Joe Wilkins‘s debut novel, Fall Back Down When I Die, was praised as “remarkable and unforgettable” in a starred review at Booklist, and his memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers, won the 2014 GLCA New Writers Award in Creative Nonfiction. He is the author of three previous collections of poetry, including When We Were Birds, winner of the 2017 Oregon Book Award in Poetry, and his latest collection of poetry, Thieve, winner of the 2018 Blue Lynx Prize in Poetry, is forthcoming this fall from Lynx House Press. He lives with his family in western Oregon, where he directs the creative writing program at Linfield College.
I’ve had the great pleasure of getting to know Joe Wilkins over the past three years both as his student and his friend. In that time I have found myself continually returning to his poetry, nonfiction, and conversation. I am drawn to his work because it reminds me of someone I might once have known, a room I used to live in. I admire his work for how held it makes me feel. Depending on the day my rationale for why that is changes considerably, but my reaction to Wilkins’s writing has always remained the same. Until I read Fall Back Down When I Die.
Wilkins’s first foray into longform fiction puts at the fore so much of what makes his writing exemplary. The syntax turns, the language is gorgeous. Set in Eastern Montana across several timelines, mostly situated in the years of the Obama Administration, the story follows characters Wendell, Gillian, and Verl as they negotiate a way of life that cannot sustain itself in a ranching community.
When I read the synopsis of the work I expected to be thrown into a world not unlike that of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy and similar Westerns. By the end of the novel I found this couldn’t be further from the truth. Fall Back Down When I Die demonstrates a deep, indiscriminate care for the internal worlds of each of its characters, moving through points of view as deftly as it does through time and memory. The comparison I’m inclined to draw here is not to Blood Meridian or No Country for Old Men, but Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, though Wilkins’s concerns for the environment—and the attention paid through the book to the natural world—also put the work of Camille Dungy in my mind. This was an easy parallel to note; when I stepped into Joe’s office for our interview, Dungy’s 2017 book of poems Trophic Cascade was sitting atop his desk.
I am deeply grateful I had the opportunity to talk with Joe, and luckier still to count him among my friends.
Ben Bartu: Fall Back Down When I Die begins with an epigraph of Wallace Stegner’s from his 1962 book, Wolf Willow—“If I am native to anything, I am native to this.” How did Stegner’s thinking influence this book for you?
Joe Wilkins: So, in Wolf Willow, Stegner is thinking about the frontier, he’s thinking about the ways that frontier mentality has led us to subordinate community in the West. And I think that realization for me felt very true, that to be a real community we have to let go of the individual to a certain extent. And Stegner was seeing so often in the west the individual being prioritized above the community, and what this led to, to unsustainable ways of being on the landscape that we’re still dealing with today. It led, as well, to seeing the landscape for something it wasn’t. We always think about homesteaders and settlers; that was such a colossal failure. Especially in the West. It did not work. But we have this huge mythology that it did, that it somehow made sense, and Stegner is trying to see through that. Even with all that, what I love about Stegner is his claim on the West. He refuses not be associated with the West and its history. I admire that in his writing and in his person.
BB: You’ve been on tour quite a bit since Fall Back Down When I Die’s March release. What do audiences think the book’s about?
JW: You know, a lot of the folks I’ve been talking with on tour haven’t read the book yet, or are halfway through, and of course they’re interested in the characters. I think that’s one of the reasons we go to fiction. We go to fiction to enlarge our community, we go to see who we are as human beings, as well as who we might be.
BB: Have any characters caught the limelight?
JW: I’ve had a few people react really strongly to Verl—a number of negative reactions, which is totally understandable, though a couple of those have said that, by the end, even for how strongly they felt he was wrong, was someone who had done terrible things, Verl does find his way to articulating a kind of truth he couldn’t say at the beginning. He’s someone whose violence is his articulation. And it’s a kind of impotent violence, in that it does nothing. He can’t quite find all the things he needs to say, can’t quite put it all together. A number of people have talked about that, about Verl finding his way inside himself even as he’s sort of losing his own mind, losing his way physically.
BB: What’s the book’s relationship to violence?
