Before dusk, Renee and Bea rode for the unused water towers. Now that they’d been in the neighborhood, the mile and a half ride felt like a long, hazardous journey, and they embarked with trepidation. They rode hard, pausing for no one and memorizing their route and the obstacles in it, complete with its burnt-out cars and trash heaps, the charred remains of houses, roving bands of wary youth. Renee sensed that each block had its own impromptu system of arrangements and connections, of safeguarding each other, or in some cases a single group that antagonized all others.
At Nineteenth and Prescott they pulled over to the edge of the street to inspect the park. Two water towers rose in front of them. At their feet there was a playground. One water tower was shaped like a massive thimble, the other like some old Russian moon rocket, suspended on eight legs. They were empty now, monuments from a different time.
The park was tiny and crowded with objects. In its half-dozen city lots were stuffed the two towers, a playground, and a couple of maintenance buildings, but there were still plenty of places to hide, and so they wheeled their cycles in carefully. Bea gripped the kitchen knife she’d strapped to her handlebars. But the park was quiet. They sat underneath the big thimble tower and chatted in a whisper while they waited for sufficient darkness.
–Excerpt from Sherwood Nation (Small Beer Press)
ANNE RASMUSSEN: Sherwood Nation is quite an ambitious undertaking. You’ve created a not-too-distant future world in which most of the available water has dried up (what remains must be doled out in tiny daily rations by government officials,) and you’ve chosen Portland, Oregon–a city known for its rain, bisected by one river and bordered by another– as the setting. As a Portlander I felt a sort of dual frission of recognition and defamiliarization to see my neighborhood so completely reimagined as an “aridified” landscape where water has become the basic currency. On the one hand, creating a futuristic world within the familiar grid and landmarks of an existing city might seem to make the writer’s job easier. But this future Portland is rendered in such detail (both before and after the revolution and annexation) that you can hardly be accused of taking shortcuts. What about Portland, culturally or geographically, appealed to you as the right setting for this story? Were you tempted at any point in the writing to set it elsewhere, or to invent a new city entirely?
BEN PARZYBOK: I suppose the easiest answer might be: I live in and love this city. My previous book started in Portland as well. It’s a particular pleasure to be able to weave a fictional layer on top of a real place, so that the real world continues to reverberate with the story.
It’s also easy to imagine a secessionist movement here in Portland. I’m not the first to fictionalize one here, and I suspect I will not be the last. There’s a lot that separates us — the Northwest — from the rest of our country, culturally, geographically, and politically.
We are — coincidentally! — in a serious drought now in Oregon, but of course a natural disaster of this kind is very improbable in our region. I talked to several local water experts about the potential of this occurring in order to build in more backstory, and the answer essentially is: Our mountains are like bottomless wells. Are there other cities where this scenario is much more likely? Absolutely. But then, I don’t live in those cities.
AR: I loved that the revolution is led by a kick-ass, twenty-something woman. Renee, a barista and activist gets caught up in something bigger than she realizes and finds herself turned fugitive–and folk hero–practically overnight. Instead of turning herself in or trying to disappear, she doubles down and digs in, embracing the “Maid Marian” persona to transform herself into one of the most powerful people in the drought-hobbled city. We meet a number of compelling characters in the novel: Renee’s boyfriend Zach, who’s sympathetic but conflicted about his girlfriend’s swift rise to power, Gregor, an aging neighborhood drug lord whose favor Renee must win to maintain security and peace, and Gregor’s son Jamal, who hopes his devotion to the cause will erase past transgressions (or at least help him get laid), among many others, but Renee is unquestionably the central figure. Were there particular literary or historical figures who inspired or influenced this character as you imagined her? Did you always have a female protagonist in mind for this story?
BP: Maid Marian is a play on the Robin Hood mythology. She’s the leader of the revolutionaries. I always envisioned a woman playing that role. I think part of it is frustration with the last few decades of politics, and feeling like each time we were on the verge of taking a radically new direction, finding more of the same. I wanted someone to step up and run things differently, and it was much easier to see a woman in that role — in this case, a dictator in a dictatorship that worked for the people. (I’m using the traditional meaning of dictator, here, coined to mean: A person appointed by the Roman senate to rule in times of emergency. It did not have the negative connotation it does today).
