Interview with D’Arcy Fallon, Author of “Camp Wonder”

D’Arcy Fallon is the author of “Camp Wonder,” an essay featured in North Dakota Quarterly Volume 80.2. The essay explores the author’s journey into discovering her grandparents’ letters to one another, along with her own personal travel to the place that their story took place; Leadville, Colorado. D’Arcy was very enthusiastic to share more about her essay for NDQ’s author interview series.

How would you say the knowledge of Blanche’s life that you have recently gained has shaped the way you see her, as opposed to how you would have viewed her prior to it?

You know, a lot of way I initially saw Blanche was colored by the few things my mother told me about her, as well as my own feelings of being “stuck” in a situation that sometimes seemed untenable. My mother felt that Blanche was limited in her later years—when my mother knew her—because she became so profoundly hard of hearing. My mother also clearly adored her grandfather, Blanche’s husband, because he’d had the more exciting, dramatic and stimulating life. He was charming and full of stories. Blanche, at least to a self-involved teenager, was not as attractive a character to my mother. So my mother’s version of Blanche—someone who had been a youthful beauty but not, well, a real intellectual—was how I initially viewed Blanche too. But as the years went by in my own life and I heard other stories about what kind of a person she was, and read her letters, and thought about her challenges and her fortitude, I ended up having a lot of respect for her. She was tough and she did the best she could. She had grit. She was not some hothouse orchid after all.

2. Have any aspects of your daily life changed since learning about Blanche’s life in Leadville?

Initially for me, Blanche’s story was bookended by that dramatic, larger-than-life beginning in Leadville where she met Richard and then the waning years of her life, when she was frail and living in an old age home in Monterey. I saw the beauty and drama and then I saw the isolation and descent into confusion that claimed her in the last years. I saw the beginning and I saw the end, but I somehow had glossed over the middle part. Beginnings are easy, and as for endings, well, sometimes the die is already cast. But the struggle for most of us comes in the middle, in the everyday doing of things, the richness of daily work, the disappointments and losses and adjustments we all have to make. That’s where the living is. And the beauty. That is where I am. I embrace that now. The thing that had seemed so hard to me—leaving a place I knew intimately and loved deeply—turned out to be a huge blessing. The life I have now is a good one and I’m very grateful for it. I have meaningful work as a writing teacher and I’m surrounded by people who love language and learning. I don’t know if I would’ve had that if I hadn’t taken a risk. We all have a chance to write our own narratives, shape our life stories. This is mine.

3. You say that “anything could happen in Leadville,” can you expand upon your line “Somehow Leadville seemed synonymous with optimism?” Was it based off of your desire to experience some of the things Blanche had, or was it merely an escape from reality?

A lot of my feelings about Leadville are tied up in my deep love for Colorado, where I lived with my husband and son for fourteen years. When we first moved to Colorado from congested California, even though we had moved east, it felt like we had really moved to the west, the real west. We moved from earthquakes and the ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge to mountains and prairies and blue skies and crystalline snow. There was land and sky and coyotes. For someone who drove in bumper-to-bumper traffic across the Golden Gate Bridge everyday and then struggled to find a parking space in downtown San Francisco, Colorado was the Promised Land. Leaving Colorado was wrenching for all of us. Moving to the fertile, low, green, wet countryside of Ohio was a shock to the eye and the heart. I had just turned 50, I was homesick, we were all trying to adjust to a new life, and I was afraid of failing. I wanted to escape. Leadville with its brick Victorians and crazy ski culture and tilting streets took on a totemic power for me. I wanted to start over again, to be at the beginning of my narrative instead of in the middle of it. I was resisting being older and living in a new place. The idea of living in Leadville became psychologically attractive to me. To be up high in the sky, close to the clouds and sun, to be back in the West—this was a very potent draw.

Our fantasies, of course, never square up with reality. In truth, Leadville is a scrappy, blue-collar town, despite some of its upscale trappings. I love that about Leadville. It’s not Aspen or Vail, it’s a real place with real working class people. It’s cold there. It gets a ton of snow. It is the highest incorporated city in the nation. I could not hack living in Leadville year ’round, despite my romanticism about it. Winter is just too long.

