Friday, September 9, 2016

A Conversation with Nature... (and Marrow Island author Alexis M. Smith)

This week, I'm excited to bring you an interview with Alexis M. Smith, author of Marrow Island, a haunting tale of love, loss and discovery in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. Read on!

Steph Post: Lucie’s story in Marrow Island is told back and forth across time with chapters alternating between 2016 and 2014. In this way, we slowly learn of the traumatic events that happened in the past, while the story simultaneously moves forward with the repercussions of those events. It’s an interesting structural technique and one that reminds me a little of Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing. To create these dual narratives in time, did you write each separately and then weave them together or did you write straight through, flipping back and forth in your own mind as you wrote?

Alexis Smith: I loved All the Birds, Singing! I was struck by her use of time as structure as well (though I read it after I had finished Marrow Island).

When I began writing I thought that I would write the story linearly (beginning with her return to the islands, moving through her experiences there, then moving on to the woods and the aftermath). As it turns out, I get bored by linear narratives. I couldn’t sustain it. My mind was skipping ahead, then looking back, almost constantly. So I just started writing the chapters as you read them. There was more joy in writing back and forth like that, even if it did take more concentration not to reveal too much, too soon.

SP: While Marrow Island focuses heavily on Lucie’s introspection and her relationships with her boyfriend Carey and childhood friend Katie, there is a lot of natural science going on in both narratives. Marrow Island is home to an eco-colony whose members are focused on healing the island, mainly by means of reviving the soil with mushrooms. Are the scientific practices used by the colony members real? While researching, did you ever visit a place like the colony you describe?

AS: Yes! Mycoremediation is a real thing. My deployment of it in the novel is pure fantasy, though. As far as I know, no one has tried it on such a large scale.

I didn’t visit any eco-communes or intentional communities, or, indeed, any mushroom farms or mycoremediation sites. I read a lot, watched videos, interviewed people, and became an amateur mycologist. I spend a lot of time out in the woods, and just walking around the city observing urban flora and fauna, so I took lots of pictures on my phone of mushrooms I encountered in the world, then I came home to my field guides and mushroom forums online and identified what I had seen. It’s an obsession I haven’t given up. If you follow me on Instagram you’ll likely still see a mushroom every now and then.

SP: Marrow and Orwell Island are located in Washington and Malheur National Forest, where Lucie lives in 2016, is located in Oregon. In both places, Lucie falls for the lushness of the natural world around her. How important is the Pacific Northwest setting to the story itself?

AS: Stories very often arise from landscapes for me. Whether it’s the Pacific Northwest, where I was born and have lived most of my life, or New Mexico, where my mom has lived for the last fifteen years, the stories are there and I’m open to them. It’s a sort of conversation with the natural world that I’ve been having since I was a little kid, playing in the woods outside my grandparents’ homestead in Alaska.

SP: Without going into detail, I’ll just say that the novel ends with a terrifyingly gorgeous, image-heavy scene. Did you have this particular scene in mind when you started Marrow Island? It carries such a weight and I could see it guiding the narrative instead of being only a conclusion.

AS: I envisioned that scenario as the ending, yes—it was definitely a guide for me throughout the book—though I didn’t know exactly what Lucie would do in that scene, or what the final image and words would be. I like to keep an ending in mind as I write, so that I know where I’m going. To your previous question: this scene was inspired by a solo road trip through southern Oregon, during a thunder storm. I was maybe fifty pages into the novel at that point, and felt adrift. I was plugging along but without momentum. Driving alone through the Siskiyou National Forest on a stormy spring brought out that scene. This might be my only useful writing advice: when you’re not sure where your story’s going, get to the woods.

SP: In many ways, Marrow Island is a tale of loss. Lost love, lost trust, lost land. Especially in regards to the island itself, and the damage it sustained in an oil refinery explosion, the wounds you explore in the novel don’t seem to heal. Is there a message of hope here as well? Does there have to be?

AS: Oh, good question…

Hope is such a tricky concept for me. I go back and forth: sometimes I have hope that humans will get their shit together and stop killing each other and the planet; other days, the only hope I see is in the persistence of species other than our own, the ability of, say, mycelia to communicate with trees, or protect bees from colony colapse. Ultimately, I want there to be an end to the greed that is causing so much suffering, and I see so many examples of flawed but beautiful human beings doing their best to learn from time spent in contemplation of the natural world around us. Right now my heart is with the people of Standing Rock, facing down dogs and bulldozers and corporate power. They give me hope. The Marrow colonists are meant to give hope, too, I guess, however stacked the odds against them.

Thanks to Alexis M. Smith for stopping by! Be sure to check out Marrow Island, as well as Smith's first novel, Glaciers. Happy Reading!

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