Portland Book Festival: Oregon authors reflect on what it means to live and work here

If you're a writer, do things look different here? Dao Strom, J.C. Geiger, Theodore C. Van Alst Jr., Amelia Díaz Ettinger, Laura Moulton, Ben Hodgson, Teresa K. Miller, and Rene Denfeld weigh in.

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Place – the town you grew up in, the spot you choose to call home – can exert a powerful influence on who you are.  For writers, that influence can permeate their work.  Think Thomas Hardy’s Dorset rendered as the dream-country of Wessex; John Steinbeck and Monterey County; Willa Cather and her running, wine-stained prairies.

Of the 66 authors participating in this year’s Portland Book Festival, 20-plus are Oregonians. Wondering if their Oregonness extends beyond a geographic boundary, we asked for their thoughts on whether there exists an Oregon voice or something unique to this corner of the country that nurtures writers. Their answers are as varied as the state itself. We heard about creative communities and the need for solitude, about environmental consciousness and a hint of danger in the air.  Here’s what some of them had to say.

Dao Strom

City you live in: Portland

Number of years in Oregon: 11

Dao Strom is at the 2021 Portland Book Festival
“There is space for coming together, and there is space for the individual’s own quiet endeavors.”

Why did you come here?

My entry to Oregon was when my stepfather, who had retired to the southern coastal town of Bandon, passed away. I felt a strong connection to the landscape, especially along the southern coast, when I first came to Oregon. I spent several summers returning to our family home on the coast, and eventually relocated to Portland, after residing in Texas and Alaska. I was drawn by the land and also by the music and art I had glimpsed coming out of Portland and the Pacific Northwest.

Do you think there is such a thing as an Oregon or Pacific Northwest voice? How would you characterize it?

I don’t believe in generalizing a voice of the region exactly. But my sense is that the weather and the landscape (forests, rain, mist, grays, and the subtext of those surrounding volcanoes, too…) are strong factors that to varying degrees pervade a lot of the art made in this region, or at least the writers and artists I have found myself resonating with.

People talk about Portland being a great town for books and beer because our long gray winters encourage reading and hanging out in pubs.  Is there something unique to Oregon that nurtures writers, or does Oregon nurture writers in a unique way?

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The literary scene here is both community-oriented and nurturing, and also rewards self-sufficiency and DIY spirit. There is space for coming together, and there is space for the individual’s own quiet endeavors. Perhaps it is the remoteness, and the gentle but constant presence of the elements, that helps nurture or necessitate some of that self-sufficiency and introspection. I love the many small presses, artist projects, even very temporary projects, that occur here. There is a willingness to do the labor of creating/owning our own production processes, and creating spaces for one’s own small communities, without waiting for external or commercial or institutional affirmations, that makes Portland’s art and literary scene unique and strong in its own special way.

J.C. Geiger

“There is something intensely beautiful and a little dangerous about Oregon.”         

City you live in: Eugene

Number of years in Oregon: 15

Why did you come here?

I left my job as a park guide for an abandoned gold mine in Alaska, and was driving south looking for a place to live. The idea was Seattle, but the traffic was so bad my partner and I kept driving south. We wound up in Eugene on a rainy afternoon surrounded by underdeveloped pits downtown, a marquee for an upcoming punk show, two excellent coffee stands, and what appeared to be a gold statue of Ken Kesey in the town square. “Well,” I thought. “This is it.”

People talk about Portland being a great town for books and beer because our long gray winters encourage reading and hanging out in pubs.  Is there something unique to Oregon that nurtures writers, or does Oregon nurture writers in a unique way?

To be a good writer, it helps to pay attention. If you pay attention, Oregon is a standout, amazing place to live. The varied natural beauty and its accessibility make it a wonderland, the abundance of fresh food is astonishing, and the ability to bike and walk make daily living more joyful. That’s about 50 percent. Coffee and beer are the other 50 percent.  

How does living in Oregon inform your work?

