A Look At Olympia Area Writers

By Alec Clayton

Just how many Olympia area writers there are might be surprising. The most famous are Stephanie Coontz and Jim Lynch, but they’re only two of many.

Coontz made her mark with her first book, The Way We Never Were: American Families And The Nostalgia Trap, in which she thoroughly debunked many myths about American families, most notably the idealized “Leave It To Beaver” family unit. A sociology professor at The Evergreen State College, Coontz’s detailed research has opened many an eye to the truth about family structure. Her latest book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, re-examines the lives of women at the dawn of the feminist movement.

Lynch had a runaway bestseller with his debut novel, The Highest Tide, winner of the Pacific Northwest Bookseller Award in 2005. It has been translated into 10 languages and adapted to the stage where it was performed by Book-it Theater in spring 2008. A reviewer for the London Independent wrote: “This novel is so very special. If you reach the last page without having laughed out loud, felt tears well up or at least once sat back in wonder at the extraordinary descriptions of the sea and its creatures, then you may quite simply be inhuman.”

Lynch is on a book tour now promoting his latest novel, Truth Like the Sun. He took a moment from his tour to respond to my email: “I grew up around Seattle, and fell in love with the notion of writing novels as a teenager gobbling Ken Kesey’s and Tom Robbins’s early books. At the UW, I studied journalism and creative writing. I bounced around the country to newspaper jobs, and was usually working on short stories or novels in the early mornings. I wrote a couple novels that didn’t make it, and went through three literary agents before finding the right one for me. I took a three month leave from my job at the Portland Oregonian (I was writing about Seattle for them from my Olympia home) to write a novel I was calling The Highest Tide. Ended up selling that book unfinished in June 2004 and quit my newspaper job right away. I’ve been a full-time novelist since, with Border Songs coming out in 2009, and Truth Like the Sun, coming out last week. I’ve got another novel in the beginning stages now. It involves a family obsessed with sailing. It also involves online dating. This writing lifestyle drives me crazy at times, but I can’t resist the challenge of trying to write really good novels.”

Another Olympia writer who has made quite a mark on the literary establishment is Thom Jones. His first two short story collections, The Pugilist at Rest and Sonny Liston Was A Friend of Mine, were gritty, hard-hitting stories. When I had an opportunity to interview him in 2000 he spoke glowingly of a couple of short story masters from the Deep South, Barry Hannah and Larry Brown (both deceased), and Jones’s stories have a lot in common with those by Hannah and Brown. (Brown, by-the-way, was called “The King of Grit Lit” by Hannah. Perhaps now Jones has inherited that title.)

The Pugilist at Rest was a National Book Award Finalist. Jones’s latest work is a three-book series called The Guardians of Elestra, described on amazon.com as “filled with incredible creatures, magical locations, altered realities, and a constant dose of humor.”

Poet and former park ranger Lucia Perillo won the PEN/Revson Foundation Poetry Fellowship and several other awards for her collection The Body Mutinies and received the Norma Farber Award from the Poetry Society of America for her collection Dangerous Life. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, the Atlantic, and the Kenyon Review, and they have been included in the Pushcart and Best American Poetry Anthologies. She recently won the McArthur Award.

Jim Lynch also mentioned Perillo and another local writer, Maria Mudd Ruth. “Lucia Perillo has a terrific collection of short stories coming out in June. And Maria Mudd Ruth is a smart nonfiction author around here too. She wrote Rare Bird about the marbled murrelet, and she’s now writing a book on, of all things, clouds. And I bet it’s gonna be great.”

S. R. “Rudy” Martin, Jr. was a founding faculty member of The Evergreen State College. He taught African-American Studies. His major publications are the family memoir On the Move: A Black Family’s Western Saga, the novel Natural-Born Proud: A Reverie, and Seaside Stories, a collection of short fiction. In On the Move his love for his family and his experiences while growing up are described in sparse prose. Natural-Born Proud lovingly describes a week in the lives of boys and their fathers on a single hunting trip.

Martin said: “I’m a relatively unusual creature, a western African-American, born in Ft. Worth, Texas in 1935 and transplanted to California’s Monterey Peninsula in 1943. One of TESC’s 18 founding faculty members (called “planners”) who came to Olympia in 1970, I later served as Faculty Chair, Academic Dean and in a variety of other functions at the College. I taught with a large number of faculty members in a wide range of academic offerings in the humanities and arts, usually stressing American/African-American culture and writing. After 27 years, I retired in June of 1997 to write, travel with my wife, Gail, and spoil our grandchildren.

“Most of the work I’ve published has focused on African-American life in the United States, especially in the West. In fiction and nonfiction, I’ve tried to show Black life in its physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual locations and conditions. I’m hoping to reveal Black experience in the kind of depth and complexity that will demonstrate the general human experience of life on this planet.”

Ned Hayes has been writing and publishing since the age of 16. He wrote his first novel as a college project in 1989, and wrote several more novels while in grad school for English literature and during his successful software career in the 1990s and early 2000s. Orchard House Press published Hayes’s book of poetry “GLOSSOLALIA: Speaking in Tongues” in 2009, which included work that had been previously published. His latest novel, Sinful Folk, is due out in the fall. It was submitted to the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest, and made it through several cuts. It is now a quarter-finalist in the listings, and is listed as one of the top 10 downloads in the Amazon / Penguin Contest.

Actor, novelist, blogger and theater critic Christian Carvajal published his first novel three years ago. “My debut novel, Lightfall, was published in November 2009,” Carvajal said. “It’s a satirical thriller about the End of the World, as seen from a Baptist college town in southern Oklahoma. Reviews were positive, and I enjoyed touring Oklahoma with it in 2010. I’m pleased to say it sold well locally and earned me a couple of writing jobs. Unfortunately, it never gained traction outside Thurston County because its publisher didn’t know how to land a distributor. Them’s the breaks. Anthony Bourdain watched two novels vanish into thin air before hitting the big time with Kitchen Confidential, so I’m hoping to break through even faster than he did.

“These days, I’m making gradual progress on a new comic novel with shades of Jurassic Park. It’s racier than Lightfall, which could help attract a new publisher. It might also, of course, make things awkward with my in-laws.”

He also posts his thoughts on his “Thinky Blog” at ChristianCarvajal.com.

Other local writers of note include: Gail Tremblay, Bill Ransom, Jeanne Lohmann, Nikki McClure and many more.

Author’s note: It would be self-serving to include my own books, but leaving myself out would be false modesty. I have published five novels and a book about art, all available at Orca Books in Olympia and on amazon.com.

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