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2004 Writers' Forum
Irene Wanner

Irene Wanner, a member of the Northwest Independent Editors Guild, teaches fiction writing at Richard Hugo House, Field's End, and Western Washington University. On editorial staff of The Seattle Review, she also reviews books for The Seattle Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Orion. Her natural history essay, "Looking for Snowies,'' appeared in the November/December 2003 Bird Watcher's Digest.
photo credit:
dean wong
Conversation with Curator Belle Randall
In this interview, recorded March 10, 2004, Irene and Belle discuss genre, voice, nature, place, community, authorship, and more.
Listen to this Interview (MP3)
28:00 / 10.5MB
IW

This is an excerpt from an essay called "Looking for Snowies."
[reading follows]
BR





Thank you. We’re listening to Irene Wanner reading an excerpt from "Looking for Snowies," and I think they too get to find out how that comes packaged in a bigger bird. Last time I looked Irene was a writer of fiction, and a rather distinguished writer of fiction. And now you’re writing mainly essays. Is that right?
IW It is.
BR And how did that happen?
IW











Well, when I write fiction I don’t write about myself. Maybe when I was younger I did a bit of autobiographical fiction; all of us tend to write what we know, is the saying. But I’ve become interested in putting myself into what’s going on, and I think that’s better suited to creative non-fiction. Where, for example, I go out and watch birds and it allows me to see what’s going on firsthand, and then to read, and to do a little study, and to cruise the web, and learn some new things about the world around me, instead of making them up. So that way I get to put myself into some of what’s going on, on the page.
BR




Well, in some ways you could be more modest, because there’s a great deal of the real natural world, but you yourself seem a good witness… you do express opinions in a way that fiction can’t quite do, maybe.
IW












It’s true, in fiction you have to give the opinions to your characters, and so it’s sometimes why folk that aren’t writers sometimes assume that that character is that writer. You’ll hear it at readings, someone’ll say "well, when you did this," and the writer’s always quick to step in and say "it’s not me, it’s the character." So you give them the opinions they need for the fiction to function in that particular world, but in an essay that is a personal essay springing from yourself, then you don’t have that intermediary, the character, you are the character. Or else, a lot of the pieces I love to read are ones in which writers go out with other people and write about it. So that’s going out again, not just me, me, me.
BR


How is this genre different for you as a writer? I mean each form has different demands, and how does this form compare to writing fiction?
IW








I think in both, you start from a premise that you have to be fair with the reader, that you tell them true and interesting things. So because there’s that overlap, there’re going to be interesting characters, except we think of them as characters in fiction and real people in nonfiction. There’s an interesting story, you want something to happen; often you use dialog in both. But the difference I think often is that the essay is more attentive to subject and less attentive to character.
BR I like to write essays.
IW Do you ?
BR


Yeah. I’ve never been very successful writing fiction, though I know I’ve tried. But I know I can write an essay more intentionally than I can write a good poem.
IW Why is that?
BR

I don’t know but, you can sit down and kind of do it. So that’s one reason I like to do them in a way.
IW










Mm-Hmm. It is very different. And yet, I know recently I started writing with a couple other writers, and one of us gave the three of us a piece to take home, and we’re writing back and forth on email, and one person’s calling it a story and one person’s calling it an essay. And I thought it was an article that she wanted to make saleable to a magazine. And yet it worked any way you read it. The character could have been the real person, or it could’ve been a narrator. So I think often there’s quite an overlap there, and if you’ve cultivated good writing habits there for one, they apply to the other.
BR Why have you chosen to focus on nature as your subject?
IW

















