Out of Twenty: Scott Elliott, Author of Temple Grove, Answers Five Questions


In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing victim author and Scottelliott-210they choose their own interview by picking which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer. Scott Elliot’s novel, Temple Grove, is about the chance meeting of father and son who are on opposite sides of environmental issues. One is a logger, the other is an activist dead set on protecting the forest. Here is what Scott had to say about reading, writing, and giving up binge writing for his kids.

Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?

I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. I fell in love with reading and storytelling at a young age and made a commitment to writing and teaching, as opposed to other paths I might have taken, when I was an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University and took workshops with Walter Sullivan and Mark Jarman. It amazed me that one could write and put writing at the center of one’s life while making a living discussing craft with dedicated students. Following an epiphanic experience after reading a Raymond Carver story at the Indiana University of Writing Conference one summer, I reified the life course I realized I’d been on all along, followed that path along its winding course. For the past nine years I’ve taught writing and literature at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.

I write stories, essays, and novels, and some poems that rarely see the light. I think I’m at heart a novelist with a not-so-secret penchant for poetic language. My first novel Coiled in the Heart is a self-consciously southern gothic novel set in Tennessee. It’s an homage to a rich southern literary tradition.  A father and son who’ve made a lot of money in the computer industry buy back, tear down, and return to earth, subdivision houses that have cropped up on their family’s antebellum estate. The first person protagonist, Tobia Caldwell, wants to transform himself into a yeoman farmer, to use the computer money to help him go back in time. He wants to learn the names of things in the natural world and to escape from a dependence on the chain of chain stores that have crept over the farmland. He’s also struggling with the guilt he feels at leading a neighbor boy who’s moved into the first subdivision house, a boy who’s also the twin of a girl with whom he later falls in love, into a deadly encounter with a cottonmouth in a creek down the hill from their old house when they were seven years old.

TempleGrove-Elliott-210My new novel Temple Grove is set on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. It’s an attempt to sing a place I love while also telling a story that unfolds with the inevitability of an ancient myth. The great conifers of the Pacific Northwest; the snarl of ranges that constitute the Olympic Mountains; the rivers with good names; the ocean beaches; the lushness of the understory with its moss, giant ferns, huckleberry, and salal; the constant rain—all of these are given their own kind of awareness in the novel. The story concerns a father son chase that becomes more than a chase into the wilds of the Olympic National Park. The father is an independent logger. The son is an environmental activist. The mother is coming to terms with her Makah identity. The novel is also about the mother’s love for her son and about transcending ready-made, seemingly intransigent categories. It’s also about a lot other things! A giant Pacific Octopus has a role, and there’s a scene of an old ship being beached on a beach in India for scrapping, and another scene of a fight between Hells Angels and loggers.

Both novels are interested in the wonders of the natural world; in the palimpsest of myth, folklore, personal, natural, and more general human history that come to define a place. Both novels are also concerned with guilt and possibilities for atonement and redemption; conservation; loss; tenuous, valuable connections between people; and a lot of other things I hope readers will find in them and let me know about. The novel (as a genre) is a magpie’s nests in which lots of seemingly disparate pieces come into meaningful, resonant (sometimes dissonant) contact with one another.  I’ve found that there’s a great time in the writing of a novel when the whole enterprise starts to hum, when all of the little thematic and other careful connections the writer has limned in come to life and begin to speak to one another, light up in such a way that, as the creator of this thing that until that moment had seemed lifeless, you feel you can stand back and watch the creation walk off on its own, take flight.  

I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?

I take comfort in taking walks in the neighborhood and, when I have more time, hikes into wilderness spaces nearby. During the writing of Coiled in the Heart, much of which was written, ironically, while I lived in Morningside Heights in New York, I took epic walks in the city, through Riverside Park and sometimes almost from one end of Manhattan to the other, feeding on the energy to be found in the city. Now, I’m lucky to live in close proximity to the Blue Mountains, a wild spur of the Rockies rising from rolling wheat fields into basalt ridges. Lonesome dirt and gravel roads and trails wind up through Ponderosa and Douglas fir, from which trails you might see deer, elk, bear, cougar, and wolves, or signs of them. Heading up into the mountains on a nearby grade with my dog Huck is a good way of generating good writing motion, of unsticking something that’s gotten stuck in the process. Fly-fishing for trout and steelhead, in remote wild places within driving distance of here, I’ve found, also constitutes good away-from-the-desk writing time.  

