Living and Writing the New American West

Author Interviews

What Westerners desire more than a new set of winter tires is competence.

Alyson Hagy, “Self-Portrait of the Strong, Silent Type”

Authors Discussion

In order to further explore some of the views among the contributors to West of 98, co-editor Russell Rowland compiled a series of questions pertaining to some of the issues facing Westerners today. We hope that those of you who are interested in this topic will weigh in with your own thoughts and questions.

Discussion participants: Kim Barnes, John Clayton, Peter Fish, Stephen Graham Jones, Kris Saknussemm, and Willard Wyman. Click for full bios.

Q1: What comes to mind for you when you hear the term ‘western identity,’ and how do you think this has changed over the course of your lifetime?

KIM BARNES: I’m not sure that “western identity” is a term you hear outside of the academy. The way that it has changed over the course of my lifetime is that it became a term that somehow became attached to who I am and what I do as a literary writer and English professor. Even now, it rings more like theory than any kind of true identity to me. It’s not a word you’ll very often hear bandied about in the Clearwater logging camps or the bars of Weiser.

The “academy,” is, of course, an institution that defines the insider/outsider for many westerners, which has everything to do with social status, economic class, and level of education. In my observation, many western intellectuals either leave to go elsewhere, or they are intellectuals from elsewhere who come west. Even now, if I were to refer to my “western identity” in front of my uncles, they would ridicule me, which is why, as the daughter of a logger and the first in my family to attend college, my western identity is endlessly bifurcated. What I know about my western identity is intellectual; what I know about growing up in the West is visceral and resides with me at the level of skin and bone.

PETER FISH: I’m going to answer this question by focusing on the swath of the West I know best, California. And while California has always been a special case, I do think it points the way to where the rest of the West may be heading a few years after it.

The California identity has changed enormously in my lifetime—it’s gone from the suburban Eden sung about in Beach Boys songs to a darker, more dystopian place. And yet many of the changes that have swept across the state have been good. We are, still, the capital of the future—I work just down the road from Facebook and Google and a little farther up the road from Apple. California used to be famous as the haven for refugees from Oklahoma and Iowa. Now we draw creative people from Shanghai, Bangalore, Guadalajara. And the energy these newcomers lend is no small thing. Twenty-first century California is fractious, overcrowded, overly success-driven. It’s never boring.

STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES: Terrible as it sounds, what comes to mind is using a set of ideals to kind of hide your fear of the city. Or at least there’s a dislike for city stuff somewhere at the base of it all, which amps up how much you might defend a non-city kind of idea, like ‘the West.’ And it’s not non-city at all, really, but you don’t think Denver, you think the Rockies, right?

WILLARD WYMAN: I think mostly of the old soft-spoken, wry, western approach to life, but that attitude, of course, is found in fewer and fewer of the people now populating The West. (I suspect what I love about western people is mostly a rural attitude, and the western states are becoming less and less rural.) One statistic may explain it all: The population of the west is growing exponentially, but that population is largely realized in the cities, which are spreading out in an LA-like sprawl and consuming not only the surrounding acreage, but the surrounding cultural consciousness as well. All of which is to say that a population hooked on urban values and TV pap is taking over the western states—and there really seems no way to stop it.

Put another way: For the first 30 years after World War II ranchers sent their children to the city to be educated and earn enough money to support the family ranches; for the next 30 years those now grown-up children began to realize that their family ranches had gained enough value to support their life styles in the cities, if you broke the ranches up and sold them off in chunks. And that seems to be exactly what is happening.

It’s been a short history, that of The West, but a dramatic one. Now the curtain seems to be closing on the drama as new commercial interests become dominate.

KRIS SAKNUSSEMM: A sense of possibility comes to mind first. I wouldn’t call it optimism exactly, but it is a faith in horizon and opportunity. And also therefore a crucial lack of irony and cynicism that I associate with the East. It also suggests a lack of respect for Rules. To some extent I think this spirit still survives.

Q2: What do you consider to be the most vital issues facing the West today, and what do you think we as Westerners can do to help with these issues?

KIM BARNES: I’ve begun to think more and more about true “Western-centrism”—that idea that the issues we face in the West are somehow different or more vivid or more pressing than in other parts of the country and world. There’s a defined western elitism that, once you move outside the region, becomes more apparent and less appealing.

The vital issues facing the citizens of the West are the same as the vital issues facing the rest of the world: how to treat one another with kindness and respect; how to live sustainable lives; how to move forward with grace rather than greed. I’m not keen on any kind of protectionism. I live in the West, but I hope to be a citizen of the world.

PETER FISH: I’m not going to surprise you with my answer: the most vital issue is possibly the least solvable, and that’s climate change. We’re already seeing its effects in more frequent, and more severe, forest fires, in insect depredations, in increased threats to the very landscapes that most define the West, from Montana pine forests to California vineyards. And we’re going to have to work with the rest of the whole world to try and mitigate climate change’s worst impacts. A good start would be convincing a big portion of the American population that the problem actually exists.

STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES: I’d say the re-introduction of natural predators to lands now run by ranchers. So, if we all stop buying hamburgers, then all the ranchers will go under, and the predators can do what they do, not be in too many people’s scopes. Not that I hate ranchers and cattle spreads. But I prefer wolves and buffalo.

WILLARD WYMAN: Water, of course, but that will probably be managed, somehow. What seems not so easy to manage is the development, commercial and residential, of the vast landscape that really is at the root of what makes for Western Mythology. Building mini-ranches on every hilltop and company towns wherever there is a hint of natural fuel or ore or the “need of the moment” is tantamount to rape. And the rapee is the very landscape everyone claims they want to preserve.

(Is anyone surprised that the root of this evil is money, as it always has been and probably will forever be?)

KRIS SAKNUSSEMM: The great balancing act of environmental protection versus job growth is the key practical issue at hand. Culturally, I think immigration, xenophobia, race and racial history issues.

Q3: How has your experience as a Westerner manifested itself in your work?

KIM BARNES: The concerns I explore in my writing are inherently tied to my family’s “westering” impulse—our desire to strike out for new frontiers; the pursuit of self-sufficiency and self-direction; the yearning for isolation as a way to quiet the chaos of existence. Elements of Manifest Destiny, post-lapsarianism, and the hubris that comes with setting yourself apart from others are the basis for everything I write. There is a kind of solipsistic aspect to individualism, and it’s that slow collapse inward that often defines my characters—and that we can see happening in the West today on a number of levels, including political.

PETER FISH: One of the joys of my longtime job as writer and editor at Sunset Magazine is that it’s given me a chance to learn—well, not all the West, but at least giant portions of it. From my childhood, I loved Utah and Southern California. My work enabled me to experience, and fall in love with, Montana’s Missouri Breaks, Sheridan, Wyoming, the Hopi country of northeastern Arizona, the Jarbidge Mountains of Nevada…well, I could go on. To me the West is so stunningly, life-alteringly beautiful that it demands we rise to its occasion, bring our best selves to it. And, because we’re human, and fallen, we mostly fail in this, but sometimes succeed. God knows this battle—to be as good as the land we inhabit—has driven my writing.

STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES: There’s privilege given to open spaces, and a distrust of congested places.

WILLARD WYMAN: It’s what I write about. So far it’s ALL I write about.

KRIS SAKNUSSEMM: There’s a strong sense of setting in my work, even when I’ve created an imaginary land/mind scape or amalgamated different locales as we do in dreams. The Great Basin / high desert of Nevada informs a lot of what I do, even if it’s not always obvious.

Q4: How much of an impact do you believe the racial injustices that are such a part of our history have had on the West as a region, and on how we view ourselves?

KIM BARNES: The history of “our” racial injustices is the history of the world’s racial injustices. Genocide is never only a local or regional issue or even a national issue. It’s identity is the human identity.

PETER FISH: Racial injustice taints California history, from the near eradication of the state’s Native American population, mostly by disease, to the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II, to the persistent decimation faced by African Americans. And yet, you’d be blind to say that some things haven’t changed for the better. California currently has a charismatic and successful African-American attorney general and a Chinese-American Controller. Los Angeles and San Francisco have both had black mayors; LA now has its first Hispanic mayor since the 1800s and San Francisco its first-ever Chinese-American mayor. On a personal note, my 14-year-old son attends a rigorous San Francisco public high school whose student body is about 60% Asian; almost all of his friends are Asian. Maybe California can help prove that race doesn’t have to be an American tragedy, it can be an American success story.

STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES: The impact I guess is a lot of lingering animosity, which fuels encounters, which then results in animosity coming from the other way. Back-when, Indians were the bounty animals messing up all this land that had to be tamed. Putting fences around us doesn’t make us forget that.

WILLARD WYMAN: What we’ve done to Native Americans is a disaster. A way to right our wrongs is probably impossible to find.


Q5: How have the Western ‘myths’ or legends impacted you personally? In other words, do you think you’ve felt a certain pressure to live up to certain qualities that are considered distinctly Western?

KIM BARNES: So much depends on the audience. With my family, I’ve got to present myself as “good country people.” In my role as professor, I’ve got to bring my education and intelligence to bear and present myself with authority; in my role as writer and reader, I somehow have to present myself as both in order to prove myself authentic. This probably has as much to do with class identity as it does with regional identity, but it’s quite clear that “Western identity,” for most people, is, in fact, tied to issues of class and education.

