Bruce Holbert, the author of the gorgeously written novels Lonesome Animals and The Hour of Lead was kind enough to consent to an interview. Those of us who value the written word should find much to appreciate here.
First, feel free to give us a little biography, let us know who you are, the man, that is.
My dad was a construction worker, so as a little guy, I grew up all over the state of Washington. We lived in nearly twenty different towns before I turned six and started school. At that point we returned to the Grand Coulee area, where my grandparents lived. My maternal grandparents migrated from Wisconsin to work on the dam. My paternal grandparents were original homesteaders in the area between Grand Coulee and Bridgeport. This is where I grew up, though there were several side trips in between.
I went to college in a local public university and had a mediocre academic career. I did discover I had some writing chops thanks to several writers and visiting writers in the program who took some times scraping off the rough edges instructors. I ended up with a teaching certificate and four five years taught high school and coached about every sport offered. The school was tiny (less than a hundred students grades 9-12). Teaching was one of the first things I turned out to be good at. It was a comfortable gig and I felt successful. Living in a tiny town was at first comforting and safe.
Then I applied and was accepted into The University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, where I really began to learn the difference between promising work and work that moved toward fulfilling that promise. By then I was married and my wife and I wanted to start a family, so I opted to return to the certainty of my high school teaching experience rather than the lottery the itinerant college writing instructor offers. But I cared about my job and my kids and my wife so writing remained in the margins. The result was I published only sporadically until I finally sold Lonesome Animals when I was fifty-two. Recently, writing has started to take care of some of the bills, so I left teaching after thirty years and am writing full time. At this point I am in the middle or just finishing several projects at once, which is how I have worked for years now.
First things first, a gush. I simply love your novel Lonesome Animals. It’s tough, rugged, insightful, human. I could go on and on, which I have in my review here on this very page.
With that said, allow me to ask, in concocting the character of Arthur Strawl, did you have real personages in mind, or is he a whole-cloth imagining?
My father’s father was murdered by his grandfather, Arthur Strahl. So the book started with me trying to figure out the emotional place a person would have to reach to kill your son-in-law and make your daughter a widow. At the same time, my dad was beginning to give me bits and pieces history from that event. It had been forbidden to speak of while his mother was alive. But after she passed, he began to let me in on some of the details. Recently, he discovered his father’s headstone in an abandoned cemetery and he and I have plans to add a monument for my grandmother. But, to answer your question more directly, he is almost all invention aside from the few historical details I had access to.
Your depiction of the Reservation in the novel struck me as “Yep, that’s about the size of it”; do you have personal knowledge of the sometimes less than ideal conditions of reservation life?
Well, I would say it is, hopefully, an accurate description of the reservation at that time. The Dawes Act had recently destroyed what little was left of native culture. I think more recently there is much more hope on reservations and a resurgence of cultural awareness and identity. Grand Coulee is only a few miles from The Colville Indian Reservation, which is a combination of twelve small local tribes the BIA shoved together for the sake of convenience.
You write violence well. I mean that as a compliment. To my mind, there is a difference between writing/reading an action scene where we get a sort of vicarious “Rah-rah!” feel from whatever is occurring ala a theme-park ride; whereas your grasp of portraying the violent strikes me as both “Yeah, I’m reading this because it is action” but I am also painfully aware of the implications, physical, mental, and moral of what is or has occurred. Do you have any insights into your perspective on portraying violence?
When writing even at the edge of the Western genre, one must always be aware of the familiar expectations of readers regarding violence. It is often perceived as redemptive or biblical justice. I didn’t want to repeat that trope. In fact, I hoped to counter it without rejecting the entire enterprise. So, the violence that the killer does is in some ways beautiful and mysterious, symbolic, though what it becomes symbolic of is not justice but a twisting of the story in general. The violence we see on the page concerning the killer is almost always after the deed is done, so we are looking at it as finished work. The violence in action I wanted to be strange and weird, but to lack justice. I wanted them to be overkill, or performed for practicality, rather than in defense of some moral ideal.
I hope you don’t mind the comparison, but your work strikes me in the mold of Cormac McCarthy and James Carlos Blake, and I mean that company as a supreme compliment. Are you admirers of these authors by any chance?
From your pen to God’s ear my friend. McCarthy was an early influence and continues to be a high bar I try to reach. It’s a long way up, though. I would say I was influenced by his care in language most of all. He is the only writer I know who has been described as Faulknerian accurately. His vision, though rooted in violence, I think is substantially more developed than mine and it differs in essential ways. He sees violence as mythic. Not just American West mythic, but Iliad mythic. My view is often a response to the ideas present in the America western mythos. I grew up inside it. It has damaged me and made me dysfunctional for much of my life. Myths are designed to guide you through a life in a meaningful, productive way. The American west offers a myth, that if you follow it, will land you in prison or alone on a bar stool.