I feel like a Fiction Tree transplanted from the rural Midwest and grown in an experimental Oregon forest. My rootstock is straight-up cornfields, but out here my ideas can grow big and happy and strange. Wildman explored what it was like to be swallowed by a new kind of wilderness, and the people who inhabit it. The Great Big One comes from my time working on the Southern Oregon Coast — all this windswept beauty studded with tsunami evacuation and sneaker-wave signs and “Don’t Turn Your Back On The Ocean!” There is something intensely beautiful and a little dangerous about Oregon – which is the same way I felt about being a young adult.         

Who is your favorite Oregon writer, past or present, or one who has inspired you? 

Tough! I love Ursula K. Le Guin and Laini Taylor, but for inspiration it has to be Ken Kesey – not only for his writing, but his ability to whip up wild, artistic creations surrounding each book. He could take a novel that is a deceptively quiet, shelf-bound object and somehow transform it into the eye of a creative storm. Kesey was a writer the way Willy Wonka was a chocolatier – the product itself is wonderful, but not necessarily the most interesting part of the story.   

Anything else on this idea of Oregonness you’d like to tell us?

There’s so much talent here – some as obvious as the ocean and others tucked away like sneaky, wild mushrooms. That makes it a fascinating place to live and work and attempt something beautiful. 

Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr.

City you live in: Portland

Number of years in Oregon: Four

Why did you come here? Job

Theodore C. Van Alst Jr. is at the 2021 Portland Book Festival.
The weather, the light, the vibe — all contribute to writing and writerly… health? No. Writerly motivation, I think, is what I’d say here.

Do you think there is such a thing as an Oregon or Pacific Northwest voice? How would you characterize it?

I think if there’s a voice here it’s thoughtful and sarcastic, a bit aloof but sincere and smart.

People talk about Portland being a great town for books and beer because our long gray winters encourage reading and hanging out in pubs.  Is there something unique to Oregon that nurtures writers, or does Oregon nurture writers in a unique way?

I’ve never been as productive in my writing as I have since moving to Portland. The weather, the light, the vibe — all contribute to writing and writerly… health? No. Writerly motivation, I think, is what I’d say there.

How does living in Oregon inform your work?

It’s a great place to live. I’m originally from Chicago, so living in Portland is like urban retirement. It’s still living in the city, but downsized, a lot less stressful.

Who is your favorite Oregon writer, past or present, or one who has inspired you? 

Katherine Dunn. An amazing writer and one with a personal story I can really identify with: the working-class background, writing produced with varying levels of education behind it, the struggle and growth. I’ll never be as cool as she was, obviously, but it’s good to have goals.

Anything else on this idea of Oregonness you’d like to tell us?

I tell my wife probably once a week that I wish we’d moved here 30 years ago, but I’m glad we’re here now. Oregon, from coast to city, mountain to desert, will add extra days to your life. Good ones.

Amelia Díaz Ettinger

City you live in: Summerville, (calling Summerville a city is like calling one avocado guacamole. Population 170).

Number of years in Oregon: About 39

Why did you come here?

A very complicated and convoluted story of a long road trip, getting married, having two kids and a husband that landed a job at Eastern Oregon University, back then Eastern Oregon State College.

Amelia Diaz Ettinger
“Whenever I sit down to write now is tinted with this present reality. And this reality smells and tastes like a fresh trout from the Minam River.”

Do you think there is such a thing as an Oregon or Pacific Northwest voice? How would you characterize it?

I think there is, though it might vary by where you are. I speak from the Eastern Oregon perspective. The voices here sound like plaid flannel and shotgun, mixed with awe for a sunrise but with a craving for bear meat. This might sound facetious, but it’s not. The language that surrounds me is rough, sweet, and always on the verge of violence. And even with all that, I wouldn’t change it for anything.

People talk about Portland being a great town for books and beer because our long gray winters encourage reading and hanging out in pubs.  Is there something unique to Oregon that nurtures writers, or does Oregon nurture writers in a unique way?

