Kim Barnes is a Moscow, Idaho-based novelist and memoirist who teaches at the University of Idaho. Her first memoir, In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country, was a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize. Barnes recently published her second novel, A Country Called Home, and I spoke to her over the phone about her inspiration for the book, how some of the events of her life have informed the novel, and whether or not it’s possible for women to be hermits. Barnes will discuss her book on October 15 at the Tattered Cover (Colfax, 7:30 p.m.) at the Montana Festival of the Book on October 25 (Wilma Theater, 7:30 p.m.), and at the University of Idaho on October 29 (7:30 p.m., Law School Courtroom).
New West: How did the idea for A Country Called Home first come to you?
Kim Barnes: I was in between books, which is always a very dangerous time for a writer. I had been working on my first novel, Finding Caruso, and had gotten all the edits done and shipped it off to the publisher. After months and often years in the writing process of being so obsessed with this one project, suddenly it’s just gone. For that kind of post-partum depression there’s only one cure, which is you have to start writing another book. I thought I might keep working on a third memoir, which I’d had in the works, the happy ending to the trilogy of [my] memoirs. I was down in my office putting in the time, which you absolutely have to do to keep yourself open to the muse, to the possibility of creative impulse. It’s very Jungian. I believe we tap into that collective unconscious and open our minds into a kind of wild mind if we’re lucky.
NW: Do you think it’s important to work at the same time every day to tap into that?
KB: I do. I think it has to be like meditation for me. It has to become a practice, almost like a meditative practice. Bill Kittredge talks about this—he knows when he’s hitting his stride in imagining a story when he starts dreaming his characters. I didn’t have characters yet, but I woke up one morning in this process trying to work my way towards a project, and I had three words just right there, immediately in my head, and those became the first words in the book: “First, the river.”
NW: The prologue is so poetic and distinctive, and I didn’t figure out who the woman in it was until the end of the book. I thought this might have been the first part you wrote.
KB: It was. I started out as a poet and so I love being able to take lyrical flights in my prose. But if you write 300 pages that way, you exhaust your readers. I ran down to my computer that morning and typed those three words in, and then I had to figure out what came after. But in all honestly, that prologue, I wrote in one sitting. I didn’t know where it was coming from, I didn’t even know who that character was.
NW: So you were kind of in the same position that the reader is when they encounter the prologue.
KB: Yes, I absolutely was. That’s a great observation because I didn’t know what was going to happen. After I wrote that prologue—which was delightful to me because it’s so lyrical and I feel like it captures the poetry of the landscape—then I had to figure out a way to build a story underneath those senses, and that was how the book started.
NW: It starts with a birth, and includes another scene of birth amid the wilderness, and a mention of Manny’s mother’s difficulty with delivering her second, stillborn child. How did this birth motif come to interest you?
KB: There are several motifs in the book that I’m not sure I fully understand where they’re coming from. I do know that I work very much at the level of archetype. I study Joseph Campbell and The Hero with a Thousand Faces is one of my sacred texts. Same with Carl Jung—the idea of the archetypal motifs. I think the Hero’s Journey informs this book a great deal. But that story was written for men—that’s Odysseus setting out, that’s Hercules. But what about the women? I guess the birth story for me is one of the archetypal journeys for the female.
NW: And in particular, the women in your book are giving birth in the wilderness.
KB: Yes, they are. I sent this manuscript off to my agent and she called me and said, “What is it with you and orphans?” I don’t know what it is. I had an interviewer yesterday say, “Why are you obsessed with abandonment?” She saw the book as a series of abandonments, of people refusing to take on their responsibilities and duties. I think I’m less interested in abandonment and being orphaned than I am in what comes in to take the place of what you have lost. So the idea of the family that comes in to take the place of the family that you’ve lost. Or the father figure, who is Manny, in this book, who comes in to take the place of the father and the mother.
NW: Manny was an unusual character because he gives up any chance at making his own life in order to care for Elise.
KB: He does. Part of that I think is out of guilt.
NW: Because of his encounter with Helen.
KB: Yes. He was just a boy—they were all just kids. I think it was a sense of duty and guilt of what he owes Helen, but I think it’s more than that, the sense that this is the family he has made for himself. Elise is in fact his child. Not literally as we know, but she is the sister that his mother lost in childbirth, she is the daughter he will never have. If you think about Helen and Manny’s encounter, it’s conceivable that there was a conception in that moment of their making love on the beach. I think all of that is in Manny’s subconscious but it’s not anything that he allows himself to think about. The births in the book to me are as much about rebirth as they are about the original birth itself. The book is wanting to look at elements of regeneration, how one generation can fail so terribly in its noble vision. There’s nothing wrong with Thomas Derracotte’s vision, except he’s blind to its consequences.
NW: I usually don’t judge characters as I read a book, but Thomas Deracotte made me mad. His neglect of his responsibilities caused his family so much misery. I found all the other characters sympathetic. Do you think about balancing sympathetic with unsympathetic characters in your books in order to appeal to readers?
