well, a good guess is that, because it's been around for a very long time, it probably is a bulwark against something that threatens to collapse: a social unity or gathering of protein. It probably has some very positive function in among groups of human beings.
And then there's record keeping and communication.
Whatever it does, we need it. So, what I'm trying to do is figure out -- not figure out actively, but participate in a process of understanding: What are you supposed to do as a writer? I mean, we all know what you're not supposed to do: it's not about you. Telling a story is not about you. It's about us. And how is it legitimately about us? Can it be about you and still be about us? Oh, yeah: You just have to learn how to tell the little story in terms that don't put it at odds with the big story and then the reader can say: Oh that's my story. That's me. So I guess I'm somebody who believes that in the middle of a piece of fiction if we think we're reading about the author, things are less than good. What do we really need to know that for?
Are there exceptions to that?
There are exceptions to everything.
There's been a tremendous resurgence in interest in the memoir form. And 'Tis was certainly about Frank McCourt. That's maybe too specific, but I'm not always sure that this sudden hunger for memoir is a good thing.
Memoir is a special deal, but I think you're under the same burden as a writer. Is what happened to you legitimately something that we should explore to understand what happens to us?
So when we introduce 'I'...
I don't care about "I." What I care about is, why are you asking the reader to be here? What's in this for the reader?
Do you feel it's your duty to leave yourself out of it?
Selectively. I don't believe the reader needs to know very much about me. If something happens to me that's an informing part of a larger story, yeah I'll tell it without a qualm. But most of the time I'm guarding against that, thinking: Wait a minute, exactly why do we need to know about you here? It could be that, in the memoir it's a good idea: very illuminating. And I think it's a thing of age. Two years ago when this book came out called About This Life I thought: I've been doing this for 35 years. I've met a lot of extraordinary people and seen a lot of things. Maybe there is a legitimate reason to write about myself. So at the age of 55 you do something like that. I just think you should be cautious.
We live in a world in which everything is commodified. Everything is commodified. Human beings are commodified. Emotions are commodified. And we all know the terror that's there for us. We're utterly and completely alone. Completely alone. [I think that] most people in the United States live with the unexamined knowledge that they could fall off the face of the Earth and nobody would care. They'd just be replaced by something else: another person or something. The sense that your life is vital to the enterprise of life is not something a lot of people feel much assurance about. And so -- this sounds more grandiose than I mean it to sound -- I think of myself as a person in a community of women and men who write. Writers have some ethical obligation to reiterate what is important and lasting in human life and make it believable to grown-ups and not kind of a New Age theory about this or that or the other thing. But somebody can read it and say: This is the real stuff. This is dependable.
And yet it could be argued that part of the writer's job or function is to entertain.
Well, you're not going to get anybody's attention unless you entertain. The question is not: Is it entertaining? I think the word that's preferable is: Engaging. All of us have met academics [who], in long conversation, seem to have pretty interesting ideas. But the attitude that you have an interesting idea therefor somebody should listen to you is ridiculous. That's why we have writers. As a guy said to me once: These ideas of mine are brilliant and people should listen to them. And I was that close to saying: Well, if you could tell an interesting story, we would but mostly we don't care because you're boring us to death, buddy. [Laughs]
So yeah: I would say the same thing. You have an obligation to be engaging and that means using language in ways that make it sparkle for people. And taking a stance in your prose that allows people entry. You know there was, it seems to me, a whole period in American literature where the reader was not exactly the enemy but the reader was regarded as the uninformed entity who didn't know and was an ignoramus who was going to be informed by the writer. And so you got these novels where you felt: Hello? Hello? I'm the guy reading and I can't even get in here. I'm standing on the outside of this room looking in these windows and you're telling me about the world. It must be cool from your point of view, but what am I doing here reading about you [when all you're going to do] is let me look in these windows? Or, worse, you've invited me into the room that you've built, but you're not a very bright person and this is a pretty boring room and there's nowhere to go. When Melville sets this novel Moby Dick on the ocean, one of the brilliant things about it is that Ishmael can't really see over the horizon, but he knows there's stuff there and so do we. That means that you as a reader are not limited by the scope of the writer's imagination. And that's what should happen in fiction.
