Interview with Robin Cody, Pt 1
Robin Cody is a native Oregonian who understands the geography of people and place. Along with dozens of published articles, he’s written a guide book (Umbrella Guide to Bicycling the Oregon Coast, Umbrella Books, 1990), a Columbia River travel narrative (Voyage of a Summer Sun, Alfred A. Knopf Incorporated, 1995) and the novel Ricochet River (Alfred A. Knopf Incorporated, 1992), set in the fictional Oregon town of Calamus. In 2005, Ooligan Press released a revised version of the novel to help get the book in the hands of more teachers and young adult readers. Part-one of our interview focuses on Cody’s approach to writing, revising and giving new life to his work. Part-two of our interview will appear early in 2009.
(DJ): Ricochet River was quite a process…
(RC): I’d been teaching English at the American School in Paris where you could teach the hotshot sophomores Sometimes a Great Notion and King Lear, then take them to Stratford on Avon during the year. Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird. I could pick the books I wanted to teach. When you read those books, after a while you figure out that the narrators don’t get it. Take a character like Wade (narrator in Ricochet River). It’s pretty obvious that he’s not the brightest guy in the book. Lorna has figured out this place. Jesse isn’t school smart, but he has that instinctual brilliance.
I wrote Ricochet River a number of times. I couldn’t get it published. It wasn’t good enough. I had to go back and write it again and think about why I liked Kesey’s book, and go back and read it again and figure out how he did that. Or the idea of Huck Finn going down the river. He’s reporting to us as if he’s with a dumb runaway slave. We get it as readers, but Huck’s not interpreting. He’s not preaching. He’s not doing that stuff. And that’s the kind of narrator I liked. That was the key to getting it published.
(DJ): So it hinged on the narrator?
(RC): On the narrator and some other stuff. I needed some more Indian lore, coyotes, those kinds of things. I didn’t have that stuff in the first version. But I wrote this thing over 17-years of teaching, coaching baseball, sending a manuscript out, getting rejected. And when you get a manuscript rejected widely, you lose your confidence and suddenly you’re not any good as a writer for a while. You have to wait for it to bubble back up. Say, “Well, I’ll try it again.” No one had written this story related to the life cycle of the salmon, and the Oregonness of it. At least I didn’t think it had been written yet.
Another clue to the breakthrough narrator was One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest. The story’s told through Chief Broom, who’s really in a fog. He doesn’t get it. We have to interpret it, which draws us into the story.
(DJ): Seventeen years is a long time.
(RC): Cyclically. It happened in cycles. I liked my life as a teacher. I never thought of myself as a writer (in Paris). I’d gone to school at Yale, so I knew what it was like not to be the brightest guy, surrounded by really smart people.
(DJ): Were you there when Bush was there?
(RC): I was the captain of the baseball team when he was a freshman. In those years freshman weren’t allowed on the varsity team. And this kid from the freshman team would come into the varsity dugout and put his arm around the coach. It had to be explained to me that he was the son to the ambassador of whatever Bush Sr. was doing then…the son of a famous guy and a legacy at Yale. So the coach had coached his dad. But it was the whole deal we’d see later, the schmoozing, glad handing (laughter).
Going from there to Paris, it was the first time I was surrounded by really creative, free thinking people. That helped a lot.
(DJ): What about the revised version?
(RC): That was a marketing decision. I hadn’t written Ricochet River for teens at all. Eventually it ran its course in general sales. But English teachers were picking it up and doing great with it, except there’s this sex scene that gets it blocked by Christian school boards. Another scene that takes place at the Dalles, four people and two beds, drinking and that sort of stuff. All the time I was bumping up with censorship. In the revised version, I made it less explicit. There’s really very little difference.
(DJ): What was that like revising something you’d written so long ago? All writers get to that point where we know we can make things better. How was it going back to it?
(RC): I made it better. I made the sentences better. It’s surprising, because once a book is in print, you read parts of it at Powell’s, book fairs, something like that, but you never go back and read it all the way through. And I found lots of ways it could be improved, mostly by subtraction. Sort of, “That sentence doesn’t have to be there. It just slows the story down.”
It’s all at the sentence level. It’s not content at all, except for that scene at the Dalles and the sex scene. The Christians call it literary pornography (laughs).
(DJ): Does that make you a literary pornographer?
(RC): Yeah (laughs). They even have a website against the book. I’m convinced the new version is better writing.
(DJ): I saw someone comparing it to Catcher in the Rye, which has also found its way on the banned books list. Does it hurt you that there’s outcry against it? Does it make you laugh?
