Even if you've never had a wild west fantasy of your own, Ellen Waterston's essay collection will make you want to give up your life and try ranching in Oregan's high desert, even as she details the tough environment and personal tragedy she endured there. That's how beautiful and insightful her new book is: Where The Crooked River Rises. Ellen is also the author of two collections of poetry, Between Desert Seasons and I Am Madagascar; both of which won the WILLA Award for Poetry in 2009 and 2005 respectively. Her memoir Then There Was No Mountain was selected by The Oregonian as one of the top ten books in 2003 and a finalist in memoir for Foreword Book-of-the-Year and WILLA book awards.
She is also the founder and president of the Writing Ranch and founder and director of The Nature of Words. She now lives in Bend, Oregon.
JAN: The essays in Where the Crooked River Rises are so lush, so thoughtful, so full of lessons learned, that I’m wondering how they evolved. Were they written over the years, and put into a collection? Or did you have the idea for a collection first?
ELLEN: They were written over approximately a four year span. Some of the essays appeared in reviews and journals prior to the publication of Where the Crooked River Rises. In late 2008 OSU Press encouraged me to assemble and submit a collection to them for consideration –exactly the motivation I needed!
JAN: Tell us a little bit about how a New England girl ended up in the Oregon desert.
ELLEN: In my late teens I was a guest on a Montana ranch one summer and fell in love with the notion of a pearl of a life in an oyster of a setting. I delighted to think I could live that far removed from the WASP New England culture I had grown up in.
JAN: Also why you left, and how difficult was it to adapt to your new environment?
ELLEN: I left New England because I was young and in love with a man who also wanted to escape New England and lead a rancher’s life. I naively (ya think?) thought I was perpetuating a dude ranch experience. Instead I soon found myself slaughtering chickens, pulling calves, pushing cows, riding days on end, cooking for fifteen during the summer months and so on. It was never dull, always exciting, rigorous, adventurous and against a natural backdrop to die for.
JAN: What struck me about the essays is how beautifully you write about the desert, how you made me want to go there, even though I always thought I hated deserts. Is the harsh terrain of the desert, which you come to love, a metaphor for the obstacles in your life while you lived there?
ELLEN: Sex, drugs and country and western. My James Dean-esque, fellow New Englander-turned-rancher, love-of-my-life husband became a drug addict and was unable to get that drug monkey off his back. My three young children and I were not prepared for all the harsh ways that would affect each of our lives. As a suddenly-single mother, I never caught my breath, never felt I was doing anything at an even lope but rather running scared from a universe that suddenly seemed unfriendly. He took his own life in 2009. The ranching West I fantasized about and the one I experienced turned out to be very different. But you are right, the opportunity to live on the land and learn from the land is one I would never trade. As my life has unfolded, with all the accompanying zigs and zags, the high desert landscape has truly been a source of strength. I know that sounds Hallmark-y, but I mean it. As I state in my dedication to my former husband, “I wouldn’t have done it without you.” I am so glad I did.
JAN: I was captivated by the ranchers before you, the hard lives and the tight knit community, how did you choose which stories to illuminate?
ELLEN: There are so many I could have chosen. I hope to pen more of these vignettes. Does the openness of the remote West put those who live there in relief? Or is it because they are eccentric and vivid that they choose that way of life? Not sure which comes first. But the people I encountered and profiled each, for me, illuminated an aspect of the desert and, I hope, maybe even an aspect of each of us that I felt was worth mentioning.
JAN: You have also written a memoir, Then There Was No Mountain. Since there seemed a bit of the memoir in the essays, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the different processes involved in each.
ELLEN: These personal essays are short memoirs more than anything as they are built on my truest impression and recollection of my experience relative to the place or person the essay is built on. They aren’t simply historical or expository but include the pausing and pondering typical of memoir.
JAN: Tell us a little about the Writing Ranch that you founded.
ELLEN: Here’s the recipe for sabotaging a writing practice – start the Writing Ranch, which offers retreats and workshops for merging writers, and The Nature of Words, a literary non-profit, both based in Bend, Oregon. I founded them both, love them both, and/but it’s very tough to observe a regular writing practice in the midst. The Writing Ranch is a virtual ranch that offers traditional writing classes “in town” and leads groups into the high desert and to the desert of the Baja California Sur for writing retreats. The Nature of words is a seven-year-old organization that holds an annual literary festival each November in Bend, Oregon and the rest of the time offers writing workshops and residencies in mainstream and alternative educational programs throughout Central Oregon.
For more information please visit: www.ellenwaterston.com