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William Kittredge's Iconic Influence

William Kittredge. Photo credit: Raymond Meeks.

What does it mean to be an icon? For an author, it might mean changing the way others write, or changing what they write about. Take it a step further, and you’d be changing how they talk. According to some, the author William Kittredge has managed all three.

Kittredge grew up farming and ranching in the Warner Valley of Southeastern Oregon, part of a family that helped transform that landscape. But after a series of personal and philosophical struggles, Kittredge left ranching for writing. He attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1968 and began teaching at the University of Montana the following year. He’s still there, as an emeritus professor. As an author and teacher, he has shaped the way writers describe the West.

William Kittredge was on Think Out Loud in December. In January, we interviewed his friend and fellow writer, Rich Wandschneider, the director of the Josephy Library at the Fishtrap writers’ workshop in Eastern Oregon. We asked him how Kittredge’s work has influenced other Northwest writers. Here’s what Rich had to say about Kittredge:

The first Fishtrap meeting, July 1988. From left: William Kittredge, Ursula Le Guin, Marc Jaffe (publisher at Houghton Mifflin at the time), George Venn, and Julian Bach (literary agent from New York). Rich Wanschneider is at the microphone. Photo courtesy Fishtrap.

William Kittredge has taught writers’ workshops at Fishtrap. What does he bring to his workshops?

Bill brings a great sense of story. He has said that in the end “all we have is stories.” Our lives, no matter how interesting or mundane, in the end become stories — stories for our children, neighbors, our own old age, and sometimes, if we are lucky, for a larger world. But our job as writers is to get the stories right. And not only our own stories but the stories of the big and little people around us. Bill loves bouncing between these places. Between the little people, the old cowboy with a tic or a skill or a failing, and the big people, the boss, the Senator, the father and grandfather, all of whom had the same human gifts and frailties.

What do you think his students come away with?

Although I have never personally been in one of Bill’s workshops, I think that those who have come away with a kind of democratic ethic about writing and storytelling. Everyone has color and stories in their lives, and there is no need to pass moral judgment on their quality, although there is good reason to pass moral judgment on the characters and events in the stories.

You’ve said that William is as much an orator as he is a writer. What does it sound like to hear him speak?

Bill’s voice rolls as he talks, and when he reads it really rolls, lilts almost. It sounds like a high baritone or low bass, and there is a steady cadence, an even distribution of the words over a sentence. It hushes a room. And you can almost hear the unconscious imitations of Bill Kittredge in other Western writers. When he is storytelling, even when he is reading from his own work, he might look up and go into a broad grin or an outright laugh. The man laughs at himself and the human condition all the time. He loves humor and irony but knows — and you know as you read or listen — that there is a serious and sometimes downright awful underbelly to it.

How do the stories he tells differ from the stories he writes?

I think that the writing has a strong oral character to it as well. I can hear the characters in his stories speak, maybe because I’ve heard him read often. But in the writing he gets, and we get, more of the underbelly than we do when he is just talking, telling stories around the Fishtrap lunch table or at the wine and beer table at the end of the day. At such times it is more celebration of the quirky and sometimes silly events and actions, like fond memories. Not to say that Bill shies from a fight. He will let you know about someone’s foolishness, about writers being pompous, developers being greedy.

Has Kittredge had an influence on your writing?

Bill has had an influence on how Fishtrap developed, and, as my own writing has been bound up with Fishtrap over the past 24 years, he is part of it. Through Fishtrap, we’ve tackled subjects he tackles, like family, borders, Indians, and community. Bill wrote a book of essays “On Generosity,” and he is full of stories on the triumphs and failures of the powerful, the leaders who step forward or are pushed forward by their times.

What book would you recommend to someone who has never read Kittredge?

I would start with Hole in the Sky, the memoir. He describes his own path as it grew from the soil and the choices his grandfather and his parents made. The humor is there, and some of the odd characters who have influenced him. And, most importantly, the explanation of his turn from mechanized agriculture to becoming a writer. After that, read the early stories in We Are Not In This Together for the hard edges of rural life, and Owning it All for thoughtful essays on the West. He finally published a novel, The Willow Field, in 2006. I liked it, especially the first half when the young protagonist gets at the life that Bill might have lived had he not become a writer. It was a life he must have heard a lot about as he grew up with the cowboys and drinkers and storytellers on the big family ranch in Warner Valley in Lake County, Oregon, in the school at Adel, and in years of swapping stories in colleges, bars, and writing workshops like Fishtrap.

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