JW: By our lives we do damage. There is no way around that. To live we consume in some manner, in some way. I think our culture and society have evolved so that damage is largely outside our view. We don’t want to look at it. When we do get a glimpse of it, we’re horrified. We find it grotesque and off-putting. That said, we can try and find ways to keep that violence close, and within a community of care and concern. Fall Back Down When I Die is very much talking about communities where everything is broken down, as far as people are concerned. It’s about people struggling to find a way to think about the other, and because of that they—and I think this is a truth not just about the book but our culture—begin to visit violence upon each other. Sometimes that violence is an economic violence. It’s very often ecological violence. But then of course there is another violence we might think about more often, the kind we see in movies and TV series we watch, and that’s the kind that Verl reaches for. He reaches for his gun, for this mythology of the old West. As if that would do something. As if it did something in the beginning. Of course it doesn’t, because it’s a violence against the wrong thing. It’s a violence against people instead of the system that is bearing down upon them. So the book is wrought up in violence. Many layers of it.
BB: Along with these narratives steeped in violence, there are also these evolving stories of nurturing, these parent-child relationships that change or transfigure in some way over the course of the book. Did you draw on personal experience much as you were writing about these?
JW: My father died when I was young, and I had this grandfather step in, who was my primary father figure. And there’s this interesting thing that happens. I was just teaching a workshop out in Eastern Oregon and I talked to a woman about how, often when our fathers get old enough, once they have physically begun to fade, they can be better people. We can approach them again. I remember this graduate school mentor telling me her father was dying. She said, “It’s interesting, we can be friends now.” I think about how sad that is, about how many men guard a kind of vision of physical strength and obstinacy so close that they push away those that want to love them, those that are there even as they are dying. Our fathers are often these giants, these creatures out of legend. My father died when I was young. I didn’t have that model. My grandfather was still physically adept, but he was older. This, combined with the fact that my primary parenting figure was my mother, who was so fierce, and so capable, gave me a different idea of what it might mean to be male. So I think I grew up missing out on some things, and I’m really pleased I did.
BB: Turned out better for it?
JW: I think I did. The forces that exert themselves on us as gendered beings are intense. I see that already with my kids, and they’re only eight and ten. I’m trying to let them understand that there are choices, that there are different ways to be, so they can choose to be who they need to be and who they might be best as.
BB: What’s your relationship to masculinity?
JW: You know, I’m still trying to figure it out. I think because of the facts of my own biography, as I’ve explained, I do have a different relationship to masculinity than I think a lot of young men I knew growing up did, and I think that was to my benefit in so many ways, but I think that’s not the only thing, too. So, I—I like to be capable. I like to go out on a hike and know what I need for most situations. Maybe a stereotypically masculine trait. I like to play basketball, and be good at it—to be strong. Another. And so I’m thinking about these things, and thinking these could be reasonable things, but where then do we draw that line, right? Because me going out on a hike and having everything I need close at hand, there’s definitely a relationship between that and that sense of homesteading and being the frontier person. Heading out there and making your claim. There is a direct relationship there. Where does it become something that is reasonable and can still sustain a community and where does it become something that puts fissures into a community and eventually destroys it. I’m trying to think about how I can embody what is best about masculinity in my own life. In our house we always kind of joke that my daughter and I are the snugglers, we’re the ones who are always on the couch, snuggling watching a movie. I’m really proud of that. I try to live in to it. I try to snuggle my son all the time. Just so he remembers. Just so he knows tender touch.
BB: As a father, what do you hope your work does for your children, for the next generation?
JW: I love the idea of an act of reclamation. Sometimes I’ll have older folks come up and they’ll say, “That place you’re describing sounds so much like where I grew up, but you’re so young!” I think in some ways I am trying to tell this story that is passing, especially a story that is passing from our more cosmopolitan, urban conversations, those conversations I find myself involved in now. I want to bring that conversation to my kids so they might know it. One of the things I find teaching at Linfield is that young people who know that their world is only one of many worlds—and truly believing that—have such a leg up. And that is a hard lesson to learn. It is so easy to believe your world is the world. Even as a grown person it is. And not just one world of worlds that exist now, but worlds that have existed and worlds that might exist. Those are the realms of the imagination that I want to pass on to my children, to our wider community of thinking folks who are trying to see what we might be.
BB: What acts of reclamation are occurring in Fall Back Down When I Die?