I also very much like the idea of gender and role-flipping, (as in, a female Robin Hood) both as a way to safeguard against clichés and to upset expectations. For inspiration, there were many incredible stories of activists that I pulled on for inspiration in character (but not necessarily their specific stories): Civil rights, women’s suffrage, and environmental activists. And of course, the tale of Robin Hood is really about a bunch of anti-poverty activists.
AR: You manage to capture both the good and bad aspects of an ideological movement–not just the fervor and idealism of the “true believers” but the media’s fascination and the way in which public interest or favor reaches a tipping point. Were there particular activist communities or historical events that you studied or drew inspiration from? I’m thinking of local examples like Dignity Village, as well as more national ones, like Occupy. Did any of these real-life examples stand out to you as Sherwood began to take shape in your imagination?
BP: Yes, thanks. Dignity Village and Right 2 Dream Too (R2D2) are great examples. I’ve followed R2D2 very closely as my partner, Laura Moulton, runs Street Books and so is down there talking with R2D2 frequently and knows the dynamics of that situation pretty well. Occupy was another huge one, of course. It was fascinating to have that all spring up and take place during the writing of the book, as if the news was intent on being my own private research department. (To say nothing of this exceptional drought in California). I’m not sure which movement influenced it most — certainly a lot of it sprung from imagination, and some of it from activist projects I’ve worked on in the past.
It seems forever ago now, but when I was in college we blocked I-5 as an action against the U.S. military intervention in the war in El Salvador. I remember sitting handcuffed on a bus in police custody afterward, giddy from what we’d done, especially considering all of the personality clashes that had led up to it. And then, with fascination, watching what the media did with the action, each spinning it out with some different filter.
AR: Cybertechnology is a relative rarity in this world (power is scarce, so the breakdown makes sense). Most people get around by bicycle or on foot; messages are scrawled on scraps of paper or delivered by hand signals or Morse code. The few who still have access to technology waste it for personal gain. (The cowardly, somewhat buffoonish mayor holes up in City Hall playing first-person shooter video games while his police force cracks-down violently on the Sherwood Nation organizers.) I’ll confess that Maid Marian’s face-to-face approach and Sherwood’s “map room,” with its hand-drawn diagrams and slips of paper triggered a powerful nostalgia for me. It made me consider the ways in which media overload and personal technologies, for all their potential to connect us–this interview, for example–often simply facilitate further isolation. It felt almost as if those technologies would need to stop functioning for a community like Sherwood to form. What were your thoughts on the role of technology (or lack thereof) as you imagined a city falling apart and reinventing itself?
BP: I’m a programmer by profession and close to the machine, and so perhaps my desire to fashion a world in which technology has almost entirely withered was somewhat ironical wish-fulfillment. But it’s also my experience that the systems we all rely on are tenuous, requiring massive infrastructure. In any kind of collapse — especially where electricity sources are questionable — electronics-based technology will be the first to go. That said, I also was interested in working in a scenario in which physical, human connection was key to the proper functioning of the government, and the citizens had to invent their own technologies to make-do. As much as technology brings us closer to large numbers of people, it also separates us, trivializes our relationships, pushes us into trenches of like-minded individuals much more than real-life encounters. We’re in the very early stages of this big internet experiment, and as a maker of this technology I have a lot of hope, but also a lot of skepticism.
AR: How did you keep track of all those details (your research, the systems you were developing and character/story continuity) as you wrote? Did you create your own Sherwood/Portland map room?
BP: I love the idea of a real-time map room, but of course since I — unlike in the book — had power at my place, I used an app called Scrivener to keep track of details. There were many details to keep track of — from character arcs (I think there are 6 POVs — at one point I separated all of them and read their arcs independently) to drought and secession research I’d done. I don’t have the best memory, and so this was a godsend. I’m now remembering that I *did* cover a wall in sticky notes once, but I think once covered, I never looked at it again.
