Interview with Author Pete Fromm

Today I’m celebrating the work of esteemed author Pete Fromm, whose short stories, novels, and memoirs have won countless awards and are read across the globe. Pete’s writing always “feel like home” to me. Twelve years ago, Pete was my first advisor when I enrolled in the Pacific University MFA in Writing program. Two years after that, he (and others) signed off on my thesis. What I remember most is a semester-long dialogue with Pete about, “What the heck is a scene, anyway?” This many years into the writing life, I’m still pushing my way into that question and its answer. And I’m certainly a better writer for having met Pete’s influence early on. Read below for his wisdom on The Names of the Stars, his newest memoir.
Katey Schultz: When I read The Names of the Stars, I learn so much about what you view as a right way of being in the wilderness, even though you never quite give that information to readers in a direct tell-all or moral dictate. What do you have to say about this approach to writers who are actively “searching” for something as they tell their stories? How did your message refine and shift as you revised the memoir?

Pete Fromm: This question first stopped me dead, then kind of grew to fascinate me. The last thing I would ever want to do is preach a ‘right way’ of being in the wilderness, and have actually preached against any writing of that kind, believing a sense of righteousness destroys so much of what tends to be called nature writing. Moral dictate? Good god, no.

In this story I spent a month alone in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, doing the same ten mile walk every day to check on fish eggs planted in incubators alongside a pair of creeks. Though I’d always before searched for a different way in and out on any trips, always wanting to see more, see new, what I discovered by this forced repeat hike were the advantages of seeing the same place over and over again, seeing how it changes day by day, week by week. So, for writers ‘searching’ for something, I’d say let the search play itself out, rather than forcing it upon the story. And I would avoid any kind of the prescriptive—this is how you should do things. Instead, put the reader into the story, let them live the experience, and decide for themselves what they would do in similar circumstances. Keep it real, without losing yourself in your own head. You always want to get the reader thinking, instead of telling them what to think. So, I really had no ‘message’ in this story, I simply wanted to let the reader live the experience.

KS: Here’s question one of the participants in my Airstream Dispatches program asked:: “The chapters in The Names of the Stars shift between present and past. Did the book’s structure happen organically, or some other way? Writing instructors frequently say that time shifts should be revelatory and ultimately move the story forward. Did you have any difficult determining whether temporal shifts were appropriate to the story? What advice would you give others exploring this approach?”

Twenty-five years before this month in the Bob Marshall, I’d spent seven months in the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness on a different fish egg project, which a decade later became the subject of INDIAN CREEK CHRONICLES; A WINTER ALONE IN THE WILDERNESS. So, when I was offered another chance to tend eggs in the wilds, I went in knowing I’d write about it, a kind of sequel to INDIAN CREEK.  But this time, instead of being a footloose twenty year old, I was forty-five, and the father of two young boys. And this time is was a month in the spring, in a Forest Service cabin, not a winter in a tent. So I knew both that the wilderness element, the ‘real time’ story, was going to be much smaller than it had been at Indian Creek. And I also knew that with so much more going on in my life this time, a bigger part of the story would be about taking myself away from that.

But, once I sat down to the writing, things did not pour out. The ‘real time,’ with the daily hike through the elk and wolves and deer and grouse, the burned areas and rage of melt off in the river, all punctuated with grizzly encounters, dominated far too much of the story. Over the next five or six years, I went through many drafts, some complete start overs, and with each new draft more of the past crept in, as I began to realize a bigger part of the story was about all my time in wild places. Mortality crept in, too; my younger son just in that stage of asking about death, if he’d have to die, if I would. His baseball coach had had a heart attack on the field a week before I left for the woods. As a park ranger, I’d done a lot of rescue work, had recovered bodies, so more of this made its way onto the page.

