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SHJ Issue 7
Spring 2013

Bruce Holbert

Interviewed by Derek Alger

Bruce Holbert is the author of the novel, Lonesome Animals (Counterpoint Press), which has been named a finalist for the 2013 Spur Award for Best Novel by the Western Writers of America. He was a co-author with his wife, Holly, of an anthology of celebrities recounting their favorite teachers, Signed, Your Student (Kaplan Press).

Born in Ephrata, Washington, Holbert spent most of his childhood in the Grand Coulee Dam area, where he graduated from Lake Roosevelt High School. He then attended Eastern Washington University, where he graduated with a degree in English/Education.

Holbert is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, where he assisted in editing The Iowa Review and held a Teaching Writing Fellowship.

His fiction has appeared in The Antioch Review, Hotel Amerika, and Other Voices, to name a few, and has won annual awards from the Tampa Tribune Quarterly and The Inlander. And his non-fiction has appeared in The New Orleans Review, The Spokesman Review, and The Daily Iowan.

Derek Alger: You were raised in the shadow of the Okanogan Mountains.

Bruce Holbert: I lived in twenty-some different towns before I started school. My dad worked construction and we lived in a trailer and followed the work, not unlike many young men in this country in the early Sixties. Home, though, was always the Grand Coulee Dam area. My dad’s family were among the original settlers in that country and my mother’s side emigrated from Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Okanogan Mountains create the border, where a scrub desert meets forest and mountains.

People fished and hunted for sustenance as well as sport. Some farmed rocky country along the river; others built houses during construction booms; the luckiest drew permanent work on the dam.

DA: Your great-grandfather was a legend of sorts in the area.

BH: My great-grandfather, Arthur Strahl, was an Indian scout and among the first settlers of Grand Coulee. Toward the end of his life, my grandmother (his daughter) and her husband came home to help him with the farm. He murdered my grandfather in an argument about the land and left my grandmother a widow. She taught school and ran the ranch until my aunts were in high school, when she decided to move the family into town. My father grew up without a father or a grandfather, who, after the murder, died in prison without speaking to the family again.

DA: What kind of influence do you think the murder of your grandfather had?

BH: My dad was only a year or so old when he lost his father, so he has no memory of him. My aunts were not a lot older. However, how this event shut down my grandmother and became a well-nurtured secret, almost an embarrassment, affected my father tremendously, as did the lack of a permanent male influence in his life. He is a good man and a good father, but, looking back, I can see he was guessing at manhood and acting on those guesses. Like most who lack certainty, his doubts fostered a need for conviction, a conviction that sometimes defied logic. It trapped him. Growing up and admiring a father who responds to the world in such a way, I can’t help but have the same difficulties.

DA: You loosely based your main character in Lonesome Animals on your great-grandfather.

BH: Well, yes and no. The character in Lonesome Animals is my effort to imagine how a man might end up in a place in his head and in his life that allows him to commit his crime. There are so few details about the murder and my great-grandfather, that I had little to go on aside from the event. I did know the place well, the West well, and the ideas had been in my head for years so that, along with local history, drove the book forward.

DA: Tell us about your interest with the force of the Western myth.

BH: It’s a love-hate relationship. I grew up surrounded by the myth, but uncomfortable with it as well. The West distrusts speech and intellect, other than what’s practical. It leaves action and, hence, violence as the only way to express one’s self and remain a man. One of mythology’s functions is to instruct its adherents how to function in the world. The rituals and rites are all part of that training. The Western myth teaches men, instead, how to behave in a way that guarantees bad marriages, jail, and a devastating isolation. Violence as a moral force is both admired and punished. Old men sit around recounting their crimes with glee and the boys listening later walk around behaving like a Clint Eastwood character from the spaghetti westerns. The Western myth grew too quickly to develop a moral center. Absence, emptiness, and violence are its morality without the reflection necessary to separate what is selfish from what is justified.

DA: You’ve had your own experience with tragedy and remorse.

BH: At the age of 22, I accidentally shot and killed my college roommate and good friend while at the Omak Stampede. It devastated me for years after. It’s not a thing you come to grips with, but it does inform your behavior and your thoughts and your conscience and, finally, your heart for the rest of your days.

DA: You’ve recently written about that accident.

BH: I wrote an essay in the New Orleans Review, which was an attempt to square my personal story to the damage caused by Western myth. I suppose as I have integrated my personal life into the life of letters I’ve chosen, it is natural to try and put such events into a larger, philosophical perspective. It’s helped me make a kind of sense to the accident, though it hasn’t let me off the hook, nor should it.

DA: You found a love of reading as a kid.

BH: I read a lot more than people accepted; it made me odd and I felt awkward about it, but I committed enough minor crimes to fit in. My grandparents had hundreds of books, mostly those great old pulp novels with the bawdy covers. I stared at those covers a long time, before knowing the reason I was interested might not have anything to do with what was written beneath them. I read a book called The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton that really did something to me, made me believe in story like a religion. Then I moved on to other books, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Catch-22, books I didn’t always fully understand, but that piqued my interest nonetheless. One of my aunts read good stuff and she kind of coaxed me in that direction.

