The Forest Was Loaded with Untold Stories: An Interview with Julie Riddle

John Brown Spiers: An early paragraph in “Shadow Animals” describes your reaction to your father laying sand on a wild-game trail on your new property in northwest Montana. He does this to capture hoofprints and determine what sort of wildlife lives in the woods, but as he furrows the sand with a rake, you imagine that it would make a perfect garden for the fairies that live in the forest. How did the remoteness of that setting—and the intense practicality it seemed to demand from its inhabitants—influence your imagination?

Julie Riddle: My father put down the sand just weeks after we had moved to the woods, when I was seven years old. During this time period, my mom wrote a letter to a friend in which she describes the property, and it includes the following line: “The south end is a cedar woods that I am sure is enchanted.” I came into possession of the letter a few years ago, and I was surprised to learn that my mom, as an adult, sensed the same thing I did as a child: that the forest was wondrous and foreign, and it seemed like anything was possible—fairies planting a garden in furrowed sand, a cedar grove being enchanted.

But thinking that fairies could live in the forest was probably my last act of full-blown make-believe imagining as a child. A few months after my father put down the sand, he built a deer stand in a tree along that same game trail, to use during hunting season. Living in such a remote, rugged locale tends to quickly kick any imagination out of a child, or romanticism out of an adult, in a hurry. In addition to the blunt fact of hunting animals for food, there was the years-long work of clearing land and building a log house by hand, and the day-to-day work of hauling water from the river (which we did for two years, until the well was dug), gathering firewood every summer to warm us through three seasons, keeping the stove stoked, digging out of four feet of snow, winching vehicles out of a foot of spring mud, and coping year-round with power outages, bodily injury, and limited financial means.

The kind of imagination I possessed while growing up wasn’t based on fantasy, but was fueled by story. I read voraciously, and I pestered my parents to tell me about the classmates pictured in their high-school yearbooks, and about how my parents met, the dates they went on, their engagement, and their wedding. I loved listening to the adventure stories my dad told when company came for dinner.

As my brother and I explored our property, I discovered that the forest was loaded with untold stories. We found stone mortar-and-pestle tools on the rocky beach along the river, left by a long-ago encampment of Kootenai Indians; we stumbled upon a small dumpsite where a bear’s teeth, claws, and disintegrated carcass lay among old, rusted cans; and we spied a tree that had grown around an axhead buried in the pulp. When my family went further afield to collect firewood or pick huckleberries, we peeked into tumbledown one-room cabins on old mining claims.

When I was ten or eleven, a friend and I camped overnight on the rocky beach beside the river that ran through our property. I woke up early and poked my head out of the pup tent to get a sense of the time. It was early dawn, misty and gray, and right when I looked out of the tent, a deer leg floated past on the river. It was intact and appeared as though it had just unzipped itself from the loin and gone for a swim. My thought process went something like this: “How did that leg get in the water? How did it get detached from the deer? Where’s the rest of the deer? What happened to it? It’s amazing that I looked out of the tent at the very moment the leg floated by. If I hadn’t woken up when I did, the leg would have floated by while I slept and I would’ve never known it. How creepy. And cool. What other strange things are going on in the woods—and the world—while I sleep?”

When I encountered unusual or jarring scenes in the woods, I didn’t invent stories about what might have happened; instead, I wondered what the experience was like for the animal or person, and I imagined how I would have felt if I had been that creature in that moment: What did the Indians see when they stood at that same spot on the beach where I stood? What did they grind with their mortars and pestles? Why didn’t they take their tools with them? Where did they go next? Did the miner leave the cabin because he had struck it rich, or got injured, or got too old, or because he never found gold and gave up? What would it be like to spend your days digging underground and your nights living alone in a tiny cabin in the middle of the forest? How did that bear at the dumpsite die—did he get lockjaw, was he attacked by another animal, did he eat some bad chili? What was it like for him, dying alone in the middle of all these rusted cans? Why did people dump their trash here? Why do I feel sad that a bear died at a dumpsite in the woods?

