Ana Maria Spagna is the author of five books of nonfiction including Reclaimers and the memoir/history, Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus, winner of the River Teeth literary nonfiction prize. Her work appears regularly in journals and magazines such as Orion, Brevity, High Country News. Her sixth book will be a middle-grade novel The Luckiest Scar on Earth, coming in February 2017. She is on the faculty of Antioch Los Angeles MFA in Creative Writing Program, and lives in Stehekin, Washington with her wife, Laurie.
Haley Isleib interviewed Ana Maria Spagna by phone in the summer of 2016.
Haley Isleib: When you began to write, what did you aspire to write about and why? What’s your origin story?
Ana Maria Spagna: When I was a little kid I wanted to write. My teacher let me write a novel when I was in second grade sitting in a beanbag chair; that’s probably the highlight of my career so far. But when I got to high school and college, I lost the spark some. I went to college and I was an English major. Anybody who’s been an English major knows you mostly read books and analyze them. I didn’t do any creative writing. So I had lost that spark and was a little lost after college and went to work for the Park Service.
As soon as I was in these beautiful places, working Canyonlands, and then I moved here to North Cascades, all I wanted to do was write. I wanted to write and write and write. But when I sat down to do it, all I could write was, “It’s really pretty.” [laughs] I didn’t know what to do with what I wanted to say. I realized I had to go back to school.
I went back and studied fiction writing. That was the absolute best thing for me because I learned about an actual narrative arc and having the story go somewhere. Then I went back to the woods and I could hang all these things I wanted to say on actual story. I went immediately—or pretty soon—back to nonfiction. Nonfiction with this narrative structure that I had learned in school. I worked in the summers and wrote very seriously every winter. Since about 1996 that’s been what I do, write.
HI: In winter?
AMS: In winter until I quit my trails job in 2004. That’s when I started thinking, this is what I do, I’m a writer.
HI: Has your career followed an expected course? When you were studying fiction did you know you wanted to write nonfiction?
AMS: I think I did. I had written an undergraduate thesis about creative nonfiction, so I knew the term, knew it was out there, and admired it. So I probably did know I wanted to do that. The unexpected part was realizing that I needed that fiction training and I need fiction in my writing life. I need a little variety in my writing life. I don’t write poetry but I read poetry so that’s part of the spark too.
HI: I sense that poetic voice in your writing. You have a new book coming out, but I want to talk about another book of yours, 100 Skills You’ll Need for the End of the World (as We Know It).
AMS: Right. [laughs]
HI: Its tone is so different. My first year at NILA [Northwest Institute of Literary Arts MFA] I thought, Oh poetic prose, she’s very serious, which of course isn’t the only true thing. There is humor in your other works too. Can you tell me a little bit about how that project came to be?
AMS: That’s the anomaly in my writing career because someone came to me. I had written a very tongue-in-cheek piece. Orion has a column every month that’s just a list, called “Enumeration.” I had made a list of ten skills you’ll need for the post-oil world. It was very playful, whimsical. Ten skills from sleeping to navigating by the stars. After that came out, a book publisher, Story Publishing, wrote to me and asked if I would do a hundred skills. I said, “No, no, you don’t get it. I’m not a dooms-dayer, that was just playful.” They said, “No, we do get it, we want it to be exactly like that, playful.”
Coming up with a hundred skills was super easy. I thoroughly enjoyed that whimsical tone and living in that world. I was worried about the illustrations because the writer never works with an illustrator—the wrong type of illustration could undercut that tone, could make it seem like I was trying to be serious. The publisher found this illustrator whose work matched the way I saw the book perfectly.
HI: Did you work at all with the illustrator [Brian Cronin] or meet him?
AMS: Not one tiny bit. In fact the publisher was quite adamant about not having any direct contact with the illustrator. For example, the original illustrations—as much as I liked them—were all male figures. I can’t abide that, on principle. So they wrote to him and asked him to put more female and they sent me the pictures. I said, “Now the girls are doing all the girly things. Can you please have the girls do some welding or something?” All of that happened with the publisher mediating, which was interesting to me. It worked, but I would someday like to meet the guy.
