Nature Bats Last: A Talk with Timothy Egan
Timothy Egan. Photo by Sophie Egan.
Timothy Egan is one of the most gifted and imaginative interpreters of the American West. With a journalist’s appetite for research and a novelist’s eye for the telling detail, Egan has defined the region for a national audience. He worked for 18 years as a reporter for The New York Times, first as the Pacific Northwest correspondent, then as a national enterprise reporter, earning a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 as part of a team that wrote the series “How Race Is Lived in America.” He currently contributes to the newspaper’s Outposts column.
He is the author of The Good Rain (1990), Breaking Blue (1992), Lasso the Wind, Away to the New West (1998), The Winemaker’s Daughter (2004), The Worst Hard Time (2005), a nonfiction account of The Great Depression's Dust Bowl, which won the 2006 Washington State Book Award and a 2006 National Book Award. His forthcoming book, The Big Burn, chronicles the devastating 1910 forest fire, which incinerated a huge swath of the inland Northwest while paradoxically ensuring the survival of the idea of conservation. (Read an excerpt from The Big Burn in this issue of The Writer’s Workshop Review.)
Egan lives in Seattle with his wife, Joni Balter, and their two children. The interview took place on the deck of his home in the Seward Park area with the Cascade Mountains looming in the background. Surrounded by cedar trees and chirping birds, the fit, trim, 55-year-old writer bubbled over with ideas, energy and enthusiasm, as effervescent as a bottle of well-shaken champagne.
How did you come to write The Good Rain?
I spent a year trying to write a novel. I was writing every single day. I’d try on a bunch of voices, literary ventriloquism. I’d write a page of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, or a page of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, one of my all-time favorite books, just to see what it felt like. And then I’d think, “My voice is the first person smartass, or my voice is the omniscient narrator.” I had to do that to find what was comfortable. So that year of writing allowed me to find my voice, which is something every writer has to do.
I finished this novel, finally got an agent, but I couldn’t get it published. And then my agent tragically was hit by a bus and killed. So it looked like I was coming to this full stop. And I thought, “Where do I go now?”
Then a new agent picked up the clients of the woman who had been hit by the bus. The agent said, “This novel shows some strength, but it’s not going to work in the present environment. What else do you have?”
“I’ve been thinking about the Northwest in a different way,” I said. I was just starting to work for The New York Times and was forcing myself to look at this area as an outsider, instead of a third-generation native.
What year was that?
1987. I started reading books about the Northwest, especially Murray Morgan’s books and Steward Holbrook’s books, and Roger Sale’s Seattle Past and Present. Aside from these books, the history was the great man theory: railroad magnate comes West, lays track, buildings rise, and white men go off and have happy civilizations.
To me that wasn’t at all the story of this place. To me, the story was about how the land shaped civilization. The Wallace Stegner line, a civilization to match the setting. So in The Good Rain, I planned to write about the Northwest from the point of view of the land.
I proposed The Good Rain as a 10-page outline and sold it to Alfred Knopf. I got a wonderful editor named Ash Green, an old-school, gentleman editor, a terrific guy, who’d been there 40 years. His son had moved to Oregon and he was curious about this region.
I was chasing Theodore Winthrop, who was about my age. He was 33 when he died, the first American officer killed in the Civil War. I was young and exuberant, like the guy I was following. You can see the spirit of youth in it.
When did you start writing?
I wrote some poetry in a Catholic grade school. The nuns made me read it. Girls would come up and say, “I really liked your poem.” Wow, I can do this poetry thing and get girls! I always wanted to write, for as long as I can remember.
There are a few ways you can do this: the starving poet route is absurd; you can’t make a living. And I’m a public person; I like to be involved in politics and events of the day. So journalism was a clear path: for a person from a lower middle class background, it was an instant entree into society. I could call up the governor, the mayor, or a visiting author. It’s one of the few professions where you can have access at a very young age to the power structure and to how things work.
The third option would have been to go to graduate school and learn creative writing. I’m really glad I didn’t go that route. I have high regard for people who have come out of that, but your life experience gets so narrow; you end up writing for other graduate students. Being a journalist allowed me to cover forest fires, volcanoes, see people who were starving to death, be in the middle of a riot, be in a trial when the murder verdict is read, see the expression on the face when someone loses a loved one. You can get all these life experiences with journalism; you can’t get them in graduate school. So very early on I realized that journalism was a path to getting experiences to write about.
What part did your education play in your writing?
