Karl Marlantes is the author of the bestselling books “Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War” and “What It Is Like To Go To War.” These books come from his intensely personal experiences from his time serving in the Marines during Vietnam. He also was born and grew up in Seaside.
His most recent novel “Deep River” continues mining his personal history, but in a different way. It’s a family epic centering on Scandinavian immigrants in the late 19th century as they struggle to adapt to life in a small logging town just off the banks of the Columbia River.
Q: You seem to have a lot of personal connection to your writing. After writing about your experiences in Vietnam, what inspired you to write about the area where you grew up?
Marlantes: Well, there is a whole series of motives.
First of all, I just love the area I grew up in and there’s a sense that if you love something you want to share it.
I grew up in Seaside when it was logging town. It’s a very different sort of culture today. And Astoria was basically logging and fishing and plywood mills, and, you know. That’s the era I grew up in and I love my childhood.
I think that I also wanted to talk about the darker side about growing up in that culture. I mean fishing and logging today are still the two of the most dangerous professions in the world. And five of my friends in a tiny little town, Seaside’s maybe 2,800 people when I was there.
Five of my friends lost their fathers in the woods to logging accidents. And my step-grandfather got his legs crushed in a log boom accident, had one amputated. My Greek grandfather lost an eye in a sawmill accident. They were dangerous times.
So I wanted to try to express the juxtaposition of what a wonderful time it was: there were dances, there was community. Those loggers made their own violins and they played them with their friends. The men and women mended nets together.
What I feel is just the irony of the heroism of these people.
You think about it they’re little, 5-feet-9-inches tall, and these trees are 14 to 15 feet in diameter, over 200 feet high.
My great-uncle told me sometimes it would take a couple of days to get these things down, because all they had was axes and handsaws.
One of the things I loved about the research is that somebody estimated the caloric consumption of a logger was 16,000 calories a day.
Think about that physical kind of work. They worked from dark to dark and six days a week — and still went dancing.
The irony is there’s no more old-growth forests. We cut it all down. And the same goes for the damn building, heroic effort. Seventy-two, 73 guys died building Grand Coulee Dam. So we could flip a switch and get electricity. But there is no Columbia River anymore, it’s a series of dams and lakes.
And then I have my own background. My mother’s first language was Finnish and my step-grandfather was a Swedish speaker but born in Finland. My biological grandfather who inspired one of the characters in the novel, was a Norwegian speaker. My brother and I called it cultural-linguistic schizophrenia because there were five languages in the house.
Q: That’s a lot.
Marlantes: We ended up speaking English because it was just too crazy, you know. I wish I had learned a couple of those languages. I tell people I can name all the cookies in any language.
Q: Speaking of your family, you talk a lot about the immigrant’s experience in your book. Can you tell me a little more about that?
Marlantes: Absolutely. There’s two things. First of all, I wanted to show the immigrant’s experience from the immigrant’s side and just the difficulties of language. In the novel, whenever they’re speaking from outside their own culture, they have a difficult time speaking. The have like three words like “Good worker” or something and it’s pretty tough and they don’t catch what people are saying. Having a novel gets you into the skin of people like that. And another thing is that I’ve also thought about is that it’s human nature — not America, it’s humans. We are so capable of demonizing anybody other than ourselves.
And my grandmother was a communist, right? She baked cookies and danced on Friday night. I mean, she was a grandmother! Her political view was that capitalism was bad and she had very sound reasons for it. She grew up under the Russian czar, an extreme form a capitalism that hadn’t been mitigated by laws. I could understand that. But she’s not a demon, she’s my grandmother! So my character Aino, she’s a radical communist, but she’s just a girl. We have to get over demonizing because we won’t get anywhere with that.
Q: It’s just very divided now.
Marlantes: Yeah, but the thing that’s interesting is that it was that divided 100 years ago, too. It may have been worse. Look, we have problems with income inequality, but we’re not shooting each other. The National Guard isn’t wading in with axe-handles. I mean it’s pretty bad, but we’ve been there before.
Q: Yeah, I mean you could say division kind of defines America.
Marlantes: It is human nature. Aksel is the character that keeps telling Aino: “Aino, it doesn’t make any difference whether we’re communists or capitalists, it’s whether we have good people or bad people running the place.”
Q: Exactly. So, to change gears here, describe what it was like growing up in Seaside? I hear your dad was the principal.
Marlantes: (laughs) That’s true, yeah. Where’d ya hear that? Who’d ya talk to?
Q: Oh, I’ve been asking around.
Marlantes: He was, much to my chagrin. I mean he was a high school teacher. When I was a little kid he sold insurance and worked at the bumper cars, which I thought was marvelous. It was amazing for a seven-year-old’s view of their dad.
I was so proud my daddy ran the bumper cars in the summer.
He went to school on the GI bill, got his degree to teach, was a high school teacher, then became principal just as I was about to go to high school — which was just horrible.
He was a really good principal. To this day people talk about what a wonderful educator he was. I’m very proud of him. And, you know, my mother started the Lutheran church in Seaside because there wasn’t one. And so she was very sort of “active.” She left school when she was 14 and she was the brains of the family, everybody knew that, even though my dad got the education. And I had a paper route with the Astoria Budget when I was in second grade. Nineteen customers.
Q: Do you have any plans after Deep River? Are you going to keep writing from this personal perspective?
Marlantes: I do have plans. The next novel is actually going to explore what I call “American naivete.” That’s what I’m sort of thinking about right now. I’m going to set it in the American embassy in Helsinki. I might take one of the characters from Deep River.
Q: So still exploring your roots a little bit, but in a different setting.
Marlantes: Way different! I’m going to have to do some research on what life was like in Helsinki in 1947. But I have been cross-country skiing so I do know a little bit about that. But I really do tend to agree that good writing is to write what you know about.
Marlantes now lives near Duvall, Washington, but he’ll be coming to the Cannon Beach Book Company on Thursday, July 11, at 7 p.m. as well as Beach Books in Seaside on Tuesday, Aug. 27, at 7 p.m. as part of his nationwide book tour. “Deep River” comes out this week.