What a Writer Does

The Seattle Times
June 20, 1993
By Alex Tizon

Barry Lopez was talking about the writing life, his head alternately straining up for the right word and then bowing down for the right attitude, and it was hard to resist the notion that under his buttoned-down cowboy duds was the heart of a monk.

He’s talked of his work as prayer, written of our spiritual relationship to landscape, and at that moment he was speaking with monastic reverence:

A writer must “undermine complacency.”

A writer is “an enemy of lies.”

A writer must “give reason to hope.”

A writer, alas, is “no more important than a carpenter who builds tables.”

Like it or not, a writer these days must also be a businessman if he wants to earn a living, which is the only reason Lopez was sitting in front of a reporter now instead of his own typewriter. He’d much rather be writing than talking about it.

The 48-year-old Oregon author of “Arctic Dreams” and “Of Wolves and Men” was in Seattle this past week, the second stop in a nine-city tour, promoting the paperback release of his book “Crow and Weasel” (HarperPerennial, $12).

A New York Times bestseller as a hardcover in 1991 and a Northwest bestseller the past two years, the illustrated novella-length fable has done better than most expected. “It’s very successful for the kind of book it is,” says John Henry of Pacific Pipeline Inc., a Kent-based book distributor for the Northwest.

What it is is a mythic story about two young men who journey into an uncharted land and learn what it means to live reverentially in the world. It’s also on one level a very simple story, pure adventure, full of strange and dangerous encounters in the tradition of fairy tales.

Lopez is working on a stage version of “Crow and Weasel” to be performed by the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre and co-produced by Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute (“Redford likes the story very much”). The first performance is scheduled for January.

In the six months until then, he says, he doesn’t intend to leave home, which is an aging two-story house along the McKenzie River near Eugene, one drainage over from Ken Kesey’s farm. He lives there modestly with his wife, Sandra, and their 17-year-old retriever, Desert Rim. He plans to do mainly one thing: Read, read, read in preparation for the writing of “the big book.”

That’s the way he refers to it. He’s been working on the big book on and off since the late 1980s and has cleared his slate for 1994 and 1995 to finish it. It promises to be even bigger than the tomblike “Arctic Dreams,” which won the National Book Award in 1986, and which thrust him into the center of a genre loosely called “literary naturalism,” whose practitioners include Peter Matthiessen, Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey and Annie Dillard.

The big book, for which he turned down a $900,000 advance from Harper & Row in favor of $650,000 from Knopf — “the right editorial home,” according to his agent — is about . . . what, exactly?

Good question. The author in a highly elliptical proposal said it would be about “the relationship between landscape and emotion, particularly the emotion of hope.”

Translating that into a manuscript, he said, has been daunting.

“I’m trying to understand what this book is all about, how to approach it,” said Lopez, hands in a prayer clasp pointed toward carpet. His head is bowed in thought. “I’ve been looking, listening, trying to teach myself things I didn’t know before. . . . The book is much bigger than I am. It’s very intimidating. I’ve had to learn patience.”

Meanwhile, he’s finished a new book of short stories called “Field Notes” (scheduled for release next spring), the last in a trilogy that began with “Desert Notes,” which he wrote when he was 25, followed by “River Notes,” which he wrote at 33.

“I work very slowly,” he said.

The idea is that it takes a long time to make something beautiful, and that, he said, is his deepest urge. He said this not as a boast, but as a disclosure of something private.

He is circumspect about discussing the writing process too much, not wanting to sound grandiose or to sound as if writing a book were more important than, say, making a table. The two have parallels and he returns to this point several times. In the end he summed up the writing of his big book this way: “I am a man working slowly, making a table. My care is that it is a beautiful table.”