I’m a third generation Seattleite, but at a young age I moved to Spokane. I went to Gonzaga Prep, a Jesuit high school. The Jesuits were geniuses; a lot of them had PhDs. We read James Joyce and Herman Melville. There was a really good literary education and a challenging philosophical education. They didn’t tell you to believe in God; they said, “Arrive at this belief through your own logical direction.” So I had a fantastic, old school Jesuit education that nourished my love of writing.
Then I went to the University of Washington. I was able to take junior level English classes my freshman year because I had been reading Joyce, Milton and Dante in high school. Before I received my degree, I got on at the Seattle Post Intelligencer. It took me seven years to earn my degree. You know the scene of John Belushi in Animal House: “Seven years of college down the drain!” and he crushes the beer can against his head. That was me because I didn’t get my degree until much later. I started doing night cops down at the Seattle Police Station. I saw dead bodies and all of these awful things. When you’re 23, this is really cool.
What was the P-I like back in the '70s?
It was a writer’s paradise. It had the stamp of great people like Darrell Bob Houston and Tom Robbins. They weren’t there when I was there, but it had that legacy. Very creative environment, a writer’s paper. I had worked at the Seattle Times briefly as an intern, and so I came from there to the P-I. It was like going from Brooks Brothers to Woodstock. It was so open: you want to write 2,000 words, go right ahead. And the editing was creative; they encouraged you to try things. There was a great core of writers there: Bill Prochnau, who wrote several terrific books; Dave Horsey, a two-time Pulitzer Prize Winner; Eric Nalder, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. It was just a fantastic environment; you’d almost have to work 20 years at another paper to have that kind of access. So I worked there for five years, did almost everything you could as a journalist, and then quit cold. People said I was crazy to walk away from this great job. And I said, “Now, I’m going to be a serious writer.”
How did you come to write for The New York Times?
In 1986, The New York Times decided to open a bureau in Seattle. I started stringing for them and began to earn the confidence of editors. My big break was one of the worst environmental disasters of all time: the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. I was one of the first reporters there; I wrote ten days of page one stories. I was living in this guy’s house in Valdez, he was charging an enormous amount of money to live in this laundry room. The editor, Soma Golden, told me, “We really like what you’re doing; keep it up.”
“You have to pay me more money," I said.
“We’ll do better than that,” she said. “How about we hire you?”
I’d always heard they never hired people directly. You had to come in through Ivy League schools and then the Metro desk. To hire me directly onto the national desk was almost unheard of. So I owe my The New York Times career to this horrible disaster.
What did you learn while you were there?
I went in with a chip on my shoulder: who are these Ivy League, snot-nosed bastards? I was the public school kid, from the University of Washington. It wasn’t so much what I can learn from them, but I’ll show them. I started out there trying to hold onto my own voice, because after a while everyone writes the same. I saw the renaissance of the paper where they let individual voices flourish—Maureen Dowd, Todd Purdum, to Sam Verhovek who lives here in Seattle. They called this glastnost, a Soviet term. I flourished and came of age in that period where the gray flannel suit was thrown out the window and there was a lot more creativity. Over the years, I learned a lot of things there.
What did you learn from the reporting?
They encouraged you to look at a place as if you were a foreign correspondent. You were someone who had been sent to the American West to be an anthropologist. That’s a great thing to do. It really forces you to throw out your stereotypes. The reporting is forced immersion, looking at things with fresh eyes.
How has the newspaper business changed?
It’s changed fundamentally. I used to file my story at 5 p.m. Western time and go out and have a drink and eat dinner. Three weeks later a letter would show up, “Dear Mr. Egan, Your piece on Jan. 24 failed to mention….” Now they’re on you immediately. You file your story and you have 400 responses--within six hours.
We joke at The New York Times, “Gee, I wish the moat was back up. They’re all over us now.” It’s good in that you see things that you’d miss, but a large percent of it is ideological, hate-filled, and stupid. These people have their axe to grind and it has nothing to do with what you just wrote. We never had that degree of involvement with the reader. That’s the number one difference.
The number two difference is the 24-hour newsroom. The news never ends. Now, you’re constantly updating.
The third difference is the huge audience. I used to have an audience of a million readers for The New York Times. Now I have 20 million for The New York Times on the web. The newspaper business has never had a bigger audience. My line is that it’s like the Ford Motor company produced its bestselling car of all time, but they gave it away. We have the maximum audience, but can’t make any money off it.
What effect did the Jayson Blair scandal have on the The New York Times?
It was an atomic bomb. He was one of our colleagues on the national desk, an elite group of 15 people. You hold yourself to a very high standard. He broke all the rules. He cheated. He lied. He made stuff up in his stories. It was horrible. He was a screwed up guy who committed this monstrous journalist crime.