In the book Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje writes, “The forest . . . always so full of renewal and farewell.” Where I grew up, the weather and landscape were always changing. Danger lurked: unsettling rustlings and crashes in the brush; the ground giving way beneath my feet without warning. Weird things happened. Clues to stories popped up everywhere. Living in a remote, wild landscape shaped my imagination and my writing by teaching me to pay attention, to listen and look, and to look closer; to be aware of the fleeting moment; and to investigate those intersections where the commonplace crosses paths with the unusual. It helped me develop empathy for people and animals, and a desire to understand their experiences and truths as well as my own.

JBS: “Shadow Animals” also deals, on several levels, with the role that silence played in your childhood. Part of that silence literally comes with the territory—you describe the region as “a land where strength reigned,” and you make clear that “strength” refers both to hunting as a way of life, and to waiting, quietly, while doing so. And part of it comes from your own trauma: you were threatened into silence, and as a result, the “unspeakable words hooked your innards like barbs.” I wonder if you could talk about the influence of silence on your willingness to write.

JR: Silence pervaded my childhood. I spent quite a bit of time by myself outdoors (by choice—I liked being alone in the woods). Members of my community and family valued silence for practical and cultural reasons; to a large extent we did not speak of needs or feelings. When we did speak, it was most often the males who did the talking. My family was traditional in that the father was the head of the home, the parents were in charge, and the children’s thoughts and opinions weren’t solicited.

Since silence was a major part of my childhood, I spent a lot of time observing and listening. My perception skills were especially sharp as a result of my being sexually abused at age five. Common manifestations of childhood sexual abuse are that the child becomes hyper-vigilant of her surroundings and hyper-aware of other people’s needs and moods. I was highly attuned to what was going on around me, picking up on the nuances of what people were saying and what they weren’t saying, reading their facial expressions and body language to understand what they really felt, all the while adapting my behavior to each shifting environment and remaining alert for potential danger.

I was pretty much a child-sized sponge. I wrote a lot, probably as a way to process all of the sensory information I had absorbed, and to help relieve internal pressure. At age eight I began writing poetry when, as a Christmas gift, my parents gave me an office-style record book with “Julie’s Poems” laminated on the cover. The next Christmas my grandparents gave me a diary; I wrote regularly in a diary or journal well into my twenties.

Silence fueled the writing I began doing in graduate school, at age thirty-six: I had an extensive internal storehouse of information, memories, and sensations to draw from and explore. But the pervasive silence from my childhood also made writing about the past uncomfortable at best and frightening at worst. I was—and am—acutely aware that I was breaking unspoken family rules and community codes. And there’s a thick veil of silence around sexual abuse. I did not talk about it, except to my therapist when I began counseling in my early twenties, and in occasional generalities with my husband. Up until graduate school I had never written about it, beyond trying to cope with the trauma in my journal writing.

I like what author and investigative journalist Amy Goodman said: “Go to where the silence is and say something.” In my writing, I try to peel back the layers of silence and draw out what lies beneath. Not to sensationalize or expose, but to explore, to find connections, to discover meaning, and to better understand.

Speaking into those silent places through writing about them can be empowering, but it also requires courage, and it’s risky. But I find that when I am vulnerable on the page, it often opens lines of communication—whether it’s with my parents, or with strangers attending a reading—and creates a space for other people to break their own silences.

JBS: As something of a corollary to the above two questions, how important is discipline to your own process? Writing is a mix of the practical and the delighted, much like your reaction to the rake in the sand. Do you keep a rigid schedule, or does doing so hinder you?

JR: If I wrote when I felt like it—when I felt mentally sharp, energized and inspired—I would rarely write. I’ve learned that if I sit down each day and just start, regardless of how I feel, good things will happen. Being practical—writing regularly—allows for surprises of delight to occur. I keep a writing schedule: Monday and Wednesday afternoons, Tuesday and Thursday mornings, and two hours on the weekend. I try hard to protect those blocks of time.

When I was a student in the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University, I had to stick to a daily writing (and reading) discipline in order to produce a block of creative writing and three critical papers by each month’s deadline. That helped me to find and exercise a regular-writing muscle, and I just kept going with it after I graduated.

I find that five or ten minutes into the work I’m fully engrossed, and before I know it an hour and a half zips by (that seems to be about how long I can write before my eyes start to cross). There was a day recently when I felt mentally and physically worn out. I thought, “There’s no way I can produce anything worthwhile today.” I wanted to take a nap, but I made myself sit down and write. While clarifying a paragraph I had written the day before, I stumbled onto a new insight that gave the essay (and me) a shot of energy and purpose. That’s what keeps me coming back to the desk each day.