I think I might’ve been—I should’ve grown up in the country. Always loved horses, always loved to be outside, still do. I have read—in recent years I think you’d agree—there’s more nonfiction, more essays, more exploration of the natural world on the page. And it’s a way for me to explore what’s out there. When I go look at birds for example, a friend and I went to look at snowy owls, that was our aim that year. It was cold and the owls had come down from the arctic and we thought what a great chance to go see them. But we had an encounter up there that when these men had caught this owl they put leg bands on it, but they also put big yellow wing tags, which they punched through the wing like piercing someone’s ear. And it changed the owl’s appearance drastically. And I was troubled, because I knew it would be easy to identify these birds this way for research scientists, but the bird had no say in participating.
BR

Well it becomes an essay kind of about how we influence what we observe.
IW









It does. The day really changed us. After that, I thought much more clearly about how any activity we do interferes, benignly or not, with the world around us. And that a lot of people are largely oblivious to nature in the city. They’ll happily cut a tree down in the spring when birds are nesting in it. Or cut down a snag that’s full of bugs because it’s ugly. When we might do better to think about those who are living around us. So I think that writing about nature has been a way for me to explore ideas, and to learn a lot.
BR

Was place very important in your fiction also, observations of physical landscape?
IW












I think writers in the West, we have such dramatic landscape. You always hear this over and over, the big novels and the stories that have the forests and the mountains and the rivers. It is a big part of it. It was very surprising to me when I put together my collection of stories, about twelve, fourteen stories, that half of them happened in the snow. So when I was laying out which story goes where, I thought well I can’t have all the snow stories in a pile. But I realized that that was just one way to make the real world more of a challenge to the characters in it. I think writers out here are very interested in the world they live in because it does affect us so much.
IW


You might have heard that interesting story Jim Welch once told about his first collection of poetry he sent back East, I think it was "Riding the Earthboy 40."
BR I don’t think so.
IW


And his editor said "Oh, I love this, there’s all this wind and bones, and wind and bones," and he [Welch] said, "Well heck, it’s just Montana." So….
BR



Seems exotic though, in Manhattan. Well, what aspects of fiction do apply when you’re writing creative non-fiction? All your skills as a fiction writer play a part still, I imagine.
IW











Yeah, you use dialog, you use the sensory imagery that you use in fiction, and the poets as well are always using lots of color. And I think that, when I teach classes, I always remind students that all of the tools that you poets use, with a little license, we can use them well too if we’re careful with them. So dialog comes over, you want interesting characters, you want the change to occur in, not the protagonist, but the focal person in an essay. You want them to go out and observe something, learn something, gain or lose something. And it has sort of a similar structure I think. Wouldn’t you say?
BR


Well, you know that better than I, because I think structure was part of my weakness as a fiction writer. I was good at describing things, but where was the story?
IW

Well that was my poetry, I was good at describing things but where was the story! That’s very funny…
BR




And I wonder, I guess some poetic techniques or all of them are useful to writers, and yet I usually don't want prose to call attention to itself stylistically in a way that I put up with poems doing… but I usually want a clear window with prose.
IW






It’s true, you don’t want to feel the writer standing there going "wasn’t that an excellent simile I just wrote?" but we do tend to stay away from metaphor and symbol, and alliteration can be wonderful, and now and then allusion, and there is that compression of language in poetry and short fiction that’s very efficient, it can be stunningly beautiful.
BR

Annie Dillard can certainly be a writer who seems a poet who writes good essays.
IW













Yes. So I think I’ve certainly begun to read more poetry than I did, and admire how a poet gets into an idea and chews on it or gnaws on it for a while and considers something in such a compressed, intense bit of writing. I think maybe I’ve been drawn to short fiction because it is clean and spare and direct and yet it can be very rich and wonderful. And a novel--you probably remember Joseph Conrad saying that a work, however humble it is, should justify itself in every line. And I think a lot of novelists don’t think about that. They have so much elbow room that, you know, ‘what’re a few extra paragraphs here, or a scene that doesn’t go anywhere there?’ So a good novel should be as well written as a good essay or a good story.
BR I hear you’ve bought a little house in New Mexico.
IW











