The Writing of Craig Wesley

“Writing the West: A closer look at author Craig Lesley”

By Katy Dang

Boise Weekly | November 9, 2005


Craig Lesley is a writer of the West. Born and bred in Oregon, he sets his work squarely in the Pacific Northwest. His stories take us to very specific places that evoke different facets of the West, from stifling small towns and nearly abandoned railway stations to dammed rivers and favorite hunting spots hidden from view. There is a sense that the land is central to his stories and acts as the driving force that makes the characters behave in the ways that they do.

Lesley writes of the familiar, and allows his characters to fully inhabit the places where they live. In The Sky Fisherman, Uncle Jake’s Sporting Goods Store and Pawn Shop acts as the stage of everyday action, a place as recognizable as a set for a Mamet play. The main stage of the novel is the river, where Lesley’s real-life experiences as a river guide lend themselves to vivid descriptions, and provide the setting for the characters to tell the stories and tales of the land that are specific to that area. The inhabitants of towns such as Madras and Burns come to life as fully formed characters, rather than mawkish caricatures or sociological studies. These are everyday folks who are created to be as real as they come.

The West figures prominently in each of his four novels: Winterkill (1984), River Song (1989), The Sky Fisherman (1995) and Storm Riders (2000). The Sky Fisherman and Winterkill both received the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award.

“I think place influences character a lot,” says Lesley. “And lifestyle. For example, living in the West, the ordinary citizen has access to vast regions. This gives one a sense of freedom and closeness to the wilderness, not civilization and overcrowded cities. Mountains, desert, open range and open sky. That really influences character. Out here, you can breathe.”

His latest work is Burning Fence: A Western Memoir of Fatherhood. In this, hisfirst foray into nonfiction, the author lays out his life into what can be seen as a sort of literary road map to his fiction. We find incidents from his life that have formed the basis for the plots of his novels. He writes of his troubled relationship with his own father, Rudell, who is defined more by his absence than his presence; his difficult times with his stepfather, Vern; and his own adventures as a parent, first with his adopted son Wade and then with his own two daughters.

One of the most striking things in reading Burning Fence is how many of the stories from Lesley’s own life have already been explored to varying degrees in his fiction. The believability of the characters who populate Lesley’s fiction is his closeness to them, and it turns out that many of them spring directly from his own encounters. The troubled relationships between fathers and sons, the centrality of location to experience, and the careful line that must be walked by boys growing into men are all shown to have existed in his own life before being examined in his fiction.

In a recent interview and during a reading at the Log Cabin Literary Center, Lesley spoke directly of his new work. “I wrote this memoir to tackle head-on the themes that my fiction deals with.” Noting that his novels have been circling around these themes for decades, Lesley says, “The first of these is how we come to love, reluctantly, people who are difficult to love. Specifically, this means my father (who left the family when I was 6 months old) and Wade White Fish, the Native American boy I took in who suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome.

“The second major theme is the vanishing West. As a fence builder, coyote trapper, elk hunting guide and gold miner, my father was an independent maverick. Some characters like him still exist in rural eastern Oregon, northeast Washington and Idaho, but their numbers and territory diminish with each passing year.”

The familiar characters from his novels cross between his memoir and his fiction in the same way that spirits and myths become realities in his novels. Perhaps most striking is the realization that much of Lesley’s fourth novel, Storm Riders, is based squarely on his real-life experiences. We follow the main character as he contends with his adopted son, whose struggles with the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome cause a slew of misadventures. The trials they go through echo Lesley’s own experiences with Wade, as the boy is named in the story and in real life.

When asked about incorporating events from “real life” into fiction, Lesley says, “I pretty much keep the events whole cloth in my fiction. People who read Burning Fence are surprised to see that some events in the memoir are nearly identical to those in the fiction, especially Storm Riders. But the themes are there, too. The uneasy relationship between Winterkill’s Danny Kachiah and his father Red Shirt parallels my own relationship with my father. And Danny’s relationship with his son is like mine with Wade.”

It is an interesting undertaking to read the author’s own memories and see how they relate directly to his work. That seems to be what we are searching for when we study the lives of our favorite authors, and what biographers are looking for as the buried treasure of their efforts. Lesley has no hesitation in facing his influences head-on, and in acknowledging their presence in his life and in his fiction. Through his own problematic dealings with his father and his experiences as a father to Wade, he has been able to create whole stories, and now, in his memoir, to examine them as the core of his own life.

When asked about the difference in process between writing fiction and memoir, Lesley says, “In writing Burning Fence, I had the opportunity to actually talk with the characters, sit down and have a drink with them, listen to their stories. I could hear real voices. Living with your characters is more up-close than writing about them. With fiction, there’s always distance, even if it’s very slight.”

This distance might not be felt by readers who have met the characters created by Craig Lesley. His use of memory in his memoir may not read as flawlessly as his fiction, but with Lesley, it is at the intersection of the two where great storytelling can occur.

Categories: ART