People talk about writing as though it were a linear exercise. This happens and then this happens and then this happens, in this sequence. But what's really going on, I think, is the creation of a pattern. A set of relationships. The pattern is there in language. The characters are in place: there are all of these patterns. If the story is brilliant, it doesn't mean the writer is brilliant. It just means that the story is a particularly succinct and engaging rendition of life as we think we know it.
How do you establish that pattern?
Instinct and technique. When you're young, as a writer I think you have this tremendous reservoir of energy. You almost spit out these stories that are technically inept, often, but you do three a day. When you're in your 40s and 50s you write fewer stories, but more of them are successful because they're technically competent. So as you grow older, you're losing energy and gaining technique.
They're better technically, but also perhaps your understanding is better?
Your insight. You know how to fix something.
But not only that, your understanding of the human condition is greater. So there's more dimension.
Something can happen to you, as a writer, when you're young. Your life is a kind of trajectory. I did an interview with a woman a while ago and she wanted to talk to writers about the one or maybe two books that were most influential when you were young. And I said: Well, you know there's a sort of hidden false premise here. That is that you read a book and you want to imitate it. I don't think that happens for very many writers. What happens is, you read a book when you're 8 or 38 or 58 and at that juncture the emotional engagement is unusual. You're fully engaged with that book. But it doesn't mean that you want to write a sentence like that person wrote a sentence. What it could mean is that the way this is imagined has such integrity and [you] can see into it with so little trouble, I would like to write with that kind of integrity about something else.
I think in the popular mind it's assumed that writers crib or something. I mean, you pick a phrase up and you love it and it goes to work but serious writers are not reading a book and then trying to copy or write another book [like that]. It's antithetical to everything that drives your own writing. If you want to be a celebrity that's a different thing from a writer, though.
You know, you're right. People sometimes do have that idea.
They do. There's a lot of folklore about writers because people keep trying to turn it into a career or a vehicle for celebrity. [Someone once asked photographer] Annie Leibovitz if she ever wanted to be a writer or a movie star or a rock musician or something like that and she said: Well, if I had to I'd be a writer, she said, you can be well-known enough that the maitre d' will give you a good seat but not so well-known that someone will come over and interrupt your meal.
That's exactly right. And I think that's what makes it one of the better forms of celebrity.
Well, it can be, but what I'm thinking though is what happens if we get rid of the idea of the writer as celebrity or the writer as intellect. The writer as a genius of one sort or another. And simply see the writer as the person who is constantly creating in prose and poetry the patterns of the way we know that we are not cut off in the world. That we can find ourselves constantly in relationship to the physical world around us and to other people by imagining ourselves in these stories that we read. Or come away from a story with the feeling that: I get it. In the end it's not about the writer. So issues of celebrity have to do with another world.
But wait, aren't the things you're describing sometimes worthy of celebrity? I mean, if Dennis Rodman and Magic Johnson and all those people can be celebrities, then writers certainly should be. They should be recognized.
I don't have any problem with recognition, but celebrity is another issue. Celebrity means that you're a commodity that's expected to perform in a certain superficial way in society. I don't know how things with popular music go in your mind, but when I was growing up the focus of somebody for me who was a musician and a celebrity who was not about celebrity was a guy named Frank Zappa. And Tom Waits is that kind of singer today. If you listen to all of Tom Waits' music, you think: This guy is all over the map. Jung said once about Mohammed and Jesus: These guys were their own idea.
Now, Tom Waits is not in the same league. But he's his own idea. And that's what you have to be as a writer. And if you get turned into a celebrity and then buy into it, you cease being your own idea. You become somebody else's idea of yourself. I think this is probably true for most writers: A component of their psyche is insecurity. Some level of insecurity is always there. And you deal with it by connecting with the reader who says: I like this story. There's a component in there, I think, that's present for all writers. And a lot of writers are loath to admit it because it undermines some celebrity, I guess. But you want that connection. So if you get to a place where you get that connection, the temptation is to become the celebrity: to become the imitation of yourself.
Believe your own press.
Believe your own press because that's what will bring the adulation. But the adulation will be shallow. It will be the same as teenage girls screaming at the Beatles in 1961 or whatever it was. But all of us know writers whose lives have really turned into that. Their work has just stopped and they've started writing the same thing over and over and they've bought completely into this business of: Well, I'm me. And that keeps bringing me back to this issue of: What is it that all of us are doing?
Now correct me if I'm wrong, but what I'm getting from you on one level is that, in your writing anyway, you're trying to take away the ego of it. You're trying to make your technique as invisible as possible so that people get more of the story rather than seeing you or your technique.
I would say that. But I would also say that the reader knows when she picks up the book that the writer is not some neutral essence. That this is a real person with real strengths and flaws. What you want to know as a reader is: Could you give me enough about you so that I'll know in these first few pages how to get oriented. So as the story goes on I can remain flexible.
In non-fiction for example, in the first four or five pages there's a tone of voice. The tone of voice is: I know. If you make a mistake 50 pages into this book about something I know about, I'm maybe not going to read the rest of the book. But if your tone of the first few pages is: I've researched this as thoroughly as I could and I'm going to make some mistakes. And I'm reading along and I find something that is wrong, I'm just going to keep reading.
That relationship with the reader can't be based on the writer as a nobody and the story is everything. But the reader has to know of you in relation to them rather than what is it about you and your life and your love life and your politics and whatnot. See? So it's not a matter of divorcing your ego from your work. It's like courtship. If you really wish to have a relationship with another person, there's got to be an attitude of proposal rather than imposition. You have to propose the way that you see the world and then allow the person to accept or reject or propose. But if you say: I will impose these views on you, there's no chance for reciprocity. And if there's no reciprocity there can't be any relationship. The emphasis on the "I" is not the issue so much as the emphasis on the "I" in relation to the reader.
So I think if you read prose of mine, I come through very strongly, probably. Even in fiction. But, I hope it's never anything more than: Oh, this is a real person.
I really, really thought I felt you in "Stolen Horses" in Light Action in the Caribbean. I thought that might be young, rash you. Was it at all?
No. The title came to me years ago. One day I was driving in Idaho in an agricultural region called the Palouse. I came off this hill into this swale. It was late in the afternoon and I saw this light on horses that were right there. And they were all turning around each other: they were rotating and their ears were pinned back and their necks were rolling and their manes were coming up over their heads because of the rush of their own wind. There was just this swirl of bays and roans and appaloosas and paint horses. So I made notes on the seat beside me about all the different colors and the light. Then probably two years after that, I was driving in Northern California: driving in a slalom like this along a river and I heard this voice say: What we did was wrong, of course. And I thought: That's the guy that tells that story! That's how the story opens.
I went back to my house weeks later and I sat down at the typewriter and I wrote: What we did was wrong of course -- comma. And then the rest of the story just unfolded. But it was called "Stolen Horses" and all I knew about it was: That's the voice and they did something wrong and there's the visual. And that's the moment in the story that the narrator goes back to all the rest of his life. It's that moment when those horses were all there in the dark with him and they were loading them on the truck. It's a central image of his life: it's the last time he ever really understood himself.
Are you working on anything now?
I'm working on a non-fiction book that's set in five different places on the planet, so the scaling has changed. But I'm also finding now that for the first time in my life as a writer I think I see something that has the emotional complexity for me that I would like to have in a novel. Before this it was all in short story form.
You have not written a novel?
I've never written a draft of a novel, no. Everything I would think of, I would think: Well, that's interesting. But the way I write, I've heard people retell a short story of mine to somebody and have that person say: This is a short story? This sounds like a novel. But there's a concision of language there that I like and that I strive for. So writing a novel has been a tough thing for me to consider. How would I do that?
