Writer and novelist David James Duncan is a passionate advocate for preserving the Western landscape, especially its creeks and rivers and streams. His work has appeared in Harper’s, Orion, and Northern Lights, but he is best known for his novel The Brothers K (Bantam), a family saga set against a backdrop of minor-league baseball and the Vietnam War. He is often asked — and too often agrees, he says — to speak on such diverse subjects as conservation, writing, fly-fishing, and faith.
I decided I wanted to meet Duncan some time ago, after reading his first novel, The River Why (Bantam), a quirky and passionate love song to fish. Duncan loves fish, the way they swim and leap and fight. He loves the rivers where they live and the look of their scales in the sunlight. He loves the way they taste and what they symbolize. I identified with this because I love fish, too — and fishing, and rivers.
I didn’t meet Duncan until much later, however, after he had written The Brothers K (a love song to families) and the collection River Teeth (a love song to memory and myth). He had moved from Oregon to Montana, where I live, and I called him out of the blue. Once I’d convinced him I wasn’t just a crazed fan, he agreed to meet me for breakfast. The restaurant we picked had trout on the menu — typical breakfast fare here in Montana — but Duncan recommended against it, predicting it would taste like “fat, lazy, non-native, stocked trout.” It was this insistence upon authenticity that impressed me most about him. His love for fish demanded a real fish. He requires the same authenticity in everything he loves: rivers, words, God, family, the world.
Currently, Duncan is working on several projects, including another novel, Letters from God, and “a free-form nonfiction book on the search for a contemporary ‘indigenous’ life” titled How the Pacific Makes Love to the Rockies.
For this interview, we sat in a booth by a window looking out on downtown Missoula. I began by asking Duncan about his childhood in Oregon. He told me he was born in a blue-collar suburb of Portland in 1952, but when he was two his family moved to the country, where he grew up “bonding with little cutthroat-trout streams and old-growth Douglas fir.” When the forest and farmland around them turned into subdivisions, the family moved another ten miles out of town, fleeing suburban sprawl. “Later,” Duncan said, “I realized we were suburban sprawl.”
Byl: How did you react as a child to these changes in your environment?
Duncan: I had a hard time coming to terms with the new “culture” the subdivisions brought with them. Early on, nature had become for me a God-given means of keeping my head on straight — and that gift from God kept being destroyed before my eyes. I think by the time I was five I had decided, on my own, that the three most important things in my life were creeks, trees, and Jesus — especially creeks.
Byl: Did you feel that Jesus loved creeks and trees, or that nature and religion were separate?
Duncan: To be honest, when I was small they felt pretty separate. But I did know Jesus was a fisherman. I knew that he liked boats, that he was a carpenter, and that he didn’t do anything too special until he was dunked in a river by John the Baptist. So there were some links between my childhood loves. I always felt like I was getting valuable, unmediated information from nature — sometimes even “holy” information — but I didn’t feel the same way about church. I felt that the information I got in church was being shoved at me by paid middlemen and was not reliable. This distrust of church is as old as my memory. I remember being four years old and hating having to sing “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam.” I thought, Why are they making me say these things?
Byl: Who was making you say them?
Duncan: Well, I was taught to pray by my maternal grandmother, who dropped out of school in second grade and grew up in logging camps in Washington. She was the religious matriarch of the family, an old-time-religion, fire-and-brimstone Seventh-Day Adventist who believed that only Adventists would be saved; everyone else would burn. My mother grew up in a world where everyone she knew was an Adventist. But none of my neighbors or friends at school were Adventists.
Byl: Was your dad one?
Duncan: No, and neither was my grandfather. So the husbands were not included in the salvation plan.
Byl: Did this bother you? Did you ever think, What about Dad?
Duncan: [Laughter.] No, the issue was never intelligently addressed. I did start asking questions when I hit adolescence, though. That’s when, in the Adventist Church, the clergy start to get a little more in your face. I remember the pastor coming to our house and preaching about the end of time and the Second Coming. He got very passionate about it, which I enjoyed. But then I started asking specific questions about the signs of the Apocalypse, like: What if the “black cloud the size of a man’s fist” appears in the sky over Portland? How would people in Iowa or Florida see it? What about the people on the other side of the world? The pastor grew angry, rather than creative, in response. And just that fast, his story became suspect to me.
My rejection of the Adventists peaked when I was thirteen and my brother was dying of a staph infection after a botched surgery. A clergyman told me that if I prayed hard enough, with a pure enough heart, I could save my brother’s life. I tried. My brother died anyway, and I was left with serious questions — about God, about the pastor, about the purity of my own heart. To the extent that I still believed the old-time religion, I was guilt-ridden. But the older I grew, the more this religion seemed full of holes. I couldn’t figure out, for instance, how God could be compassionate if all the people on earth were given only one life in which to accept Jesus. I mean, there were people who were born in ghettos to drug-addicted parents, who led short, vicious lives and were hardly exposed to even a cogent thought, let alone a viable theology. I couldn’t figure out how such people could be condemned for all eternity, no matter what they did. I realized that the God of my childhood was not merciful, and any God I could believe in would have to be. So I became an atheist, at least in terms of that God. And if Pat Robertson’s God is God, I’m still an atheist. I make a distinction between “God” and God.
Byl: I was brought up in the Christian Reformed Church, and I had a similar sense at a young age of asking things that weren’t acceptable. By my late teens I was having serious doubts. Then, my junior year in high school, I read Night, by Elie Wiesel. It just blew my world apart, because regular old God and the horrors of the Holocaust don’t go together.
Duncan: I like that phrase, “regular old God.” It’s perfect.
Byl: I was a rationalist then, in high school.
Duncan: I was a hedonist. And, actually, the original hedonists tended to be quite logical. They concluded that there was a rational philosophical basis for pleasure, and they went for it. I was incredibly crappy at it, though. I mean, an Adventist boy hedonist? Sheesh!
Byl: I was going to figure out how God and evil could coexist. I read Kierkegaard and other great sufferers, and I made lists. But of course I never figured anything out, and I got madder and madder. I reached a point where I was never going to read another thing about religion, wouldn’t go to church — that part of life was just over for me. But of course it wasn’t. The turning point came when I stopped obsessing and just started being carried away by life and wondering where God might be in it.
You are a believer in a God you’ve come to like and to be in relationship with. Where was your turning point?
Duncan: If I attempt to pin down a reason for my faith, I’m reduced to describing experiences that are capital-I Indescribable. That’s why I’m a writer, not a preacher. In The River Why I spent a couple of hundred pages creating a stage upon which one small example of such a moment could take place. I’m talking about the scene where Gus walks up the river with the salmon, and he feels connected to something beyond rivers and salmon, something far greater than himself. I’m so grateful to that kind of experience in my own life that I’d feel like a hypocrite if I didn’t try to write of it. But I’m also convinced that these experiences are ultimately beyond words. So there’s the writer’s paradox. And I trust paradox. I think maybe on the eighth day God created paradox.
Byl: How reliant is your faith on continuing to have such experiences?
Duncan: At this point, I’d say not very. There were a couple of occasions in India when I was twenty that felt to me like going out with a thimble in your hand, hoping to catch a drop of rain, and having the ocean land on your head. These experiences convinced me that there is an absolute love that pervades everything. I can’t describe how they convinced me, but the conviction is strong. I have no idea how my faith will be tested between now and the day I die. If terrible things happen to my children, for instance, or to my wife, I think it could be seriously challenged. But right now my battery feels fairly charged. My faith is there; it’s in place.
Byl: It’s interesting to hear you attribute your belief to experience. In my case, I believe in my own idea of God, but I’m still waiting for that overpowering experience. I’ve felt the drop, but I want the ocean. And then there are those who haven’t even felt the drop.