(RC): It’s just a fact of life. The book had no future of sales. It was being kept out of the hands of kids. So no, the alternative was that it was out of print. It was my idea to do it.
(DJ): You approached Ooligan or they approached you?
(RC): I approached them. The book was out of print for no fault of its own. It had had steady sales, and suddenly I’m getting calls from teachers because they can’t replace it, those who were able to teach it. So I said, “Let’s do a school version that really won’t have to change that much.”
With Ooligan being a teaching press at Portland State, I had six graduate students in the editing class go through and underline the things that caught their eye from the first version. I told them what we were going to make less explicit. Otherwise, I wanted them to suggest things, point out where it didn’t make sense, what stopped it. Of course they went overboard with their underlining (laughter). But, one out of three things they caught…for example, for my generation, when people talked about “that U2 incident,” that referred to the spy plane shot down over Russia. To younger readers, it’s a rock band. It made no sense to them. They didn’t know U2 was a downed surveillance plane. I didn’t hesitate to change it. I’m always changing things anyway. When you’re a writer, you try to spin older stuff off to different audiences. I’m used to thinking of everything that I’ve already done as not finished. That it can be better.
(DJ): What about your new collection.
(RC): The Oregonness of It. Which is a phrase that came from an actual meeting with an editor in New York at Knoff, about Ricochet River. We’re high above the bleeding cabs of New York, 23rd story of some building and he’s got piles of manuscripts around, looking every bit like a caricature of the rumpled and mussed editor. So I asked how he it was that he picked this manuscript out of the pile. And he didn’t talk about the story. He talked first about the “Oregonness of it.”
I’ve written some about that, about what makes us different as a culture out here. How we’re different from American literature. Really it’s an argument about how we’ve developed in three phases, from the woodsman and river taming phase, the dam builders, the loggers and all those heroes, through Ken Kesey and to a new phase that I think makes some sense.
(DJ): What do you think the new phase is?
(RC): Nature as teacher. Taking our cues from nature. How to live in balance with nature. If we can do it out here in the greenest corner of the richest nation on earth. Or if we can’t live in balance with the salmon and the woods, I don’t think it can be done anywhere. If we can, then we’re a model for the rest of the world. It’s not stated directly in our literature. It’s stated slantingly that we’re different. Nature’s alive. As in Kesey, nature’s a character in the good stuff we write.
All my stuff, even as a non-fiction writer, is told slantingly. It comes out of someone else’s mouth. I don’t want to preach it. Then there’s one whole section just about the jobs I’ve had. Bus driving, baseball umpiring. Refereeing, or lighter stuff like “Deaf Basketball.” That’s an example—it was twice as long when I first wrote it for Northwest Magazine. Then I sold it to somebody else and cut down on it. I read it at Fishtrap this summer, and one of their rules at open mic is you get four-minutes. So I chopped it down and it was better, punchier. It’s that process of having to do it over and over, getting better through subtraction.
(DJ): What happens to the old stuff that doesn’t make it?
(RC): I have an electronic trail of what had been. Before computers I kept hard copies of what had changed. Sometimes you have reason to go back and say, “How’d I write that the first time. Maybe it needs a little more here.”
(DJ): There are these parts throughout Ricochet River where, through the narrative, you seem to be revealing something about writing itself. There’s the scene just after the suicide squeeze where we have Wade in the barbershop. He says, “I guess sometimes, at least at the barbershop, reality has to adjust to the story.” Do you get to that point between the truth and the story where, as a writer, you have to honor both?
(RC): I think the story can often drive to the heart of the truth better than the facts do. This is not just me. This is Ken Kesey, where Hank in Sometimes a Great Notion, you know, he plays the dumb logger, but he comes up with this stuff. He says, “Well, maybe it didn’t happen, but it’s the truth. And maybe some things that did happen are not the truth.” I just love that kind of thinking. I can give it to Wade by saying, “I guess…” because he’s just poking at things. If I said it as the author I would just say it right out. But it’s not me. It’s Wade. He’s not that smart of a guy. He doesn’t know the answer. That’s what interests me. That’s what, I think, made Wade better as a narrator. In those first versions of the book that got rejected, he was as bright as Lorna. He was sort of spouting. He gets the racism of the town, for example. It’s not nearly as interesting as having Wade trying to figure things out. Before he used to get it. He understood it. It’s more interesting when you don’t understand it and you’re just trying to figure things out. It was a conscious change, and I couldn’t have done it on the first draft.