Research Notes · 08/08/2014

Steelies and Other Endangered Species

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Rebecca Lawton writes about Steelies and Other Endangered Species from Little Curlew Press.

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Rebecca Lawton, The Playbunny Interview

Q: Ms. Lawton, it’s good to have you with us. Your new book, Steelies and Other Endangered Species: Stories on Water, is just out from Little Curlew Press. We’ve seen a review copy, and we’re eager to ask a few questions.

A: Great to be here, Playbunny. I’m always impressed when your journals feature articles about fully clothed women.

Q: Point taken! Although many of the stories in Steelies include scenes in which the clothes come off.

A: Um, maybe not “many.” But certainly a few, when sex helps move the story line. The key ingredient to these stories, though, is water — how the characters need it, pursue it, or are overwhelmed by it.

Q: When did you begin writing Steelies?

A: I drafted the first story, “The Middle of a River in Flood,” in 1990. My daughter Rose was a few months old, and we were staying in the desert outside Death Valley (which became the setting for “The Wish,” one of the newer in Steelies).

While Rose slept, I spent time composing my first works of fiction. When she woke, I backpacked her among the playas and hills. I seem to write best while walking, and I’d carry a notebook and jot ideas about the iconoclastic lives and places I wanted to portray in Steelies.

That first story, though, described a boating accident I’d had on the Rogue River. An account of it was published in slightly different form as an essay in my collection Reading Water: Lessons from the River. Later, when I fictionalized the same event, I felt freed up to add new ideas. But I didn’t need to embellish the scary whitewater scenes. Those are true as written.

Q: How did you come up with the stories in which science plays a big role — “Sandstone,” “An Exposition of the Development of the Earth,” and “The Road to Bonanza”?

My undergraduate degree is in Earth Sciences, which I studied in large part to learn its unique language. For many years I conducted research in fluvial geology — the study of streams and river deposits. The details about sandstones, drilling bedrock, and plate tectonics were all learned at university or on various jobs. I found that background inspiring and perfect for storytelling, and I wanted to share the richness of the characters and their particular geologic vocabularies.

Q: A few of your pieces feature Vietnam War veterans, about whom you’ve written previously in your novel Junction, Utah, and in essays. What inspires you to tell the veteran’s story?

A: My time as a Grand Canyon river guide and National Park Service river ranger put me on crews with men who’d just come home from serving as foot soldiers or in special operations in Vietnam. I meant to capture their inner conflict or toughness as well as their vulnerability, especially as it reflected the larger tension of their place in narrative arcs. The more I got to know these colleagues of mine, the more I wanted to capture their dissonant role in the guiding culture, how they both fit in and didn’t. I kept my perspective to that of one who stayed home, the only viewpoint I know.

Q: You’ve mentioned that the stories are linked. How, exactly?

A: They share common characters and places — they’re bound together with the sort of loose ties we sometimes experience in life. The stories unfold in chronologically, so the protagonists mature through the collection. The characters are drawn from authentic river people.

Many of the stories intertwine the lives of two river guides, R.J. and Mare, who share traits with river women I know and love. In their growth, R.J. and Mare start as novice whitewater guides who fall under the spell of their veteran colleagues, or defy the odds against them posed either by nature or culture, or learn tough lessons on or off the water. Some settings recur throughout the stories.

A: Your settings take us all over the West. How do you know these settings? “Sipapu,” “Seven Pieces of Pineapple,” “A Real Café,” “Endangered Species” — the far-flung places seem so real.

Q: They are real. The rivers, of course, I worked on as a guide: the Rogue, Green, Yampa, Colorado in Cataract. The river I know best, Colorado River in Grand Canyon, only figures into one of these stories, “Weaker than Water.” There was a time when I’d see a calendar photo of the river and could say, “Oh, that’s Mile 205,” or “There’s the bend above Saddle Canyon.” Leaving the Canyon in 1984 was like breaking a mighty chain, although the links rejoin pretty quickly when I put my mind to it.

Other settings I learned from travel, which always inspires new work. The most recent story, “No Way Bay,” was inspired by my residency with The Island Institute in Sitka, Alaska. Through conversations with the people there, as well as from a boating trip with my neighbor John Stein, I learned about the bodies of water and their role in the community. Reading native narratives about challenges with changing demographics and natural resources inspired George Victor’s story.

Q: How long did it take to write Steelies?

A: The book grew up with me, beginning with that first story in 1990. I worked on it intermittently after that. The research, though, had been going on since my late teens, when I first started guiding, geologizing, and writing. It’s been my great fortune to live the varied life that is reflected in these pages.

I’ve taken heart from J.R.R. Tolkien’s words, spoken through Bilbo Baggins: “All that is gold does not glitter/Not all those who wander are lost.” Writing as a vocation seems to justify wandering — physically, mentally, and spiritually. Science, water, rivers, guiding, parenting, research, friendship, love, the West — they’re all in these pages.

Q: Alongside the sex scenes.

A: Right. Your readers will enjoy those.

Q: As did we. Thank you for your time, Ms. Lawton.

A: It’s been my pleasure.

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