In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing
victim author and they choose their own interview by picking which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer. Scott Elliot’s novel, Temple Grove, is about the chance meeting of father and son who are on opposite sides of environmental issues. One is a logger, the other is an activist dead set on protecting the forest. Here is what Scott had to say about reading, writing, and giving up binge writing for his kids.
Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?
I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. I fell in love with reading and storytelling at a young age and made a commitment to writing and teaching, as opposed to other paths I might have taken, when I was an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University and took workshops with Walter Sullivan and Mark Jarman. It amazed me that one could write and put writing at the center of one’s life while making a living discussing craft with dedicated students. Following an epiphanic experience after reading a Raymond Carver story at the Indiana University of Writing Conference one summer, I reified the life course I realized I’d been on all along, followed that path along its winding course. For the past nine years I’ve taught writing and literature at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.
I write stories, essays, and novels, and some poems that rarely see the light. I think I’m at heart a novelist with a not-so-secret penchant for poetic language. My first novel Coiled in the Heart is a self-consciously southern gothic novel set in Tennessee. It’s an homage to a rich southern literary tradition. A father and son who’ve made a lot of money in the computer industry buy back, tear down, and return to earth, subdivision houses that have cropped up on their family’s antebellum estate. The first person protagonist, Tobia Caldwell, wants to transform himself into a yeoman farmer, to use the computer money to help him go back in time. He wants to learn the names of things in the natural world and to escape from a dependence on the chain of chain stores that have crept over the farmland. He’s also struggling with the guilt he feels at leading a neighbor boy who’s moved into the first subdivision house, a boy who’s also the twin of a girl with whom he later falls in love, into a deadly encounter with a cottonmouth in a creek down the hill from their old house when they were seven years old.
My new novel Temple Grove is set on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. It’s an attempt to sing a place I love while also telling a story that unfolds with the inevitability of an ancient myth. The great conifers of the Pacific Northwest; the snarl of ranges that constitute the Olympic Mountains; the rivers with good names; the ocean beaches; the lushness of the understory with its moss, giant ferns, huckleberry, and salal; the constant rain—all of these are given their own kind of awareness in the novel. The story concerns a father son chase that becomes more than a chase into the wilds of the Olympic National Park. The father is an independent logger. The son is an environmental activist. The mother is coming to terms with her Makah identity. The novel is also about the mother’s love for her son and about transcending ready-made, seemingly intransigent categories. It’s also about a lot other things! A giant Pacific Octopus has a role, and there’s a scene of an old ship being beached on a beach in India for scrapping, and another scene of a fight between Hells Angels and loggers.
Both novels are interested in the wonders of the natural world; in the palimpsest of myth, folklore, personal, natural, and more general human history that come to define a place. Both novels are also concerned with guilt and possibilities for atonement and redemption; conservation; loss; tenuous, valuable connections between people; and a lot of other things I hope readers will find in them and let me know about. The novel (as a genre) is a magpie’s nests in which lots of seemingly disparate pieces come into meaningful, resonant (sometimes dissonant) contact with one another. I’ve found that there’s a great time in the writing of a novel when the whole enterprise starts to hum, when all of the little thematic and other careful connections the writer has limned in come to life and begin to speak to one another, light up in such a way that, as the creator of this thing that until that moment had seemed lifeless, you feel you can stand back and watch the creation walk off on its own, take flight.