An Interview with Brian Friesen

As you may have read, Ooligan recently acquired a manuscript, currently known as On the Waterline, in which debut novelist Brian Friesen details life in a floating-home community. We were fortunate to snag Friesen (a software tester by day, writing vigilante by night) for a few questions about his inspirations, the ongoing influence of big businesses in our rapidly changing region, and juggling writing with the demands of life.
What was the inspiration for writing this book?
Life experience, really. Jobs I’ve had at various marinas in the Portland metro area. And living aboard a sailboat on the Columbia River for several years at the turn of that last century. And curiosity about why a seemingly shimmering, envious, laid-back lifestyle (living on the river) can be so craptastic to actually live. I don’t recommend it. I guess whatever doesn’t kill you, you can write about.
Did you do a lot of research to write On the Waterline? How much of it is based on your past experiences?
The great-grandmother of this manuscript was born during graduate school, when I was trying to view the stories I was writing through the lens of creative nonfiction. “The fourth genre,” it was being elevated to in the late ’90s. So there were all these questions about research methodologies with regard to researching lived experience—for memoir and literary nonfiction especially. I got pretty lost in research, to be honest, sifting through memory and looking into calendars and weather patterns and tide tables for specific days and weeks that were important to the narrative. Historical records of the elements can uncover some significant details when you are evoking memories and specific events. Trying to come up with a whole research methodology can also make you a little nuts. It’s easy to use research as an excuse not to write anything. That might be partly why this manuscript gravitated toward fiction, that and I find fiction more freeing in general.
Research for the fictional aspects of this novel are more rooted in narratives (both oral and written narratives). Especially the historical elements about the Columbia and Willamette Rivers and some of the details around the inundation of Celilo Falls. I did an oral history project with a local Native American elder that opened up the book of those years before the dams went up.
We were actually really struck by the inclusion of Celilo Falls—and another legend around it—in the manuscript (we at Ooligan have previously encountered Celilo in Robin Cody’s Ricochet River). The story of the Falls is certainly one worth telling, and few people in generations since their destruction know a lot about them. What do you want readers to understand about Celilo?
I hadn’t anticipated that I would write about Celilo in that way. I first started hearing about the web of Native American social and cultural communities that grew out of traditional fishing sites like Celilo from Indian testimonies about them. I went to a few powwows and other gatherings. I was a clumsy, introverted, conspicuous outsider, for sure.
I think people would benefit by understanding that we are still living in the shadow of those dams and the shadow of a stagnant, official narrative that grew out of that post-World War, Army-Corps expansion into the West. We are still trying to gain a historical understanding that is more nuanced than the Caucasian story of the history of river management. That is not the most important narrative to tell, in my mind. The system of dams on the Columbia was, and is, a force of nature, and I think the narratives we inherit are also a force of nature. Words and stories matter. It’s not as if the dams are just relics of a Cold War era that we can simply unmake, even though that is something I fantasize about a little in [On the Waterline].
Larger economic interests are still expanding into the Columbia Gorge because of those dams. Google is continuing to expand along the river thanks to cheap electricity. They may want to “do no evil,” but their expansion may do little lasting good for the river and the communities around it. Nestle came really, really close to setting up a water-bottling facility on Eagle Creek. And that Nestle story isn’t over yet, it sounds like.
When I first learned about the inundation of Celilo Falls, I was living on the river and traveling up and down [it]. You are alert to things below the surface when you are on a boat, as much as you are to what’s above it. What is below the surface of the water is both tangible and mysterious. … There are haunting, compelling stories buried down there. It’s not just that Indians used to hang out on outcroppings that are now buried way down there. There are people still alive who bear witness to a landscape and a way of life that sounds like a myth to us because it existed in places that are now inaccessible. We can’t see it anymore so we don’t really believe or comprehend it. I think that is partly because we can’t take physical steps into that physical place.
I’ve heard it described by [natives and] non-natives too as being “not as big as Niagara Falls,” which kind of diminishes the place and makes it seem more like an acceptable level of collateral damage. Maybe the transformation of the landscape is partly why stories about Celilo lend themselves so easily to mythology. I’m not 100 percent sure that mythology helps the actual place and its people. Hopefully it helps more than it hurts.
What authors inspire you?
There are a number of poets at the top of the list. I love so many of the popular poets: Billy Collins, Sharon Olds, Jane Kenyon, and Ted Kooser. William Stafford is a writer I am constantly revisiting. I’ve tried getting my hands on as many audio files of Bill Stafford’s poetry readings as I can find. For a while, I had audio of his readings playing over and over every day, until he started showing up in my dreams and offering me observations and suggestions. Sometimes, his voice still rings clearer in my head than my own voice.
I fall head over heels when I read Carol Shields, Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robinson, Mark Helprin, Patricia Hampl, Susan Sontag, Louise Erdrich, and David James Duncan, to name a few.
There are some obvious common denominators in what writers inspire me: I’m drawn to work that engages themes of religious faith or spirituality in general. I’m a sucker for characters or narratives that are wrestling with, recovering from, or embracing big spiritual ideas.
You currently work as a software tester and technical writer for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). How do the skills required to write in a technical mode relate to your creative-writing skills (is there a lot of overlap, or do you feel they’re more exclusive)?
Mostly these days, I test software there at ODFW, though there is still some technical writing. I think they haven’t gotten rid of me yet partly because I’m willing to face a blank page and scrawl some first-draft drivel onto it.
Technical writing can be like calisthenics or Pilates for limbering up your brain and fingers for when you can carve out time to work creatively. You can always use more practice at being clear and concise. I’m sure there is good mental balance in stringing together words for disparate purposes. Muscle memory is good for other levels of memory, as I understand. It helps to have lots of writing projects under your belt, where you have learned to be okay filling up the trash can and reworking things in light of your audience. It especially helps you to work through distractions and your particular habits of avoidance that arise at different points in writing projects.
That wonderful local poet, Shelley Reece, once told me that the writing life for most of us is a Batman-like existence. The work of some heroes has to be done at night. And I often use up all my batarangs during the day, and I don’t have any left to throw at night. Or at night I cruise out of the Batcave with four flat tires on the Batmobile. Or I fall asleep at the console in the Batcave while the Bat-Signal shines across a lonely, cloudy Oregon sky. But I don’t get to drive a Lamborghini during the day. Wait, you didn’t ask me a question about Batman, did you? Did I mention that I have kids?
Stay tuned to the Ooligan blog for more updates on Brian’s manuscript. In the meantime, be sure to check out his brand-new author page on Facebook!
To read the entirety of Katey’s interview with Brian, check out the post on Brian’s website here.