HI: Tell me about Stehekin, the remote spot where you live in Washington state, which is a town you have to hike to, no road in, surrounded by millions of acres of wilderness. You have internet but no grocery store. How does this experience impact your creative process and the content of what you write? How long have you lived in Stehekin?
AMS: I’ve lived there off and on since 1990. Full time since ’98. Eighteen years now.
HI: So right after grad school?
AMS: Before grad school, we lived here in the summer. We were working seasonally and they give you housing for the summer. In the winter, we’d have to go and find work someplace else. When I was pushing thirty that was getting old; that was also part of why I went to graduate school. I remember Laurie asking me, “Do you have a better winter job lined up?” [laughs] “Go to graduate school.”
As soon as I finished graduate school, Northern Arizona University, where I went, offered me a job at the university. Very, very hard to turn down, but Laurie was committed to working here in Stehekin and I was still very enamored of my life on trail crew. I made the difficult decision to say no to that job. We bought land, built a house, and made this our home.
People make progress and try to make right and then lose ground. Sometimes what you define as right changes over time…
There are no roads in or out, so it’s like an island. But it’s not an island; it’s a landlocked valley. A community of about eighty people live here year-round. In summer, a lot more people come to their summer homes, so there might be up to 400 people in summer. There’s a bakery that’s open in summer and there are restaurants that are open in summer, two of them, but other than that there’s nothing. There’s no grocery store, movie theater, nothing—just each other. [laughs]
The bakery, they sell my books, and I get credit. I eat a lot at the bakery. It works out.
HI: You mentioned the seasonal rhythm to your writing early on. How does Stehekin figure into your writing practice?
AMS: Part of my writing practice is going on long walks, or going running or going skiing in the winter and thinking things through. It is a quiet place for me to be productive. I think there aren’t as many distractions as there are in other places, although in summer it’s so wildly busy and everybody else is on vacation. They presume, of course, I’m on vacation because I don’t go to an office to work. There are certainly things that pull against me but I’m pretty disciplined about getting up, getting into the writing, spending the necessary hours in the chair every day. I don’t know how this works in the so-called real world, but I can still unplug my modem and have no internet so…
HI: Ahhh. That’s wonderful.
AMS: So even if I wanted to be distracted, it would take so long for the modem to boot up it’s not worth it. [laughs] I force this on myself.
HI: I’m going to switch gears a bit. I’ve heard people say we’re living through a new civil rights era. Your second book, Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus, is a work of nonfiction about your father and the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. Do you see any parallels between then and now?
AMS: Absolutely. It was actually the late fifties when he was involved, very early in the civil rights movement in northern Florida. At the time that I was researching that book—I was doing most of my research between 2004-2006—the gay rights movement started to gain real national momentum, seemed to be gaining steam. Couples had lined up in San Francisco to get marriage licenses, which seemed outrageous to me at the time, I mean outrageous. [laughs] I could definitely see the parallels of that sense of momentum and also the sense of danger too, that people were putting themselves out there. That part is woven into the book.
When I wrote the book it was the fiftieth anniversary of the Tallahassee bus boycott. This year is the sixtieth. If anything, in terms of race, things are even more fraught, if not more dangerous. At least people are talking about the danger in different ways, in ways I wouldn’t have expected it to re-erupt. As scary as that is—maybe people find it disheartening—I find it heartening, taking things that have been held under the surface and letting them erupt. Having the conversations we have to have. I don’t think I would feel that way if I hadn’t done the research I did for that book, and immersed myself in that earlier civil rights movement.
HI: I’m hearing maybe that research gives you hope.
AMS: Yeah, it absolutely does. It gives me hope and it gives me perspective. It makes me realize the necessity of the courage to speak out, and gives me a lot of admiration for the people in the Black Lives Matter movement, and all over the country for speaking out, however you do it. It only leads to good even if there’s a rough road in between. I wouldn’t think that if I hadn’t done that research.
HI: The word I heard you say a couple of times was “surprise,” about both the mid-oughts and recently. I wonder if that surprise is related to hope in some way. Because in retrospect, it always seems like, “Of course, because it only makes sense,” but at the time…
AMS: When I first thought about the fifties and sixties civil rights movement, the way I learned it in school, it just seemed inevitable that that was going to happen. When I did the research, I realized how very un-inevitable it was in their time. And still, in my dumb passive American way, I still thought, “Wow, it’s amazing that that erupted in the past.” To see it erupting again, very much in our present time—yeah, it gives me hope for the kind of history that can evolve in our own time.