I have. The last ten years, well, starting in ’91, I began to take a trip for two or three weeks every June, just to explore and go hiking. I started out in the Southwest ‘cause I wanted to see all of the Indian ruins, and… kept going back and back and began to think "maybe I should buy a little piece of property down there." Had a few friends who moved and so, I thought, well, instead of moving to someplace where I know no one, I’ll look and see what’s available there. In 2000 there was a little house that came up, a little adobe house that was just right for one person and a cat, so I do go down there in the fall, usually.
BR


That’s a beautiful part of New Mexico, as I remember, um… you’re north… close to Colorado? Are you up by Taos, or…?
IW



It is northern New Mexico. Taos is quite far away, it’s an hour and a half to Santa Fe and from Santa Fe it’s at least another hour up to Taos. But I am up in the Jemez Mountains, and my house is at about 6000 feet.
BR


And how did that rural setting and those different cultures there, the Native American and the Hispanic, how do they affect your work?
IW



















I began a novel, so of course the people that are around me are in there. And there is such a long history down there, there’s a long history up here too, but our Native population seems much more distant to me. My address is Jemez Pueblo, that’s where my mail comes. And I don’t live on the reservation, but I go down there. And, we go to the feast days, and you see people…. The last time I was down there, there’s a winery about ten miles away, and I went and picked Riesling grapes one day, and it was all Jemez people and Hispanic people and…. I think just being around other cultures broadens things for you, makes you realize what a big world it is. It’s very different from here—I live in the Central District, which used to be the black part of town, but now it’s maybe half-and-half, and I’ve found that being in a diverse cultural situation is very interesting. Down there I knew all my neighbors in two or three days, and here I’ve lived in the same little house almost eighteen years now, and there’s people on my block I still don’t know, so, you feel a much more immediate effect down there.
BR



I think for most of those years, you’ve been teaching as I have in the Extension Program… does teaching offer you inspiration for your writing, does it take away from it…?
IW













Well, it takes your time, doesn’t it? You read people’s papers and, you want to give them encouragement and feedback, that’s what they take the classes for, so it takes a certain amount of time. But I’m always delighted, there’re always good writers in those classes, and people ask questions that lead you to think of new things. And, I do like it, it allows me to continually learn new things myself. I think if people read attentively, really carefully, they could learn all these things from reading, but we get together and give each other a little inspiration and save time and people ask questions and people ask questions that lead you to go new directions, so yeah, I think it is inspiring when you’ve had people in a class and they’ve gotten excited about their work.
BR


You’ve been part of the Iowa Writers Workshop, and I bet a lot of our listeners would like to know what that experience was like.
IW













I enjoyed it a great deal, um… when I was accepted several friends said, "oh, don’t go, you’ll hate it, they’re so mean, and they’ll make you write 'the Iowa style,’" and that wasn’t my experience at all, in fact I don’t know what "the Iowa style" is, if there is one. But, I was there two years, and I got to work on the Iowa Review, which is their literary magazine, and that was an aspect of writing I really wanted to know about, when I put a story in the mailbox what happens on the other end. So I learned to proofread and how to put a magazine together and worked my way up and began to read as an editor. And all of those things, those skills, anything in writing itself or producing writing, can help you in your own work.
BR



Yeah, I’ve been interested in being an editor, I think it helps one put rejections in context, and understand there’re so many reasons for rejecting a manuscript other than just its quality.
IW






















Sometimes there’s not space, sometimes they’ve just run something like that, there’re a lot of reasons why a piece might go back, but… you do learn the importance of sending stories to the proper markets. And, so that was one thing that the Iowa experience was very useful for. The other was, that you meet a lot of motivated people. And, that analogy sometimes was made that it was a little like Paris in the Twenties, after World War I, when you have a group of writers together and they can form a supportive community and learn together and work together—and I think that’s where the workshop experience of working with each other on writing was very interesting. I know ‘workshop’ is kind of falling out of favor these days and some people call it a gimmick, but I was never in a situation where a professor stood at the front of the room and just told us what was good and bad about the story, it was much more a discussion, an exploration of a piece of writing—what works, what could be improved, what’s confusing. I always put a story up when it’s fairly new, ‘cause I have questions about it, and never once did there fail to be someone who asked a question I’d never even considered, and that was very helpful.
BR