Back to the protagonist of Lonesome Animals, Arthur Strawl. Giving nothing away, you build a man that is on one hand iconic and familiar and then pull the rug out from underneath us with a bit of grim honesty that inverts what we think of the man. It’s as if we see Gary Cooper as the benevolent lawman and then discover something diametrically opposed about him, and these two ideas continually collide. We never quite stop empathizing with Strawl, although it might be best if we did. May I ask the evolution of this clash of dark and light within one man?
I think you hit the nail on the head. I wanted to get beyond the familiar type with Strawl. But I couldn’t do that without travelling through the type to what’s under it. It’s strange, people often comment on the level of violence in the book; many object to it. However, there is a tendency to equate violence with justice in the west, so I was required to go over the top to make certain readers didn’t revert to reading Strawl as a stereotype.
Let’s talk your second novel, The Hour of Lead. I’ve chosen a five-sentence passage from the first page to give the readers an insight into what they are dealing with.
“In this country, loneliness was unassailable law. A man weighted his heart by the number of sleepers under his roof when the lights went out and a woman by the number of eggs in the skillet mornings. The distance between souls, however, remained incalculable. Blood made them kin, yet a heart does not beat solace or joy. One must hunt that in others, and others remained few and far apart.”
That brief passage drips with the reality of homesteading far-flung environments. How much research, historical or location visits do you put in to capture that desolate feel?
I live here. That’s all that is necessary. It’s still this way, despite airplanes and automobiles. The distance is in our heads.
A blizzard plays a large part in this novel. You write weather well. Ernest Haycox has a blizzard scene in his classic novel Bugles in the Afternoon, that I regard as bone-chillingly honest, on-point, and unforgettable. Yours, well, beyond being a lengthier weather event, is downright painful. It makes you want to reach for the thermostat while reading. Again, I ask: good research or personal experience?
I actually was inspired by Ron Hansen’s short story “Wickedness”. I read it and immediately wanted to write about such a storm. As things often happened, soon enough there was an opportunity to.
So far, your novels, including the upcoming Whiskey are set in the Pacific Northwest and all employ lush observations coupled with some less than pleasant circumstances. In a sense, you strike me as doing for the Pacific Northwest what Tom Franklin does for the Deep South and Daniel Woodrell does for the Ozarks. What’s the pull of the region and the leaning towards the less than happy side of things?
Well, again, high praise in such comparisons. I suppose I focus on this place because it is so fruitful for story. It crawls with metaphors and contradictions and just plain weirdness. I’ve had editors ask me how I come up with my stories. Mostly I just sit in the tavern and listen. I do think when you write about a place as much as I have that the place becomes mostly a geographic location between your ears. It becomes less and less an actual depiction of the place and more and more your impressions, which are often quite dated, married to what you do to create stories.
Speaking of Whiskey, feel free to pass along any information you’d like regarding it. It’s already in my to read queue upon release.
With Whiskey I am with a new publisher and editor (FSG/MCD) which I am excited about. It comes out March 8. The book is more contemporary, though it does take place in the coulee. It is far less historical and not related to other particular genres like mystery or crime. It’s About two brothers and a family who can’t quite get it together and often the reason is the rest of the family.
Influence time. What authors or works inspire you? Who turns your creative crank or simply makes you envious with their craft?
Too many to list. Jon Berger, Cormac McCarthy, Woodrell, Carver, Chekhov, Jim Welch, Babel, Larry Brown, Robert Stone, Faulkner, William Gay, Alice Munro, Flaubert’s tales. Flannery O’Connor, Elizabeth McCracken, John Keeble, Bobbie Ann Mason, The Old Testament, Shakespeare, of course, more so now than when I was in school. James Wood and Harold Bloom’s criticism. Francine Prose’s great book on writing you mentioned. The best book I’ve read recently is Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts. It’s brilliant and new and impossible to completely get my head around which is part of its greatness. Also, my son is a pretty outstanding poet, and he has introduced me to writers like Anne Carson, Louise Gluck, and Frank Bidart who manage to stuff in a page more than I can in three hundred pages.
I’ll ask another form of the same question. Who or what books do you go to for your guilty pleasures, so to speak? Not necessarily to learn from, but when you look at the page you simply think, “It may not be literature, but I sure do like it.”
Well, my definition of literature is pretty broad. I’d say history is something I enjoy. I don’t know if it counts as literature. The new biography of Grant is on my nightstand right now. I am enjoying graphic novels, Crumley’s detective books, Peckinpah’s movies.
I want to thank you again for taking the time and providing me with two excellent reading experiences and much food for thought. I look forward to Whiskey and whatever else you cook up in the future.