HI: I think we have a way of seeing history as progressing, going from A to B to an end goal, but life isn’t really like that at all. In a way it’s a surprise that things can suddenly erupt, but things can also suddenly retreat or go back.
AMS: Yeah, most assuredly. The whole history of all the progress that happened post-Civil War in terms of race—what happened to it? For so long the reactionaries won with Jim Crow, with pushing it back, taking voting rights away. And see how easily that’s happening again in our own time.
HI: In Reclaimers, which is more recent, you tell three stories braided together—I think this weirdly dovetails with what we were just talking about—because these are stories about people reclaiming things that had been lost. At some point in the past, things got worse, and then after decades of effort, people reclaimed. Two pieces of land return to their tribes, and a river was undammed.
AMS: There is a parallel. There was a surprise in it. When I started Reclaimers, I thought of it as a book coming out of my interest in nature and nature writing, and issues of land and water. I didn’t see it as a book that would be related to Test Ride or to civil rights. But it was absolutely clear once I started finding these stories of people reclaiming land and water that there were exact parallels. People make progress and try to make right and then lose ground.
Sometimes what you define as right changes over time, which is one of the themes I pursue in Reclaimers. In the thirties, building dams was the best thing we could possibly do and people with good intentions built dams. And then a hundred years later people with good intentions are bringing those dams down. A certain openness to changing our idea of what’s right and letting that evolve over time became one of the underpinnings of a book that I thought was just about land policy.
HI: This idea of reclaiming, these braided stories, seem like part of a wider weave. I see “reclaiming” as an underlying mission of our times. This documenting of reclaiming could be almost infinite. Do you see any future projects continuing on this focus?
AMS: You’re absolutely right that it could be infinite. Everybody who heard that I was doing a project on reclaiming would tell me a story of reclamation. And it would be something in a realm I hadn’t even thought of, like reclaiming identity. I realized at some point that this could sprawl. I had to rein it in.
This is a little digression, but I realized that when I finish a book, I have a sense of loss. Now I don’t live in that world everyday and I miss it. I lived there so long and I was so close to it, and it meant so much to me; now it’s this thing that belongs to everyone else out in the world, and I need to distance myself. Maybe it’s getting to where I could revisit it and start writing about those ideas again, but that was just a realization that came to me in the last few days.
And the American West is totally fraught with that end-point thing because it was the Western expansion. This is where we would get to, and this would be paradise. Now we’re just barely a hundred years in, and no, this is where we live, and we’re going to have to make it work for a lot longer than one big glorious burst.
HI: And this is just an aside too. The concept of writing about reclaiming could be its whole own genre almost, not that you would have to do all the work.
AMS: It really could.
HI: In a lot of ways, many memoirs, especially of difficult times, seem related, not exactly the same, but people resurrecting relationships they’d let die…
AMS: Or reclaiming their past.
HI: Right. Did you start a whole genre?
AMS: [laughs] Parsing the language a bit, I think a lot of memoirs are an arc toward redemption, just like a lot of work in nature these days is work toward restoration. And both of those words make me a little bit uncomfortable because they suppose an end point. You have this place that’s ruined, you restore it and it’s good. Or you have this nasty past and you redeem yourself and it’s good. What I like about “reclaiming” is that, no, that’s not how it happens, you reclaim it and then at some point in the future it will need to be reclaimed again. When I’m teaching memoir, I encourage people not to feel like you’re writing a book in which you feel like your life now has an end point. “Yes, did that, all better now.”
HI: You’ve hit on something I think is an underlying obstacle in our Western thinking—at least in my Western experience, there’s an idea that we’re going to get somewhere and that will be good, and we’ll be done. Reality isn’t like that. Even evolution isn’t like that. “Progress” implies that there is a goal that can be reached and then you’re done.
AMS: That taints a lot of my work. A lot of my work has been wedged into the genre of writing about the American West. And the American West is totally fraught with that end-point thing because it was the Western expansion. This is where we would get to, and this would be paradise. Now we’re just barely a hundred years in, and no, this is where we live, and we’re going to have to make it work for a lot longer than one big glorious burst. That’s something that makes writing about the West challenging. What are we? We don’t know what we are yet, us white Westerners. What about these people who were here a long time before we were? They’ve got a story. We’ve got to listen.
