by Ericka Taylor
Warren Read’s first novel, Ash Falls, is ostensibly driven by one two-part question: Will the recently escaped, convicted murderer Ernie Luntz return to the eponymous small mountain town still reeling from his violent act? And what will happen if he does? These questions are especially prominent in the minds of Bobbie, a high school nurse and Ernie’s ex-wife, and Patrick, their teenage son. While Ernie’s movements certainly generate tension—for the residents of Ash Falls and the reader—the novel is just as concerned with exploring the many ways in which multiple townspeople have bound themselves up in metaphorical cages.
The existence of these metaphorical cages isn’t always immediately apparent. Instead, Read masterfully weaves the plot of Ash Falls so that the connections between characters are slowly revealed, layer by layer. While these intersections may not be obvious from the start, the complexity of the characters themselves certainly is. Flawed and frustrated, Read’s characters take actions (or fail to) in ways that are completely believable.
Who the characters are in Ash Falls is at the forefront of the novel, even in terms of its structure. Each chapter is named for and centers on one particular character (or, occasionally, on a set of characters). These various perspectives not only expand the reader’s sense of what can be perceived as an objective fact, but they also help prevent characters from becoming one-note stereotypes. Hank, for example, is always more than a high-school-teacher-turned-pot-dealer. And Marcella is always more than teenaged bride wanting to grow up too quickly: Read allows her the naiveté a reader might expect, but he makes it her own, as when she thinks, “[I]t was probably what married people did anyway. Fight, curse, cry, and then go to sleep, and wake up in the morning like nothing ever happened, like the whole sad thing had been only a dream.”
There is much to praise about Ash Falls, from its well-developed characters to its strikingly atmospheric depictions of the Pacific Northwest, where “giant nurse logs lay rotting beneath blankets of moss and deer fern and pale yellow lichen, and tags of thick, rippled shelf fungus.” We’re grateful that Warren Read agreed to talk with Bloom about his novel.
Ericka Taylor: Ash Falls begins with an escape from a prison-transport vehicle, but the novel is just as concerned with characters who are trapped figuratively, held in place by everything from unhappy marriages to economic circumstances to the way they’re perceived. Did you intentionally set out to explore themes of freedom and confinement, or was that something that evolved as you wrote?
Warren Read: I was always intent on exploring the theme of confinement and emotional claustrophobia. Actually, the element of the mink farm materialized before Ernie’s story. I always knew there would be an Ernie, and that a literal imprisonment would figure into his narrative. But the idea of having him be at the center—kind of, the “emotional maypole” for the other characters—didn’t come until later.
ET: You’ve noted before that you’re drawn to stories of small-town life, and the community Ash Falls was partly modeled on the small town in the Pacific Northwest, Granite Falls, where your grandparents lived. What do you see as the narrative advantages of setting a story in a small town? Are there corresponding disadvantages associated with that setting?
WR: The advantage of this setting for me is the opportunity to look closely at how the character interacts with his or her surroundings, and the relationship that one (setting/character) has with the other. A small town sets up certain dynamics and unique challenges for the character: The struggle for individual identity, privacy, the direct impact one character can have on all the others. The writer can consider the idea of an intimate community as a microcosm of society as a whole, and explore how individuals navigating conflict reflect that.
As far as disadvantages go, just like it is with the characters, it can be confining to the writer. I really hoped to keep the entire story within the town of Ash Falls. When I found myself exploring places outside its borders I struggled with it. Consequently, I found that in some ways, even the characters felt this “shift,” as if they had accidentally discovered an open gate at the edge of their world, however briefly.
I worked so meticulously to create a world with which I was as familiar as the characters (even drawing out a detailed map of the town, identifying names and places which had meaning to each person). The places outside of Ash Falls were places I knew in my own life (Everett, parts of Seattle) so it was a different feeling writing those scenes. It actually felt more precarious and insecure. In the end, I do think it worked because it seemed that the characters shared those same feelings of anticipation, excitement or dread. If they did not have full domain over their lives in Ash Falls, they had absolutely no control when they were outside its borders.
ET: Your first book, The Lyncher in Me: A Search for Redemption in the Face of History, is a memoir about uncovering your great-grandfather’s role in the lynching deaths of three innocent men in 1920. Was it the discovery of that lost family history that led you to see yourself as a writer, or was that simply the impetus to dive into a field you already wanted to pursue?