JBS: In an editorial at Rock & Sling, you mention that you’d spent a great deal of time working on “Shadow Animals” before submitting it to The Georgia Review. Can you go into more detail about the crafting of this essay, the different shapes it took?

JR: I began writing this essay in 2006, during the first year of my MFA program; a fairly rudimentary version of the essay opens my MFA thesis (a collection of linked personal essays that I’m now developing into a book manuscript). At that time, the essay was far from complete—it was more of a collection of vignettes. A section wandered off into stories of family pets we had owned and their untimely demises, and the piece concluded with the scene of me in the basement shower, looking at the old stains on the ceiling. In retrospect, I sensed what the questions were that I was trying to answer, but I hadn’t articulated those questions clearly to myself, so that I could use them to guide the writing and to make decisions about what sections to keep and what the piece still needed to make it complete.

After graduating, in 2009, I worked on the essay a bit more—I cut the meandering pets section and tightened the language in the original concluding scene. I submitted the essay to a journal in 2011; the journal declined the piece (no reason was given) but asked to see more of my work. I took this as an affirmation that the essay had potential. As I thought about where to send it next, I started having a nagging feeling that the piece wasn’t done.

One afternoon I sat down with a notebook and did several pages of free writing. I articulated the questions I was trying to get at. I don’t have those notes, but the questions went something like this: How do people who are different, vulnerable or wounded cope when living in a community bound by entrenched cultural mores, and what price do they pay? The free-writing also made me realize that my mom was a key element that was missing—she, like Daniel and I (who were already in the essay) was one of those people trying to cope. I pulled a couple of sections about my mom from other essays in the manuscript, where they weren’t quite working, and added them to “Shadow Animals.” I also wrote a new concluding section, and I cut a two-paragraph section that offered the only commentary in the entire piece. It felt too direct; apparently I wanted the other, memoir-focused sections to impart meaning in some mysterious, artistic way that the reader could glean.

Three months after receiving the first journal’s rejection response, I figured I might as well aim high and I mailed the essay to The Georgia Review. In the spring I received a lovely letter from assistant editor Douglas Carlson in which he invited me to submit a revised version. (The Review’s response affirmed my decision to heed my gut instincts back in August and do the free-writing and revisions before sending the piece out again. Note to self: trust your gut.) The editors’ consensus was that there was potential for a strong piece, but I needed to do more to bring my central concern(s) into focus. In short, they needed more commentary: “signposts along the way that identify the theme clearly and keep it moving beneath the various narrative arcs.” Doug kindly provided an overview of the editors’ feedback, to help me focus my revision efforts.

I did more free-writing, trying to get at ways to address the editors’ concerns. I then wrote approximately six new sections. I also put back in the two-paragraph commentary section I had cut before I submitted the essay to The Georgia Review. Early in the revision process I sent the essay to two friends from my MFA program, and they provided helpful input that let me know whether my revisions were on track. Across four months of revision work I also collaborated with Doug on line edits, and he provided feedback at several points on my new sections.

Near the end of the revision process, Doug wrote that the essay was getting close to being complete, but he felt (as did another reader) “that although the abuse remains always in the background and sometimes comes front and center, the animal theme drifts away a bit and is eventually taken over by information about and anecdotes featuring your father. Ideally we can keep these two going right through to the end because I feel they—and the abuse theme as well—are all intertwined.”

Thinking and writing within that constraint—keeping the animal theme strong until the end—led me to several realizations or insights that I feel are key to the piece. One is in the scene with my dad, near the end of the essay, when he’s giving me a shooting lesson and reveals the first rule of self defense: “Never let the attacker know you have a weapon.” This rule niggled at me for years as being important, but I couldn’t articulate why. I wrote circles around it, trying to make inroads toward it, but without success. Thinking about that rule in connection to the animal theme led me to a surprising realization. Thinking within the constraints of the animal theme also led me to write two new paragraphs that I inserted near the end of the essay. I wrote the paragraphs in one sitting; that was an emotional experience, and the words came quickly and easily, which is usually not the case for me.