HI: Speaking of that, tell me a bit about the two tribes who reclaimed pieces of tribal land in Reclaimers. I’ve heard you talk about the process of getting close to those stories. What made those two stories stand out of all those you heard?
AMS: In 2011, I was on a road trip with my mom when I passed a sign at the entrance to Death Valley National Park that read “Homeland of the Timbisha Shoshone.” Now I worked for the National Park Service [NPS] for many years and I’ve visited plenty of parks and I’d never seen a sign like it so I was intrigued. Over the next several months I uncovered a remarkable story, basically that the Timbisha Shoshone have lived in Death Valley for 10,000 years but had their land taken by the NPS in 1933. After years of effort by elders and activists like Pauline Esteves, they were able to reclaim 325 acres in the middle of the park at Furnace Creek in 2000 through a congressional act signed by President Bill Clinton. It was an astonishing feat, a tiny tribe versus the U.S. government. That’s what attracted me to the story, but it took me a long time to track down Esteves. When I finally did she explained that the tribe has continued to struggle in the fifteen years since the reclamation. If she didn’t introduce me to the idea that reclaiming is cyclical, that it must happen over and over again, she certainly reinforced it.
The other tribe is the Mountain Maidu in the Northern Sierras. My first attraction to their story was to a program they’d initiated working in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service using Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) to manage USFS lands. I liked the idea that reclamation could happen without changing ownership. But again, the longer I lived with the story, the more my understanding grew and changed. The Maidu ended up with the chance to reclaim title to a sacred valley called Humbug Valley from Pacific Gas & Electric Co., and that saga was amazing—the way they brought allies to their cause, the way they remained patient and hopeful in the face of pretty long odds and real tragedies along the way.
So I suppose it was serendipity that drew me to those two sagas–and to the story of the Condit Dam removal as well—but it was the experience of staying with the stories and the people involved, understanding the complexity and nuances over several months (I followed each saga for about three years) that most affected me and my understanding of reclaiming as an ongoing, ever-changing, communal commitment. It’s a basic human endeavor, both an instinct, in some sense, and an obligation, not limited to indigenous people. Or perhaps it is in the sense that one Maidu woman articulated. All of us are indigenous to this planet so, “Find your place and care for it.”
HI: You have a middle-grade novel, The Luckiest Scar on Earth, coming in early 2017, featuring a snowboarder. Where did this come from?
AMS: After graduate school, I was writing a lot of short stories. One rule of my writing life is that if an editor or anybody contacts you and asks if you do X, you say yes. An editor with Milkweed Editions wrote to me—this would have been in 1998, a long time ago—and said do you have any short stories for kids? And I said yes. I did not have any short stories for kids. So I went back to a story I loved, about a snowboarder in her twenties, and I made her younger for the sake of the request. I realized that this is what this story needed all along; this story is not about a twenty-whatever- year-old, it’s about a fourteen year old. And I sold it to Milkweed; they were going to put it in an anthology, which never came out. But I loved this fourteen-year-old so much that it became my little playground, no matter what book I was writing I would go back and I would play around with Charlotte the snowboarder for a while.
So I was writing it for a long, long, long time. And it’s about a snowboarder and her activist father…
I was writing it intensely while I was writing my Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus about my dad. And I didn’t even realize this, that’s how crazy my subconscious was. When I saw I’d written the same exact book, I was so embarrassed that I put it back in the proverbial drawer. Forget that.
But then last winter I thought, what’s wrong with writing the same book twice? I like Charlotte and I think I can do something with her. So I pulled it back out, and worked on it. I was delighted to see how our subconscious works. Not only is it about a daughter and her activist father, but spoiler alert, at some point her father has a heart attack, which my dad did. And the fourteen-year-old is able to save him out on the slopes. If I had other modern grief counseling, this is exactly what they would have had me do—rewrite my story. The book did that work for me, whereas when I was writing it I thought of it as a playground, some place where I can change characters and make them do things.
HI: Do you snowboard and is there a culture that goes with that?
