* Throughout the interview, please insert a lot of class by JW, too many “Like-s” by GD, and the right amount of shared laughs. Thanks.


GD: How has your life changed since the release of The Mountain and the Fathers?

JW: I don’t know if it’s changed too much. I think the writing of the book was very important to me. It was cathartic, working through all these things, but also it felt like I’d finally told this story that had haunted me for a while. Some of the book came from pieces and essays I’d published previously in literary magazines. The challenge was to make a coherent narrative. But I really enjoyed working with my editor and gaining insight into how to better tell [the story], how to better shape it.

Having a book out is a funny thing. When you have a piece published in a literary magazine, there’s usually a built-in audience that comes with the magazine. There are so many people that subscribe, that visit the site each month. But with a book, there’s no such thing. It has to sell on its own. Part of the work of having a book published is trying to find those readers for it, to find that audience and hoping the product will connect with people. It’s been a lot of work, but it’s been a lot of fun finding those connections.

GD: Has there been at all a sense of new-found confidence, a sense of satisfaction that comes with publishing the book?

JW: Absolutely. That’s been there, and I think it’s been there since the book was picked up. I’m a poet as well, and I had one book of poetry published before The Mountain the Fathers, and another on the way (couple of months), so that’s definitely helped there. The first book of poetry was a big one. It felt like “I have the keys to the car now.” This one was different, of course, because prose is often a more marketable thing. My agent was involved, my editors were involved. It was a different ball of wax, but it gives you the same effect, that sense of confidence, that sense of knowing what it takes to put a book together.

GD: How long did it take you to complete The Mountain and the Fathers? How much is left on the cutting room floor, so to speak?

JW: A vast majority of work was done in the summer of 2010. I had a writing residency at the Blue Mountain Center, which was this beautiful, wonderful place in the Adirondacks in New York. I’d wake up at 7:30 and jump in the lake and then I’d have a cup of coffee and sit down and write for eight hours. I don’t know if I’ll have that opportunity again. I was there for a month, writing and revising and polishing. I presented a draft to my agent after that and it was picked up. The next summer I went through and did more revisions, shifting things around and getting it ready for the final draft.

One of the great things of having the residency was that I had so much time to write. I didn’t feel crammed or rushed or crunched. Sometimes you only have thirty minutes to an hour to write and you end up prioritizing, working on the very most important thing because that’s all there’s time for. But when you have eight hours a day to work on your writing, you can basically work on anything you feel like. So I did a lot of stuff that didn’t make it into the book, but it was fun to do, it was important to do. Some of it made into the draft delivered to my agent, some of it was cut by my editor. And some of those pieces, I salvaged, and made it into a piece published by Orion last winter (“Eleven Kinds of Sky”). There are still some sitting there that, one day, might turn into something though.

The power of writing is in the writing rather than in being done with the writing. The power is in the continued practice. You know, there’s that feeling that there’s always something more to do, which can be frustrating because you seldom get to sit back and rest. But it can be enlightening as well.

GD: The idea of place is a major theme in many of your works. Why do you think that is? How can place impact a piece?

JW: I lived in the same house from the time I was born to the time I left for college. And that definitely imprinted itself on me. I came from a place where the people ranched and farmed and spent a lot of time out on the land. If we were going to have fun, we’d go ride four-wheelers or go swim in the river. We seldom had other things to do, inside things to do. The land was important to me. And that seeped in. It’s never left. When I left Montana, it stayed with me, and it still stays with me. When I travel, when I see something that affects me deeply, that inspires and moves me about the new places, Montana is still there.

When I lived in Mississippi, the differences between the American South and the American West seemed shocking, and so interesting to me. Places mean a lot to me. If I were to make a wider cultural argument, it’s that place affects people a lot more than they’re willing to admit. We go online, or we fly on an airplane and we cover the nation in a couple of hours and we have the feeling that we go past a place. I don’t think that’s true. I don’t know about you, but if I’m on the Internet for half an hour or so, I get dizzy, and I literally can’t stand up straight, like I can’t stand in a place. I think it just catches up to us, whether we think that’s place acting upon us or not. It’s something I see that our culture perhaps doesn’t pay attention to, and maybe that’s why it’s something I focus on so much because I think we ought to. I think it’s something we need to think about and care for more deeply in our lives.

Place might not be the first thing I look for when I enter a story, an essay, or a poem, but sometimes I feel like when I pick up a literary magazine or journal and read a piece, I can’t figure out where I am. When I can’t figure out where I am, I find I can’t grab onto anything else either.

GD: In “Night,” the narrator questions his memory often. How honest can that be in nonfiction?

JW: I think we have to question memory as writers who write from it. We have to admit that memory is soluble, that things get intertwined with memory: stories we’ve heard, photographs we’ve seen, ideas we’ve had from somewhere, though we’re not really sure where. But I also think we have to admit that it’s what we have. It’s the primary tool as writers of memoir, writers of essay. I think we have to do due-diligence, interview, read books, look at the photos, go back and see if we can’t substantiate, or build up cold hard facts.

