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Whitworth Today: Fall 2004

Whitworth Today Nov. 11 interview with Leif Enger, author of Peace Like a River, who was Whitworth's 2004 Endowed English Reader.

Audio Highlights
About a writer's job Listen Now
About becoming a writer Listen Now
About how journalism influenced his style Listen Now
Beginning to be a writer Listen Now
How he knew he was a writer Listen Now
Swede Listen Now
Readers' response Listen Now
Criticism Listen Now
About his new book Listen Now

These audio files are available in Windows Media Format. You can download a free copy of the Microsoft® Windows Media Player from the Microsoft website.
Transcript

Q. What topics will you address at tonight's lecture and what main points will you share with the audience?

A. The title of the talk is "Invisible" because it seems to me that a writer's job -- and not just a Christian writer's job, but I think Christians often have a harder time doing this than secular writers -- is to become invisible in his or her work, to step back and let the story just be a story, to not preach, to bury your agenda, if you have one, to dare to be entertaining and to trust that the story then will become what it is supposed to be.

Q. Please describe how the mechanics of your writing -- your style, approach, what informs your writing -- has evolved since you first began writing.

A. Wow, that's been a long time. I started to write fiction when I was sixteen. I was in a creative-writing class, and, you know, God bless English teachers. This teacher liked an essay that I had done, took me aside after class, and said, "You should consider writing a novel." Well, I had never even written a short story. And so I was very gratified because I didn't have a whole lot of things in high school that made me stand out or feel particularly ready for the world. I wasn't athletic, which it helps to be in high school, I wasn't good looking, which it helps to be in high school, and I was a little resentful, I think, about the world, and so when she said, "You should write a novel," I kinda thought, "Ah, fame, fortune, this will teach those goofballs."

So then I seized on that. You know, words -- words are something I can work with. But does a kid like that have a style? No, no of course not. I just copied whoever I liked at the time, which is kind of how you have to begin. So I began by copying Robert Stevenson and Jack London and Mark Twain, and I tried to be all those guys because I just admired their stuff so much. And I went home immediately and started writing a novel. It was about, as I recall, animals in a sewer of a large city who decide to come up out of the sewer. It was just bad science fiction. I got eight pages into it and I thought "I can't write a novel." My English teacher said I could do it because Susan Hitten did it with The Outsiders. She was seventeen when she wrote The Outsiders.

I had read it at that time and thought is was a really good book. But of course, I discovered that writing a novel was much harder than I had thought. I concluded that I couldn't write a novel at that tender age. But I kept writing short stories.

When I went to college, at Moorehead State University, I had begun to think of myself as being a writer at some point in the future. I recognized I wouldn't be able to just step out of college into fiction writing unless I was some sort of genius, which I was not. So I went into journalism as a way of using language to make a living. That turned out to be great training because the thing I didn't learn in high school stylistically from reading Stevenson was that you shouldn't just throw everything in every sentence. My sentences were so filled with adjectives and reprehensible adverbs, and they were long, convoluted, sometimes stream-of-consciousness sentences; they were just terrible. They were bad. I was throwing everything onto the page.

Journalism doesn't allow that. Journalism teaches you to be careful with your adjectives and to abstain from adverbs to the greatest possible extent. It teaches you that brevity is not only the soul of wit, but is a necessity because your editor will not put up with long stories or even long sentences. That was maybe the single biggest thing for me to learn to begin to hone a style.

Then, when I had been working for public radio as a reporter for a few years, I got a letter from my older brother, Lynn, who was at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He's a terrific writer, and at the time I think he was in revolt against the sort of workshop mentality, which he found high-brow and annoying ...

Q. And Iowa's a pretty prestigious program...

A. Yes. He was there on the Michner Grant, which is pretty prestigious in itself. But I think Lynn has always had a dislike of façade, and I think he enjoyed his time there, but he needed to do something that would take him out of that. And so what he decided to do was write some low-brow fiction. He invited me to join him in this enterprise. He said, "Let's write a mystery novel. Let's write a low-brow mystery novel, and sell it and make a lot of money."

