Jeff Vande Zande
Whistling Shade Press, 2010
Threatened Species is a new collection of stories by Jeff Vande Zande. It brings together the novella Threatened Species along with five short stories. Since Casting Around is nominally a fly fishing blog let me say that most of these stories have some fly fishing action. However, two of the short stories are devoid of fly fishing content – but that can be easily forgiven. After all, there is more to life than fly fishing (or so I’ve been told). Don’t be mistaken, Threatened Species is a heavy collection. These stories are populated by people in pain, people suffering from loss, people making bad decisions in spite of knowing better, people haunted by their past – in other words, real people, people like you and me. And if you don’t see a little of yourself in Jeff Vande Zande’s characters then you’re either a saint or you’re deceiving yourself.
In the title novella, Threatened Species, we meet Ed Winters and his son Danny as they set off together on a camping and fishing road trip. It’s a bittersweet time for Ed because it will be the last two weeks that he’ll spend with Danny before Danny moves to France with his mother and his new step dad, John. I don’t want to spoil the story so I won’t say too much, but Ed is not handling the impending departure of his son very well and the road trip becomes something more than he planned. Let me just say that I’m a sucker for a road trip story. There is just something exhilarating about loading up the car and hitting the highway (especially if there’s some camping and fishing gear involved). I find the freedom of being on the road, with no demands except to drive and blast some tunes, exciting, relaxing and therapeutic. However road trips are a very temporary escape – they come with their own sort of anxiety built in – that anxiety comes from the fact that road trips can’t last forever. It’s this anxiety and eventuality that makes a road trip the perfect setting for this particular story.
The narration of the title story alternates primarily between Ed’s and Danny’s points of view, and I think that it serves this story well. Being a novella, there has to be an economy of writing and using multiple points of view allows us to get more information from less action. We get to see the past and the present of the situation from more than one angle, thus making it more three dimensional. Also, seeing the story from a child’s as well as an adult’s viewpoint gives the story more depth and more tension. Incidentally it is the boy, Danny, who is the fly angler in the story – he is being taught to fly fish by his step dad. His dad, Ed Winters, is primarily a spin-fishing guy. So in a refreshing twist, fly fishing itself becomes a source of conflict in the story and thus not a perfect escape from the troubles of the world. This is true of the other stories in the book too – when the characters are fly fishing they are not allowed to achieve that perfect zen-like state of peace and harmony as it is often idealized in much writing. When these characters go fly fishing they take their lives along with them, troubles and all, just like it happens in real life.
Sometimes I’m happy with just a good yarn, but sometimes I want to read something more weighty, something that feels like it matters. These stories fit that bill. The author gives the careful reader much to discover just under the surface of the action– but it feels easy and natural and not at all overwrought. This passage from the title story is a good example of that:
The fire pit appeared in the headlights. No fire in it, but the twigs and small branches leaned against each other, tepee style. Kindling. He’d slid birch bark into some of the spaces, left others open. “The space is as important as the wood,” he told me four years ago. Mom had listened, shaking her head. “He’s too young for fires,” she’d said.
“A fire survives on fuel and space,” he explained. “Too much of either kills it. It’s a balancing game.”
All of the stories in this collection complement each other well. They have the common threads of theme and mood. These are tales of people that have suffered loss. They are tales of people, if not at rock bottom, then at least at a crossroads in their lives. The question is, which way will they go? At the end of these stories we’re not always sure. But, I think that we’re given hope that things may work out in the end. Will things be perfect for these characters? Will they get a story book ending? Probably not – but will they move forward? Do they have hope? I think so. A quote from the story, Mercury, sums up the themes of this collection well. The protagonist of the story, Branson, is suffering because of a troubled relationship with his backsliding son. As exhibited in his fishing, Branson, is reacting poorly, and in a self-defeating way, and he knows better. He’s not ready to move on, he still wants to suffer a little maybe, and he still wants to control things and to have things on his terms. But in the end, he’s still fishing. And as long as you’re still fishing, there’s still hope.
Earlier, around the upstream bend, he’d lost one of his favorite flies in some high branches. It was a pattern his son had tied. After losing it, Branson had sat on a fallen tree near the bank and picked flies from his day box and vest patch, dropping them one by one onto the river’s surface until they all were gone. Nearly one hundred. He watched each one for as long as he could until the distance dissolved them. Before dropping the last one, a big hex pattern for fishing downstate rivers in June, he smirked and tied it on his line. He’d been crash landing it into some of the best holes for the last half hour.
As a cool extra feature to this book review, the author, Jeff Vande Zande was kind enough to submit to a few questions of mine. This interview is presented below. Enjoy!
Many of your characters seem to be stuck in a place where they are doing the wrong thing over and over, but they can’t stop. Or they are headed down a path that they know is self-defeating, but they continue in the same direction. They seem to know the right thing to do but they can’t do it. I think that this is the basic challenge of being human, and I can see myself in these people. I may not have gone so far along the path as some of the characters though. I wonder if this is something that is born of personal experience? Or is it more of an exploration of where you might end up if you gave into impulse, what you might call a sort of “worst-case-scenario”?
Oddly enough, my personal experiences are generally pretty good. I had a great upbringing, great friends, went to college, great job, great wife and kids. I think I tend to make pretty good choices, too, for the most part. You should see my I.R.A. profits! If I ever go down in history for my writing, mine will not be one of those writer biographies that anyone would want to read. It’d be a yawn. I think of Hemingway or Byron or Plath or Kerouac . . . writers whose lives alone make for great reading. I mean, in the hands of a good biographer, I guess any life can be made interesting, but I think a biographer would have to work pretty hard to make my life seem racy or intriguing.