I think it does. Yes, the winters are hard. Very hard sometimes when an accumulation of 10 feet of snow is not out of the question. But if you stop to consider the landscape, you find yourself immersed in a myriad of ecosystems within a short drive. Take, for example, leaving my house in the Blue Mountains with old-growth forest, within a half-hour drive from Tollgate you have grassland and heat. The vineyards are within an hour’s drive. How can you not be inspired to write? Everyone here has to be a poet, and I think they are. Also, the people. My God! The people, so very white in the Grand Ronde Valley, but just a thrown stone away, you think you have landed in the outskirts of El Distrito Federal. There, language comes back easily and I dream of tortillas made of corn.

How does living in Oregon inform your work?

When I started publishing, like in my first book, Talking at a Time/Hablando a la Vez, I wrote from the longing about the island I had abandoned. In those earlier writings, the lost family featured prominently. But after all these years, I no longer trust my island’s coordinates. That island no longer exists. My reality is that I have spent my entire adult life here; in this Oregon that first saw me as an exotic and that eventually rendered me new according to its own code.

I became a wife, mother, teacher, and now grandmother under the shadow of Mount Emily. The dome of this western sky is what I know. Whenever I sit down to write now is tinted with this present reality. And this reality smells and tastes like a fresh trout from the Minam River.

Who is your favorite Oregon writer, past or present, or one who has inspired you? 

An impossible question. I don’t want to single one out. There are so many writers, past and present, that continue to nurture me in this exploration. I have had the privilege of meeting so many of the pens that have enlivened my thought and imagination. Ursula K. Le Guin, Molly Gloss, Peter Sears, Kim Stafford, and so many others. Oregon is a rich territory of amazing writers in every corner of the state. Every day, I find a new writer that inspires me.

Anything else on this idea of Oregonness you’d like to tell us?

Wherever you live, you carry a bit of the essence of the place within you. I lived in Mexico for the first four years of my life. And though I have not a single memory of that  time, I find myself weeping when I hear Las Mañanitas. Puerto Ricans say that we all carry la mancha de plátano on our skin. Of course, we do. Mine is hidden on the left side of my waist, and curiously enough, it has the shape of Oregon.

The thing is this: You can’t live in a place and not carry its soil under your fingernails. Oregonness is in me. Even though many would like to deny it for me. When I’m asked, “Where are you from?” I say Summerville. When they probe further, I say La Grande. I’m no longer willing to be denied the Oregon that’s within me.

Laura Moulton & Ben Hodgson

City you live in: Portland

Number of years in Oregon: Moulton, 23 years; Hodgson, 30 years

Why did you come here?

Moulton: I moved here with my sidekick from northern Taiwan, where we had lived for a year. Our neighborhood in Taiwan had been gritty and industrial – we were looking for a green place where we could ride our bikes and skip cars altogether. Portland was that city.We were able to hatch great schemes here and launch creative projects. We’ve also raised our kids in Northeast Portland – they’re teenagers now. 

Hodgson: I came here to help my brother build a fence. Also, my life crashed out in Phillly.

Ben Hodgson and Laura Moulton are at 2021 Portland Book Festival. Photo by: Eli Haan
“Nature’s vista, or the sidewalks in Old Town – I scraped my book off the sidewalk.” — Ben Hodgson
“I definitely feel that the landscape has nurtured me and the work of writing in significant ways.” — Laura Moulton

Do you think there is such a thing as an Oregon or Pacific Northwest voice? How would you characterize it?

Moulton: I think it would be hard for the gray, drippy winters not to seep into Pacific Northwest writers to a certain extent, but I’m not sure it always shows up on the page. It’s hard to pin down, though.

People talk about Portland being a great town for books and beer because our long gray winters encourage reading and hanging out in pubs.  Is there something unique to Oregon that nurtures writers, or does Oregon nurture writers in a unique way?