Duncan: I know people — I would describe them as compassionate atheists — who are fonts of kindness and lead honest lives, but who feel that this world could not possibly be the creation of a compassionate God. There’s integrity to that position. I don’t feel the need to pull those people into my camp. God doesn’t need a sales force. The Adventists, on the other hand, are big on mission work. During the Vietnam War, I had cousins who went into the jungles of Laos to baptize villagers before the Viet Cong could make them communists. My cousins risked their lives trying to get Hmong tribesmen to don white shirts and slacks and let themselves be dunked in some muddy brown river so that, no matter what happened, their souls would be in good shape. There’s a kind of craziness there. But the missionaries healed some sick kids with antibiotics, pulled some rotten teeth. Their real ministry was physical.
It seems to me that, if you look at Scripture, the evangelical tradition in American Christianity is based on a pretty thin veneer — just a couple of verses, really. And other verses are shockingly ignored. In Matthew, right after the Sermon on the Mount, Christ gets downright caustic about those who pray on street corners “so that they may be seen of men.” When I see Pat Robertson praying on TV, I think, Boy, we sure are selective about what verses we choose to remember.
Byl: I grew up in a tradition where that kind of Biblical poker playing was common. You make your dogma theologically untouchable. And anyone who disagrees is not only misled, but heretical for bringing up his or her own experience.
Duncan: Anybody who’s grown up around Bible people has seen them get pissed off at each other and start hurling verses. It’s like some sort of war in heaven, you know? Here’s my thunderbolt: pow!
Byl: I’m reminded of a Dutch word I learned as a child, oneerbiedig. It means “offensive to God, sacrilegious.” I grew up with this spectre hanging over my head, that I might do something oneerbiedig — like the boy you tell about who named his cross-eyed teddy bear Gladly, after misunderstanding the hymn “Gladly My Cross I’d Bear.”
Duncan: Right. I wrote that Christ, despite the manner of his death, would find that boy’s misunderstanding funny. Otherwise Christ’s words about entering the kingdom “as a little child” would be a lie. My feeling is that there’s terrible danger in thinking you know what’s oneerbiedig. You’d think Moses might know, for instance, but in a tale of Rumi’s, Moses is walking in the desert when he hears a shepherd babbling. As Moses gets closer, he realizes the shepherd is talking to God, but he’s saying things like “O God, I love you so much I want to wash your little feet and comb your tangled hair and tuck you into bed at night,” as if God were his beloved infant. Moses can’t take it. He becomes outraged. He tells the shepherd the way he’s talking to God is totally . . . what’s that word?
Duncan: Yes. Moses says that God is not an infant; he’s the Absolute, the Beyond, and the proper way to address him is such and such. The shepherd is miserably sorry and wanders off into the desert, godless and brokenhearted and confused. Moses figures he straightened that one out.
But then the sky darkens, thunder cracks, and God’s voice comes falling from heaven. And Moses is told in very harsh terms that we humans can’t know what the language of honest devotion is; that the shepherd was burning with love for God, that he, Moses, has ruined that love; and that he’d better go find the shepherd fast and beg his forgiveness. So Moses does. I guess oneerbiedig, for Rumi, is letting our religious arrogance lead us into interrupting any kind of self-forgetting love.
In Matthew . . . Christ gets downright caustic about those who pray on street corners “so that they may be seen of men.” When I see Pat Robertson praying on TV, I think, Boy, we sure are selective about what verses we choose to remember.
Byl: You have written and spoken frequently about how organized religion and the church stifle spirituality instead of nurturing it. Is there a kind of spiritual community that could work for you?