AMS: I do not snowboard. I’m a skier. I do backcountry telemarking. Part of the book is backcountry snowboarding, so that has the parallel. Her world of snowboard culture is familiar to mine from going to small ski areas. Stehekin is a small ski area. But also it got to be another world I could inhabit that isn’t my world. So it was familiar but not familiar. It was great to have a story that is entirely set in winter. I was doing a lot of my writing in winter. I could just inhabit that snowy landscape.
It’s part of the story for young people to understand, things are being changed and that we are propelling that change, whether on private land or public land or through the climate.
One of the joys of the book—there are many joys of the book—but in its final stages I realized that I had never had a kid read the book. So I hired my eleven-year-old niece to be a reader for me. It was such a fantastic experience: to have an eleven-year-old reader. Kids read so intensely. She had such insights into these characters that they could have knocked me off my feet. I definitely made changes to the plot based on her feedback.
HI: Since we’ve been speaking about hope, what kind of future do you see for kids like the hero of your story?
AMS: I have a remarkable amount of faith in people finding their place and loving it. It doesn’t have to be as bizarre a place as Stehekin. But finding your place and planting your feet there and caring enough about it to care what happens, both to the natural world in that place and also in the community. No one’s going to be able to tackle world hunger by themselves, but you can certainly work at a food pantry, you can certainly notice it in your own community.
So that idea of finding a place that you love passionately enough is one thing I have a lot of faith that kids can find. I know there’s a lot about the natural world that is threatened, but there’s a lot that’s still alive. Spending time in the non-human world can give you the brain space and the peace within yourself—now I’m getting all preachy—to look the hard stuff of the world in the eye. The more young people can get out and play outside, be outside, doing whatever, then when they come back to face the world we live in, they’re bolstered. At least that’s been my personal experience and I hope that at least some young people can have that experience.
HI: There are certain obstacles for that. Some kids living in cities never get out, because they can’t afford to.
AMS: Right, and there just aren’t the opportunities. I don’t think everybody has to see the great wilderness either. Just having city parks down the street make all the difference in the world. And that, again, is something that people can make happen in their own small places. That’s something that is actually attainable, to make parks available, to get kids to parks. Give them the chance to play outside. But you’re right. There are institutional obstacles.
HI: I’m from Alaska and when I was growing up, things were quite open. But I remember taking a road trip with my dad across Texas, and it’s also wide-open space. At one point he turned to me and he said, “You realize all of this is privately held land, this is private land.” And I actually looked at him and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. What do you mean?” It was just so strange. When we were going through some scrubby not very beautiful land with prickly pear and mesquite and rubble, natural rubble, he said, “This area was grasslands, and it was beautiful. It’s been overgrazed, and it’s hard to recover a grassland once you destroy it. But this isn’t how it used to be.”
AMS: It’s like what we were saying about the end-thing. You can have this static idea of the landscape, and you don’t realize that the landscape has been changed. We have changed it; we are changing it radically all the time. It’s part of the story for young people to understand, things are being changed and that we are propelling that change, whether on private land or public land or through the climate.
I’ve often been perversely grateful that I didn’t grow up in Alaska. I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, in Riverside. In the 1970s, it was the smoggiest town in the United States. We didn’t have snow days, we had smog days. We had to stay home from school because it was so smoggy. There are mountains all around but you couldn’t see any of them. I think that gave me this fierce desire to care for the outdoors. Not only get away and be in the outdoors, but also to care for it and be aware of what can happen to it. It’s an amazing reclaiming story that in Riverside now you can see the mountains. Through smog control measures and air quality control laws, California has reversed it from the seventies. Now it’s not perfect, but the fact that I can go there and see the mountains is stunning to me. And a testament to people who worked really hard.
HI: Tell me about your teaching philosophy.
AMS: I believe in the writing itself. I believe that what’s most important in any creative writing class is to figure out what the piece is about. I had a teacher at NAU (Northern Arizona University) named Jane Armstrong Woodman. In workshop, the first thing she would do is ask everybody what’s the piece about? It was the single most useful things I had ever had a writing teacher do, because I was stunned at all the different answers people had of what they thought my story was about. Some of them were what I thought the story was about, but a lot of them were not. Some of them were things where I said, “Wow, if that’s what you think this story is about, I have to change something because it’s not.”