The “qualities” considered “distinctly Western” are no longer the romantic qualities we once read about in Westerns. From the outside looking in, western identity has as much to do with racism, separatism, and libertarianism as it does with the cowboy code. Just last week, I was at a dinner in Manhattan. When I told a woman I lived in Idaho and that I had “chosen” to remain there, she threw back her head and laughed before she realized that I was quite serious. I’m reminded on a daily basis that being from the West is seen by many people as an intellectual and professional handicap.

PETER FISH: You know, I hadn’t thought about this, but now that you ask the question, I think I have. I think living in the West has made me try to be more adventurous, more capable, more self-reliant than would have been my normal bent. I’m not complaining about this—I think it’s a good thing. And I’m not bragging—note that I said try to be more self-reliant. I know full well that if I’d actually been a Wyoming homesteader, a Utah fur trapper, or an Arizona river runner, I would have gone bankrupt, fallen off a cliff, drowned, or been eaten by a bear within five minutes flat.

STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES: No, not really. Maybe in high school, I guess. But, being Indian, people don’t expect me to worship at the altar of John Wayne, so I’ve never felt any need to live up to his image. But I guess I have been way influenced by Louis L’Amour. All his stand-up protagonists, his fast-draw reluctant shootists. Granted, Indians don’t get that good a shake in his books. Or, they shake once, then die. But still, I hit all those books when I was twelve, and they’re still inside me.

WILLARD WYMAN: On the contrary, what I write about tries to put down the myths and legends (and those who promote them) in favor of what we can learn (and somehow absorb) from the landscape itself—if we find a way to preserve it.

KRIS SAKNUSSEMM: I don’t feel pressure, I feel like there’s great material to draw upon. Any pressure derives from wanting to avoid cliche.

JOHN CLAYTON: When we talk about myths I think it’s important to acknowledge that the word has two meanings. One is untruth. But to anthropologists, a myth is a story with strong emotional and moral value, a sacred narrative that explains culture and nature, and perhaps even helps people reconcile conflicting beliefs.

I moved from the East Coast to Montana in my mid-20s in part because of the Western myths. That doesn’t mean I thought that John Wayne movies were factual, that I was looking forward to participating in gunfights on Main Street. It means that the sacred narratives of my former home lacked sufficient emotional and moral value for me. I wanted to live in a place where nature and the outdoors played a larger role, where history was more visible, where reconciling community and individualism was an active, common pastime. And I found it: In the stories my neighbors tell of bears and wolves, of cowboys and miners, of cold winters and perilous journeys, there may or may not be untruths. But what I love is how important the stories feel, how the identity of our community is immersed in those stories.

We can, and should, debate the Western myths. We can wonder which of them have outlasted their usefulness, and which people gain unfair advantage from which untruths. But let’s not say myths are bad. They’re essential. When I wrote, in “The Native Home of Governors on Horseback,” in West of 98, that it’s the newcomers who most love and perpetuate the Western myths, I saw those people as heroes rather than fools, as looking forward rather than back.

Q6: Who is writing about today’s West in a way that you think is most relevant and effective?

KIM BARNES: Any author who is writing about or out of the West brings an important piece of the conversation to the table, whether it’s Terry Tempest Williams or Chuck Palahniuk or Sherman Alexie. It’s a big house with a lot of windows: the view out one window might show wild rivers and unpolluted skies; the view out another window might show the ravages of clearcuts and housing developments; maybe this window frames a nostalgic piece of the past; maybe that window frames the horror of genocide. The “story house” of the West is no different than any other place, time, or culture. But it’s the story that we live inside of right now, and we need to remember how many windows there are. We also need to remember that we are not Little House on the Prairie, surrounded by nothing but rolling fields. We are part of a larger community, and our house is no more and no less important than any other.

PETER FISH: I’ll start by tipping my hat to the other contributors to West of 98. Among them, Rick Bass has done yeoman work in chronicling Montana; Patricia Nelson Limerick remains my favorite interpreter of the West’s history. There are more, of course. Non 98 writers? David Vann’s two Alaska books—Legend of a Suicide and Caribou Island—are lyrical, grim, powerful. Hector Tobar’s flawed but entertaining The Barbarian Nurseries vividly paints the multi-ethnic circus that is contemporary Southern California.


WILLARD WYMAN: Wallace Stegner was. The current environmental writers try to be effective—when they don’t drive us crazy with polemics or inflated “nature writing.” How to save the land may be achievable only through some combination of poetry and science, and poetry, which actually may be our best bet, begins in delight and ends in wisdom. It’s not easy to make science delightful, and poetry is illusive—which makes this a very tough assignment.

But let’s lift one to the poets. Finally they’re the ones who make us see that life is worth living, and that should make us realize that The West is worth saving.