You seem to conceive of a role of a writer as including a lot of different responsibilities—you write reviews, you edit, you proofread, you teach, and I think, maybe a workshop is kind of the beginning of that. I think a lot of our students start out and they’re just thinking of it as the activity of writing, in isolation you know, you write something, you put it in a drawer, nobody knows about it.
IW Right, it’s secret! Now what?! Write another one…
BR

So, I find it, more psychically healthy for me to do it in a community of people.
IW








It’s a way to get out and do it with other people. I know that some people don’t like to show their work to anyone until it’s totally complete, so here you are in this crazy situation of writing totally in secret and then hoping it’ll be a best-seller. It is a little crazy-making, so… I think students—you see them learning things, and sharpen your own approach to your own work, by working on others'—you certainly have more distance with others’ work.
BR What do you do to improve as a writer?
IW














I think, any—all sorts of things can help. I’ve become very interested in plays and there, in two hours, you can see how the arc of a plot can be put together, you can listen for dialog, you can see how things are efficiently done. Or… I know I love to read all sorts of things, and I think you can pick up tips on things that work well and things to avoid. So I think reading is a very big tool, I think traveling helps you grow, because you see different parts of the world and different peoples and how things are done, so there are things that might not seem that they’re immediately helping you grow, but, they do sit in the back of your mind and, some point when you begin to write, things just come out from the unconscious or the subconscious, whatever it would be, that help you write a piece.
BR Would it ever be possible for you to not be a writer?
IW

I hope not! I don’t wanna ride a bus to a job every day… not good at clerical work
BR


Well you’d still be writing anyway, I think. That’s my take on you. You’ve certainly seemed a very writerly writer in the years I’ve known you.
IW

Well we met, when was it Belle, was it in ’79 at Centrum… at the…
BR At Robert Stone’s workshop.
IW


...and, that was a wonderful experience out at the summer workshop out there. I’m still in touch with… with you, and with a couple of other writers from that.
BR Well he was a very good teacher, I thought.
IW


Yes. And we were fortunate, again to have a good group of writers who could work collaboratively on a piece together.
BR So what are you working on right now?
IW















I’m working on a couple more nature essays about birds. When I go on this summer trip, you know inevitably I see some interesting things. And I’ve kind of changed my procedure. When I first started, the things I wanted to see were quite far away, so in the course of two or three weeks I would drive 6000 miles in search of this. And last year my trip never got past Ashland, Oregon. I spent most of my time in the Oregon Cascades and I would camp in one place for four or five days, by a river. And part of the point of being there was to be still, and to see what came to you, and what passed by on the river every day. And so it was a very different approach, um… And so I’m writing about observing nature that way, from where you stay and.… The other one I’m working on is the same thing but it’s, "birding from your office."
BR

—I was gonna say, I thought I remembered that title, right…
IW





Yeah. I’m not one of those people that can put my computer up against a wall. I’ll get distracted, I’ll turn my head sideways so why not just face out the window. And I’ve found it very interesting to look out the window, particularly now that I have a house in the Northwest and a house in the Southwest, I see very different things.
BR

I thought there were supposed to be some peregrine falcons or something downtown…
IW







Downtown, on the Washington Mutual Tower. Belle and, what is his name... Stuart, they named the couple and they have a camera on them every Spring, and there is a bird list at the University of Washington online that you can subscribe to if you want to and they always have reports in the spring, I haven’t heard any reports of anybody hatching yet this year. Yes, it’s amazing isn’t it, we have birds downtown.
BR

Well, we’re running out of time, but it’s been really good talking with you Irene.
IW You too.
BR And I look forward to reading some of your essays.
IW Thank you very much.
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