Naomi and Scanlon Pratt are at the threshold of a new life. East Coast transplants to small-town Oregon, Scanlon has a position at the local university—teaching mass movements and domestic radicalism—and Naomi is pregnant with their first child. But everything changes when they meet Clay, a troubled young anarchist who despises Scanlon’s self-serving attempts at friendship but adores Naomi. As the Pratts welcome their newborn son, their lives become so deeply entwined with Clay’s that they must decide exactly where their loyalties lie, before the increasingly volatile activism that they’ve been dabbling in engulfs them all.
A love song to the Pacific Northwest, The Oregon Experiment explores the contemporary civil war between desire and betrayal, the political and the personal.
Curtis Sittenfeld, author of Prep, The Man of My Dreams, and American Wife, and Keith Scribner, author of The Oregon Experiment, Miracle Girl, and The GoodLife, met at Stanford University. Here they discuss Scribner’s inspiration for The Oregon Experiment and his experiences writing the novel.
Curtis Sittenfeld: I loved reading The Oregon Experiment--it's such a smart, sexy, entertaining novel, and you weave together the various plot strands so deftly. Did you know when you started what would happen and how it would end?
Keith Scribner: I’ve always been a writer who discovers the story as I go along. I started thinking about this novel during the WTO demonstrations in Seattle a few months after my first child was born--thinking about a character who’s pulled on the one hand toward political radicalism and on the other toward the safe and stable domestic life he wants for his new baby. That tension led me to Scanlon, which led me to secessionism and anarchy and told me certain things about his marriage, which led me to his wife, Naomi. There’s great pleasure for me as a writer when I figure out how those strands will weave together.
Curtis: You delve into different subcultures utterly convincingly, including anarchists, secessionists, and professional "noses,” people who make a living by working with perfumes and other scents. What sort of research did you do about these worlds?
Keith: The research took me to some great places. I met with local anarchists, picked up pamphlets and newsletters in their hangouts, and went to fringy festivals in the coast range. I also spent a fascinating day with the perfumer Yosh Han in her San Francisco studio, learning how she works, smelling hundreds of essences, and creating the fragrance that Naomi makes in the novel. Using coast-range mosses and roots, we first concocted the perfume’s base note, which in the book is extracted from a gland of a frog peculiar to the Northwest. I’ve got a vial of the final fragrance, which I sometimes wear, and a smaller, nasty-smelling vial labeled “frog juice.”
Curtis: Naomi is the nose in the book, and she's moved to Oregon with her husband Scanlon for his professor job. She's a great character in part because her nose allows her to be a kind of detective, smelling who's been where or what secret activities people (including Scanlon) have been up to. Did you become more conscious of smells even when you weren't writing?
Keith: I did. Naomi has a genius nose, and I certainly don’t, but in these years I’ve closed my eyes in department meetings, on crowded buses, and hiking in the forest to see how my experience changes when I focus on the smells. For most of us the nose is almost a vestigial organ; when we walk into a room, we rely on our eyes and ears to assess the situation, unlike other animals, whose sense of smell is critical to their survival. I’ve come to appreciate fragrances, as I hadn’t before--and not just high-end perfumes. I love the very artificial smells of strawberry shampoo and watermelon candy and, as Naomi does in the novel, the sharp toxicity of auto-body putty.
Curtis: Like Naomi and Scanlon, you're an East Coast transplant, but you've lived in Corvallis, Oregon, for ten years. Your depiction of this region is so vivid and specific, and it's also funny in a sometimes wicked way: Soon after arriving in Douglas, Scanlon’s waiting for a meeting to start and overhears various conversations about "kayaking, fly fishing, homeschooling, doulas, the end rot on everyone's tomatoes, a good chimney man, a phone number for organic mint mulch composted for at least two years, another number for grass-fed beefalo." Are you at all worried that your neighbors will think they're being mocked in this book?
Keith: Not at all. I hope the book is, in part, an homage to Corvallis and Oregon. Naomi and Scanlon appreciate the area to varying degrees, but I think it’s a great life in the Pacific Northwest. Everything grows like crazy. Friends bring over thick cuts of fresh steelhead and bottles of home-brewed IPA. In the fall, bags of chanterelles appear in front of my office door. I love the bustling farmers’ market, my six-minute bicycle commute to campus, dogs in bike trailers, longboards in the bike racks, and a general open-mindedness and tolerance that allow both secessionists and anarchists to have their say.
Curtis: All your characters are believable, and you're impressively even-handed in portraying them as alternately unlikable and endearing, just like real people. But is there any character you secretly like best? I confess that I developed a fondness for Scanlon's mom, who's this skinny, crazy woman who lives on alcohol and sweets and is always making inappropriate sexual jokes to and about her adult son.
Keith: There are big chunks of me--good and bad--in all the characters, so as much as I can forgive myself for embarrassing, selfish, naïve tendencies, I can forgive them. I do have a soft spot for Clay. For all his misguided conviction and simmering anger, I think he’s the most courageous and honestly motivated person in the book.
Curtis: One of the more amusing sections involves Scanlon growing a beard in order to compete in manly events like wood chopping. Have you made any forays into similar contests?
Keith: Oregon State University’s Logging Sports Arena is on the edge of an old-growth region deep in the school’s arboretum, where some of my students compete at everything I describe in the book--log-rolling, chopping, sawing, racing up tall poles with cleats and a harness. I’ve stood there in the rain with my kids, warming our hands over a fire in a barrel, but only as a logging sports spectator. Alas, my main Oregon sports are mountain biking and winemaking.