I’m also always reading and re-reading good things as part of my job teaching at Whitman and gobbling up good, recently published books during the summer. I tend to be a binge reader, devouring everything that comes out by writers I admire. I used also to be a binge writer, sometimes staying up all night if the writing was going well. That changed when we had kids– two boys, Gus and Harper, who’re now 5 (almost 6) and 3. Since their arrival, I’ve started to claim the mornings a bit more, to write like William Stafford with his toast and coffee when it’s still dark and before the kids are up. I’m not sure I pursue these activities, or even the reading I do, so much for comfort as for making sure I’m staying in motion, avoiding complacency and stagnation, which are enemies to good work for me. I suppose you could say I take comfort in knowing I’m still in motion.

Other non-writing routines that seem important to writing for me include time spent on a torture device called an ergometer (a rowing machine) every morning and diving out of writing or teaching work into bouts of complete and utter rollicking silliness with my two boys who give me a master class in unfettered creativity every day.

People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time?  What impact did telling this story have on your life?  Did you find that it had changed you?

It’s wonderful to learn as you read, and important as you write a novel, I find, to be able to roll with the punches and to change course as necessary when new information comes to light, or in response to a good early reader’s thoughts, to be able to see that you’ve gotten something wrong and to revise to try to get it right. In initial drafts I’d thought of the reservation at Neah Bay as the far flung end of the continental United States, the place where westward expansion had to end. I was ready in early drafts to play up this end-of-the-earth, end-of-the-frontier identity, but as I researched the novel I came to realize that the Makah are the southernmost members of the Nu-Cha-Nulth people, that they have close cultural affiliations with other tribes located up Vancouver Island. This cultural alliance has nothing to do with contemporary national boundaries. What I’d thought of as the end of the earth was (and in some ways still is) the beginning of their world. This shift in perspective was valuable to the standpoint from which I wrote the novel and  important for Temple Grove, which is concerned with identities and the meeting places of worlds and worldviews—where they intersect, where they begin and end, how we bridge the gaps or don’t. It was also important in writing this novel to be true to every perspective in the book, to fill them out with the necessary measures of love and toughness.

Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be?  How involved were in choosing the name of the book?

The initial title for the book, its working title through several initial drafts, was “In the Olympics.” People who live on the Olympic Peninsula and in Seattle and along the Puget Sound of Washington state would understand this to mean up in the Olympic Mountains, but it dawned on me at some point in the process that people outside the region might think the title referred to the Olympic Games. “Temple Grove” gradually came into focus as a good title. This is the name given to a controversial grove of ancient Douglas firs at the center of the novel. Various characters stop and contemplate the trees from different perspectives throughout the book. Some would like to cut these trees down for the money and useful goods to be had in the timber; others would like to save and revere the trees as a living things that were first pushing up out of the ground hundreds of years ago, still others see the trees as an unbroken link to their heritage and ties to the natural world. I became convinced that this title could work when I thought a bit more about some of the   connotations in the word “temple”–a place of worship, a word that suggests ancient Greek mythology and culture, a word for the places at the sides of a human head between which the brain rests and, so, a stand-in for the differing individual notions of where the value in an ancient grove of trees might be found.

What’s next?

I’m writing an interlinked collection of stories with one novella that will read like a novel based on stories my late paternal grandfather, Barney Elliott, who ran a hamburger stand and a beloved restaurant in Owensboro, Kentucky, recorded when he was in his 80’s.  The project is a kind of collaboration between me and my grandfather. He was a natural storyteller, with a penchant for exaggeration, which manifests in these stories as a gentle magical realism. The story “The Wheelbarrow Man,” about a meeting between a man trying to push a wheelbarrow around the world and a character based on Barney who runs a small-town restaurant, was published in the Antioch Review a few years ago. The working title for this project, which is close to completion and which I’m dying to return to in full, is The Wheelbarrow Man Stories.

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