JW: There’s a kind of reclamation Verl’s character and a couple other characters in the book are enacting, trying to reclaim something that was never there. And so that, again, is unsustainable. It leads to violence, leads to a way of seeing the world as something that we can abuse, use, and ignore others’ claims on. But we can reclaim some things. We can reclaim stories. A lot of characters in this book are so silent about their stories. And it’s in the act of sharing them that they find their way to being who they can be. Wendell does it by the end, Maddy does it by the end. Gillian is enacting that, as well as Glenn. They’re trying to tell their stories, trying to tell their part in this wider story that they’ve suddenly been wrapped up in. I believe telling our stories can be an act of reclamation. Admitting what we’ve done to one another, especially here in the West, alongside this history of genocide. Admitting that and finding a way we might work together going forward, might move into a future where we might be hopeful again. And so in the book I see these characters enacting all kinds of reclamations. Some characters reclaim a way of being we might call a better kind of masculinity, and that’s something I’m thinking about a lot in my own writing: how we might be men and also own the stories that have come before us. We have to find a way to discard what is old and broken, what leads to broken lives and broken families, and hold on to those things that keep us whole and keep us together.
BB: I’m curious about the definition of terms here—why is it important that we’re saying reclaim instead of redefine?
JW: I think reclaiming is bigger. It means going back and owning those stories. To reclaim is to rehold or to touch again. In doing so, we might begin to redefine ourselves. That’s a process that comes after. For me reclaiming is about going back and seeing something in all its beauty and grotesquerie, in all its sadness and grief—and saying yes. Telling that story. Taking what is valuable forward. And that defining matters so much. So often we make choices not based on any kind of actual information in our lives. We make choices on who we’ve defined ourselves to be without consideration. “I’m the kind of person that does this.” Whatever identity markers we might choose matter. We need to choose to be people who care, reach out, consider.
BB: There are moments when race comes up in the book. When it does, it always seems to be in the context of whiteness. One line I’ll carry with me for a long time is about Tavin, an eighth grader who comes to embrace this homesteading mythology. It goes, “Tavin wore black sneakers, blue jeans, and a T-shirt with a prairie dog in a rifle’s crosshairs on the front; on the back, that same prairie dog, still framed in the crosshairs, but now blown into red, meaty pieces.” I remember reading that passage and being very aware of his whiteness.
JW: It might have been there somewhat unconsciously. I grew up in a world that was absolutely defined by whiteness. And it’s a world that—I have to qualify this a little—I didn’t question it, for the most part. It simply was. That said, my grandmother grew up on the Crow Reservation. She wasn’t Crow herself, but she grew up there. We had community ties there. I had friends on the reservation, we played basketball against them. I was sensitive to their experience, but it was in relation to my own. I could leave and then forget it. When my cousin, who was Crow, came and watched basketball games, there were a number of times that we were playing Crow teams. White folks were sitting on one side, Crow folks on the other side, but my cousin and her husband would sit by my Mom, and the calls from the white side of the stadium would get so bad the three of them would get up and go to sit on the other side. I knew this tension existed, but I knew it in relation to self. I didn’t know it beyond that. There was an element absolutely of virulent racism in the community. Part of that was being able to ignore how our world is so racially stratified. But I grew up in a kind of frontier culture. The frontier is predicated on an entire people’s genocide. Celebrating the conquest of the frontier, celebrating homesteading, celebrating three generations on the land. I had Crow friends who would be like, “Three generations? You’re not even out of diapers yet.” All of that is predicated on a genocide of a people, on a radical destruction of culture. And so something like Tavin’s shirt, that depicts an animal absolutely fundamental to the ecosystem of the prairie being exterminated in a glorified way, is a kind of celebration of a glorified kind of whiteness. This mentality of, “This land belongs to me, and I’ll do what I feel like with it because we won it.”
BB: That’s chilling.
JW: You know, I think about that character, Tavin, and he’s so young—only an eighth grader—but he’s already so fully immersed in that world. In many ways he’s one of the most tragic figures of the book. He’s never been able to see his way out of that world, or that mindset. He’s never had a chance.
BB: The Obama administration is a kind of background figure in the book, coming up a couple of times throughout. Characters talk politics, complain about the state of government. I’m wondering how much political tensions were on your mind while writing this. Is this story something that could only take place during the Obama administration?