I had a substitute teacher, a minister’s wife, who covered our class regularly. One day she handed me a paperback and said, “You’re a writer, I see.” From then on, I guess I never thought of myself as anything different.

DA: You earned a BA degree at Eastern Washington University.

BH: I went to college by default. I wasn’t much good at manual labor, and my dad had put some money away when I was little, enough to get through a couple of quarters, so I went ahead and gave it a try. I wasn’t much of a student, but I got a degree in English and Education, which meant I could find some work teaching.

DA: You did pull off one pretty astounding success during your college career.

BH: I really didn’t know how colleges worked and I took a writing class from Terry Davis, who suggested I register for a workshop Kay Boyle would teach. She was visiting for a semester.

Well, it was a graduate workshop for MFA students, but I didn’t see that should keep me out of it, so I forged three dean’s signatures and registered for the class. A month later, the powers that be caught up to me, but, by then, I was Ms. Boyle’s favorite, so I stayed. Eventually the folks in the Creative Writing Department accepted me as sort of a mascot.

DA: You began teaching after college.

BH: I wasn’t sure I wanted to teach, but I wanted to eat. I started out in Jerome, Idaho, which, at the time, was the lowest paying school in the second lowest paying state in the union.

DA: You did attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

BH: I had moved to St. John, Washington, closer to home. It was a tiny farm town; the whole high school rarely had more than a hundred students. I was the English department. My wife and I decided to start a family, but Iowa had been on my mind since I’d heard about it as an undergraduate. I applied expecting to be turned down, but they let me in and I took a sabbatical.

At Iowa, I got an assistanceship in the financial aid office, then assisted editing The Iowa Review. David Hamilton was a great resource there. Hearing an editor talk about stories gave me a fresh perspective. He sat on my thesis committee and called bullshit on my bullshit, which is an enormous favor for one writer to do another.

DA: You were lucky to have the teachers you did.

BH: I had very good teachers, which isn’t always the case in an MFA program, even Iowa’s. Allan Gurganus was a huge influence on me as both a writer and a person. The man is as decent and kind a person as I’ve encountered, but he manages to do so without sacrificing his life to his students or his job. He draws lines that allow him to honor his art, which is something I had to learn.

DA: Who else did you work with?

BH: Jim Salter, Jim McPherson, Frank Conroy, all people who cared about writing and writers and all generous beyond expectations. Salter was a gentleman in the old noble ways, and the man knows how to craft a sentence. He taught me how to ask more from my prose by asking more from each word. Frank was similar in his approach. He was also a guiding force outside the confines of the classroom. He was always there, playing softball with the poets, trading beers, hanging around the bookstores. His presence was a tremendous force there.

I was also lucky enough to show up with some great students. Chris Offutt and Elizabeth McCracken are both close friends today, as are Max Phillips, Fritz McDonald, Charlie McIntire, Karen Bender. Really fine writers and characters, too. Elizabeth got us all to Graceland one weekend and Chris could get you in trouble every weekend.

DA: You currently earn your keep teaching “school resistant” students.

BH: I think I was one of them.

I was hired to teach advanced placement classes, but I have always been successful as well with kids who don’t like school, probably because I find them so entertaining. When one of the principals started discussing programs for those kids, I shifted directions. I have mostly sophomores. The word sophomoric definitely applies. They are quite intelligent; they just don’t like to obey other people unless it makes sense to them. It takes awhile for them to trust you, but once they do, they are as loyal as a good dog.

DA: Can’t forget your wife.

BH: My wife, Holly, is the only reason I am still drawing breath. We’ve been married 27 years. She recently co-authored a book, Signed, Your Student, a collection of remembrances of influential teachers recounted by prominent Americans. She sent out hundreds of emails and was overwhelmed with responses, which surprised and pleased both of us.

We’ve raised three kids: Natalie, who is a theater major at Boise State; Luke, an astro-physics major at Washington State; and Jackson, a high school senior who is looking at going to a liberal arts school back east.

DA: Anything special planned for the future?

BH: Well, I’m considering taking on a college job if the time and place work out. I have two novels Counterpoint will publish, the first one next May of 2014, tentatively. We are still discussing a title, but it is a family story and a romance in a similar time period as Lonesome Animals. The Lonesome Animals paperback comes out in May 2013 and an audio version of the novel around that time, as well. Otherwise, I’m going to sit on the back porch and watch the eagles fish in the river, which is a pretty good way to spend an afternoon.


SHJ Issue 7
Spring 2013

Derek Alger

is a graduate of the MFA fiction-writing program at Columbia University, and currently editor-at-large at Pif Magazine, where 94 of his interviews with writers have been published during the past 12 years. His most recent fiction has appeared in Confrontation, The Literary Review, Del Sol Review, and Writers Notes.

“One on One” Archive at Pif Magazine

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury