interview by Sheila G. Miller | photography by Tim LaBarge
Brian Doyle writes about Oregon the way Oregonians want it to be: with mountains and rivers and animals and insight and beauty. His book Martin Marten (MacMillan) won the Oregon Book Award for young adult literature. Doyle, the editor of University of Portland’s magazine, has a new collection of stories, The Mighty Currawongs (Red Hen Press), as well as a book of what he calls “proems” and a new novel coming out in April.
How much does Oregon’s landscape inspire your books? It’s certainly a feature in Martin Marten and Mink River.
Both of those novels, I think, are soaked in Oregonness, a great word I stole from (Oregon writer) Robin Cody. There is such a thing, and it has to do with rain and courage and mud and a general disinterest in class and money and power, a general communal interest in cheerful creativity and tall tales and holding hands against the dark. Mink River, I think, was an unconscious attempt to write down Oregonness and coastness as a way of saying thanks to Oregon for twenty-five years of gifts to me. Martin Marten is clearly absorbed by mountainness and the millions of other species that share Oregon with human beings.
Martin Marten is described as a young adult book. Did you set out to write a YA book, or did it just come out that way?
I never think about it, to be honest. I did want Martin to be read by anyone age 10 and up, but I never aim at an audience. I have no idea what’s going on in my novels until I am done with them, and even then readers see way more than I do; I love visiting book clubs because people are so piercing and eloquent about my books, and I learn a lot. The only way I can figure out what’s going on is to keep typing.
Where did the idea for Martin Marten come from?
With Martin, I wanted to write a book in which two animals, one human and one mustelid, have the same weight as characters. So much of our literature treats other animals as pets, sidekicks, enemies to be slain to prove manhood. This seems terribly arrogant to me. Plus marten are totally cool. Who wouldn’t write a book about a marten, given the urge?
A lot of writers would kill for the voice that comes out in your writing. Is that voice the same one in your head all the time, or did you develop your writing voice separately?
This made me laugh—I just did a reading at which a lady came up to me afterward and said, “I always wondered why you wrote so weird, but now that I hear you talk I know why.” Hmm. I want to write like we talk and think—we don’t talk and think in polite formal short terse sentences, but in loopy free sinuous serpentine associative riverine salty musical ways. I love that and want to catch the playful vibe of language. I am obsessed with being clear in prose, but as long as you are clear you ought to be able to have fun with the American language.
How does your day job inform your fiction writing?
Being an editor, and being at a university where there are thousands of people of all ages and stages and musics, is great for me as a writer—endless flurries of ideas and stories and voices. Fiction at its best can get deeper toward truth than fact and nonfiction can, I think. And being an essayist first has been great for me as a fiction writer because the essay is always about the naked voice, the loose loopy freedom to play, the fact that you have no idea what the destination is in a piece of writing—you take a line out for a walk with an essay, you take an idea out for a stroll with a novel.