No one knows how it happened. He was going through a pretty elaborate series of ruses to create this fraud. He was having the photographer send pictures to his email so he could describe the place physically even though he hadn’t been there, the brown hills of this or that or the rising tide of the river, with a dateline, but in fact he was sitting two floors above the national desk in Manhattan looking at pictures.
The Pulaski Fire Fighting Tool: Invented by Ed Pulaski and still used by the U.S. Forest Service.
Was this a symptom of a larger trend of nonfiction writers fictionalizing their stories, as was the case with James Frey in A Million Little Pieces?
The memoir is a terrific genre. Think of books like Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life. The memoir is held to certain standards, basically defined as your memory. It’s not going to be fact-checked for everything. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes is exhibit A, a fabulous memoir written within the bounds of the genre. He got some things wrong, I’m sure, but it’s largely from his memory.
Then James Frey skews it so far that it’s fiction. He tried first to sell it as a novel. Frey is representative of a lack of standards in publishing. A fictionalized life account? I don’t think literature has a category for that.
Does that make your job as a writer harder?
Much harder. Joe McGinniss wrote a book on Teddy Kennedy called The Last Brother. He never got an interview with Kennedy and yet he’s got a scene where Kennedy’s walking on the beach. When you’re reading this, you think, “This is what Kennedy is thinking as he’s walking on the beach.” McGinniss said later he projected what he thought Kennedy would be thinking. That’s bullshit. That’s crap. That’s fiction writing.
Now, in my nonfiction books I sometimes have an internal monologue, what someone is thinking. And someone will ask in a writing class, “How did you know what he was thinking?” There’s a very simple answer: I asked them. I said, “At the point when the ship was sinking, what were you thinking?” And they said, “God, I was going to lose my wife.” They gave me this very detailed answer. So then you can reconstruct, based on reporting. So I can say, “As the ship went down, he was thinking about his wife.” Not because I’m projecting as McGinniss did, but because I asked him. It’s really simple. Reporting, reporting, reporting--that’s what brings nonfiction to life. That’s where Frey and others really tick me off. They drag down a well-thought of genre.
Where did you get the source material for the dialogue in The Worst Hard Time?
I interviewed people about Black Sunday, the biggest storm in the Dust Bowl. They’d say, “Well, I got up at 8 o’clock on a clear day and I went outside.” And I’d say, “Did you have a conversation?” And they’d say, “Yeah, I turned to my friend and said, ‘Holy shit, here comes this storm.’” And then I like to have a backup, so I’ll go to the other person if they’re alive, or in this case, people wrote amazing letters. They wrote family histories. Most of the stuff in this book is either family history or personal history.
How much interviewing and library research do you conduct for a nonfiction book?
I do an intense combination of both. I try to read everything. I want to know the foundation of knowledge on the subject. I want to advance this. I don’t want to just rewrite the story. I want to see if history got it wrong. With the Dust Bowl, it wasn’t that history got it wrong, it’s just that they got a different take. Here’s the largest Diaspora in American history and our view of it is entirely from Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, where everyone left and went to California. Well, two thirds of the people didn’t leave.
So I read a ton of stuff. Firsthand stuff is the best: diaries, oral histories. Then I do what a lot of academic writers don’t do; I immerse myself in the place. I want to smell, taste, touch. I want to live there for a while, see what the weather’s like, the food, the dialect of the people. I can only get so much from the page, and then I try to throw myself into the place. So it’s a two-part deal; the intellectual immersion and the physical immersion.
And then I start to look for the narrative arc. With the Dust Bowl book, I would sit in a circle of a dozen people in these little towns in the Texas Panhandle, listening to these charming 85-year-olds. I’d be running my tape recorder and listening to these incredible stories about what it was like to be 18 years old when the sky turned black at noon. Then I’d go back to my crappy hotel room with deer blood on the rug and replay this stuff and start to see the story. That’s one thing you have to trust to serendipity; I go into this thing not knowing what the story line is. I end up cutting a lot after I see the narrative arc. The fear is that you don’t see the narrative arc; if the story doesn’t emerge, you’re toast.
I look at events in a storytelling arc. In the fire book I saw it as the founding myth of the Forest Service: these martyrs who died gave them a foundation that allowed conservation to become an American ideal. The Forest Service had mythologized it too, it was their sacred text. We need these stories to run our lives. Lasso the Wind is a search for a sustaining story of the West. What holds us together as Westerners? So I interviewed a ton of people and ended up dropping what doesn’t fit my ultimate story. I don’t want a he said, she said. I don’t want a phone book of episodic oral history. I’m looking for beginning, middle and end. I want things to happen. I want the reader to see change. All the things you want in fiction.