When I put Light Action in the Caribbean together [after] the first couple of stories I began to see that this might be headed toward a book. I want somebody to read a collection of short stories and say: Yeah, they were all different but there's something that kind of holds all this together. I want that to be there. That's part of my deal with: I'm going to ask you to read this. I don't want you thinking: Oh well, they just took a bunch of stories and jammed them in here. And I had about 10 stories that I was thinking about. As I got them near each other I saw that about seven would fit into the collection and I thought: I need about another five or six stories here. So I was fortunate to get a residency fellowship in Mexico. I could just go to a place and nobody would bother me and I could just write. So I finished the book there and I had 15 stories in the book. At the end I decided [that two of them] didn't belong there. But I'd already sent one of them to Linda Spalding at Brick. And Linda loved the story and had just published it. But in this issue of Brick it says that the story is one of the stories from Barry Lopez' new book, Light Action in the Caribbean. But it just happened too late in setting everything up for us to know, actually, that when it came right down to it that story was going to be removed. The reason I removed the story was it didn't fit well with the other stories: it made it more of a collection instead of a book. What I wanted to establish some kind of point from which there were these sorts of departures.
Where do you live?
Oregon. I've lived in the same place for 30 years.
Where are you from?
I grew up in Southern California. And then my mother married again and we moved to New York. So I grew up in agricultural Southern California. When I was 11 I moved to New York City and went to a Jesuit prep school, which meant you were there to go to school.
Right. And then I was at university for six years and then moved to Oregon in 1967 and that's where I've been.
And loving it, since you're still there.
Yeah. Same house. I'm very comfortable there. In the mountains, on the west slope of the Cascades. Forty miles from Eugene on the Mackenzie river.
What does the immediate future hold for you?
For this year and next year I want to be at home. I've arranged my life so that I'm not going to leave home but for a couple of times throughout 2001 and 2002 so that I can work on this non-fiction book, which is huge and/or this novel that is starting to emerge.
[And] a friend of mine, Alan Magee, is a painter I've known for many years. [For the last] six or seven years [he's] been doing monoprints of faces. They could be the faces of medieval people from a Brueghel painting where they could be futuristic, they could be black, they could be Asian, they could be men, they could be women: they're thoroughly human. Many of them are deeply wounded human beings, which nevertheless radiate a sense of composure and grace. Very strange. And his gallery in New York and his gallery in San Francisco were too disturbed by them to hang them, so he just opened a show in Berlin and it was a tremendously successful.
He and I have been talking about collaborating and doing a project: working with Alan and those faces and these shorter, fictive pieces that I want to work against those faces. And then I have wanted to do a set of poetic, in the sense that the language is very condensed, what I'm calling, in my mind, revelations about the place where I live. I want to do four sets of 13 to create against the four conventionally recognized seasons in the temperate zone, 13 observations about life for a husband and wife and two girl children living in the landscape that I live in.
That almost goes with the faces, doesn't it?
It's a similar energy that's driving it. And then there's this large novel and this large work of non-fiction. And it all sounds like: How can he do so much? But it's all the same overlap. There's a story in Light Action in the Caribbean called "The Deaf Girl" and there's something about that character where the narrator assumes all the way through the story that he knows what the girl needs to know, because he's an adult and relatively fixed in the world and when he sees this girl at the end, raped and wounded, he finally gets it that she's way ahead of whereever he is and that he needs to catch up with her, it's not her that needs to know anything from him. So the whole idea of him striking matches and holding them in front of his lips so she can read his lips is superfluous: He needs to listen to her. She's in a place where she's terribly wounded and yet beyond vengeance and schemes of justice. She's in some other place. And that character, one day when I looked at Alan's drawings, I thought: That's the deaf girl. That particular monoprint.
Tell me about the novel.
It's a novel in which the man who had suffered through a childhood trauma determines at some point in his life -- actually after his wife dies -- that he needs to go back and deal with those issues, which are sordid. He tells us in a kind of unadorned report what he's up to, in the first chapter. The second chapter is another narrator who is observing this man doing what he's talking about. So in the odd chapters we have this man unfolding the story and in the even chapters we have something like the more benign and compassionate voice of the universe observing this man. His dignity emerges not from what he tells us, but from what he doesn't tell us which is revealed [as the book goes on]. It's set in [a] rough-and-tumble coastal city in Columbia with a background of drug trafficking and corruption. | April 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.