Moulton: In the Gorge, one can stand along the Columbia River in Lyle and look back toward Portland to find a distinct line between sunshine and storm. It offers the Sitka Center at Cascade Head, just north of Lincoln City on the coast. The Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport (thank you, Goody Cable), where each room is decorated after a different author. I’ve been lucky to write at all these places and I definitely feel that the landscape has nurtured me and the work of writing in significant ways. There are so many stellar bookstores (Broadway Books, Annie Bloom’s, Black Hat, Melville Books, Belmont Books, Powell’s). Before the rains came, a group of us followed the bookseller and legend Tom Murray on a bike ride around Portland to little-known bookstores. If you haven’t been to his store in Hood River, Artifacts (good books, bad art), please go there immediately.

Hodgson: The great Icelandic sagas, the steady supply of 2-year-old calfskins for writing on and the long winters with not a thing to do but sit around and write stories down nurtured a whole literature. Oregon has one gray day after another from September to June, which creates similar conditions, similar effects.

How does living in Oregon inform your work?

Hodgson: Nature’s vista, or the sidewalks in Old Town – I scraped my book off the sidewalk.

Who is your favorite Oregon writer, past or present, or one who has inspired you? 

Moulton: Martha Gies is high on the list. She’s the best writing teacher I’ve ever had and her book Up All Night is composed of profiles of graveyard workers in Portland – definitely recommend it. I am also inspired by the work of Walidah Imarisha (Angels With Dirty Faces, Octavia’s Brood), and of course, I love Ken Kesey (and once embarrassed myself when I had a chance to hang out at his farm and tried to articulate how much I admired him).

Hodgson: Patrick DeWitt is Canadian and Tom Robbins is from Seattle, but put ’em together and that’s halfway to Portland. And of course, Peter Rock and Karen Russell are tops. Beyond comparison.

Anything else on this idea of Oregonness you’d like to tell us?

Moulton: I penned a kind of ode to Portland (with all its beauty and brokenness). I believe that even though we’re in a rough spot as a city, there are good things happening every single day at the street level and there is a lot to be hopeful about.

Teresa K. Miller       

City you live in: Oak Grove (unincorporated Clackamas County)

Number of years in Oregon: 6.5

Why did you come here?

I’m originally from Seattle and grew up visiting Portland, so I’ve always loved the area. I got my MFA from Mills College in Oakland, and after living there for about a decade, I wanted to quench my long-simmering homesickness and return to the Pacific Northwest. I also wanted enough space to grow fruit trees and cultivate an extensive edible garden. My spouse is from the North Bay Area but loves rainy climates, so we made our way to Oak Grove, where I now have a 10-tree orchard plus a pollinator meadow and various annual and perennial edibles.

Teresa K. Miller is at the 2021 Portland Book Festival.
“Late fall through winter offers a chance to hole up and reflect, and I’m productive creatively during that time in a way I never was in a warmer climate.”

Do you think there is such a thing as an Oregon or Pacific Northwest voice? How would you characterize it?

I don’t think there’s anything monolithic about this region or its people, so I’m not sure I could identify a single Pacific Northwest voice. However, I find writers who are from the Pacific Northwest or have lived here for a long time often exhibit a consciousness about the natural world and the active, in-your-face geology of the region in a way I didn’t encounter when I lived, for example, in New York City.

People talk about Portland being a great town for books and beer because our long gray winters encourage reading and hanging out in pubs.  Is there something unique to Oregon that nurtures writers, or does Oregon nurture writers in a unique way?

Oregon has an active and engaged writing and publishing scene, which is inspiring, and I love the way local organizations like Literary Arts and OPB support and showcase writers. The literary landscape is big enough to encompass many styles and possibilities while remaining small enough that it doesn’t feel fragmented or competitive.

My writing has also absolutely benefited from living in a place with seasons, including a long, colder, wet season. When I first moved to Oakland, I fell in love with the palm trees and the mild weather — you could pretty much do anything on any day at any time of year. But after a while, that infinite possibility started to feel like infinite repetition and even procrastination. I got involved in regenerative horticulture, particularly as a hands-on mitigation strategy for climate change, as well as food-justice writing. Bringing that agricultural sensibility north has tangibly changed my relationship with time. Late spring through early fall represents a time of planting, harvesting, and exploring outdoors. Late fall through winter offers a chance to hole up and reflect, and I’m productive creatively during that time in a way I never was in a warmer climate.