And I thought that was a great idea. He said, "We're in the golden age of history." And we were. I mean, Abra Parker was really hot at the end of the Spitzer novels, and they were teaching Elmer Leonard in colleges. Sarah Moorshavski was ascending at that time, Sue Rafton books were very popular, Lawrence Block, Laurel Marr. So Lynn said, "We can do this, you know. I've read Parker. They're not hard."

And so he came up with a plot and shared it with me through the mail, and I went out and read a few mystery novels so I had a feel for what we were doing, and we just sort of jumped in. We wrote a book together in four or five months and thought, "Okay, our future's secure!" We're just going to get on this train and ride it to fame and fortune. We got an agent, a guy in Minneapolis at that time, who said, "Oh sure, we can sell this." So, long story short, we wrote five of those books, we published them at pocket at Simon and Schuster as paperback originals. And nobody bought them.

But that was a terrific apprenticeship for me because Lynn taught me so much about how to write a good sentence and how to make something compelling from paragraph to paragraph. I know in the early days, he was frustrated with me because I could write fiction, I would write a long sentence. I remember one point he called me up -- our phone bills were huge -- he called and said, "Would you knock off reading Garcia Marquez because your writing is creepy in and strange, and unpredictable things are happening in your sentences." And he said, "No, no, no. Short, declarative sentences. Knock this stuff off." And so I did. And what I found was that the stories then moved along quickly and I think were compelling to the four or five people who actually bought the books.

Q. What did your parents think of the books?

A. They weren't terribly impressed, because Lynn and I made all sorts of compromises in those books. We had been raised in a Christian home, by Christian parents. My parents are not readers of popular fiction. They read lots and lots of other stuff, but they don't read popular fiction. So when we made our little comparisons to Elmer Leonard, they didn't know who we were talking about. When they actually saw the first book, I can only imagine how disappointed they were.

I remember my mom saying, "Did you have to use the word 'ass' in the book?" So we felt chagrined. We didn't feel at home in that world. We had great fun writing the books and it was great fun to have your name on some novels. L.L. Enger was our penname for Lynn and Leif. That was Pocket's idea. And we had this sort of small measure of notoriety among six or eight librarians.

Our advances were $5,000 for the first book, I think about $6,000 for the second. We split the advances after the agent took his cut. We never got our royalties back. It was not like the dreams you have about royalty checks and fan mail. We did get one fan letter in five years. It was from an eighth-grade boy in Wisconsin who expressed disappointment that we found it necessary to swear in our fiction.

Writing the books was great practice. They say the first million words are practice, so that was our practice. And finally, we're trying to write these books while working these demanding full-time jobs. I was reporting for public radio, Lynn was teaching at Moorehead State University, our alma mater, and before that, teaching at the Arts Magnets in Minneapolis. So on one hand, we were writing in a world in which we weren't completely comfortable, writing books we knew we couldn't read to our kids until they were a lot older, feeling kind of bad about that, and on the other hand, the books weren't doing well. And we weren't getting famous or making a lot of money. So we finally just gave up in exhaustion -- we were too tired to keep writing.

I think the story is that I had to write a whole lot of words before I came to a point where I was ready to write a story that was purely to entertain my family and to entertain myself and also to, in some ways, understand some things that my oldest son was going through as a child with asthma. So by the time we quit the Gun Peterson books, I was just ready not to be a writer anymore because I had given it my best shot and I thought I was as commercial as I knew how to be, and nobody cared. But I didn't like not writing.

After a month off from writing, this new character started knocking. And I answered the door and he was just this 11-year-old kid who couldn't breathe and I was envisioning a little older version of my son who was seven at that time. So I just wanted to let him tell his story. That's how Peace Like a River began and I did not have any notion about publishing it for several years. I knew nobody would want it. It was not commercial and the main character was an asthmatic kid and he had a dad who was a janitor in a little school in a little town; it's not exactly commercial material. There was cowboy poetry in it, and if you're writing best-sellers, you're not writing cowboy poetry. So I was not thinking about it in any commercial way.