4. Why do you think you originally became so preoccupied with learning about Blanche and Richard?

My attraction to Richard and Blanche is like a zen koan. The dynamic of their relationship resonated with me in a way that, originally, I didn’t really understand. There’s the man who goes forth looking for adventure, the risk-taker, the romantic. There’s the woman who has to stay behind and be patient, attending to the tasks of living. He’s out on the farthest edges of consciousness, out there in the desert looking for that big score, excavating, and she’s in the jangling world, minding the store, attending to here and now. Both deep searching and attentiveness to life are required in the act of writing. We are rooted, yet we soar. We’re tethered and we wander. I identified with both Richard and Blanche. Sometimes I liked one of them more than the other, but in the end, I claimed them of both.

5. Overall, were you disappointed with your visit to Leadville or did you find what you were looking for?

I’m going to be honest. It was a disappointment to me. I thought I was going to go there and have a great epiphany about living. I was going to steal some of my great-grandparents’ mojo, just scrape it up like Pixie Dust, and use it in my own life, as a kind of courage elixir, a tonic for grief. But when I got there I felt lost. I kept hoping to feel something big, to realize something grand, but what I found were echoing streets and T-shirt shops and bars. Isn’t that the way life goes? Blanche and Richard weren’t there anymore. Not a single atom.

6. You say that you used to believe their story after leaving Leadville was one of defeat. After learning more about their lives, how do you view their story now?

I had been ready to see their story that way because I had such limited information about them and I was feeling fatalistic myself about life. He makes his fortune, wins the girl, they ride off into the sunset. And then they lose everything in the Great Depression. Boom! But after digging around I realized that Richard’s great passion in life, mining, didn’t end with the Great Depression. He worked in mining most of his life, in Arizona. He managed an extremely successful mine. He wrote a book about mining. He loved mining, and although they lived modestly, they did all right for themselves. They raised four delightfully vital, curious and big-hearted girls, one of whom was my grandmother Mary. They thrived.

7. At the very end, you say, directly to Blanche “Knowing your story gives me the courage to live mine.” I thought this was a very powerful statement; after learning of Blanche and Richard’s story, do you view your own life in a different light?

Blanche had character. She did what needed to be done. She was so courageous. After their fancy society wedding in Leadville, she moved with Richard out to Nevada and they lived in a tiny shack out in all that dust and cold and nothingness. Life was very primitive for them. He took risks, but she did too. She cast her lot with his, she partook, and she didn’t complain. Hard things came her way, like her isolating deafness, or being alone with their four children for long periods of time, but she struggled to stay connected to the people around her. That could not have been easy. She prevailed and even at the end of her life, there was a sparkle to her.

8. Are you working on anything at the moment?

I’m working on a collection of essays right now about what it means to be home.


Interview with James Knisely

James Knisely is the author of “Riding the Storm,” an essay featured in North Dakota Quarterly Volume 80.1. The essay talks about the author’s experience as a fire lookout and compares them to those of another author/fire lookout, Jack Kerouac. Knisely was kind enough to answer a few questions about the essay for NDQ’s series of author interviews.

  1. In “Riding the Storm,” you literally are “riding the storm” that came in that night. What made this experience stand out more than others you may have experienced? Also, how longdid you end up working at Little Mountain Lookout?

In a place like Little Mountain where visitors are rare, the life of the lookout is a life of solitude. And sometimes boredom. And loneliness. Those experiences stand out in their own ways, as Kerouac found—but one like flying utterly alone through the furious heart of an electrical storm stands out in its own way, believe me!

I worked as a lookout and fireguard a total of four summers. My tenure at Little Mountain was about three months, though unlike Kerouac, I was taken down from the mountain during periods of damp weather. If I’d been left up there the whole time, I might have been as overwhelmed by the isolation as he was.

