The Artists Series: Writers, a Coda

In his continuing series of portraits of Oregon artists, photographer K.B. Dixon profiles 11 outstanding writers.

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Text and Photographs by K.B. DIXON


In this series of portraits I am returning to the subject of Oregon writers—the remarkable people who work in words, the most common and most difficult of artistic mediums.

The writers here, like the previous writers in this series, are some of Oregon’s most accomplished and decorated.

The visual approach continues to rely on an economy of means. Environmental details are kept to a minimum. The subjects have the frame to themselves and do not compete with context for consideration. This provides a simpler, blunter, more intense encounter with character.

My hope is to call attention to the uniquely rewarding work of these talented people, to produce a good photograph, and to document a diverse and dynamic literary culture.

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Peter Rock

Novelist and short-story writer. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Rock’s novel My Abandonment was adapted into the film Leave No Trace. His latest novel is The Night Swimmers.

“To swim with another person—out in the open water at night, across a distance, without stopping—is like taking a walk without the pressure, the weight of having to carry a conversation, to bring what is inside to the outside. Think of being with someone in a silent room, the tension in the air; water is thicker and you can’t talk, can’t stop moving. Instead, you’re together, struggling along, only glimpsing each other’s silhouetted arm or head for a moment, when you turn your face to breathe, a reassurance that you are not completely alone.”

– Excerpt from the novel The Night Swimmers

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Whitney Otto

Novelist, biographer, memoirist, and essayist. Otto’s novel How to Make an American Quilt, a New York Times Notable Book, was adapted into a feature film. Her latest book is Art for the Ladylike: An Autobiography Through Other Lives.

“The artistic dilemma is this: Solitude is a requirement for making art; to silence the outside world in order to access the inside world. Too much isolation and you lose touch with all the complicated mess of living, and then what do you put into your art? It’s a balancing act, where you need enough involvement to keep connected to life, and enough distance to do all the required heavy lifting of world-making.”

– Excerpt from the biographical/autobiographical essay collection Art for the Ladylike

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Justin Hocking

Essayist and memoirist. Hocking’s latest book, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, won the Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction and was a finalist for the PEN Center USA Award.

“I crave motion, action, momentum. Skating, paddling, peddling: without these all-consuming physical activities I become easily bored, falling prey to darker obsessions, anxieties, self-destructive tendencies. I need an obsession to give my life a central organizing principle, to feel something like a sense of purpose. To keep from turning on myself.”

– Excerpt from the memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld

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Chelsea Bieker

Novelist and short-story writer. Bieker is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award and a MacDowell Colony fellowship. Her novel Godshot, a finalist for the Oregon Book Award, was longlisted for The Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Her story collection, Heartbroke, will be published in 2022.

“‘How is your mother?’ he asked.

“I couldn’t tell him that along with spring’s arrival, beers had appeared in strange places around the apartment, in the back of the nightstand drawer, behind our collection of canned beans. That she kept them in brown paper bags, drank several each evening standing before our sliding glass window looking out at the parking lot filled with half-broke-down Fifth Avenues and Novas. That her eyes had changed from ambitious to roving. Toward what I still didn’t know.”

– Excerpt from the novel Godshot

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Don Waters

Novelist, short-story writer, and essayist. Waters has written for The New York Times Book ReviewOutsideThe BelieverTin House, and Slate. His latest book is the memoir These Boys and Their Fathers.

“I never knew my father in any meaningful way. Even at thirty-seven, after a decade of therapy, I still find it painful to acknowledge this truth. Any man whose father leaves can understand the shame, confusion, and anger generated by such a primal loss.

            “Early on, Mom often joked that she was Mom and Dad. I was her only kid, and she provided for me, she managed, but it never kept me from wondering, during those lean years when we shared a bunk in a tiny, one-bedroom apartment in downtown Reno, Nevada, if our situation might have been different with a father around.”

– Excerpt from the memoir These Boys and Their Fathers

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Vanessa Veselka

Novelist, short-story writer, and essayist. Veselka’s novel Zazen won the PEN/Bingham Prize for fiction. Her latest novel, The Great Offshore Grounds, won the Oregon Book Award and was longlisted for the National Book Award.

“Under a white canopy with garlands wrapped around the metal tent poles, guests, about fifty of them, stood scattered on the grass near an arbor with a trestle, wineglasses in hand. No one was wearing anything particularly fancy, but money was everywhere, hidden in the make of a hiking boot and in the confidence with which people asked for things.”