When I was a little more than halfway through writing the book I read a scene to my family one night. I don't remember which scene it was, but I remember Robin started the cry at the end and so I knew it was good, and after the kids went to bed, she said, "I think you should finish this now because I think someone will want to publish it." And that was literally the first moment I had given that notion a thought. And from then I sort of worked on the idea that someone would print it, but I've never, until the auction, thought about it as a commercial property or as something that would allow me to quit my reporting job. And strangely enough, that's what happened.

Q. Your writing seems effortless. Nobody's writing is effortless, but yours just sounds like an eloquent person talking. How hard is it for you to write? Do you open a vein and bleed or does it come fairly easily to you?

A. It comes fairly easily if I'm writing in first person. It comes less easily if I'm writing in third person That first-person voice is so natural. It's the most natural way of story telling. It's just what everybody does. It's what you do around the water cooler. So it's not that difficult.

But I do work at my drafts really hard, because I want it to sound easy, I want it to sound simple and eloquent and I want to be invisible in the process; I want to stay out of the way. Too often, when I am reading a book, I see the fingers of the author coming into the picture because they have something they want me to agree with them on, and I've never liked that. There are certain books that I think are brilliant and eloquent but then they suddenly depart from that eloquence in order to jam the point down my throat. And I really resent that as a reader and so that's a mistake I don't want to make as a writer.

The hard part for me is making the story what it should be. That to me is sometimes more difficult than writing sentences. I did work hard on Peace -- it took me five years to write it. The only part that came easily -- and I think this was just a gift -- was the first 30 or 40 pages which I sat down and wrote in a couple of weeks and made virtually no revisions on at anytime during the process. It was like I'm sitting down with a paintbrush and make a few swashes on a canvas, it's a picture. That's how the first few chapters went. I thought, "Wow, I'm onto something here!"

And then it got harder after that because different story elements seemed to come in. And I'm not sure when to break them in or if they should be moved forward or if they should be moved backward or if they should be in there at all. Structure is difficult; it is kind of daunting.

But I had a ball writing the book. It was fun to try to please the boys because kids have a real sense of what they want to hear in a story, more than adults do, I think. They want adventure, they want outlaws on horseback and they want sunken treasure and shipwrecks, which I wasn't able to fit in. They want all sorts of really big, exciting things.They want Pirates of the Caribbean, and so to some extent, I was just trying to give them what they wanted, and most of the time, I was able to do it.

I don't think that there are very many people who are writing that kind of adventure tale anymore. And so I think, in some sense, the book succeeded because people realized, "Oh yeah, an adventure story; adventures are fun to read." I would love to live a more adventurous life than I do and I think there's part of each of us that wants to stride the decks.

Q. When did you know you were a writer and when did everyone else know you were a writer?

A. I felt like a writer from the time my teacher said I should be one, because it was the first thing I sort of had, but I don't think that anybody else knew, even when Lynn and I were writing the mysteries. I think what happened was, I was writing Peace Like a River and not telling anybody about it except my wife and kids so nobody else knew. My brother knew, but he wasn't reading it.

I think there was a moment after the book had sold for a generous amount of money and I thought, "I could take a year off now." So I called my boss at NPR and said, "Can I take a year off?" And she said, "Yeah. Yeah, I think you can, but how are you going to afford it?" So then I had to tell her about the book, so word spread fast.

My friends called me saying, "So I understand you won the lottery." I have to say, I sort of resent the comparison. It was more like: "Okay, if I work really hard on my lottery-ticket buying every day, for two hours for five years, then maybe you can make that a comparison." But no, I didn't see it as winning the lottery; I saw it as something I worked pretty hard to do. Granted, the pay was good. But it was also completely on spec; I had no notion that they'd ever pay, and I was just writing the story for my sons. So that is winning the lottery.