When I finally thought I was close enough to what I was after, I let my French editor read it (he’d been after me to do this for years), and he thought that it still needed more of me in it. As he said, ‘You have this beautiful wife, these lovely children, but still you go off into the wilderness alone. What the reader will need to know is how it is that you have become so fucked up.’ And he was right. In fiction, there’s no need to hide, you can go into a character’s deepest, darkest places, but in nonfiction he’d caught me holding back from that a bit. So, I went back in, adding more, really trying to figure out what had made me so. And once you try to untangle a question like that—what exactly made you who you are?—you simply work your way into one snarl after another. No sooner do you think you may have it, than another string pops up.  As for the writing, it became just as tangled.

Eventually I rolled out six feet or so of butcher paper, drew a line along its center, and stuck sticky notes for all the real time scenes above the line, and then sticky notes of all the scenes from my past below the line.  Then I started moving these notes around, seeing how the past and the present could fit together.  So, no, it was hardly organic. The idea of which scenes to include was, in a way, but the structure they’d eventually fall into was worked on for years.

During all this, I reread both Alexandra Fuller’s memoir DON’T LET’S GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT, and Richard Flanagan’s novel, DEATH OF A RIVER GUIDE, which both move through time as if it barely existed, and do so seamlessly that you barely notice the time travel, and watching them work through it helped a great deal.

KS: Please share a “tiny moment” with us–that’s the phrase I use for a moment/experience/millisecond in time that has stayed with you for years. This should be a true story from real life–a flash nonfiction of your own. If you can, try to share what the “before” and “after” were like for you, as you render this memorable moment and why you think it has stayed with you for so long.

PF: Those kind of moments are really what a lot of STARS is all about, so I’m totally going to cheat and just paste in an excerpt here. Before, I was nineteen, invulnerable, down near mindlessly immortal. After, I’d had a look at the other side.

The rescue started as a phone call to 911, which was then routed through to our park headquarters in Boulder City, then through radio, down to me at the beach.  A man at the marina had called in a possible drowning in progress along the causeway, a jutting line of riprap boulders built out into the lake as a breakwater for the marina.  Taking Tim, the guard on break, I started for the boat, looking across the mile of water to the causeway.  It stretched nearly half a mile long and, running down the beach, I asked for a more precise location, was told they had none.  A man, they said, would wave me down.

We swam out to the boat; a seventeen foot, flat-bottomed Boston Whaler with a jet—no prop to chop through the swimmers—and I fired it up and we hammered full throttle toward the rock jetty.  And, true enough, as we got closer, out near the end we could make out a man in a white T-shirt, waving both hands over his head.

I cut the throttle, drifting us in, Tim reaching out front to keep us from bashing the rocks.  Already things were hyper-focusing, the two girls with the man nothing more than shapes.  The man himself hardly registered, shouting something in a language I couldn’t understand, pointing down into the water, sobbing, shouting, pointing.  I had my fins on, my mask, and I went over the side, the world going still and silent and green, silt covered rocks stretching down and away into darkness.

At about the limit of my dive, swimming along the rocks, I caught the glimmer of her, still far below, the white of her T-shirt matched by the pallor of her legs, her arms.  The green of the water, the gray of the silt.  I kicked down.  She stretched from the point of a rock, an outcrop, on her back, arms adrift out to her sides as she gazed toward the surface, only a foot or so from missing the rock completely, drifting down farther, out of sight and gone.

Already out of air, I turned for the surface, knowing I’d never reach her at the end of this dive.  I kicked hard, dolphin kicks, the fins driving me up.  The surface shifted and sparkled, almost blinding after looking into the deep.

I broke through, sucking in air.  Tim stood on shore, holding the boat.  “Found her,” I said.  “She’s deep.”

And I took one more gulp and threw myself back down, flipping my legs into the air, the pull of gravity giving that much more of a start.

I kicked as hard down as I had up.  I’d never been anywhere near this deep before, and by the time I reached out, caught a swirl of her waving mermaid’s hair, I was already fighting the urge to breathe, that odd, choked-throat gulping, the body fighting itself to breathe/not breathe.  I turned with her, pushed off her rock, driving for the surface, for the air, the light above.

