Heather Brittain Bergstrom's astonishing debut, Steal the North, which is about faith, family and the land--and so much more. Heather has won multiple awards from Narrative Magazine, including first place in the Fall 2010 Story Contest. Four of her short stories can be found online at Narrative. Leslie Marmon Silko chose a story by Bergstrom to win the Kore Press Short Fiction Chapbook Award. She has also won writing awards from The Atlantic Monthly and The Chicago Tribune, and one of her stories was picked as a notable story in the Best American Short Stories 2010
Every novel has a spark. What jump started this one?
In my short stories, characters are usually trying to leave eastern Washington, just as I did only days after I graduated from high school. My stories are far more autobiographical. It wasn’t until I’d been away from my homeland for a decade or more that I slowly began to miss it. I thought why not write a character, for the first time, who misses eastern Washington instead of another one who is desperately trying to flee it. What if a California girl, who attends an art high school in Sacramento and lives in a midtown apartment surrounded by theatres and ethnic restaurants is suddenly sent north for the summer to eastern Washington to live with her fundamentalist aunt and uncle in a trailer park? And what if, instead of hating it, the girl falls madly in love with the landscape, her aunt and uncle, and the neighbor boy? I wanted to write a novel about a woman who had turned her back completely on her past, including her family, her faith, and the landscape that had shaped her. In doing what Lot’s wife had been unable to do, however, this woman left her daughter without any connections and no sense of herself . Steal the North is a novel of reclamation: a daughter’s journey to steal back her birthright. The idea of birthright—I believe that was the spark.
What was the research like for this novel?
Much of the research for Steal the North had already been done for my various short stories—at least the type of research that comes from books. I grew up in eastern Washington, near the Colville Reservation, so I didn’t need to research the setting a lot, although I did, because I love doing research. I take meticulous notes and I read three books when one would more than suffice. I made several road trips up north to see places I hadn’t seen in years and to visit the reservation, The Whitman Mission, Spokane. I grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist church, so no research required there—some things you just can’t forget even if you want to.
I don’t want to give away the plot, but about ¾ of the way through, you made a choice which just broke my heart, yet it felt exactly right. Was that difficult to write?
Yes, especially since it wasn’t supposed to happen. That is, I had no intention when I started writing the book that the tragedy would be so intense. Then I started to feel it coming heavier and heavier with each new chapter. It became inevitable. I was no longer in charge, so to speak, and had to write toward it. What I had planned for this particular character, instead of the enormous tragedy that befalls her, was a complete loss of faith. She taught me that wasn’t an option. Not for her, bless her heart. I wanted to scream at her, shake her. But as a writer I can’t force my characters to behave in ways I find healthier or more appealing. That’s not how it works. Damn it.
Let’s talk about craft. What kind of writer are you? Do you outline? Do you simply follow your pen? Were there any surprises in writing this novel?
I do not outline, or I didn’t with Steal the North until I was about halfway through, and then only a scribbled outline. The toughest craft decision was deciding who would narrate the next chapter, who would narrate certain scenes and events. When I first began this novel, I planned to narrate only in Emmy’s voice. But that didn’t last long. Haha. I was most worried about the faith healing scene—who to narrate such an event? Beth was too spiritual. Emmy was scared shitless. It turned out to be Matt. He seemed perfect: half believer, half skeptic. He would’ve much preferred to drive his wife to a doctor, but he wasn’t entirely without hope that the healing might just work.
I think Matt was the biggest surprise. His role in the book was supposed to be minimal. A kind uncle, sure, but not the unsung hero of the novel. He saves Emmy and Reuben, just as he tried to save Kate. And what happens with Matt in Teresa’s chapter, well, let me just say for the record, I did NOT see that one coming.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I just started my second novel after doing intense research for eighteen months. I visited five Indian reservations in the Pacific Northwest last summer during an equally intense eight day research trip. I over-researched trying to keep my new characters at bay while I finished up edits on Steal the North. I can only work with one cast of characters at a time, thank you! My new novel is similar to Steal the North in that land and love are central. But characters in my new novel are already misbehaving more than they do in Steal the North. So I think forgiveness will play a larger role.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Name some random things about yourself, unrelated to writing?
My favorite band is Pearl Jam. I was obsessed with Breaking Bad. Regrettably, I’ve never been to Europe. I was married in Reno, for real, at The Cupid’s Chapel of Love.