George Orwell once noted that Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.
The book did not feel completely finished until the manuscript went to the printer. Up until that moment there was still a chance that something might go wrong, or bits would need to be changed, and in fact there was a last-minute edit that was crucial.
Now it is absolutely true: the project is done. Tension that has existed, in variable doses of grim determination, for nearly five years – is finished. I didn’t know what I would think; completing such a long piece of work could have rendered me anxious and slightly paranoid. But I don’t have any thoughts about the thing. I just feel limp and ragged, like surfacing after a bout of food poisoning.
Of course the start of that Orwell quote is: All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.
Looking over the galleys, I really do not know why I wrote the book. I’m not being disingenuous when I say it just sort of. . . happened.
By the time I finished writing I was too tired to bother with the author photo. Even thinking about it made me feel itchy and unhappy. In the end I found the publicity shots for Breeder, some random
photobooth pictures, and twenty or so photographs I’ve snapped myself with the digital camera.
I had a hunch that it was best to make the decision by committee; my own inclination is always to remain invisible. The family made the first cut, then I sent the remainder to James for his professional opinion. He picked an image I took sitting on the side of the bathtub back in Seattle, because he said it makes me look like an extraterrestrial mermaid.
I emailed Gabriel to check the decision and he replied It looks like you, almost. And it is one of your questioning gazes, almost. In other words it is probably perfect for the book as it looks good without being alienating or quite giving away what you actually look like thereby providing a certain amount of anonymity. Of course, I could be wrong.
Essentially, they are both saying that the image is an improvement on reality, which is true. The point of this particular photograph is to appear not scary.
In real life I am awkward, unkempt, with a facial expression that discourages idle chit-chat. It is fascinating that photographs can tell a different story.
For the past few years I’ve been working on a series of stories about danger. The collection is now done, and will be published in April as Lessons in Taxidermy.
One day last week I had a brief respite from deadlines and took a bit of time to tidy the boat. I washed all of my dirty teacups, organized the bookshelves, mucked out the stove, and sorted all the tools Byron leaves strewn about the engine room.
Then I built a fire and sat down to read a book of oral histories about the Pacific Northwest. When I locked the boat down to go to town everything was in order. Hours later as I cycled toward the river I was smug with the conviction that another brilliant afternoon would unfurl.
It is never good to be smug.
As I unlocked the door I could hear an ominous buzzing sound. I jumped down into the cabin and saw with horror that the kitchen was flooded, water pooled across the counter and stove. The noise was the water pump; it only sounds like that when the storage tank is empty. I grabbed a spanner and rushed to the back of the boat, pried up one of the floorboards, and stared down at three inches of standing water… where none belonged.
Of course my mobile phone was down to the last fifty pence worth of time, so when I called Byron to ask for assistance he thought I said that she was taking on water from the river. He came rushing across the city thinking the boat was scuppered.
When we both calmed down the problem seemed fairly standard. We poked around and tried to get the available pumps to suck out the water, with no luck. Byron went off to the old-fashioned hardware store to acquire tools and gadgets while I mopped up the kitchen. He came back with a pump powered by an electric drill. Genius! Except he did not buy a cordless drill, and the mains on the boat can’t handle heavy appliances.
Over the course of the next few days we tried various fixes with no luck. Back home this would not have happened; we lived in a community. Regardless of the problem, there was always someone to call, someone to help, or someone who needed help. Staring down at the murky water under the floorboards, I missed my friends more than ever.
But then I remembered that I wasn’t alone on the river.
I haven’t met most of the other narrowboat owners, so it seemed forward to impose, but I put out an email asking for advice. I heard back instantly from someone who offered to talk me through the plumbing repairs.
Then I thought of the interesting, kind people who tied down my boat when she blew off her moorings. I asked if they had a drill to borrow. They cheerfully offered not only a drill, but also to come along and help us. On the way they stopped to borrow equipment from various boats, and then they proceeded to pump out all the water. We laughed and talked and finished the job faster than I could have imagined.
There was still some water that couldn’t be pumped, and it took the better part of a day to get it out, lying flat on my belly with an arm contorted to reach the puddles with a sponge. By the end I was covered in rust, dust, and small cuts. But the boat is dry.
Yesterday I had a wild craving for fresh tortillas with beans and rice.
In Seattle I would have driven down south to assuage my desire in a restaurant where the cook always chided us for not letting the kids drink soda.
In Portland there were at least five good burrito shops in the neighborhood. But as far as I can tell, there are no good tortillas in England. Or at least not in Cambridge; I should not rush to judge an entire country based on the comestibles available in one university town.
Most of the time I think that nostalgia is an aberration better squelched than tended. Particularly when the emotion is attached to something completely out of reach. As a general rule I do not even remember what I have lost.
But tortillas are a different matter. Somewhere in my wicked youth I was lucky enough to know a woman who taught me how to make them. She made a big batch every week and while I dawdled around the kitchen she showed me how.
Tortillas will forever be associated with a kitchen that looked out over a forest, pressing dough between cold fingers, learning the rules of a family I did not claim, choosing a future that would allow no room for old friends and places.
Last night I pulled out a big mixing bowl, measured the masa, heated a pan, and started to cook.
I was born in a working naval port town, and grew up just across the bay in a town built on pilings over the water. There were majestic mountain ranges on either side of our little peninsula, and water everywhere. But most of the towns were built with their facades facing the street, not the scenery.
This was a working class place, populated by working people. Many of my relatives took the decrepit foot ferry to work in the shipyard every day. Friends worked the forests or went out in the fishing boats when the season allowed.
As I grew up in that place I watched the small towns dwindle. When the traditional industries faltered or disappeared one town after the next had to figure out a way to survive, or simply give up.
Port Orchard was reinvented by the antiques trade. Poulsbo went for twee ethnic tourism. Bremerton just died. The core of the downtown, including all the grand department stores and office buildings with marble stairs, were shuttered and then scheduled for demolition. In each of these cases, even if I personally did not like the aesthetics of the process, it made sense. It was an example of a natural evolution of the local communities.
I love the Kitsap Peninsula more than I care about most people. The mountains, water, and forests are intrinsically part of my identity. But recently when I have visited I have watched the enroaching gentrification, as rich commuters move in to snap up the last parcels of the homesteads, as a place that seemed impervious to development starts to look more and more like Bainbridge Island – previously the only part of the county known to host the wealthy elite.
This process is inexorable and logical. It is a beautiful place and I understand why people want to live there. But every time I go home there is something new and treacherous to think about. On a trip last year I tried to take my kids to one of the beaches that was central to my childhood. I was shocked beyond speech to find that a five dollar parking fee had been instituted. If there had been such a stiff charge to visit a county park when I was small, we simply would not have visited.
There is a fiscal explanation behind user fees: state and federal agencies have been choked by budget cuts. But it is obvious and bluntly ruinous that the charges will mainly impact the people who cannot afford to pay.
During the first thirty-two years of my life I would not have been able to afford the admission price to visit Mt. Rainier, or the public beaches of my own hometown. Most of the wonders of the Northwest would have been out of reach.
Now that I can afford to pay for whatever adventures I wish to seek out, it seems more important to remember the days when I didn’t have an extra dollar in my pocket. It is imperative to keep our public holdings free and accessible for everyone.
Will we turn all of our natural resources into playgrounds for the wealthy? Will we give up our communal, hard-won rights to enjoy the land and water together?