By Leslie Lindsay
A rare and powerful memoir combing aspects of travel, history, environmental writing with autobiography and told in luminous prose.
~MEMOIR MONDAY| ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
On the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevadas, a tiny town known as Swall Meadows resides. A bit farther south, a larger (but still small) town of Bishop lies cradled in the hands of Owens Valley California. This is the primary setting of MIRACLE COUNTRY (Algonquin Books, July 14) by debut author Kendra Atleework.
I was initially drawn to MIRACLE COUNTRY because I have a ‘thing’ with land and geography, how it shapes one’s worldview, art, and essence.Having recently visited a high desert myself, I was intrigued and enthralled with this grittier, rustic side of life–from raging wildfires to blizzards and gale-force winds, this area witnesses it all.
MIRACLE COUNTRY blends autobiography with environmental writing along with history. Here, we learn about the origins of L.A. (Owens Valley being just a few hours away), and how the Los Angeles Aqueduct was developed to usher water to the sprawling metropolis, rich with stars and more. Atleework writes with a radiant hand, casting light and luminosity into the darkest reaches. I learned more about William Mulholland and Mary Austin, pioneers to the area, and more about wildfires, flight (both metaphorical and literal), as well as what it means to come home.
When Kendra was six, her mother was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder and died when she was sixteen. The relationship they forged seemed to be of pureness and love, her mother a force as strong as the environmental landscape in which she raised her children. Atleework knits this loss into the narrative, but it is not the sole focus. With her mother’s death, the family disintegrates slightly, and Kendra moves away to Minnesota, full of green and trees and water, the polar opposite of where she grew up. I found this ironic and yes–disappointing. Here, Atleework began the arduous task of finding herself, of coming to the realization that she needed to ‘go home.’
MIRACLE COUNTRY is a shimmering, gorgeously told history of a region, written with ripples of life, love, and loss.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Kendra Atleework to the author interview series.
Kendra, I always like to know what was haunting a writer into a particular story. For you, I think it was a literal haunting—the land was sort of calling you home, as was your mother. Is that about right? Was there something more?
For a while as a teenager I couldn’t wait to leave home and go live in a city where I could do cool stuff like hang out in Hot Topic. But not long after I left, I got wreckingly homesick. I remember lying in bed in my college dorm and listening to Joanna Newsom sing about her own little town in the Sierra Nevada and remembering how moths used to batter themselves against my bedroom window screen and I could hear wind in the pine trees on the mountain and see the desert glow in the moonlight, and the landscape and the memories of my family and our broken wholeness just followed me around for years and, yes, eventually pulled me home.
Home and place have such strong connections—and connotations—it’s about origin, but also about reaching out. And with this pandemic, we’ve all been spending much more time at home. Can you talk about that, please?
It’s been interesting to spend a solid four months in my hometown without so much as a road trip to Reno (our closest city, four hours away). At first, like everyone, I mourned the loss of plans, including an in-person book tour. Then I tried to distract myself make the most of it by planting a big garden. There’s something to be said for circumstances forcing you to dig in and really experience where you are. Writers spend plenty of quiet time in our heads so that was nothing new. Staying put was. I always have some wanderlust, but I’m still not sick of home. I could run out a hundred lifetimes here and still not be done with it.
“A sensitive, thoughtful portrait of a part of California that few people see–or want to . . . A welcome update of classic works on California’s arid backcountry by Mary Austin, Marc Reisner, and Reyner Banham.”
I know that displaced feeling. Like you, I moved away from my home state of Missouri for Minnesota. I didn’t feel I ‘fit’ with the Minnesota landscape or culture. Here, in MIRACLE COUNTRY, I see the irony—the green, the lakes—how different from the brown and the desert. You had to go away to find yourself, didn’t you? Can you expand on this a bit?
Learning to exist in Minnesota was wonderful. In the desert and the mountains, if you’re hot, you take off your long-sleeved sun shirt and dip it in a stream and then it’s like you’re wearing an AC unit—the water evaporates and cools you. Turns out this does NOT work in the humid Midwest. Everything is wet, all the time, forever. Turns out there is mold in the Midwest! Turns out there are incredible, spontaneous thunderstorms! And no one knows about drip irrigation! These and other lessons were mine to enjoy in Minnesota. I fell deeply in love with the wet summer greenness and the snowy winter stillness of the North Shore of Lake Superior. And while in Minneapolis I was never completely at home, I needed that distance from the desert—needed to watch California experience extreme drought from afar—to get a clearer perspective of my home, why I had left, and why I needed to return, despite the danger and difficult memories that awaited me.