Often, we have to rely on memory to tell the story memory is telling us. We have to know that memory is subjective, and that it’s an important tool, because memory often has a unique story to tell. What we remember, those are the few things that stand out in our own minds. Those are powerful. They stay with you for a reason. Things you’ve thought about, wondered about, things that have followed you. That’s what needs to make its way onto the page. Try to make a little more sense of them, even if it’s just to see if it rises into a metaphor. We try to craft something of memory, to see if we can’t use it to make a story, to make it into something that makes more sense and tells us something more about our own lives, about the world we live in, and to help readers make their way through their own worlds.

I’m glad the debates [about memory] are going on. I tend to fall on the side of: if that’s what our memory tells us, that’s what needs to be in the piece. Tony Earley tells a story of walking out his front door when he was younger and looking at the moon while the astronauts were walking on it. In his memory, the moon is a full moon. Really huge and bright. But he finds out later—I think after he publishes the piece—someone contacts him and tells him it was a gibbous moon, or something like that, while the astronauts were walking on it, and that’s what he would’ve seen. But his memory told him something different. So if we have some sort of misstep, the misstep needs to be brought to the page by saying: memory says this, but fact tells me this, and this is why it’s interesting. There’s something fruitful to be brought out of that.

GD: What was the research for The Mountain and the Fathers like? How important is research to you in writing?

JW: It’s very important to me. I love to sit down and search through history books, read and think about the text, see if there’s some metaphor I can understand and use, [and] see if there’s something that relates to my memory. In The Mountain and the Fathers, there’s a piece called “Railroad” that’s more research-heavy. It’s something my wife tells me to never read publically because it’s too boring, but I really love the piece. But in research there are moments where you find something where you can go, “Oh, yeah, that’s why that was happening, that’s why I remember that. That’s why that was important.” Sometimes through research you can shape a very interesting literary story, but it has to be worked against by your memory to move the narrative along instead of being a historical footnote. Often I feel the research gives me a foundation that I can stand on, even if it doesn’t make it into the piece.

GD: I’m amazed at the vulnerability shown throughout your nonfiction in both the situation and the story. I find it so easy to empathize with the narrator and feel like I’m walking in his shoes, even though it’s clear that the events are specific to the individual. Can you explain how you hold up your end of the unspoken contract between writer and reader?

JW: One of the things, I think, to uphold the contract is to ask, Where is the reader in this piece? Literally, where can they stand in this piece? Do they know where they are? It’s important for me to make sure the scene I’m trying to craft is coherent and the reader can step into it and fully immerse themselves. If I’m writing more thought-based paragraphs and trying for an idea, it’s making sure the ideas I’m getting across on the page are written in evocative, interesting language and are coherent so the reader can follow through intellectually.

Especially as writers of nonfiction, we have to embrace that we’re writing about ourselves and that we need to get ourselves on the page. Our fears, our worries, our vulnerabilities, as well as whatever triumphs, or joys we have. But often it’s those doubts, those fears and those vulnerabilities that define us and our lives. We need to reckon with those as human beings, and then reckon with them on the page. And when the reader sees them, they will latch onto them.

One of my favorite memoirs is Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City because he does an amazing job of allowing us to hitch a ride on the trainwreck that might become his life. And, he’s kind of the opposite of vulnerable. He becomes disaffected, but you feel yourself attached to that, attached to him because of his honesty. It’s not the honesty of bragging about how bad the narrator was, it’s the honesty that says this is a living human being headed for ruin. That will grab you. That’s scary for a reader. You can’t doubt the readers. They will come. If you can get your humanity across on the page, people see it.

GD: Above all else, what do you hope readers get from The Mountain and the Fathers?

JW: There were a few things I think I was after when I was writing it. One is going back to that idea of place, that place matters in all our lives. So I hope a reader will look at the place they happen to be inhabiting (or will inhabit) more carefully, more closely, and more humanely. I also hope a reader will think about the edges of our nation. We live in the most prosperous nation in the world, but there are still places that are isolated, that are deeply mired in poverty or addiction or unsustainable ways of life. I don’t think that Eastern Montana is the worst off of these, but I tend to think rural places are closer to that edge. I think rural places are forgotten in some ways, and so I hope they think about the people that live in those edges and again think about what they share with those folks and how their concerns are the same as ours. Place is with us, always. No matter where we go, or how far we go, the past is with us. We can lead bigger, more positive lives if we take the time to just see where that person may be coming from and to understand our own past.

GD: What does “Literature from the other side” mean to you?

JW: About five years ago, I read with some folks from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at a bookstore and, no doubt about it, they were good poets. I liked their readings, I was pleased and honored to be there with them, but it was pretty clear, based off the readings, that there was one piece not quite like the others. My aesthetic was far different from some of the other folks from the workshop. I think writing from the other side is writing that doesn’t try to fit in with that aesthetic, that grabs its own beauties, its own ideas and runs with them. It’s good to be influenced, to see what’s out there, but it’s good to own what you know, to own what you love. Literature from the other side doesn’t ignore trends, doesn’t ignore what’s in style, but is still what it is. It’s speaking about what it needs to speak about, and it’s saying it in a way that needs to be said.