Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Keith Scribner talks about professional noses and The Oregon Experiment

Keith Scribner’s third novel The Oregon Experiment is irresistible. Trust me. His two previous novels include The GoodLife and Miracle GirlThe GoodLife appears in translation, was selected for the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers series, and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. I loved The Oregon Experiment and am thrilled Keith agreed to let me pepper him with questions. Thank you, Keith!
I love the fact that you have a professional "nose" in the book. That brilliant element did what the best works of literature do--it made me see and feel and experience the world differently. So tell me about the research you did for this. What did you find that surprised you?"

I read at least 8 or 10 books about the nose and how we smell, about perfume making, and about anosmia.  Then I was very lucky to be introduced to a perfume maker in San Francisco, Yosh Han.  She invited me to her studio and I spent the day making (with her help) the perfume that Naomi is trying to make in the book.  It was really fun, intoxicating, fascinating.  She lined up all her nastiest smelling Northwest essences to make the frog juice.  I told her about the frog and the auto body putty.  As I describe in the novel, it's a process of selecting then editing.  Although many perfumiers use dipsticks (as Naomi does in the novel), Yosh lines the vials up on her worktable and sniffs them in order from base notes to top, then back down.  In one long breath, you try to take in the full essence. Just this week I wrote a blog on this subject for Powell's Books.

I think what surprised me most was to learn how many people never think about smells and claim they can't smell at all, AND that people for whom smell is important (like Naomi) who lose it are so completely devastated.  Also, that the relationship between smells and tastes is even closer than I'd thought, and that certain things, like basil and mint, are actually more smell than taste although we perceive them as tastes.

I also adored the whole secessionist movement in the novel. It seemed both divinely inspired and highly plausible at the same time. Where did this come from?

There's a long and continuing tradition of secessionism in Oregon and the Northwest generally.  And as you say, its plausibility--the fact that the arguments for it are so sensible--yet the fact that it's so unlikely made it appealing to me.  All my characters are idealists--or at least are struggling between their ideals and the realities of the world--so a very unlikely yet plausible movement seemed like an enterprise they should be involved in.  Secession also acts metaphorically throughout the book--Scanlon and Naomi separating themselves from the east coast, Sequoia separating herself from her father and her past; the secessionist movement for her is both deeply personal and political.  The rejection of the patriarchy for all the characters is alive in both the personal and political.

In general, secession, or moving from a state of union to separateness, is all over the book.  I'm sure you know the experience of latching on to an idea like this and then seeing it in everything.

The writing is so dazzling, and the plotting so assured. What's your writing process like?

When I started the novel--for about the first two years of writing--it was all in Scanlon's point of view.  As the characters of Naomi, Sequioa, and Clay came to life for me, I was too constrained just staying with Scanlon.  As the story opened out, the points of view had to, too.  One thing that helps me with plotting is that I note each scene on a card after I've written it and stick it up on a bulletin board.  I usually start the board going when I hit about page 100 of a novel, which is the point at which I begin to have trouble keeping the whole thing in my head.  With the note cards, I can see in a glance what follows what; I can move scenes around; I can pull something out and see all the implications.  I'm not sure I could write a novel without this big visual representation of the structure, especially when I'm nearing the end and it's so hard to hold the entire thing in my head at once.

As for dazzling writing--thank you.  All I can say is it's hundreds of passes over every sentence, many of those reading aloud so I can hear the language.  And my phenomenal editor Gary Fisketjon deserves a nod, too--from big picture elements of plot and theme to his line-level genius, he's as good as they get.

What's obsessing you now?

My new novel is set partly in Oregon but mostly in Connecticut.  As you might know, Connecticut shade and broadleaf tobacco are the best cigar wrappers in the world.  When I was a kid, growing up in East Granby, Conn, lots of my friends worked tobacco.  (I didn't; there was a truck farm near my house where I worked.)  Shade tobacco is grown under cheesecloth nets (now synthetic).  Local kids and migrant workers have worked the fields since the late nineteenth century.  For now, the novel is set in the 1970s as well as the present, and I've become obsessed with researching the delicate process of growing, picking, and drying the very valuable leaves.  I think tobacco will be for this novel what perfume and scents are for THE OREGON EXPERIMENT.  I've made contact with a tobacco buyer who's going to get me under the nets this summer or next.  And I aim to enjoy a cigar before I'm done writing the book.  So far, I love the smell of cigar smoke from a distance, but smoking one makes me a little sick.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

Let's see....Since smells can be the most direct path to memory, in a novel that's so much about how our pasts can define us and haunt us, the emphasis on smell worked to my advantage.

Related to this, I'm interested in how each character engages the world differently--Naomi's engagement is mostly sensuous, through her nose, and in this way she acts primally.  Clay too acts primally, and instinctively.  Sequoia engages the world through her body; Scanlon is motivated cerebrally and also by ego.  Although I began with much neater ideas about each character in this regard (and they became complicated in the writing), they each do engage the world in different ways, which helps to define them, lead to conflict, misunderstanding, trouble in general and, I hope, the different perspectives that are one of the pleasures of a polyphonic novel.

1 comment:

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