So, yes, I guess I do imagine characters in worst-case scenarios. I still do borrow from my life, though. Like, to write Ed Winter’s situation, I had to keep imagining myself in that situation. What if I was going to be separated from my son…what would that feel like? And, I think for many people, we struggle against ourselves. We often stand in our own way. Even though I said I have a pretty good life, I still have regrets every day. Like, I might help my son with his math homework and get really impatient with him…an impatience I don’t exhibit with my college students. Why is that? How is it that I can be patient with people who are practically strangers to me, but I can’t be nearly as patient with my own son? These are often my regrets at night as I lie in bed. I replay scenes from the day and think about how I would do them differently. The fortunate thing is that we usually have the next day to try again. That’s the situation most of my characters find themselves in. They need to see how they are getting in their own way…and then see the next day as an opportunity to try again. Isn’t that they way it is for most of us?
I see the ideas of “loss and brokenness” as some of the threads that tie these stories together. These are stories of loss; loss through death and and loss through broken relationships. The characters are broken by their losses and they are in the midst of crises. At the end of the stories we are not sure which direction the characters will go. Is this a reflection of a belief that change is hard to affect and that maybe fundamental change is nearly impossible – and that loss can affect us in ways that we can’t recover from? Or is it more of a way to allow the reader to bring more of himself to the story by not providing all the details in a neatly wrapped-up ending? Or maybe some combination?
Really good question. I’ve been told more than a few times that I write depressing stories. I guess I don’t totally buy that. I like to believe that I write human stories. I guess I do write subtle endings, but I like to believe that they point, more often than not, to some sense of hope. The hope might be subtle, but I think that’s truthful. I think Threatened Species ends in hope. I mean, sure, Ed isn’t going to get his old life back, but the life that the last chapter hints at . . . I find hope there. And, yes, I think the reader does bring something to the end of the story. I try not to write them so that they are totally ambiguous, but I do want the reader to be engaged in the “what ifs” of that character’s future life. Some, like “Breakdown” are pretty bleak, but others like “NUFOINFO” suggest hope. More than anything, I want the stories to be a truthful reflection of life – especially lives in crisis. Some losses we recover from, or begin to recover from…or recreate ourselves from. Others we don’t recover from. That’s life, right? In the end, what we are left with (hopefully) is another day to keep trying. Fiction – solid literary fiction – should reflect the truth of the human condition, and the truth that I’ve seen has little to do with neatly wrapped-up endings. But, with luck, we get wiser. We live better and make better choices…or we don’t. Like, tonight, I’m going to help my kid with his math, and I’m going to try to be patient. If I fail, I’m going to try again tomorrow. Half of improving as a human being is recognizing what we’re doing wrong and trying to grow from it. Maybe we spend too much time trying to avoid our flaws rather than growing from them.
I can’t help but to think about how fly-fishing brings out some of the same behaviors in us that your characters exhibit in their lives. Specifically I’m thinking about the irrational way that we fly anglers sometimes cling to things that aren’t working – and have no real hope of working. Occasionally, I’ve found myself floating flies over the same fish for way longer than I’d like to admit (hours). Or flogging the water with a dry-fly when I know it’s next to hopeless. We fly fishers are guilty of repeating the same actions over and over and expecting different results. If I’m not mistaken this kind of behavior has actually been used as a definition of insanity. Did you consider this idea when writing the fly fishing related stories in this collection?
I think writers often write about fly fishing because the act is so metaphorical. I mean, it’s ridiculous really to think that we can imitate life (fly tying) in order to capture life (fly fishing). And yet, it often works…sometimes with spectacular results. Fly fishing also reminds us that life is about loss, loneliness, and misplaced efforts. It’s also about finding the healing in life. I have to believe that many of us go to the river for something more than just fish. It’s an elixir, a healing, and a commune with nature (something that modern life usually doesn’t provide). We rediscover ourselves on rivers. We discover that the act of fly fishing is a source of beauty and mystery that we need to stay grounded – like my main character in “Writing on the Wall”. Also, though, it’s very easy to romanticize fly fishing. Often we go to the river thinking it’s going to heal us, and we end up standing alone, with a rod of graphite in our hands, in an indifferent current . . . sometimes with our problems weighing heavier on us rather than lighter. In the end, it’s just fishing. It’s nothing . . . and it’s everything. Sorry, I’m getting all mystical.
I think fly fishing is great to write about too because of the words and phrases: hatches, reading the water, tippet, back casting, roll casting, blue-winged olives (I mean, when else do you get to write about an olive with blue wings…it’s freaking poetry!). Brook trout, rainbows, cutthroat . . . I mean, what a great collection of words! Writers love words, and fly fishing opens up so many fun words to write with.
And now for something really personal. If I were to come fly fishing in your neck of the woods, when should I come and where should I fish?
Michigan is a great state for fly fishing. For the hatches, come in May and June. If you want big fish, look for the Hex hatch and be ready to stay up until two in the morning to catch those lunker browns. I say this out of rumor more than experience.
For myself, my fishing technique is pretty counter-intuitive. I fish in the day, I use dry flies only, and I’m usually off the water by the time it’s dark. I also tend to avoid “hatch season”. That probably explains why I usually only catch six to eight inch brookies. But, I love those brookies. I love watching that dry fly go under.
As to my favorite waters. I’m a big fan of the Mason Tract on the South Branch of Michigan’s Au Sable river system. More often than not, however, you’ll usually find me on the North Branch because my in-laws own a cabin there. It’s grown on me although, with all the cabins, I often feel like I’m fishing in people’s front yards. I also really like the Pigeon River. It sees a little less traffic than some of Michigan’s better-known rivers. Honestly, like any fisherman, I’m not much for a crowded river.
You can find out more about Jeff Vande Zande at his website: http://jeffvandezande.blogspot.com/
You can purchase Threatened Species from amazon.com: Threatened Species – A novella and five stories