  1. In the beginning of the essay, you state that you were still searching for your voice as a novelist or a poet, so you returned to the mountain in 1961. What drew you back to the mountain to find your voice (obviously it worked!)?

For starters, it was my summer job. But it was a job that gave me all the time and quiet a writer could want. Even so, as a twenty-year-old adolescent I hadn’t yet developed either a satisfying voice for my writing or a clear sense of myself, so I found myself in a kind of love-hate relationship with the solitude of the mountain. After I’d been on the mountain a couple of weeks I could hardly wait to get back down to “civilization.” After I’d been down a few days, I could hardly wait to get back up.

  1. Have you since returned to the mountain? Would you ever go back and “ride” another storm, or was it a sort of one-time deal?

I’ve never been back to Little Mountain because, as the source of Seattle’s water, the Cedar River watershed is closed to the public. And since those days, the tower has been torn down. The storm experience was one of those once-in-a-lifetime thrills. It might be fun to experience that excitement again (knowing I’d probably survive), but it would still be plenty scary.

I ask myself from time to time whether, as an older version of my young self, I’d like the solitude more now. I don’t know. The poet Tim McNulty spent a few weeks one summer during his mid-fifties at Gary Snyder’s lookout on Sourdough Mountain. He says the loneliness didn’t get to him—he savored it.

  1. One part of the essay that really stuck in my mind was when you saw the ghostly fireballs dancingon the shuttersI could almost picture it in my own mind. Can you explain further your initial thoughts when you saw this phenomenon? Were you frightened, or more amazed at what you were seeing?

Though I had read in school or somewhere of St. Elmo’s mysterious fire, it was simply one of those obscure phenomena you read about somewhere and then forget. I had certainly never seen such a thing. So when these balls of blue fire flickered forth before my very (and just then exceedingly vulnerable) eyes, I can tell you they caught my attention! Frightened? Amazed? Filled with wonder? With awe? Terrified? Have mercy, all of those and more!

  1. 5. When reading “Riding the Storm,” I initially thought your experience seemed pretty frightening. But you said that you felt happy, and you were glad to be there at that time. Were you at all scared? What exactly made you feel the happiness you felt, while in a very dangerous and scary setting?

It was a rush! It was partly an adrenaline blast and partly the fear of being obliterated by the universe itself and partly the understanding that I would probably survive, if only because the place was designed to keep me alive and had been tested by others—presumably with success. And it was a rare experience of astonishing power and beauty. To ride that wave of excitement and terror thinking I’d most likely survive was an amazing sensation—not just a rush but a kind of joy.

  1. Did you ever imagine that this experience would be one you would one day write about?

For some reason I didn’t write about it for fifty years. I don’t know why. Funny. One day Katie Klahn of the Cedar River Education Center asked me to write it up, and it was only then that I began to contrast my experience to Kerouac’s. Until then I had mostly noticed the similarities in our experience of that beautiful but haunting loneliness.

  1. What was the most importantthing (or lesson, thoughts, etc.) you took from the experience? What did you learn about yourself and about nature in general?

I suggest in my piece that I had a transformative revelation of some sort, which I did. But I’m not sure I can give it a name. A new sense of being alive, perhaps. A sense of Zen-like paradox—that I could experience opposites like terror and joy at the same time. Kerouac went to the mountain looking for God. For me the experience of the storm was not so much about God as it was about the chaos in which we live, the natural universe. But if our quests for God express our quest for life and order, my experience of The Chaos gave me a glimpse into the wild disorder through which we pass—and which passes through us. Pretty cool.

James Knisely is a native Seattleite. His novel, Chance: An Existential Horse Opera, was a finalist for the 2003 Washington State Book Awards. His poetry and prose have appeared in Exquisite Corpse, Knock, the now defunct Point No Point, Summit, and online with several essays at An interview with him appeared in The Raven Chronicles (Vol 13.1, 2007) He’s honored to be the Novelist-in-Residence at Seattle’s legendary Blue Moon Tavern, where Kerouac was also known to toast the muse.

