Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Q&A with Peter Nathaniel Malae

Peter Nathaniel Malae is the author of the new novel Son of Amity, which takes place in Oregon. His other books include the novels Our Frail Blood and What We Are. He lives in the Pacific Northwest.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Son of Amity, and for the family you write about?

A: I was driving home from a 500-word writing session for my last novel, Our Frail Blood, down a pretty isolated country road that leads to my neighborhood. I had a CD of CCR on and was kind of disappearing into the music, as I sometimes do as a form of recovery after a day of digging through a scene. 

Anyway, this one song of theirs, “Run Through the Jungle,” opened up on the radio. It starts with this sort of long deep yet piercing guitar chord that sounds almost like a hell-bound demon moaning about being hell-bound, and as it was really stretching out, I thought, Wouldn’t that be crazy to be sitting in a movie theater in the dark when this sound comes on full blast, and then when the song starts into its riff eight seconds later the film opens with a close-up to a guy’s face. He’s driving up from a faraway place, you discover, to confront his sister’s rapist. 

Once I got this “image,” I had about two minutes until I reached my home. By the time I turned off the car, about 75 percent of the novel’s major plot points had already filled in for me, a skeletal story, if you will. From there it was just a matter of slapping on muscle and skin, and getting the story’s blood flowing. 

This is less rare then a non-writer might think: by the end of the day, on average, I’ve written a story or two in my head, a novel start once a week, but for some reason most of them die. Son of Amity determinedly held on like lucky salmon spawn, elusively escaping the assassin of my own brain, which is the same strange entity that birthed it.

Q: You tell the story from various family members' perspectives. Did you decide on your point of view characters from the beginning, or did you change things around as you wrote?

A: I’d just finished a novel, Our Frail Blood, which had ambitiously employed three different narrative vantages: first person active present; third person limited past; third person omniscient past. 

The novel is about 600 pages and when I hit the 300-page mark, I was gonna scrap it. At that point, I’d worked on it every day for a year and a half.

I couldn’t bear the thought of cutting it loose, though, and so I printed everything up one day, and sat in a coffee shop on this big table with all the papers in chapters around me. Took me about 10 hours of shuffling, but I finally figured out a way to structurally hold those three narrative vantages together without violating the integrity of the book. 

I share that now because it gave me confidence to be able to (almost) always forge order into the book, if I stay with three things going forward: real story-telling about real humans in real situations. I did have to scrap 50 pages of that novel, and so there was “loss” of writing that I liked, in and of itself, detached from the book. 
With Son of Amity, I felt that the structure of the book was very easy coming off of Our Frail Blood. This is pertinent to the question because revolving narrative perspectives need to be buttressed by structure. 

Two things I’d sort of subconsciously planned to happen: 1. I’d build up expositional backstory in the first third of the book.

This would be somewhat tough to read because of the intensity of its situations, tension-filled to the bone, and seemingly impossible to negotiate narratively. The book, like the characters themselves, wouldn’t be able to hold this kind of story to story’s end. I wanted the book to almost break, like the characters. 

And yet 2. the last two-thirds of the book, though comprising more narrative “space,” would actually go comparatively fast. This because there would be a release of the tension, as the same people who’d been screwed in the first third of the book would conceivably try unscrewing themselves, as a struggling family unit, in the last two thirds. 

Even writing this now it seems like you’re setting up stakes you can’t stand by. But that is exactly the reason to keep writing. More importantly, it underestimates the power of a child to stoke hope in even the most desperate of us adults. 

This really is a love-story dedicated to my sons, who, by merely existing, saved me from the most screwed of positions, and even still save me from that easy somewhat tired authorial cynicism about which there are too many real-life burn-outs to detail here.  That’s for the 924 bio section of the public library to contain.  

(As I write this, I’m remembering that I’d thought of Son of Amity as a slightly different metaphor: a dam. Fill it with water in the first third of the book, release it in the second two-thirds, and see who survives the flood. Also, the work of two writers gave me confidence in the sense that I didn’t feel alone: Faulkner (structure) and Denis Johnson (tone).)  

Q: The story takes place in a small town in Oregon. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: For me writing place rightly is more than a matter of narrative vitality; without soap-boxing, I actually see it as a moral matter.  Saul Bellow wrote about this in his own way in a Paris Review interview. 

As there are real human beings living the stories you’re writing about, you have a real true responsibility as a novelist to get the story right. They are a part of the real place you’ll presumably render a version of. 

Furthermore, as literary novels are comprised of suffering, trauma, death, you’re obligated to get at the story’s deeper level with accuracy, which is a way of being respectful, and that even goes for the surface details, now that I think about it. I believe that every word is either strengthened by this, or infected by the lack of it. 