– Excerpt from the novel The Great Offshore Grounds

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Pauls Toutonghi

Novelist, short-story writer, and essayist. Toutonghi’s latest book is the creative nonfiction narrative Dog Gone. He is an Associate Professor of English at Lewis & Clark College. 

“Egyptian cooking is folk magic. Not magic in the sense of dematerializing doves or sawing beautiful ladies in half. But magic in the deeper sense of the thing—in the raw joy of what magic once was, hundreds of years ago, thousands of years ago: a surprise, a shock, an astonishment. A lesson about the invisible. A lesson about belief.”

– Excerpt from the novel Evel Knievel Days

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Janice Lee

Essayist, poet, and novelist. Lee is Founder & Executive Editor of Entropy. Her latest book is the novel Imagine a Death. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Portland State University.

“She veers, is veering, but if she misses anybody, it is the ghost that becomes an intimate confidence. I wish she could understand how gracefully we can slide into the images of dirt here, that the mountains speak but she cannot hear them. We are all veering constantly, and to be alone doesn’t mean to be dejected but still with each other. She lives by mirages, but realizing that the mirages and the everything-else are becoming each other constantly and that her reflection is constantly becoming her just as she is constantly becoming her reflection.”

– Excerpt from the novel Imagine a Death

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Peyton Marshall

Novelist, short-story writer, and essayist. Marshall is the recipient of a Maytag Fellowship and the Richard Yates Award for short fiction. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, and Best New American Voices. Her latest book is the novel Goodhouse.

“The day I committed my first crime I was dressed in civilian clothes—a wool suit and a wide, brightly patterned necktie. Many boys before me had worn these clothes. Goodhouse kept hundreds of donated items at the ready so that its students might feel comfortable going into the world without their uniforms. They wanted us to feel like everybody else, but I’d never seen civilian boys in suits. I flexed against the fabric of my coat. It was too small.”

– Excerpt from the novel Goodhouse

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Don Colburn

Journalist and poet. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing. Colburn’s latest book of poems is Mortality, with Pronoun Shifts.

Water, bone, bed, bedrock —
whatever is underneath, below what’s below.
Sudden touchable quiet, shadow
of a shadow. Weather. Sadness turning
ordinary. Nameless illness coming on.
A knock at the door so gentle
it could be anything. Distance.
The just thing not said, or said too late
or said exactly and without mercy.
Wind rising. Whatever might rise.

“There,” from the collection As If Gravity Were a Theory

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Robin Romm 

Memoirist and short-story writer. Romm’s memoir, The Mercy Papers, was named a best book of the year by The New York Times. Most recently she edited the essay collection Double Bind: Women on Ambition.

“Barb, our hospice nurse, has bluish teeth and frizzy black hair styled to look like a hunting cap. The skin around her eyes droops and when you talk to her, she takes too long to respond. She wears loose cotton blouses with patterns of clocks or vines. The woman needs to be startled. In one of the many fantasies I’ve concocted over the last few weeks here, I own a mess of owls and they wait, talons clutching the branch in their ornate cage. When Barb comes—when she looks past me to my mother, past my mother to that voice she listens to when she’s not listening to any of us—I will set them free in her face.”

– Excerpt from the memoir The Mercy Papers

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ALSO IN K.B. DIXON’S SERIES OF WRITER PORTRAITS

  • Photo Shoot: Six Oregon Poets. Kim Stafford, Samia Bashir, Floyd Skloot, David Biespiel, Zachary Schomburg, Anis Mojgani
  • The Artists Series: Writers, Part 2. Floyd Skloot, Sophia Shalmyev, David Biespiel, Karen Russell, Arthur Bradford, Molly Gloss, Kate Carroll De Gutes, Reema Zaman, Zachary Schomburg, Anis Mojgani
  • The Artists Series: Writers. Kim Stafford, Jon Raymond, Samiya Bashir, Omar El Akkad, Willy Vlautin, Lidia Yuknavich, Leni Zumas, Justin Taylor, Kimberly King Parsons, Kevin Sampsell

About the author

K.B. Dixon’s work has appeared in numerous magazines, newspapers, and journals. The recipient of an OAC Individual Artist Fellowship Award, he is the winner of both the Next Generation Indie Book Award and the Eric Hoffer Book Award. He is the author of seven novels: The Sum of His SyndromesAndrew (A to Z)A Painter’s LifeThe Ingram InterviewThe Photo AlbumNovel Ideas, and Notes as well as the essay collection Too True, Essays on Photography, and the short story collection, My Desk and I. Examples of his photographic work may be found in private collections, juried exhibitions, online galleries, and at K.B. Dixon Images.

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