Duncan: There could be, I suppose, but it would have to be a real community. I belong to a sort of loose-knit sangha — a bunch of nature mystics and Sufis and Zen Buddhists and so on. But we’re scattered to the winds and unable to extricate ourselves from the mainstream techno-industrial monolith. The faith community I’d want to be a part of would be both self-sustaining and woven into the world at large. It might look a little like an Amish community, but more like a medieval Beguine. The Beguines were communities of women — “feminist mystics” of a sort, who were also called Beguines — that rose up in the Rhine Valley around the time of my Christian hero, Meister Eckhart. Some Beguines were rural, some urban. The members all took their devotional life seriously, but they were not monastic. They had private property, raised their own food, educated the local children (and not just their own), took care of the local sick and dying (again, not just their own). Incredible communities based on experiential mysticism, a blessing to everyone around them. But the Roman patriarchy was uncomfortable with the ecstatic statements of Beguine mystics, and with the passion generated by these communities run by women. So the Beguines were crushed mercilessly, a sin for which the Roman Church, to my mind, has not begun to seek forgiveness or atonement.
I don’t see anything in place now that would stop communities like that from forming, and I hear a lot of intelligent Americans calling for them. Imagine a big cluster of homes on a hundred or so acres, where the children can wander around and help a seventy-year-old neighbor garden, or swim in the pond with someone else’s mom and kids. I mean, why not? The suburban citadel is a terrible idea if you’re not GE or ARCO or Prudential Insurance. It’s falling apart, thank God, but what a long, slow, painful, Wall Street–resisted, politically denied death.
Byl: So spiritual community, then, is less church than it is life?
Duncan: Yes. For me, spiritual community is any group of people united in the name of compassion: “Two or more gathered in my name.” As an adolescent I was obsessed with finding a vocation that didn’t force me to compromise my ideals. And I have. As a writer, I don’t sell my soul to the devil every day. But I own two cars and a computer; my work is published by a multinational conglomerate; I buy food that’s idiotically packaged and delivered in inefficient ways. It would be wonderful to be part of a network of communities whose members didn’t have to compromise their compassion in these ways. Some of the ghastly attempts at alternative communities convince me that the time is not ripe. But it’s getting ripe. When two kids graduate from college now, they’re each $60,000 in debt. If they fall in love it’s $120,000. Then they go to work for seven bucks an hour and try to figure out how to buy a house. It just doesn’t work, and hasn’t worked for quite a long time. Sooner or later — I hope sooner — a bunch of these poor kids are going to say: Hey, we’re never going to be Wall Street insiders. So why not try something radical here? Why don’t three hundred of us pitch in and buy this shitty farm in Montana and see what we can do?
If their motivation is to live with greater compassion, I’d call those three hundred kids and their farm “a church.”
Byl: A couple of scenes you’ve written articulate the mixed sadness and invigoration that I experience in the natural world. For example, in The River Why, you have Gus follow a dying creek in suburban Portland. I love the earnestness and anger that drive him all the way to the headwaters — and then the sadness and hope all wrapped up in the little fish he saves at the end.
Duncan: The top end of that creek, which I knew and loved, was a gravel pit, and if you fished in the settling pond there, you’d get chased by cops. The bottom end was owned by a rich doctor, and if you got near it, you’d get chased by cops. When I made my own pilgrimage along the creek, I got chased by cops. But I didn’t want to turn the scene with Gus in The River Why into cops and robbers. So the top end of his creek is a fake Liberty Bell on the roof of a bank.
Byl: I think the scene rings true for me because anyone who’s made a commitment to ecology feels a profound sense of grief. Though your writing can be funny, I also find grief very evident in your work.
Duncan: I’ve always said I write “serious comedy,” but maybe “grief-stricken comedy” is better. I find grief all over the natural world, even where it’s pristine. There are places in the wilderness where, when I enter them, it’s so powerful, but I also feel so down. I think, Whoa, I shouldn’t be here. This is the deep, dark wilderness.
Byl: You allude to that sense of grief when you talk about logging the old-growth forests. In Oregon and Montana both, the issue is impossible to escape.