AR: I felt both compelled and frightened (and sort of exhilarated) about how entirely plausible a future you’ve envisioned here. With an aging water infrastructure breaking down across the U.S. and stories about Detroit’s water shut-off, California’s record drought, and the contamination of drinking water filling the news, the scenario you’ve imagined here feels almost inevitable. And Renee’s activism is solution-focused: the book is full of practical details and strategies for coping with a large-scale breakdown of vital resources. Some succeed, others fail, and a few seem downright silly, but the story lets all these efforts find their own outcomes. If you found yourself faced with a similar crisis in real life, what three books (fiction or nonfiction) would you turn to for inspiration and/or practical guidance, and why? (Let’s suspend disbelief to assume that you can bring three books with you…)
BP: I would suppose that in a future like I’ve imagined, books would become very coveted objects. My grandfather used to buy books based on size (i.e. the James Michener books were a good buy, lots of text for the money), and I can see how in a scarcity-situation you might consider books of good heft to last you through long dark times. Along that vein, I read George Eliot’s Middlemarch for the first time this year and immediately upon finishing it I realized it wouldn’t bother me at all to turn back and start it again. What a masterpiece. Also: decidedly a good buy, on the number of pages front, and about a community undergoing change. Second: I have to admit, I love my Joy of Cooking. There are a lot of other wonderful cookbooks, but say you can’t remember what to do with an endive, or how to make a Galette, or how one might start an herb garden? Joy of Cooking has got you covered. It’s also expanded for every new era (mine includes the front copy line “4,500 RECIPES FOR THE WAY WE COOK NOW”), so I’m sure there’d be a post-collapse edition, including expanded sections on wood-fire cooking, etc. (for what it’s worth, the book already has a deep section on cooking over fires). And Third: This is probably cheating, but I’d definitely use my last choice on The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant. This husband and wife team churned out 11 volumes (over 4 million words) on the history of civilization, from the ancients onward. And they were fantastic, compelling writers, telling the most important human story of all time. All of them.
AR: Ha! Nice choices. I never would have guessed Joy of Cooking, but it makes so much sense now that I think about it! It really is a comprehensive tome. (I’ve always enjoyed the deadpan prose stylings of its “small game” recipes: “Soak overnight refrigerated in salted water: 1 porcupine,” and “If possible trap ‘possum and feed it on milk and cereals for 10 days before killing,” or, perhaps my favorite, “Draw and cut free from the shell: 1 armadillo.”) A perfect end-times companion book!
Speaking of finding art in unexpected places, I was psyched to learn that you were co-creator of Gumball Poetry, one of my favorite Portland literary institutions (1999-2006). When I moved away from Portland in 2001, I sought those machines out on every return visit– there was something really magical about being able to buy a little capsule of original art for a quarter. And there was that oracular quality to having poems dispensed in that way–and with gum! Or maybe I’m just a sucker for tiny, mysterious prizes. Can you tell us how the idea originally came about, how folks submitted work–did you have criteria for accepting or rejecting work for a given issue? And how many places did you eventually reach at the project’s peak?
BP: Laura and I were living in Taiwan when that got dreamed up. I have said before that I felt like poetry saved my life, and I think it’s true, and yet at the same time very few of my friends were reading it. It gets equated with academia and dryness, of those long tortuous afternoons in tenth grade English. And so I wanted to inject it in a completely different format, to put it in bars and cafes, to de-pedestalize it, to rough it up and make it cheap and dirty and sexy and sweet. Many assumed that the machines would vend cheesy lyrical poetry, and so it was with great pleasure that we stocked it with what was really excellent (IMO, obviously!), engaging work. As far as submissions, we accepted poetry through our website (no longer in existence, sadly) and via PO Box. Normally we read about 600 – 1000 poems for each issue (of about 20 poems), so the review process was competitive. I do wish poetry got more love — that’s one of the things I find so appealing in reading Roberto Bolaño’s work, poets are always badasses. They’re hero-ized. I recently went to a Bianca Stone reading and was blown away/fell in love/nearly wept. The work that for me eliminated the option of ending oneself was Jim Harrison’s Letters to Yesenin — a series of thirty poems fashioned like letters, to the dead poet Yesenin, who wrote his suicide note in his own blood and then hung himself. Voila!