That taught me about finding the core of what happens. I try to help the students figure this out—I don’t think as writers we know what it’s about until we are well into a piece. At least I don’t. I want to help the student figure it out, but I also want students to help each other try to figure it out, and respect that there is an “aboutness” to every piece of writing. The feedback we give has to grow out of that place naturally. Otherwise, we’re imposing our own aesthetic or our own ideas on a piece that may not be what we want it to be. So I thank Jane for teaching me about “aboutness.”
I had several teachers as an undergraduate, and even in high school, who had such a passion for reading literature that way, for getting at the heart of literature and challenging me to think more deeply about what I read. That literature background informs the focus in my teaching of writing and in my own writing—to get at the core of things. And to complicate things.
The other thing that Jane Woodman would say is that we aren’t ever trying to teach in our nonfiction, we’re trying to wonder. You’re trying to figure out, what do I think right now? What do I know right now? Which is the Montaigne thing.
Through smog control measures and air quality control laws, California has reversed it from the seventies. Now it’s not perfect, but the fact that I can go there and see the mountains is stunning to me. And a testament to people who worked really hard.
HI: Was she a teacher of fiction or nonfiction?
AMS: She was a teacher of both. When she first taught me that it was in a fiction workshop. Later I took nonfiction from her and she had the same approach. Whether I’m teaching fiction or nonfiction, I would approach it that same way.
HI: What are the changes you’ve seen over the years in terms of “creative nonfiction” as a distinct field?
AMS: It’s definitely moved in interesting ways. John D’Agata at Iowa is a real provocateur. He’s been provocative in terms of moving nonfiction closer to poetry or to fiction. All of that is super exciting. I love seeing what writers can do with imagery and juxtaposition so that they’re not having to lean quite so heavily on traditional direct reflection to make meaning in nonfiction. I admit that I am immersed in that world of reflection and I love reflection on the page—I live there, I reside there in my own writing. But in student writing and other people’s writing, I love to see how they can find ways to make meaning without depending on that particular kind of direct telling; they can do more with showing.
I’m not particularly interested—because it’s tiresome to me—about the how much can you lie in nonfiction. I think you don’t lie in nonfiction. But there’s a lot of gray area there, there are things you can miss, or things you don’t remember rightly. I think most people who read and write nonfiction know all that. I’m more interested in how you get at the meaning, and all the amazing ways there are to use words to make meaning on the page.
HI: When you say you don’t lie in nonfiction, that means you don’t make events up or…
AMS: You don’t change a fact on purpose. John D’Agata has this famous thing where there’s a number (I won’t get this straight at all but anyway) he changes an actual number. He knows the number is nine but he thinks five sounds better, or something like that. That to me is abhorrent, you can’t do that just because you like it better, you can’t change it. You can work around it, but don’t change facts, don’t fabricate events, don’t fabricate characters. I’m sort of on the fence about compressing time. If you visited your mom three times at the hospital, can you dramatize it as one visit to the hospital? You probably can, I don’t think that’s lying in a crucial way. But if she wasn’t in the hospital and you say that she was, that’s lying.
HI: That’s a good definition. The gray area, though, is vast, because of course memory isn’t a recorder. Not just the facts can be different from somebody else’s when you compare memories, but what you remember is so shaped by the emotion you were having at the time.
AMS: There are all kinds of new neuroscience research proving this, which anybody who spent any time writing memoir already knows. Your own memory can be affected by how you felt at the time. Your memory is going to be different from other people’s who were in the same place. That’s part of the fascination of exploring memory or seeing how another writer explores memory. It’s all that tricky terrain.
HI: What are you working on now?
AMS: I am working on another collection of essays. Whatever longer book effort I’m working on, I always go back to essays. It’s my little comfort zone. That collection is coming together and I think it will be finished in the fall. Then I’ll start thinking about another long book project. I’ve been asked to write a sequel to the middle-grade novel, so I’ve been fooling around with that too, playing with that on the side while I write the essays. That might the next thing, or there might be another nonfiction project too. One crucial aspect of my creative process is that I have to be working on more than one thing at once. I can’t just work on one project at once, or I start pressuring myself too much.
HI: I want to thank you so much for taking time out of your writing day to do this interview. I appreciate it.
AMS: Thank you.