A couple weeks after I asked my boss if I could take a year off, the book's rights began selling in Europe. It sold in a dozen countries in a matter of several weeks. So then I thought, "I could get two years." So I called my boss again and said, "Can I make it two years?" She said, "No!" So I said, "In that case, I'm just going to have to leave." And I thought maybe she'd say, "Oh, okay, you can take two years off." But no, she said, "You'll have to leave." So I left on good terms and if my next book is a flop, I guess can go back to radio. But I'm hopeful that it won't flop.

Q. Were you frightened when you said, "Okay, I guess I'll have to quit then?"

A. No, I was excited. I was excited because I thought, "I have no better chance than this to do what I've always wanted to do." How many chances does a person have? One, at the most.

Q. Who was your favorite character to write in the book and why?

A. Swede, because she was an unexpected present. I just didn't imagine Swede when I was thinking about how to make a plot out of an asthmatic child. I did know I wanted the father to be able to do miracles, because I wanted to do that for my asthmatic son and could not. And I knew that I wanted a kind of old-fashioned outlaw older brother because I love characters like that. So that was Davy. But I didn't think about Swede until I was writing the first chapter and Ruben is going off to North Dakota to go hunting and basically what happened was Ruben opened the car door and Swede was sitting there; a little blonde is sitting there. So I just rolled with it and Swede grew into a key character of the book, and she was certainly the most fun to write.

Whenever I came to a spot where I was flummoxed and didn't know what to do next, I just brought Swede in and let her talk for awhile, and that always solved the problem. Writer Raymond Chandler said that whenever one of his stories was boring, he'd bring in a man with a gun. I couldn't really do that, but I brought in Swede and that always solved the problem. That whole poetry business was completely fun.

When I was eight years old I started to write poetry, sort of long, rhyming ballads about cowboys and gorillas and dinosaurs, things I was interested in. And they weren't good. They weren't like Swede's stuff that actually makes some sense and has continuity. I was no Swede, but I've met kids who are.

Lately I've been working on the screenplay for the movie and there was a lot of going back and forth with the producers about the idea of poetry because the woman who first adapted the book wrote some really terrible poetry in the movie; she didn't use the poetry in the book. There's a good reason for it, and that's because whenever they tried to use the book's poetry, the movie, the story, film-wise stopped in its tracks for 90 seconds. So they ended up just cutting all the poetry out, which broke my heart. When I got my shot at the rewrite, what I was able to do was to write some brand-new poetry that actually moves the story forward in a filmic way. So you actually see what's happening in the poem and it has a correlative to what's happening in the story and it moves the plot forward. The fun part was I got to write more verses about Sunny and I just had a ball sitting in the loft of the barn writing the verses. It was terrific.

Q. What feedback have you received about the role faith plays in your book from readers with a secular background and from those with a faith-based background?

A. I don't think I can really quantify it, but, anecdotally, I think that non-Christians like the book better than Christians. In my own little circle of friends, I think the book is sort of suspect. I have a lot of Christian friends who are dear people. They don't read a whole lot of fiction, a lot of current fiction. Some of them read old fiction, which is good, but has its limits. I think there were a few people who read that early scene in the book, the church scene, where there's some things going on, people falling over, twitching around, there's some sort of questionable prophecy, and some people thought I was mocking too much, I was too irreverent.

In fact, I was writing from experience. I went through the charismatic renewal of the '70s with my family and I was Reuben's age at the time, and some of that stuff is hilarious. I mean, there's just no other way to say it. There are some things that are hilarious, and if I had been older, I might have been embittered by some of the things that happened then because there were fraudulent that happened and there were some abuses that happened, abuses of power and abuses of people. I was glad that I was only eleven or twelve because it all looked funny to me at that age. It's easier to be forgiving when you look on it think, "Oh, that's funny." The whole experience gave me a lot more faith in God and a lot less faith in humans. You know, humans are so incredibly fallible.

