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Obsessions, Otters & and Other Brian Doyle-isms

October 9, 2014

Author Brian Doyle chats with former OSU Press intern Maya Polan about his passionate writing style, unusual obsessions, and why kids are “like the otters of human beings.” Catch Brian yourself at one of his upcoming readings promoting his latest book, Children and Other Wild Animals:


·       Fri., Oct. 10 at 7:30 p.m.: Powell’s City of Books (Portland, OR)

·       Thurs., Oct. 16 at 7:00 p.m.: Broadway Books (Portland, OR)

·       Tues., Oct. 21 at 7:30 p.m.: OSU Valley Library (Corvallis, OR)

·     Thurs., Oct. 30 at 7:00 p.m.: Buckley Center Auditorium, University of Portland (Schoenfelt Distinguished Writers Series)

Maya Polan: You write so ferociously and passionately about many a subject, creature, and scene that it’s made me want to ask you about obsession. (I love the scene “The Creature Beyond the Mountains,” where your wife says: “What is up with you and sturgeon?”) Do you consider yourself obsessive? Or does the “obsessiveness” (read: your ferocity, attention, passion, regard) happen primarily on the page, as you craft?

 

Brian Doyle: This made me laugh out loud, for I once answered a moppet who asked me Sum up your writing career? with Serial obsession (dead silence from muddled class). I suppose I get fascinated by something and then dive into it and away we go; and everything is fascinating (I mean, I have written about automats, hawks, basketball, noses, Van Morrison,  angels, dragonflies, crewcuts, portapotties…you get the picture); and so…

 

 

MP: When I read your writing, I am always struck by its humor—by your willingness to include the silly, delightful, and incongruous facets of your subject matter. Blue Jays as a “little blue biker gang” is a great example from Children and Other Wild Animals. But I have also heard you read on multiple occasions, and am always struck then by the raw emotion that accompanies your readings. Why do you cry as you read your work?

 

BD: Because stories just nail me, and when you tell a really piercing one, like about unbelievably brave firemen on September 11, or the two incredibly brave women who ran right at the rifle at Sandy Hook Elementary, or about little kids who are awfully terribly sick but they won’t quit, how could you not weep, you know? Plus more and more I think that tears are good, tears and laughter are windows opening in your usual dignified prison wall. I try to open all my readings now with true funny stories so we all start out giggling, which seems healthy, and laughter lets people drop their masks a little, and then you can more easily talk about pain and grace, I think.

 

 

MP: Do you ever reread books? Are there books you find yourself returning to?

 

BD: Dear yes. Stevenson, Conrad, Jan Morris, E.B. White, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez’s essays, Steinbeck, Tim Robinson (I wish Tim Robinson would be reborn as Tim Robinson so he can have another sixty years to write more books about Ireland), the King James Bible. Books singular? Hmm. The King James, Kidnapped, Morris’ Pleasures of a Tangled Life. Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy and Someone and After This. I reread or re-dip into some writers as compass points, lodestars, refreshers; I mean, when I feel convoluted as a writer, clogged, I go cruise Gilead for a while and emerge cleaner and refreshed and attentive again to a sort of held note of music that some writers achieve – Robinson’s one, Jan Morris, David Duncan.

 

 

MP: One of the notes in Children and Other Wild Animals, “Fishering,” ends with the line: “Remember that.” This shivery direct address, both intimate and instructive, appears throughout these pages. Is there someone in particular you are speaking to?

 

BD: Us. You. Me. Us. Me as you as us.

 

 

MP: I noticed you often don’t use quotation marks for dialogue—why is that? (I was particularly interested in how “The Unspoken Language of the Eyes” morphs from a narrated anecdote to a monologue.)

 

BD: I really feel that they are mannerisms, generally, and if I write clearly enough I can avoid them. Also I love the way the lack of quotes allows me to slide between and among voices – spoken and heard, written and spoken, spoken and thought silently, spoken and thought by all sorts of beings. I dislike any filters between me and the reader and try to destroy them cheerfully where possible, as long as I stay clear in communication, and avoid self-indulgent self-absorbed writing. I suspect that’s partly why I like laughing in my prose – if we grin together, another filter fell down and died.

 

 

MP: I kept noticing your use of the word “salt” and “salty” as a descriptor—not just in “My Salt Farm,” but sprinkled throughout your writing: a salty soul, a salty song, “the salt of that feeling.”  What does that word in particular mean to you?

 

BD: Hmm. Tough, wry, bony, blunt, pithy, tart, painfully honest, a distilled grainy character, I guess. I have several times received letters from readers listing all the words I am addicted to.

 

 

MP: One wildly unfair question. In “Mascots,” you write about the thrill we derive from even the removed representation of a wild animal—a cougar or a wolverine or a boll weevil—how “even wearing one on a shirt, or shouting the miracle of its name in a stadium…gives us a tiny subtle crucial electric jolt in the heart, connects us somehow to what we used to be with animals…” so, on that note, if you had to chose one animate mascot for this collection of writing—right at this moment—what would it be and why? 

 

BD: Haw – probably an otter, one of the all-pro cool animals – no real enemies except us, a nutty sense of humor, bad-ass musculature and maritime skills. Otters rock.

 

 

MP: In another essay in Children, “Otter Words,” you say: “sometimes I feel like the eyes in my heart close quietly without me paying much attention…and then wham a kid, it’s always a kid, says something so piercing and wild and funny and unusual that wham my heart opens again…” Why is it, finally, “always a kid” for you?

 

BD: Because it’s all about kids. Whatever else we say and do in life it’s about kids – protecting them, teaching them, being taught by them, laughing your ass off at them, listening to them, being saved and salved by them, roaring at them, dimly remembering when you were them, quietly hoping that you might get another chance, even if it’s being an otter kid in Scotland. Kids are like the otters of human beings, quietly the coolest of us all, with total respect for oboe players and Kevin Durant.

 

___________________

 

Brian Doyle is the author of many books, including the recently released Children and Other Wild Animals, a collection of short vignettes.  Other works include the novels Mink River and The Plover; The Grail, his account of a year in a pinot noir vineyard in Oregon; and The Wet Engine, a memoir about his infant son’s heart surgery and the young doctor who saved his life. He edits Portland Magazine at the University of Portland.

 

 

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