How does living in Oregon inform your work?

My orchard and meadow play major roles in my latest collection, Borderline Fortune, as do the geology and geography of the Pacific Northwest. The seasons, the forests, the water features, the legacy of the last ice age, and the shifting climate all play a role in both my prose and my poetry. For instance, a recent conversation with climatologist Dr. Sarah Myhre in Common Dreams offered me the chance to tell the story of the three major weather emergencies in Clackamas County over the past year: the wildfires, during which we were in the level 1 evacuation zone; the ice storm, after which we lacked power for six days; and the heat dome, during which the iconic Pacific Northwest tree, the western red cedar, suffered greatly across the region.

Who is your favorite Oregon writer, past or present, or one who has inspired you? 

I’m not great at picking favorites, but I’ve certainly been conscious of Ken Kesey since childhood and remember my mom being excited about a family visit to Depoe Bay because of that connection. As a long-distance hiker and backpacker, I later developed a love for Cheryl Strayed’s work. I’ve most directly benefited from the vibrant small press scene in the Portland metro area. After my first book, sped, came out in 2013, I read in the Bad Blood series curated by Octopus Books editor Zachary Schomburg. His co-editor, Mathias Svalina, blurbed Borderline Fortune and wrote a truly amazing collection called The Wine-Dark Sea, published by Sidebrow, which also published sped. Sidebrow used to be solely based in San Francisco but is now split between there and Portland, part of the cross-pollination in this innovative community.

Rene Denfeld

City you live in: Portland

Number of years in Oregon: My entire life

Do you think there is such a thing as an Oregon or Pacific Northwest voice? How would you characterize it?

Rene Denfeld is appearing at 2021 Portland Book Festival. Photo by: Owen Carey
“We have to take care to not create a romanticized notion of an Oregon that erases the experiences of marginalized populations. What is often presented as Oregon is more like a tourist brochure than reality.”

I don’t think there is an Oregon voice. Our voices are very diverse, from Ken Kesey to Ursula Le Guin to Katherine Dunn to Mitchell Jackson. We have to take care to not create a romanticized notion of an Oregon that erases the experiences of marginalized populations. What is often presented as Oregon is more like a tourist brochure than reality. The truth is we have endemic poverty, both rural and urban, and more prisons than colleges. That’s real Oregon, too, along with our astonishing landscapes and natural beauty.

People talk about Portland being a great town for books and beer because our long gray winters encourage reading and hanging out in pubs.  Is there something unique to Oregon that nurtures writers, or does Oregon nurture writers in a unique way?

I don’t think our state nurtures writers. I do think we have some really amazing writing communities, though, and the best bookstores ever.  We also have an incredible library system and I don’t think they get credit for all they do, including fostering reading.

How does living in Oregon inform your work?

Most my fiction is set here, and depicts the Oregon I know, which is not the Portlandia depictions. I try to present the reality of the Oregon, including our histories, and the good, bad, and ugly, along with our wild beauty.

Who is your favorite Oregon writer, past or present, or one who has inspired you? 

I can’t possibly name just one! Probably the first Oregon based novel I read was Trask by Don Berry, when I was just a kid. Since then, I’ve been influenced by so many Oregon writers. We have an amazing amount of talent here.

Anything else on this idea of Oregonness you’d like to tell us?

I’m not sure it exists. I’ll probably get pelted with filberts for saying that.

About the author
Editor

Karen Pate worked 29 years as an editor at The Oregonian, most of that time overseeing community news and features in Washington and Clackamas counties. She’s written about storytellers and banjo players, English-language bookstores in Paris and horses who starred in movies. Her work has appeared in The Oregonian, Oregon Magazine, Reed Magazine and various equestrian publications. She wandered into journalism after studying creative writing at Reed College. Karen lives in Portland and has a job that lets her travel around the state, tagging along after racehorses.

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