KRIS SAKNUSSEMM: Several of them, like Stephen Graham Jones, are featured in the anthology. My feeling is that there are still a lot of great historical stories to be told. For example, the interesting nexus between black jazz musicians and the illegal Chinese gambling parlors in Seattle in the post-World War II era. I think the same is true of the aftermath of the Dustbowl migration to California. Las Vegas has so many stories, as Tom Waits would say, “you can catch them in your hat.” As to the present day stories, I see a lot of emerging writers with energy. How famous any of them get is yet to be determined, but I think there could be a New Wave of Western Writing.

JOHN CLAYTON: Certainly the biggest influence on my essay (“The Native Home of Governors on Horseback,” in West of 98) was the late historian Hal Rothman. In his 1998 book Devil’s Bargains, Rothman invented the concept of the “neonative,” a person who moves to his or her “hometown” as an adult. Because Devil’s Bargains was a history of tourism in the West, Rothman was particularly interested in how neonatives drove tourism development by mediating between Easterners and Westerners. But I find neonatives much more broadly interesting: because they have been drawn to the West, throughout its history, by the landscape and myths rather than the economic opportunities, they have tended to accentuate and perpetuate those myths, in ways unique to the region.

Devil’s Bargains is full of insight. So is Neon Metropolis, Rothman’s history of Las Vegas.


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KIM BARNES was raised in the logging camps of the Clearwater National Forest of Idaho. She is the author of two memoirs and two novels, most recently A Country Called Home, which received the 2009 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Fiction and was named a best book of 2008 by The Washington Post, Kansas City Star, and The Oregonian (Northwest) She is the recipient of the PEN/Jerard Fund Award for an emerging woman writer of nonfiction, and her first memoir, In the Wilderness, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including the New York Times, MORE, O Magazine, Fourth Genre, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. Her forthcoming novel, American Mecca, an exploration of Americans living in 1960s Saudi Arabia, will be published by Knopf in 2011. Barnes, a former Idaho Writer-in-Residence, teaches writing at the University of Idaho and lives with her husband, the poet Robert Wrigley, on Moscow Mountain.

JOHN CLAYTON is the author of The Cowboy Girl (University of Nebraska Press, 2007, a finalist for the High Plains Book Award) and the forthcoming The Last Good Dam. Raised in Massachusetts, he has lived in a small town in central Montana since 1990. Parts of this essay originally appeared, in shorter and very different form, in High Country News and several regional newspapers subscribing to the HCN Writers on the Range syndicate, in the spring of 2004.

PETER FISH grew up in Ventura, California. He received a B.A. in American History from Yale University. He was a Mirrielees Fellow in creative writing at Stanford University and a Hoyns Fellow in fiction at the University of Virginia. He has written and edited for Sunset Magazine for many years and is currently Sunset’s editor-at-large. He has also written for Health Magazine, where his work earned a Western Publishers Association Maggie Award. His anthology of California literature, California’s Best: Two Centuries of Great Writing about the Golden State, was published in 2009. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, Nancy, and son, Joseph.

STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES is the author of six novels and one story collection, and teaches in the MFA program at CU Boulder. Born in Midland, Texas, he grew up all over West Texas and lived as far south as Austin and as far east as Tallahassee before finally getting to Colorado. And, though he claims not to write essays, this is third or so non-essay to get published. Before this, the only time he’d written on ‘The West’ was a few of his definitions for Home Ground. And also all of his novels and stories, none of which take place anywhere else.

WILLARD WYMAN was born in China in 1930, the son of a career Army officer, and spent his childhood on Cavalry posts in the West. He did not begin writing until he retired from an academic career, his childhood with horses providing ample material. During World War II—with his father in combat and his mother in a psychiatric ward—he was shipped to Montana to the Spear-O Ranch, an experience that led to a life-long devotion to packing into the mountains of the West. After teaching and coaching high school football, he began graduate work at Stanford. After taking his PhD, he taught English and served as a dean of students. He went on to serve on the faculty at Colby College before becoming Headmaster of The Thacher School, where horses remain a central part of the curriculum. The Western Writers of America named his novel, High Country, which draws upon his packing experiences, “Best First Novel. “ More importantly, they named it “Best Novel of the West.” He has also published in Epoch. His second novel, Blue Heaven, was published in 2011.

KRIS SAKNUSSEMM is the author of the novels Zanesville, Private Midnight and Reverend America. His shorter work has appeared in a wide range of literary journals, including The Boston Review, The Hudson Review, The Antioch Review, Prairie Schooner, Zyzzyva and Chelsea. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, he traveled widely in the American West as a child before moving farther west, to Australia and the Pacific Islands, where he has lived for many years.


2 responses

  1. Mary, several of the essays in the book address this issue in great detail. Thanks for voicing your opinion! Russell

    May 24, 2012 at 2:24 pm

  2. Mary L Pease

    I was slightly surprised that the effects of multiple climates wasn’t mentioned. It seemed to me that the weather and it’s environments
    were often what allowed western writers to interpret their landscapes.

    May 23, 2012 at 11:56 pm

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