The present-day argument about cultural appropriation has everything to do with this idea: while every writer appropriates at some level, the authorial license isn’t just handed out like bingo chips. 

If people are suffering, if there is death involved, then any writer picking up the pieces and putting them to narrative order better be able to get the nod, and maybe even blessing, from the very people who’ve lived it. 

My standard is, If you’re gonna write a story about a lifer in prison, you need to get the blessing from the lifer in prison. He needs to look at what you’ve done, and say, Go, my son. You’ve done okay by my story. That standard, by subsummation, should bring every other kind of reader to the table since their standard of authenticity is lower than the person who’s lived the story. 

This is why before MFA programs and the internet “write what you know” was such a popular form of advice to young writers.
I tried holding to this same standard with Son of Amity, as I do with all my books. For instance, it took me living in small-town Oregon for half a decade before I started writing about the state. I didn’t trust my storytelling instincts to be free of the urban stories I’d been raised by and in, and had told in my three previous books. 

I worked on other stuff, set in California and Hawaii, but waited for Oregon stories to develop naturally, if at all. Actually, I did more than that: I started fishing: the Nestucca, the South Yamhill, the Row, and even some ponds like Sheridan Ponds, where I could get to know the people who live here. 

At the time I started the book (2010), Yamhill County was officially one of the poorest in the state of Oregon. Whiteson, half of Amity, Sheridan, Willamina, Grand Ronde, parts of Dayton, and even of Mac have pockets of white poverty that made me reassess certain ideas I’d had, culled of my own real-life experience. 

In the novel, the character Pika, a Samoan ex-con from urban California, references Malcolm X’s growth from a Black Muslim to a Muslim as similar to his own learning about white poverty.  Both had to be honest about what they were seeing, both had to broaden their horizons, and discharge the flotsam. 

Pika had always thought that poverty was exclusively brown, but he finds himself living in a part of Amity where the evidence suggests something else. Every place, he learns, has its own way of defining itself. 

He’s courageous in that sense: he asks questions about his own existence which could well challenge it definitionally. At the same time, he’s worried, even as he’s learning about Oregon, about his own end in Oregon.   
Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: I’m fortunate to live right up the way from Amity, which means friendship. The boy in this story, for whom each of the three adults are trying to directly face their own backstories, is born of Amity, born of the horror of friendship, or else of the dream of its potential beauty.

The story cannot exist without the boy. Each of the adults, it’s easy to see, will drown without him. I’ve often thought this: sure, we feed and protect and clothe and educate our kids, but our kids keep us from drowning in cynicism. That’s a fair trade. 

Look around, without your kids, one day, and I think you’ll feel me. The stuff that makes us unique as humans—hope—comes back at us, day after day, via our kids’ existence, and in unexpected, often unappreciated, ways. Benji, then, is the son of Amity, a living embodiment of hope. 

I played with the term throughout the book, including the scene where a Hispanic gangbanger uses the term in Spanish, un hijo de Amidad, except pejoratively. At the center of it all, holding it together, is a kid who doesn’t really get why these people he loves hate each other so much. His journey of discovery is as much their own, of themselves, of each other. 

In Pika, a savvy urban ex-con from the “browner” parts of Cali, you have, presumably, the opposite of Michael, a five-tour Iraq War decorated Marine from small-town Oregon with a secret crime that nearly defines him. 

Among the other things you want of a book you’ve written, there is the inescapable goal of showing without preaching how much people, even those with true enmity, truly have in common. They just gotta stop for a second and check it out. A book, which forces you to remove yourself from real time and then accordingly ponder your life in real time, can help with that.    

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on two big epic novels, one set in Samoa, Hawaii, and Cali over three generations, and the other set in Oregon of a man trying to keep his family together against hostile social and cultural forces. 

On the business end, I have a finished novel set in Portland I’m shopping, and a finished story collection set at the paisa migrant campos in Dayton, Oregon. 

Also, I have a play about a state execution and single fatherhood I’m trying to find a home for. I don’t really know the theatre scene, though, and so when I have a little extra time, I go fishing for theaters which I think might like the piece. 

I love to see a play more than anything, especially when it’s a low-budget small-town theater where everyone is clearly pulling a lot of weight, pound for pound, to make the story happen. 

I once saw a woman playing Blanche Dubois go off-stage to weep into her hands, and then return, a minute later, to do her next scene. Watching that, I felt a fraternal kinship to that woman and her work, whomever she was, that I’m still, 20 years later, both tormented and exhilarated by.     

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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