Interview with John Picard

John Picard is the author of “At the Creation Museum,” an essay featured in North Dakota Quarterly Volume 80.1. In it, he talks about his experiences as a “heathen” in a family of fundamentalist Christians. Picard was kind enough to answer a few questions for NDQ’s series of author interviews.

In “At the Creation Museum” you talk about people being separated by ideas. What do you think is the fundamental difference between those who trust in the reality of supernatural or empirically “un-provable” phenomena and those who take a more scientific approach?

Putting aside the question of the God gene, I think the major difference is the ability to believe in something that defies rationality. In my case, I was desperate to believe. All I wanted was “the peace that passeth all understanding…through Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7) It didn’t happen. On the contrary, there was only anxiety and depression. I can hear a certain kind of Christian saying, “That’s because you didn’t turn your struggle with your faith over to the Lord.” I did, though, until I was forced to the conclusion that no one was listening. I could no longer ignore what my logical mind kept insisting wasn’t true. Giving up the struggle, embracing my agnosticism, was a relief, a relief I feel to this day.

Science tells us that the earth is a great deal older than 6,000 years. Why do you think there are still people who believe this to be untrue?

For fundamentalists, it’s part of the whole package, part of believing in other things that also have no basis in scientific fact. Like dinosaurs and humans co-existing. It becomes an article of faith. Not to believe the earth is 6000 years old is to cast doubt on everything else.

In your essay, when addressing the divide in your family, you hold yourself and your secularism just as accountable as your family and their fundamentalism. Do you think this is common, or do you believe most people take an us-versus-them view?

It’s hard not to take an us-versus-them view, especially when you’re outnumbered. I certainly took it, and still do sometimes. But I’ve also recognized that if my family and I are equally accountable for the divide, we’re equally innocent. We can’t help what we believe. (The God gene may be creeping in here.) I’m not at fault. They’re not at fault. We simply have different views and values.

What advice do you have for those who experience a similar divide? 

Keep it to yourself. Have the good taste and the sense not to parade your beliefs before the people you love and care for. In my family we have a tacit agreement. I don’t challenge their religious views and they don’t challenge my secular ones. What’s sad is that so much wariness and inhibition put up a barrier to greater intimacy. Not being able to share each other’s most deeply held beliefs creates a palpable superficiality, a constant and sometimes painful reminder of what you’re missing. I will never be as close to my family as I am to my like-minded friends, and my family will never be as close to me as they are to their like-minded friends. The best we can do is to keep our differences to ourselves and try to enjoy one another’s company.

Can you describe your writing process? 

Mostly trial and error, a paragraph here, a page there, over a long period. Incremental. Painstaking. I usually have more than one story going at a time, since I am constantly running into what feels like a dead end, then switching to another story that also felt like a dead end the last time I worked on it, but that I hope, thanks to the respite, will consent to advance another paragraph or two.

Which authors inspire you?

I was originally inspired by J.D. Salinger and Vladimir Nabokov. I did poor imitations of them for years. But they did their job; they got me to the typewriter. Like many prose writers of my generation I had a Raymond Carver period. Less typically, perhaps, I also had a Donald Barthelme phase. Since then I’ve been fairly free of influences, though Kakfa inspires me in a way I don’t understand, unless it’s how seriously he took his writing.

 What are you reading now?

I just read Donald Antrim’s collection of short stories, Emerald Light in the Air. It includes “Another Manhattan,” the best story I’ve read by a contemporary writer in years. As for nonfiction, I recently read The Short and Tragic of Life of Robert Peace, a heartbreaker, and I’m very much enjoying Charles R. Cross’s Room Full of Mirrors: a biography of Jimi Hendrix.

John Picard is a native of Washington, D.C., living in North Carolina. He has an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He has published fiction and nonfiction in Iowa Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, New England Review, Mid-American Review, Gettysburg Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and West Branch, among others. He is a recipient of a North Carolina Arts Council grant for fiction. A collection of his stories, Little Lives, was published by Mint Hill Books.