My head burned, throbbed.  I hummed, or moaned, something, kicking, kicking, the whole dolphin sweep disintegrating, barely jerks.  I wondered about letting go, about not making it to the sky, and then there was Tim—just appeared, where had he come from?—tugging her away from me, freeing me from her dead weight, and I broke the surface, the stars of the light on the water indistinguishable from the pops and flashes of the lack of oxygen.  I leaned back, floating for a moment, gasping.  Tim pulled the girl onto the rocks.  The man, I think, screamed.  I rolled over, stroked the last yards to the rocks.  We carried her to the flat top of the causeway, picking our way up the boulders.  I took the chest, counting out the downward strokes, the drive against her heart.  Every fifth pump, Tim pinched shut her nose, sealed her lips with his, blew his air into her lungs.

Soon, a siren.  An ambulance creeping down the crushed rock path atop the causeway.  I went into the back with her, staying on the chest, telling Tim to take the boat back, start the breakdown of the towers at the regular time, do the routine.  The ambulance crewman took over the breaths, worked in an intubator, squeezed air in with the Ambu-bag rather than going mouth to mouth.

There was little doubt, but we continued to the hospital, let the doctors make that call.  I wondered how long she’d been lying snagged on that rock, caught up short in her fading away toward the bottom.

I went in with her through the emergency doors, stood back when the pros took over.  Needles and paddles and machines.  The doctor didn’t waste much time.  Pupils dilated, unreactive.  A few more tests.

The adrenalin in full retreat, I saw that she was thin.  Maybe fifteen.  Maybe on the edge of pretty.  Asian.  I tried to picture the man, if I’d seen that he was Asian, wondered if he was.  The other girls.  Younger, I thought.  Maybe.  Sisters?

I shivered, standing in my life guard shorts in the air conditioning.

The doctor called it.  Noted the time.

I walked out, still shivering, down the cold halls, the waxed and polished linoleum clammy against my naked feet.  My ears hurt, pressure popped, like when driving over a mountain pass, or lifting off in a plane, off to somewhere else, somewhere far enough away you needed to fly.  I wondered how I’d get back down to the lake.  What time it was.  If Tim had closed the beach for the day.  If it was over yet.

And then someone stopped me, grabbing my shoulder.  Or, really, just touching it.  I turned, and there was the man from the causeway, tears on his face, bowing to me, reaching for my hand, saying, I think, “Thank you,” over and over.

I nodded back, having no idea what to say.  His daughter was dead.  I had brought back nothing but an empty shell.  I took his hand, and he bowed again and turned away to go back to his daughter.  The back of his T-shirt was missing.  His thin back, the trail of his spine like a mountain range splitting the wings of his shoulder blades, was scratched red, clawed and bleeding, and I saw, hours before the investigating ranger would show me his report, this man fishing on the causeway with his daughters, saw how they waded out onto the rocks in the heat, the step one took beyond the edge of the rock, how she suddenly found nothing beneath her feet, started to thrash against the water, a medium she had no greater ability to float in than air, saw a sister reach for her and find the same nothing, the father leaping in, his girls climbing over him to the air, how he’d scrambled for purchase, slipped, the three of them, or maybe all four now suspended, sinking, bobbing, heads tilting back toward the sky, the father turning, shoving one of the girls toward the rocks, whichever one he could reach, the other behind him, climbing him, pushing him under, sinking him, the one who struggled only to stay on him, on top of him, in the air, the one he had to fight off to reach a rock with his feet, turn for to pull in after him, only to find open, empty water, stretching out, stretching down, away from him, forever.  I saw him count his other daughters, demand they stay still, not move, as he ran the half mile to the marina, barefoot over the rocks, begged for a phone, for help, ran back out while we fired up the boat and bounced across the lake top toward the desperate little figure, already far too late, his white T-shirt, arms waving above his head, calling out in his own language, I’m here.  We’re here.  Help us.  Please.  Save us.

KS: Let’s end by celebrating the work of another author. Tell us about a book(s) that recently rocked your world and why.
PF: Well, both the Fuller and Flanagan books mentioned above certainly did that.

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