Duncan: I guess it’s harsh in Montana. I’ve only been here four years. But in Oregon it’s not just harsh — it’s complete. It’s the lower Amazon basin after the cut.
Byl: Why did you leave Oregon?
Duncan: I was losing my voice as a writer because I was so pissed off by the way people like [former Senators] Bob Packwood and Mark Hatfield were treating the world: The whole Coast Range had been logged. The salmon and steelhead had all been listed as either threatened or endangered. Communities that had once gotten along well by practicing sustainable forestry were now divided over whether to cut the last ten trees. It was just so ugly that I was feeling caustic and angry much of the time. And I don’t want to write polemics for Mother Jones. I want to write fiction that dances around the central miracle of our lives — which is that, despite everything, we’re loved. We’re loved, damn it! By the Maker of love itself.
And so I found this place in Montana right next to the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness and several other contiguous wilderness areas. You can walk sixty miles straight out my back door without encountering a single structure. I deliberately positioned my family and myself next to a world that wasn’t going to change. And found I love to write, and could write of love again.
Byl: I spent this past summer working in the back country in Glacier National Park. It always strikes me as odd how we decide which places in the world are worthy of preservation. Obvious locales like coastal old-growth forest and the northern Rockies spring up saying, “Save us! Save us!” But then, on the other hand, there’s Gus’s suburban creek. Why haven’t we learned to see Gus’s dying creek and Glacier National Park as equally important?
Duncan: Fishing the Madison River versus fishing the abused creek in my back yard. Standing at a scenic overlook versus lying in some quiet meadow. The Ansel Adams perspective versus the Grandma Moses perspective. The Sierra Club calendar versus the fourth-grader’s drawing of a tree. Michelangelo’s God versus the shepherd’s God in the Rumi story. In this list, I prefer the second item in all cases.
I spend a lot of time fishing, and here I am midway between Glacier and Yellowstone, but I never go to either place. I don’t need nationally designated grandeur to feel grand. And I don’t need grizzly bears. I have to admit, I just can’t sleep with those sons of bitches around. I jump at every sound all night long. I just get exhausted in grizzly country. [Laughter.]
Byl: Two of your novels revolve around fishing and baseball, respectively, and God is a presence in both books. I wonder this: if God could choose a single pastime, would God fish or play ball?
Duncan: Well, God’s omnipresent, so God is already doing all the fishing and playing all the ball.
Your question reminds me of a bizarre article I once read about Christian-fundamentalist ballplayers. One of the players quoted was Brett Butler, who is now nearing the end of his career in Los Angeles. He was talking about what kind of ballplayer Christ would be. Butler said that if Christ were sliding into second to break up a double play, he would go in cleats high if necessary, knock down the second baseman, muck up his throw, wipe him out Ty Cobb–style. At first I thought, That sure doesn’t sound like “Love thine enemies.” But then I realized that Butler was demanding that Christ play baseball just the way it is played already. And that’s totally consistent with “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.” Because if God loves the world, he loves the whole messy process. Butler imagined Christ would play baseball in a way that would allow baseball to still be baseball. Jesus wouldn’t say, “Thou shalt not steal second base,” or, “Thou shalt honor thine umpire.”
Byl: Or, “Turn the other cleat.” [Conversation degenerates into bad baseball/Ten Commandments jokes.]
You’ve written about the thin, wavering line between truth and fiction. River Teeth is a testimony to it.
Duncan: We use the same tools to create, or re-create, both “true” and imagined stories. In fact, all stories are imagined, because converting life into language is an imaginative process. Lying is unconscionable, but reading nothing but stories that “really happened” makes you vulnerable to idiotic biases and artistic incompetence. You end up watching Hard Copy on TV while Don DeLillo and Milan Kundera gather dust on the shelf. America is plagued by a TV-spawned literary fundamentalism. The truth is, no one remembers with much accuracy what happened to them yesterday, let alone last year. But the imagination can sing you a whole symphony about what might have happened.