So it’s nonfiction that reads like fiction.
Right. I’m certainly not new to this. It’s an old and honorable tradition. Dickens was a reporter. He’d go around the Industrial Age in London and take copious notes. Tom Wolfe wrote that famous essay, “Stalking the Billion-footed Beast,” arguing that good novelists should go out and immerse themselves in society instead of sitting in a graduate class. It’s great advice, but not enough people follow it.
Where did you get the idea for The Big Burn?
I grew up in Spokane and we camped in Montana and Idaho. We would go up to Rock Creek and the Blackfoot River in Montana and Priest Lake and Pend Oreille in north Idaho. There were always fires and yellow-shirted firefighters in town at a burger feed. As a kid I remember hearing about The Big Burn, this big forest fire in 1910.
As I was finishing the Dust Bowl book, I was looking for something. I didn’t consciously think I’ll go from dust to fire, working my way through the elements, but I like stories when nature is the determining event.
With the Dust Bowl book I had living survivors. Most were in their 80s and 90s, a fantastic opportunity to do firsthand history, to look in their eyes and say, “Tell me what it was like.” In the fire book, everyone was gone, so I didn’t have the immediacy you get with survivors, but I had fantastic stuff from the Forest Service documentation of those early days.
What was your source for the opening scene of the book?
It came from Forest Service records. They did this exhaustive report from a number of voices. It’s all in their files in Missoula and Sandpoint. This was a huge event, so they investigated what happened.
The Wallace stuff came from newspapers. The national press covered this fire so there were about a half a dozen contemporaneous newspaper accounts of the evacuation. So it came from Forest Service records and contemporary newspaper accounts.
Was Ed Pulaski essential to organizing the book?
I wanted someone to drive the story. He wasn’t an educated man, so he wasn’t in the Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot part of the story about the founding of American conservation. But Pulaski is the humanitarian heart of the story, and a tragic figure, because he got screwed. He saved all his men, but his lungs were ruined and he had to pay his own health care. He turned into a very bitter man.
Why are ecological themes so important to your work?
It’s almost by default. I’m an outdoors lover like most Northwesterners. But if I were living in Milan, I’d be writing about Milanese intrigue. If I were living in Florida, I’d be writing about the swamp and politics. If I were living in Philly, I’d be writing ethnic stories. But I live here. My storytelling is a product of where I live. It’s as simple as that. I didn’t set out to write ecological stories. All my writing is about the search for place and how nature affects us. But I’m not an ideological environmentalist in any way; storytelling is my number one motivation. Find the story.
How does the region influence your work?
Clearly, the more I travel the more I see I am a Northwest writer. I see how other Northwest writers are different from the rest of the country. This fascinating climate allows us to go inward and be creative in the winter. If it was sunny all the time, we wouldn’t get anything done. I think the rainy weather is crucial to my creativity. I do my best work in the dark months and hardly any writing in the summer.
I was interviewing the theater director, Dan Sullivan, and he said, “In a dark place, people like to go into caves and tell stories.” That’s certainly why we’re such a great book town. In the winter, you can get 500 people at a reading on a Tuesday night, which is almost unheard of in other American cities. This town embraces its writers. You have to go to other towns to realize we’re unique in this regard.
What do your books say? Is there one theme that runs through them?
I think of this T-shirt I saw after the San Francisco earthquake of 1989. The Giants were playing Oakland in the World Series. They had just played the National Anthem. Then the quake hit. It flattened the Embarcadero and a whole bunch of buildings. They suspended the World Series for a week. Very quickly these T-shirts appeared, “Nature Bats Last.”
Is this true of The Big Burn, too?
Absolutely. The Forest Service thought they could control fire. It came at a time when the 20th century was ginning up; people were starting to think “We can outfox nature.” And this fire came along and changed the whole mission, turning the Forest Service into the Fire Service.
What other books do you have planned?
I have a two-book deal. The first book is The Big Burn. The second book I’m keeping totally quiet.
Is it nonfiction?
Anything you’d like to add?
I see myself as mid-stream in my career. Let’s say I can live to be 90 years old, hopefully I can still write. I’m so inspired by people who do things well late in life. John Huston made his last movie, The Dead, in his eighties. It brought me to tears. Norman Maclean’s last book, Young Men and Fire, one of my inspirations for The Big Burn, was a beautiful book about mortality, coming to terms with his own death. People say, “You can retire now.” I want to write till I drop.