At its heyday, Gumball Poetry had about 18 locations — as far away as New Jersey and New Orleans — and we were publishing four issues a year. For the record, that’s a lot of poems in capsules that need to be assembled and shipped. We used to have big ’stuffing’ parties to put an issue together, and invite hordes of people. It was great fun, but hard to keep up. Carlos Reyes once told me that every journal only lasts as long as the publisher has energy for it. I have to admit, at the time I was a little peeved. We were changing publishing, man! But alas, in the end he was right.
Also: I totally want to read whatever edition of Joy of Cooking that you have…
AR: On the subject of community connection, how soon do you feel comfortable sharing a novel-in-progress with others and who (aside from your publisher) do you trust to give you feedback?
BP: I have a long-standing, active writer’s group in Portland which was kind enough to read the book when it was in far worse shape. I’m extremely grateful to them, as that’s no small feat. We’ve read the novels of others in there as well, though of course we mostly work on short stories. That said, I think the novel was more or less ‘in the closet’ for a couple of years before I shared it. The ideal, in my mind, would be to get feedback after the draft is done and you’ve gone back through it a few (dozen) times. Feedback is a little hard to get on something this size, so you want to make sure you’re not wasting their time and yours by getting feedback on issues you’re already aware of. This can be hard, because the longer you work on it, the more you want to show off. Regarding the quality of the feedback — someone has an axiom about that, to the effect of: Hear well a reviewer speak on what parts aren’t working, but don’t take any of the advice on how to fix them. I find this about 85% true.
AR: Sherwood Nation is your second novel with Small Beer Press, which also published your debut novel, Couch. Can you talk a little bit about your experience working with them, both on Couch and Sherwood Nation? What drew you to Small Beer Press when you were originally looking for places to send your manuscript?
BP: Small Beer Press publishes a lot of incredible authors that I really admire. Kelly Link, Maureen McHugh, Karen Joy Fowler — and they published last year’s Oregon Book Award winner, Ursula Le Guin. What I love about them most is their indie-spirit and their joy at taking on books that are difficult to wedge into a single genre. If you want your genre with an intelligent literary bent (or your literary works a little weird), they’re your press.
Small Beer Press pulled my first book from the slush pile, for which I am eternally grateful. This turn was a bit different as I have an agent and worked with him to negotiate the contract. But overall, the experience was similar. They care a lot about the books they put out. They’ve read this book more times than I’m willing to admit out loud, and offered editorial suggestions on it when it was a dark, fledgling of a manuscript, unable to lift its beak from the nest properly. Small presses are where a lot of the action is these days, and they’re putting out incredible books. Just look at local greats: Tin House, Hawthorne Books, and Propeller Books, among others.
AR: Without giving away the ending of Sherwood Nation, I’ll say that it feels like you’ve left the door open to the possibility of letting the story continue. Have you considered setting more books in this particular future world, or continuing any of the story lines you started here?
BP: I think that’s a fun idea. Based on the ending, the sequel would be a very different work, and certainly a direction that would be fun to explore. But, I think someone else may need to do that. After a bunch of false starts and short stories, just this last week I figured out what I’d really like to work on next, and it’s a completely different sort of project. I need to keep it buried in its little protective shell while it grows for a while yet, though.
Find a copy of Sherwood Nation on Indiebound
Find out more about Right 2 Dream Too and Street Books
BENJAMIN PARZYBOK is the author of the novel Couch, and various short stories. He has been the creator/co-creator of many other projects, including Gumball Poetry (literary journal published in capsule machines), the Black Magic Insurance Agency (city-wide, one night alternate reality game), and Project Hamad (an effort to free a Guantanamo inmate and shed light on Habeas Corpus). He lives in Portland with the artist Laura Moulton and their two kids. He blogs at secret.ideacog.net.