Doug astutely suggested using those two paragraphs as the conclusion of the piece (conclusion #3 in the evolution of this essay). When I moved the paragraphs to the bottom and read through the final section, it felt like this was the ending the essay had been waiting for, and that it couldn’t end any other way.

I had worked on the essay across six years, and I thought it was finished several times. But I learned that crafting an essay takes a lot of time and hard mental and emotional work. I also learned to trust my instincts. And I learned, from The Georgia Review editors, to become more comfortable with incorporating commentary and reflection in my writing; learned that being direct is okay—good writing doesn’t need to be all mystery and nuance; and learned to be as specific and clear as possible. I feel really fortunate and grateful that the editors took the time and put in the effort to work with me to develop this essay. Through the revision process it grew from 6,600 words to 10,200 words. As much as the piece evolved, it remained my story, in my voice. That was important to me.

JBS: You preface the essay with a particularly captivating quote from Sherry Simpson—it encapsulates everything you’re about to unfold. What are some other quotes that you find guide your writing; who are the writers you find yourself returning to?

JR: For inspiration, I keep a collection of authors’ quotes that I read from time to time. For nuts-and-bolts craft guidance, I return to the many nuggets of wisdom from my MFA program faculty that I noted during residencies and have since absorbed, such as: “Write toward meaning.” “Bury your metaphors.” “Make the landscape as much of a character as the people who live there.” “End sections on a strong word.” And, when I’m stuck, “What question am I trying to answer?”

Each time I sit down to write, I read the following two quotes that I keep on a notecard beside my monitor:

  • “Focus on the action, not the fruit of the action.” My yoga instructor quoted this at the beginning of a class, for us to bear in mind as we practiced difficult poses. It applies to writing, as well. When I think about the big-picture work of completing the book, much less getting it published, I freeze like the proverbial deer in the headlights. The endeavor feels huge and overwhelming, with failure threatening at every turn. This quote helps me to not worry that what I write that day won’t be worthwhile, and to instead focus on specific steps I can take in the next ninety minutes to advance the work.
  • “What hurts worse: the pain of hard work or the pain of regret?” I got this quote from the Jumbotron at a Celtics game when I attended the 2013 AWP conference in Boston. If I let fear or fatigue keep me from finishing the book, if I quit, I will regret it for the rest of my life. This quote prods me to put in the hard work now. Keep trying. Keep going. Write the next word, the next sentence.

Two authors who have informed my book manuscript are Mary Clearman Blew and Judy Blunt. Both women grew up in multigenerational ranching families in remote regions of Montana, and they’ve written memoirs that connect their personal stories with the history of place. They also grew up within a prescribed set of rules and roles, and they chose to leave the land in pursuit of lives that were authentic to the hard-earned identities they claimed. As I work on my manuscript, I will pull Mary’s All but the Waltz from my shelf, to see how she handled writing dialogue, how she structured a particular essay, or how she wove historical information and details into the narrative organically—that’s something I struggle with. Mary is also no-nonsense, clear-eyed, and bluntly honest in her writing, which gives me courage to be the same in mine.

Other books that serve as guides include:

Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World, by Scott Russell Sanders. He explores the meaning of home; the value of being rooted to place; the consequences of displacement, for the earth and for ourselves. He writes about the personal—the loss of his childhood landscape due to a flood—as a way to explore collective experience, and inspires me to keep that aim at the forefront of my writing. And he reminds me about the value and necessity of telling our stories, which “help us to see where we are, how others have lived here, how we ourselves should live.”

Miles from Nowhere: In Search of the American Frontier. Author Dayton Duncan spent a year traveling through sparsely populated western counties, meeting the residents and exploring the major shifts that occurred in the western frontier between 1890 and 1990. His insights help me to think about the changes and challenges that affected—and are affecting—my family, as well as the other residents and the landscape of northwest Montana, specifically in Lincoln County.

Landscapes with Figures: The Nonfiction of Place, edited by Robert Root. This anthology features essays on place by authors including Kim Barnes, Scott Russell Sanders, and Deborah Tall. Each essay is accompanied by a commentary about the author’s relationship to place and how it informs his or her writing. The book is as much on the craft of writing as it is on writing about landscape. I find my own experience articulated in Kim Barnes’ insight about writing memoir: “Who am I, and why? I cannot answer this without looking to the land.”