I find grief all over the natural world, even where it’s pristine. There are places in the wilderness where, when I enter them, it’s so powerful, but I also feel so down. I think, Whoa, I shouldn’t be here.
Byl: I’ve been thinking lately about how much my own memory involves interpretation. Because I spent so much of my childhood imagining things, I sometimes feel as if a large part of my life history didn’t really happen. Then I think, What’s more important: that a memory actually happened, or that it’s significant to me, even though it may be “enhanced”? Which leaves me in a mucky place.
Duncan: But it’s an honest muck. It’s the muck we all live with. It’s impossible to make memories into solid objects. Human beings are more verbs than nouns. The word being is a testament to this. So. Imagine being.
A friend of mine, a Ph.D. at the University of Indiana, is doing scientific studies on memory, on how we remember and what we leave out and what we change, and our tendency to cast ourself as the hero of our own memories. And his studies reveal that memory is muck. We just have to confess that it’s hard to know what happened. Maybe you saw a snapshot from a family album and had a dream about it and then later remembered the dream as real; it’s hard to say. About all you can do is pay attention to whatever seems to have the most meaning for you.
Byl: Does it degrade intimate memories to make them public by writing about them? For example, your story “The Mickey Mantle Koan” is an account of your brother’s death.
Duncan: Almost everyone has suffered a similar loss. I read that story at a big arts festival in Seattle a couple of years ago, and the next day probably eight people came up to me, one after another, to tell me about the slow death of someone they loved. For me, this was a healing experience, not a degradation of my brother’s memory.
Byl: We’re all so different, yet we all tell the same basic stories. Articulating those common experiences, sharing them with friends and strangers alike, seems to me both the joy and the pain of writing. Do you agree?
Duncan: Articulating life — converting inarticulate being into words — is definitely one of the great joys of being a writer. For me, the great frustration of being a writer is the same as what frustrates me in my spiritual life: my own stupidity, ignorance, and inability at times to perceive and give voice to the wonder and truth that is always there. It’s good, though, when the great challenges of your work life and your inner life coincide. What happens then is that the two lives start to come together, until there is only one life. Being. The verb. The flowing.
Another joy of fiction is the sense of collaboration. Readers are always thanking me for “giving” them my stories, but without readers, a work of fiction is like a musical score: dead black marks on a white page. The author is the composer, but until a reader breathes life into those marks, they are just inert characters on a sheet of processed dead tree. The act of reading, to my mind, is more a gift from reader to author than the other way around.
A final joy of fiction writing (if you can stand to hear about this much freaking joy) is that it involves us in obedience. Christ recommends — no, orders — us to create fiction, not on the page, but in our lives.
Byl: How so?
Duncan: The word fiction is in no way synonymous with the word prevarication. Lying, like fiction, requires imaginative prowess: no denying that. But faith and love and truth-telling require much, much more. To truly be a Buddhist, a Sufi, a Vedantist, a Christian is to immerse oneself in a steady imaginative effort. Christ’s words “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” for instance, demand an arduous imaginative act. These peculiar words order me, as I look at you, to imagine that I am seeing not you but me, and then to treat this imaginative me, alias you, as if you are me. And for how long? Till the day I die! Christ orders those who are serious about him to commit this “my neighbor is me” fiction until they forget, for good and all, which of the two “me”s to cheat in a business deal or punch in a fight or abandon in a crisis or shoot in a war. At which point their imaginative act, their fiction-making, will have turned Christ’s bizarre words into a reality, and they’ll be saying, like Mother Teresa, “I see Christ in every woman and man.”
Ernest Hemingway, of all people, once made a wonderful statement. “Make it up so truly,” he said, “that later it will happen that way.” This is so exactly right, I want to say it again: Make it up so truly that later it will happen that way. Great advice — Christlike advice, if you ask me — not only for writing fiction, but for living a faith, loving a neighbor, seeking truth itself.