“Rain Is the Ink of the Northwest”: Writers Talk about Place and Fiction at ALA Midwinter

Friday’s ERT/Booklist Author Forum, moderated by Booklist editor Brad Hooper, brought together a diverse group of novelists to talk about the state of the novel and the role place plays in fiction. Literary fiction writer Ruth Ozeki (My Year of Meats), prolific fantasy author Terry Brooks (“Shannara” series), thriller writer Gregg Olsen (Fear Collector), and western novelist Ivan Doig (The Bartender’s Tale) offered up a lively discussion on writing and reading to a nearly full house.

Ozeki linked the idea of place in fiction with her personal environmental concerns, many of which surface in her own writing—in particular issues of food stability and the supply chain. She said “When I write books, I usually write them because I have some kind of problem or question I want to investigate. I don’t start writing with some sense of an agenda…of what I want to achieve. It’s…an exploration.” For her, the question that prompted her two very-food oriented novels, My Year of Meats and All Over Creation, was “If we are what we eat, then who are we?”

“I don’t think you can separate place and story” she said. Ozeki went on: in that sense, “aren’t we all writers of environmental fiction?”

Brooks talked about place in the sense of world building, and how the scale of creation fantasy novels often require makes the genre especially conducive to series. “If you are creating a world from scratch, you need a lot of space and time to do it,” he said. “Readers aren’t satisfied with one book.”

Still, series have their own inherent drawbacks. Brooks said, “I think the perception of [series] is a problem. When I see a big new fantasy series come out, I think oh no, how many books do I have to read to find out what’s going to happen? If I have to read ten books then I don’t want to do it.” He offered a compromise to wary readers: “Find a spot you are happy with…If you really hunger for the material, you want more of it.”

Olsen explained how the Pacific Northwest has affected his own fiction. “I think there is something creepy and dark and scary about [it]. I love the gloom, I like to write at night—I’m really into it. It doesn’t bother me at all.” He noted that the Pacific Northwest seemed to have a particular talent for turning out serial killers and great writers: fertile ground for crime writing.

Doig, too, ruminated on the region, which he affectionately termed “the great rain coast.” “I think rain is the ink of the Northwest,” he said. Precipitation is the Northwest’s “great ingredient,” one which “gives us a chance to hole up and write.”

“I don’t think that you could get that [same kind of art] in Kansas. I don’t think you could get the iridescent light coming out under the clouds and rain. I don’t think you can get the same music such as what comes out of Seattle, where you have kids hole up in garages, musicians like Kurt or Jimi Hendrix. Our great fiction out here, Sometimes a Great Notion—that can’t take place anywhere but that rainy Oregon rainforest country.”

Hooper concluded the discussion with a few questions about libraries. All four writers spoke enthusiastically about the formative experiences they had in libraries as young people, about how libraries aid them in their own work now, and about the work libraries do. Librarians are “the people of the book,” Ozeki said. “The generative power of libraries is astonishing to me.”

Molly McArdle About Molly McArdle

Molly McArdle (mmcardle@mediasourceinc.com, @mollitudo on Twitter) is Assistant Editor, Library Journal Book Review. She also manages the Library Journal tumblr.