JW: I think so. There’s this crosscurrents of things going on. Obama’s presidency is quickly followed by this really stark and baffling reaction across much of the country. Of course that has to do with race, has to do with seeing someone as legitimate or not because of their race, and I wanted that to be part of the book. Part of that is just the facts on the ground. There’s a stereotype that there’s this working class that’s not paying attention to politics. I don’t know if that’s true. Growing up, or when I go home now, politics is what everyone’s thinking about. We’re all caught up in it. We are all trying to see our way forward. Especially in rural spaces. People don’t know a way forward and they’re trying to find one. People see daily the evidence of what’s not working, and they don’t know how to make it work, and so often they reach out for what seems quickest to blame. Wolves. The Black Lives Matter movement. The Obama administration. Whatever it happens to be. So I absolutely wanted politics infused throughout the book. And it does matter, I think, that this story is set at the beginning of a presidency that many saw as a kind of turning in our country’s history. And many saw it as illegitimate, as a dire mistake of some sort, as maybe a redefining of what we are. Maybe it is, but I think that’s for the better.
BB: The sections which I felt were most overtly political were Gillian’s—she seems almost like a guide for readers in that sense.
JW: Oh yes. Often we’re most political when we’re outnumbered. She’s someone who’s been a public school teacher all her life, she’s traveled, read, she’s a liberal cosmopolitan in some ways, she just happens to be living in Eastern Montana. Because of that fact, she finds herself outnumbered. My mom was a little old for the sixties, but she still caught a bit of that fever, and she was a social worker and a public school teacher. We were always democrats, and always outnumbered. I got in more arguments on the bus, and in school classrooms with people [than]…You know, I was perhaps my most political when I was one of twenty kids in a class and I was the only one arguing for gun control.
BB: You recently won the Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry for your forthcoming collection, Thieve. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the relationship between Thieve and Fall Back Down When I Die, and a little more about Thieve in general.
JW: You know, I was writing some of the poems in Thieve while writing Fall Back Down When I Die, and I was thinking about these young men growing up without a lot of prospects in a part of the country that people aren’t paying attention to. A number of years ago I got an email from someone I hadn’t spoken to in over twenty years. A young man I went to high school with. So right away if you’re emailing someone you haven’t spoken to in twenty years, something’s not right. And it was clear from his email that was the case. He didn’t name it, but I was like—ooh, things aren’t okay for him. And I wrote back, and just tried to connect, and he wrote back again and his next note was somewhat rawer, somewhat closer, and I wrote back again reaching as far as I could without being too much. He never wrote back after that. But I didn’t feel like I was done talking. And he and I had a particularly intense relationship. A good relationship in many ways. We were good friends in the way that high school boys can be, which means you’re also angry at each other and take advantage of each other. There were things I wanted to confess to him, all these things I wanted to be angry at him about, and that became a series of poems that runs through the book. And they all have the name “Poem Against the Crumbling of the Republic,” as a subtitle, partly because of his note—it was after the election, and I was trying to come to terms with that, the way my life was going fine but this political nightmare was suddenly unfolding. It was clear he felt good about the results, but he was very wounded in this other way. I was trying to cross that bridge to him as much as I could while being honest. The book is very political. A lot of poems are going at the same things. There’s a lot of anger, a lot of connections to landscape and the looming threat of climate change. When We Were Birds, my last book of poems, felt so much more—I don’t want to say uplifting, but so much more—wholesome? This book is pretty angry, and a little raw at times. So every time I go back to it, I’m like—ooh, gosh, okay. I have this anger, I have this horror, and what is it, what’s going on there.
BB: What do you think Thieve is about?
JW: We’ve been talking about this idea of reclamation. I’m trying to steal something back with Thieve. The epigraph comes from Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful book, Lila. She’s talking about the thieves who were crucified with Christ. And she says—and I’m gonna get the quote wrong—but she says, “Maybe heaven would be like that. Full of fields of nettle and chicory. Things anybody could take because nobody would want them. And then the thief on the cross could thieve forever, to his heart’s content.” [Thieve] is about trying to steal things back, or if not steal, then take them and see what might be made of them. Useless things, things we’ve looked over like those lost boys—a field of nettles, a field of chicory. Lost landscapes, broken landscapes. Landscapes that could soon be broken. It’s also about stealing back an identity for me. There was a time that friend and I were almost always close to one another. I want to steal that back. Even if then it was contentious, just as now it’s contentious, I want to close that distance. I want to steal it away.