Q. In an earlier interview for Whitworth Today you said, "As far as I know, none of the critics were bored by the book; they liked it a great deal or they were horrified by it, which made me extremely happy. Which made you happier?

A. Oh, when they loved it. Everybody wants to be loved by everybody. But I think it's better to have people just despise your book and you and everything you stand for than to have them just go, "Eh, boring." I would rather be despised and reviled than just overlooked because I'm dull. I don't want to be dull.

Q. Do you think it's the role of the author to provoke readers?

A. I think it is for some authors, but I don't think it's mine. I wasn't thinking about irking anybody when I wrote the book. I was not trying to subvert, I was trying to entertain, but everybody is not jazzed by the same stuff. So the stuff that I thought was compelling really ticked off most of our East Coast reviewers who are people who think that there isn't anything beyond New York City or the Eastern Seaboard. They don't see much worth in sort of fly-over fiction. There is a certain element of that out there, but that's all right.

That's sort of countered by people like me who would rather not going to New York City if I don't have to. But I have to say that most of the people I've talked with in New York publishing houses have been incredibly kind to me. You know, this book was sent to 10 or 12 publishers; half of them wanted to buy it.

I had the rare privilege to talk to editors of half a dozen houses and have good long conversations with them and they were very respectful and kind, and I thought they showed a sharp understanding of the themes of the book, for the most part. Not all, but most of them did. So it seemed to me like maybe we had more common ground; it was inspiring. I am sure there were some editors at the houses that weren't interested who threw the book against the wall.

Q. Did anybody revile you, any of those people you talked to, or was the book savaged by a few critics?

A. There were some critics I talked to who hated the book. But there were three or four reviewers who hurt my feelings. And I thought, "What have I done to deserve this?" because there was such loathing and hatred for ____ being personal. And where that comes from, I don't know.

But I would rather touch that nerve and endure that than to have them go, "Oh, another western novel...boring." That would be much more painful. My skin is thicker now than it was at first. Book tours are hard, they're not glamorous at all. You go to store after store and there are eight people sitting there waiting to hear you and three of them work at the bookstore. It's really arduous. And you get up and read the paper the next day and someone's creaming your book. That is demoralizing; it's very, very difficult. So yeah, my skin's a lot thicker now than it used to be. They can say what they want.

Q. Who do you read? What contemporary authors do you enjoy?

A. I'm reading a book right now that's knocking me out. One of the great things about having a successful book is that publishers send you a bunch of advance copies that they're excited about in hopes that you'll give them blurbs. Many times, I just don't read them because I don't have time to read all the books but I'm reading a great one now by Mary McGary Morris that's called The Lost Mother and it's knocking me out. It's a beautiful Depression-era story which is not depressing, even though the family is having a horrible time and living in a tent and the dad can't get work and the mom has abandoned them, I'm loving this book. It's so strong and is written in such a beautiful voice, so I'm recommending that to people right now. It's not out yet. I think it should be out in a few months.

Q. Could you give us a synopsis of your upcoming book?

A. You know, I'm just not talking about it right now, but I'm very excited about it. For me, it has to start with character -- the elements of character, voice and story. Those are the big three. But everyone comes down to a different place where this all begins: Which is the chicken? Which is the egg? It starts with the character, for me.

And the character in this new book is an older guy, a one-time train robber who has returned in order to win back the wife he abandoned 30 years before when he went off to rob trains. To me, there's just so much soul and character in an older love story. That's really what I wanted this to be. Of course, I wanted it to have outlaws, stolen horses, maybe a shipwreck in this one. And all the fantasies I am crazy about, all the various romantic items that filter through, whatever I'm interested in goes into the book. So I'm really excited about it.

Q. Do you have an anticipated publication time?

A. No, I don't even have a contract. No one has read this except for me and my wife and my kids. I haven't shown it to anyone yet.



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