WR: I would say the latter. I had always enjoyed writing and there were certain elements that I think always came easier to me. But I didn’t have the discipline to stick with projects when they got challenging. I’d lose interest, or confidence, too easily. With the discovery of the Duluth lynchings, my family’s role in it, and the wonderful work the current community was doing to seek healing, I think I saw a great necessity to try and tell my own story in relationship to it all. So it was not only a story I wanted to tell, but one I felt I needed to tell. That gave me both the motivation to learn what I could about memoir writing, and the determination to stick with it for the long haul.
ET: Could you tell us more about your writing journey up to that point? Were you a kid who wrote stories and plays? How did you come to appreciate the written word?
WR: I don’t recall a great deal of prolific writing I did as a child, only that for whatever reason the assignments related to writing (essays, primarily) came relatively easy for me. I know I could write out a coherent paper pretty quickly and do fairly well, grade-wise (though I was always the “B” student, never pushing myself to do the draft work needed for that A). In high school, I wrote for the school newspaper and was mostly called upon by the advisor to “clean up” other writers’ work.
In middle school through high school, one of my best friends and I would often write short stories and skits, and draw out graphic cartoons that we’d pass back and forth between us. She and I had the shared experience of growing up in pretty significantly dysfunctional households and, luckily, had both discovered our mutual coping skills of finding strange humor in our situations. These skits and comics and stories were horribly dark and probably inappropriate, though. I can’t imagine what would have happened if we’d actually shown them to anyone else!
I went through a phase in college where I was writing stories for my friends—sort of parody pieces that cast them (and co-workers) into scenarios that were kind of “burn after reading” pieces. From there, most of what I wrote was like that—fun, low-audience pieces usually wrapped around satire and dark humor. At one point I started an anonymous blog entitled, “Vivian Delacourt: A Woman on the Edge,” a serial, noir thing written from the point of view of the wife of a diplomat in the 1950s, who also happens to be a government assassin. It was a fun, experimental thing that was my sort of “secret” way to do something creative and subversive and weird. It still exists out there in the cyberworld, though I’ve not done anything with it in years.
In my late thirties I started to push myself to create something more substantial, but even then I was too focused on what would “hit” in the literary world, rather than what was interesting to me. I worried too much about what the next big thing would be, how I could “land” something, and of course my writing was forced and inauthentic and unsustainable. Like most aspiring novelists I have a few terrible novels buried in my filing cabinet. But I suppose I had to go through that.
I would say that the point at which I hit that “aha” moment as a writer was not until my early forties, when I discovered literature that clicked with me as a writer, that put on the page the kind of writing I really wanted to do (Ironically, my bookshelf up until then was primarily nonfiction). Kent Haruf, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Ron Carlson, Annie Proulx—there were writers whose words grabbed hold of me in the same way that Steinbeck and Hemingway had carried me through my high school years. I’d forgotten how language and depth of character could pull me in so completely. It was a domino effect, where I finished one and set out to find another in the same vein. That, and the sense that these stories paralleled the kind of films I loved most (films of Terrence Malick, Robert Altman, Gus Van Sant) showed me there was actually an audience for more quiet, contemplative, character-driven stories.
ET: Back to those contemplative characters in Ash Falls: The novel is populated by characters who are connected to each other in ways that aren’t immediately evident when we first meet them. As the novel progresses, those relationships are slowly revealed until the reader essentially “catches up” to the town’s collective knowledge. In fact, because the reader has access to multiple perspectives, the reader ultimately becomes more knowledgeable about certain key events than the town members are. How much were you consciously playing with how information travels or is distorted in communities?
WR: It was all intentional, though the precise threads of connectivity evolved over time. There were elements of backstory between some characters that I’d sketched out but never used. For instance, there is a rich narrative between Patrick, Marcelle and Bobbie that only lives in my notes. But I knew exactly the connections between each person when I began.
ET: The novel revolves around multiple core characters, and we get intimate access to each of them through your close-third POV. What was it like inhabiting the POVs and emotions of such a varied group of characters with such different motivations? What was your process and how did accessing each of those perspectives change you as a writer?
WR: I spent a good deal of time developing profiles of each character, using a variety of writing activities I’d learned over the years. For each person, I had a photograph tacked to a cork board over my desk. These were images I’d found online, or photos of people I knew whose likenesses inspired the character (forever anonymous, by the way!). I created interviews and backstories for each. Then with each chapter I’d pause, review all of my materials again (including what had happened to the person so far), and jump right in.
One exercise actually found its way into the book. In the chapter in which Bobbie walks through the grocery store and runs into both Patrick’s former counselor and Lyla, I wove in portions of what I call “habits and routines.” These are things about Bobbie that others might not know, the kinds of things she used to do, or still does, that provide the under-layer of who she is as a person. I did this kind of activity for each character and decided at a late date to include this in the book for her.
ET: Each chapter of Ash Falls is named for the character (or characters) whose story is central to that section. We first encounter Hank in a chapter titled “Hank Kelleher,” and later chapters are variously labeled, “Hank (Henry) Kelleher,” “Hank,” and “Henry Tomas Kelleher.” What were you conveying with these variations?
WR: As we get to know the person, the various nuances of even their names have meaning. The way friends or family refer to them, what their parents might have called them once. It’s that whole reality we all live, where we are one person at work and perhaps a different person when we are with our significant other, and a completely different person when we are alone in our bathroom under harsh lighting, staring at ourselves in the mirror. I also wanted to use the names as chapters because, in the end, the story is really about the people.
ET: The people in Ash Falls are not only trapped, in one way or another, but they also deal with their circumstances in largely unconventional ways. What do you enjoy about creating these transgressive characters, who are often so often struggling to escape?
WR: For me the challenge is to create characters that the reader can relate to, even if that character does not respond in ways that make sense to who we are as rational, relatively functional people. I try and seek pathways that are unexpected, yet plausible to both the character and the real world in general. Those of us who have lived through a dysfunctional world understand that the logical solution (“Why don’t you just leave?”) isn’t the reality of the person existing in that space that doesn’t always include logic. Emotions, fears, codependence and enabling are powerful drivers, and they can trap a person just as securely as a cage. Still, in spite of those obstacles, you have a person who refuses to stop searching for that escape, always determined to find the better place that he or she knows is waiting.
ET: Speaking of finding a better place…roughly a decade passed between the publication of your memoir and your enrollment in Pacific Lutheran University’s MFA program. What inspired you to pursue that degree?
WR: I’d always enjoyed writing but was still developing my craft and trying to find my voice as a writer. The memoir was a hard book for me in so many ways. I was a relative “novice,” the material was so personal and the structure of what I was trying to do was so complex. While it surely has its flaws, I am proud of it. But I’d always wanted to write fiction and I felt that after all that time—even with the experience of writing one book, numerous writer’s workshops, conferences and writing groups, I’d developed my skills about as much as I could on my own. I wanted a more intense focus, and the time was right in my life to jump in. It was a model and structure (low-residency, high/focused faculty engagement) that worked perfectly for me. I don’t regret it for a moment.
ET: What was different about your experience writing Ash Falls compared to The Lyncher in Me?
WR: With Ash Falls I felt so much of a greater freedom to tell the story I wanted to tell and direct the experiences of people who, though fictional, I had grown to care deeply about. It was also a more free-form kind of writing, where I sketched out an overall map of what I wanted to have happen, but did not outline it any way. With The Lyncher in Me, I had to structure it completely ahead of time, and there was such a feeling of self-consciousness the whole time. Was I representing these very real people fairly and accurately? Was I portraying myself in the way I’d hoped? I would say, though, that the greatest difference was (for this novel) the joy of being able to play with language, and to allow myself to view the world through the eyes of someone I had created completely from my own head.
ET: Our readers are especially interested in writers who publish their first books after the age of 40 and who have had other professional identities outside of their writing lives. You’re currently Assistant Principal at both Sakai Intermediate School and Bainbridge High School, and you’ve also taught 4th grade. How do you think having a career in education shaped you as a writer?
WR: I’d say that I have always tried to embrace for myself the same lessons I teach my students, about always seeking to improve my work, to listen with an open mind to feedback on my writing. I also try and live by the mantra that we are all constant learners, that as far as I have come with my own skills there is still so much more for me to learn.
ET: Since your memoir, you’ve published Ash Falls and a number of short stories, as well as written three plays. What writing are you working on now?
WR: I’m about 100 pages into a new novel. I don’t want to give too much away but I can say that it takes place in a small, rural setting—this time in northeastern Washington State. I was enamored by a term that one reviewer used to describe Ash Falls: “Grit Lit.” I would say that this new project is definitely within the same genre, perhaps even more so.
Ericka Taylor has served as the Assistant Fiction Editor and Assistant Managing Editor for the literary journal, Willow Springs, and is currently working on a novel.
Granite Falls image via Granite Falls Chamber of Commerce