Lori Lansens, author of Rush Home Road, The Girls, The Wife’s Tale, and now The Mountain Story (S. & S., Jun., LJ 2/1/15; “Editors’ Spring Picks,” LJ 2/15/15), knows a thing or two about life-changing transformations and the rich territory from which she builds memorable worlds filled with exceptional experiences. In a recent email interview with LJ, the author explained that she’s drawn to characters who exist on the fringes, like conjoined twins Rose and Ruby in The Girls. Says Lansens, “I live there with them, though that’s probably not obvious to most.” What is obvious to her readers is her astonishing talent for writing distinct stories about people who do amazing things in extraordinary circumstances.
Changing the outcome
In The Mountain Story, Wilfred “Wolf” Truly heads to the mountain on his 18th birthday to jump to his death. His plan is foiled when he meets the Devines—Nola, Vonn, and Bridget—strangers with whom he spends five days lost in the wilderness. Like Lansens’s maternal grandfather, Wilfred Loyer, who was in some ways the seed for her protagonist and equally tenacious, “Wolf is a born survivor—a kid who had been knocked around from the beginning. He is tested to the extreme, losing his mother, his friend, his father. We understand his despair.”
Nine years ago, after a move brought Lansens and her family to a remote area of Southern California, her grandfather passed, and far away from friends and relatives, she became mired in a despair of her own. She describes being alone with her two children while her husband worked long hours at a demanding job, dwelling on events from her past and grappling with the present. “Around that same time there was a cluster of teenage suicides in our small Santa Monica Mountains community…. I became drawn to the idea of intervening in a fictional world and changing the outcome for this suicidal boy, Wilfred Truly…. I felt that if he were charged with the responsibility of three other lives that the task of saving, or trying to save; others would reignite his own life force and give him meaning and purpose.”
We meet Wolf in the novel’s opening pages as he begins to tell his tale in the form of a letter to his college-bound son: “What happened up there changed my life, Danny. Hearing the story is going to change yours.” Yet getting lost on the mountain is only half the story. Lansens points out that “the backstory is complex but important and gives the adventure part context.” In response to why she chose this format, Lansens says, “I’ve had a front-row seat to the revelation of some surprising family secrets. I wondered in such moments how I would tell my own son/daughter/spouse a difficult truth. The answer was always—a letter….” In the same way that Lansens says Daniel will need time to take the story in, and distance to sort it out, and a written document to refer to, readers will surely also have to read some parts more than once. As Wolf shares what came before, we witness his tortured relationship with his troubled father, Frankie, of whom Wolf seems never to be quite free. Despite the turmoil and dysfunction, Lansens says, “Wolf forgives Frankie completely and even accepts him to some degree, but he doesn’t trust him. In writing the story down, Wolf has made some sense of his relationship with his father. In the end, Frankie’s weakness became Wolf’s strength. The notion of coming full circle in a positive way is at the heart of their relationship.”
Inhabiting the characters
The Mountain Story took five years to write. During that time Lansens spent many hours on California’s Mount San Jacinto, the real mountain that serves as the model for the story’s fictional one, and researched the Cahuilla Native Americans, who live in the desert foothills. The character of Byrd was born at an ancient settlement site in Tahquitz Canyon. The author read about the mountain and the history of the area, about teen suicide and wilderness stories: “I’m a huge Jon Krakauer fan,” she notes, “but being on the mountain, experiencing the terrain, observing nature, was by far the most important research I did.” Her interest in the Cahuilla and her appreciation for their culture influenced the narration in mysterious ways.
Lansens describes her job—days spent alone in a room making up stories—as “a crazy-making existence in many ways, but I’m grateful.” The part of the process she enjoys most is “the early stage when I become inhabited by the characters—or do they inhabit me? These new friends console me over the loss of the old.” When asked what’s next for her many adoring fans, Lansens keeps us in suspense. “I’m currently in the seat of anticipation, sending Wolf Truly and the others off into Readerworld, as the next group gathers around my keyboard. Lucky me.”