I recently traveled to the Rocky Mountains and learned about Isabella Bird, folks refer to her as a the first female mountaineering literary bad-ass. She wrote about her time as an English lady in the mountains in the 1800s. This reminded me of Mary Austin in MIRACLE COUNTRY. Can you tell us a little more about Mary and her role in the book?
Mary Austin is a maverick desert lady who helps me talk about my home historically and also serves as a parallel to my mom, who moved to my home region alone as a young woman and did things like get buried under the snow so her search and rescue team could practice avalanche rescue.
Mary Austin moved to my home valley in 1892. She wrote her most famous book, Land of Little Rain (published in 1903, a gorgeous, slim essay collection about the deserts of California that’s way ahead of its time as far as place-based nonfiction goes) while living in a little brown house here in the valley. She was a wild desert woman if ever there was one—she ended up leaving her marriage so she could roam the country and write. She was a keen observer of harsh landscapes and the people who make a home from them. And her writing is lovely. To give a sense of her voice, here’s one of my favorite quotes of hers, from Land of Little Rain, about my home desert:
“For all the toll the desert takes of a man it gives compensations—deep breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of the stars…They look large and near and palpitant; as if they moved on some stately service not needful to declare. Wheeling to their stations in the sky, they make the poor world-fret of no account. Of no account you who lie out there watching, nor the lean coyote that stands off in the scrub from you and howls and howls.”
Your writing is so unique and gorgeous and lyrical. I felt the grit but also the shimmering jewel buried within these pages. Can you share a bit about your process and if you have any rituals or routines?
The most important thing I do to benefit my writing at the sentence level is read. When I was in grad school for writing, reading was about 70% of my work. I considered, and still consider, myself in an apprenticeship to great writers via their books. I still spend about half my working hours reading books that really light me up with the beauty of their sentences. That’s how I keep language in mind as a material that can be shaped.
Also, while MIRACLE COUNTRY is technically a memoir, it combines elements of travel writing, history, narrative nonfiction, environmental writing, and maybe even a touch of magical realism. Without complete sentences, how do you describe MIRACLE COUNTRY?
A lifetime’s worth of sorting out what it means to be from a place and from a family, to lose that family and leave that place behind, and then to come home and cobble it all back together again. To learn to see beyond a personal loss to a loss shared across a whole community, loss at the level of the landscape, loss experienced by people at different moments in history. When we can recognize our story as it joins a bigger picture and draw some comfort from that, I believe we have found home.
Kendra, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
Not that I can think of…thank you!
Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook.
For more information, to connect with Kendra Atleework via social media, or to purchase a copy of MIRACLE COUNTRY, please visit:
I was reminded, in part, of the work of Isabella Bird (moutaineer woman from the 1800s) meets other environmental writings akin to Cheryl Strayed meets Bobi Conn (IN THE SHADOW OF THE VALLEY) with a touch of Sarah M. Broom’s THE YELLOW HOUSE.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Kendra Atleework received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. An essay that formed the basis for a chapter of Miracle Country was selected for The Best American Essays 2015. She is the recipient of the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award and the AWP Intro Journals Project Award.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012) and former Mayo Clinic child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. She is at work on a memoir. Her writing has been published in Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, Cleaver Magazine (craft and CNF), The Awakenings Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Ruminate’s The Waking, Brave Voices Literary Magazine, Manifest-Station, and others. Her cover art was featured on Up the Staircase Quarterly in May 2020, other photography in Another Chicago Magazine (ACM) and Brushfire Literature & Arts Journal; poetry in the Coffin Bell Journal, and CNF in Semicolon Literary Magazine; the 2nd edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA will be available this fall. Leslie has been awarded one of the top 1% reviewers on GoodReads and recognized by Jane Friedman as one of the most influential book reviewers. Since 2013, Leslie has interviewed over 700 bestselling and debut authors on her author interview series. Follow her bookstagram posts @leslielindsay1.
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[Cover and author image courtesy of author and used with permission. Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook.]