KB: I do. I don’t think readers have to necessarily like a character or even be sympathetic to a character to be affected by a character. I went through and added a little bit of development to Thomas’s character because I think it was hard for people to understand what his motivations were even if they disagreed with them. The telling of this story comes out of my own familial mythology. My father was quite unlike Thomas Deracotte—he was not a physician from Yale, he was a logger who barely made it out of high school. But he was possessed of a singular vision. When he left Oklahoma in 1950, he was leaving a life of poverty much like Thomas Deracotte does. He was separating himself from that life of dysfunction, drinking, and poverty. At the age of 18, my father separated himself from that and chose not to inherit the elements of that life. He came to Idaho with my mother—they got married when she was 16. She also was leaving—she had been abandoned by her parents. She was leaving a life defined by a poor, red-dirt Oklahoma existence, alcoholism and abuse. When they came to the Clearwater National Forest of Idaho, it was like paradise. Much of what my father was logging was nearly virgin forest. For my father, when he got to that landscape, he never looked back. He knew he had found his paradise.
My mother, like Helen, was immediately beset by a sense of isolation. We lived in these little mobile logging camps in 8 by 20 shacks. They’d hitch it up to the logging trucks and we’d move to the next worksite. But all my mother had was her husband and me and the other workers who happened to be in the camp.
Once again I cast back to Aristotelian tragedy. Our tragic heroes are men of noble vision, not inherently evil or even selfish, but they’re beset by a particular flaw. That flaw for both my father and Thomas Deracotte is one of hubris. They come to believe so much in the truth and direction of their vision that they fail to see how it’s destroying the people around them.
NW: I was thinking of the townspeople as being kind of like a Greek chorus. They offer help, but they can’t intervene.
KB: They can only comment and warn. I don’t know if you remember Eppy, the woman in the bar in Fife—I really saw her as a kind of a gatekeeper.
NW: I love that scene where Helen goes into town to have a margarita and meets Eppy.
KB: I love Helen’s spirit but it terrified me in a lot of ways. I knew it wasn’t going to end well for her, because young beautiful women in small communities, their lives often become cautionary tales. Witness Hester Prynne. If they are women who have an appetite for the world as Helen does, who have an appetite to know things, to experience things, to take things in, they become a particular rendition of Eve and her quest for experience and knowledge, and we know that didn’t end well.
When I first started writing this story, I envisioned it as a true utopian story, where Thomas Deracotte would create a utopian community in Idaho, because there were a large number of utopian communities in the Puget Sound area. But the more I wrote it the more I came to understand it was less about him trying to create a perfect society than him trying to create a very small, familial society that he could live inside of. Like my father, all he needed was that place and the people he loved. My father said over and over again that all he ever needed was my mother to be happy in that place. Whether or not my mother was happy was something he could not think about.
NW: As you’ve mentioned, the two primary women in the story, Helen and her daughter Elise, seem to have more trouble coping with the isolation that living in the wilderness entails than do the men. Can women be hermits?
KB: Oh yes. I think I could be to a certain extent. I have a definitive urge to light out for the territories as Huck Finn said. I just told my husband yesterday that I want to go and live in a yurt. I have my father’s desire to escape into a kind of absolutist environment where the only thing that is required of me is to survive physically. That seems like the most beautiful, simple existence that I can imagine. So I definitely have that impulse, and I spend almost the whole summer with my husband fly-fishing in a wilderness area on a river and living in a tent, and I’m never happier.
NW: Do you write better in the wilderness?
KB: I don’t write. I fish. But I think I could, actually. One thing you’ll hear women talk about is how they need to have a quite mind in order to connect with themselves and with other people. The wilderness gives me a quite mind. I actually have a lot of my creative thoughts there that then I bring home and develop.
Judy Blunt, in her book Breaking Clean, writes that before she had children, living in the middle of nowhere was solitude, but after she had children it was isolation. I think that’s one of the huge differences. I don’t think women were meant to raise their children alone. Casting back to Hillary a long time ago, it does take a village. And that’s one thing that Helen longs for is that village to help her in the raising of this child.
Then you have women—and this is not particularly Western, I don’t think, although it’s a type of woman that I absolutely recognize as Western—like Eppy, who has separated herself from her children and her grandchildren in order to live a life of her own choosing. I think that kind of woman represents an archetype that’s basically asexual and kind of alarms us, someone who knows what she wants to that extent and is willing to pursue it. We see that in a man and we say he’s a tragic hero, he’s noble and he has a tragic flaw, but we don’t have those words for women.
Aristotle said that women were incapable of tragedy because they weren’t noble enough to fall from grace, that they didn’t have enough complexity. I think even I fight that idea in my writing. You know, what are the choices for women as complex, noble characters? One of the problems is when you have women who act outside of their gender, they become sometimes monstrous to us. That is one of the things we come up against when we write about women who make choices that go against their nature as nurturers.
Barnes will discuss her book on October 15 at the Tattered Cover (Colfax, 7:30 p.m.) at the Montana Festival of the Book on October 25 (Wilma Theater, 7:30 p.m.), and at the University of Idaho on October 29 (7:30 p.m., Law School Courtroom).