Brook Trout and the Writing Life
The Intermingling of Fishing and Writing in a Novelist’s Life
By Craig Nova
Foreword by Ann Beattie
Eno Publishers 1999, 2011
Originally published in 1999 this version of Brook Trout and the Writing Life The intermingling of fishing and writing in a novelist’s life is newly expanded, though it is still a fairly slim volume at 145 pages. Brook Trout is writer and fly fisher Craig Nova’s memoir and to be absolutely truthful I had some trepidation about this book based on the title. Fly fishing writers can sometimes be guilty of imbuing the act of fly fishing with too much meaning, meaning that really doesn’t exist. Every part of the fishing act becomes a metaphor. This kind of writing can work, but often it becomes too heavy handed and forced for my taste. Mr. Nova avoids that trap with ease and grace. In Nova’s own words from the preface:
Of course, this book was never really about fishing. I meant it to be about people I cared for and about the passage of time.
And so it is. The act of fly fishing and it’s quarry the trout are a sort of mnemonic device that allow Nova to reach back through time and locate the memories that he wants to share. Fly fishing is not shoe horned and bullied into meanings. Instead the fly fishing stories in the book act more like the lepidopterist’s pins, piercing and holding a life-long collection of otherwise fleeting memories. For instance the story of his first brook trout is used as a backdrop for the story of how he met his future wife. The memory of his early romance is intermingled beautifully and naturally with the fishing. While reading I was often left with the feeling that I discovered something hidden and maybe even natural, native and organic. But I’m sure it is all very carefully crafted writing, extremely subtle and rewarding, such as in this passage:
One Saturday morning I got up early and went out with the fly rod. It was foggy when I got to the wood road, and when I came to the seep, the mist in the woods was filled with slanting rays of light as you might see in a dusty room, the lines defined by the long streaks of shadows made by the spruce and hemlock that grew on the steep sides of the hill. I followed the rill. In the mist, which was a little cool, and in that light, which came in as through a cathedral window, I thought of the warmth of the space under the blanket where Christina was sleeping.
In those days, I really didn’t know what I was doing in the fishing department, but at least I had some notion of the theoretical aspects of catching fish on a fly.
I enjoyed this book quite a bit. Craig Nova’s writing is peaceful and graceful, never heavy-handed. It is like a peaceful day alone on the the stream, winding along casting, picking up a fish here and there. Just as fly fishing is for him, the author has created a book that is a respite, a place to be quietly lost for a while. This book is first a personal memoir and second a book about fly fishing. But there is plenty for the fly fisherman to enjoy in its pages.
A new issue of Rise Forms online literary fly fishing magazine went live today.
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
I’d like to announce the birth of a new fly fishing magazine; Rise Forms: Fly Fishing’s Literary Voice. There are many fly fishing magazines available – most focus on “where-to” and “how-to” or they offer beautiful photos of gleaming fish and dream destinations. By design, Rise Forms will be a bit different from those fly fishing magazines already floating around. Rise Forms will be a place to read about the fly fishing life. As Fly fishing’s literary voice, Rise Forms seeks to find and publish work that conveys both the passion and contemplative nature of fly fishing through high quality, literary works of non-fiction, fiction and even poetry.
Our website is under development but you can get a flavor of it from the About Us page and learn about the editorial board and more on both the general philosophy of the magazine as well as the specific topics we hope to cover.
We are in the process of soliciting articles from a wide range of authors covering an array of topics. If you would like to be considered for publication, please read the Submission Guidelines.
If you have any questions or comments about Rise Forms, please use the Contact Page.
We anticipate launching in the fall of 2010. We look forward to reading your submissions.
Rise Forms: Fly fishing’s literary voice
Trout Fishing in America (1967) by Richard Brautigan
Where to begin…A friend of mine, Larry, exposed me to Richard Brautigan about 15 years ago. It has been an on again off again relationship with Brautigan from that time on. Not because my enthusiasm for his writing has waxed and waned but because there is only so much to read. Richard Brautigan has left this world for the trout streams of the next – there will be no more from him. I need to pace myself. There are not many books that I have read more than once – Trout Fishing in America is one of them. It has been long enough since the last reading, and I’ve forgotten enough that I can appreciate it anew.
Don’t let the title confuse you – this book is not a “how-to”, “where-to” fly fishing book. It’s more of a collection of rambling prose poems that revolve around trout fishing. Try to imagine if you took Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac, John Gierach, and maybe just a bit of Gabriel García Márquez and mixed them in a blender – the result might be something like Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America.
One of the early passages begins like this:
One spring afternoon as a child in the strange town of Portland, I walked down to a different street corner, and saw a row of old houses, huddled together like seals on a rock. Then there was a long field that came sloping down off a hill. The field was covered with green grass and bushes. On top of the hill there was a grove of tall, dark trees. At a distance I saw a waterfall come pouring down off the hill. It was long and white and I could almost feel its cold spray.
There must be a creek there, I thought, and it probably has trout in it.
As you read this you have a feeling where it might be going. A nice recollection of a formative childhood experience wherein the author’s trout fishing journey begins. But, you’re reading Richard Brautigan, so the story takes a left turn and you end up somewhere completely different:
But as I got closer to the creek I could see that something was wrong. The creek did not act right. There was a strangeness to it. There was a thing about its motion that was wrong. Finally I got close enough to see what the trouble was.
The waterfall was just a flight of white wooden stairs leading up to a house in the trees.
I stood there for a long time, looking up and looking down, following the stairs with my eyes, having trouble believing.
Then I knocked on my creek and heard the sound of wood.
Well – Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America is not for everyone. I imagine Brautigan’s books are polarizing – you either love them or hate them. I don’t think they allow for much middle ground.
Normally, in a book review, I’d give you a link to a place to buy it. But not for this book. Sure you could go to Amazon or ebay – but the most fitting way to find Brautigan’s books is to stumble upon them in a used book store. Maybe you’ll even find Trout Fishing in America mis-filed in the Fishing section. Maybe you’ll see it from a distance and mistake it for a trout stream and only when you get closer will you realize that it is a book. And then you’ll read it and realize it is more like a trout stream.
I recently came across StoryArc. This site is the work of David Motes. He presents fiction and poetry with a fly-fishing or outdoors focus. He is not going for the usual stories though. David explains the inception and focus of this project on his website in a section called A Rationale.
I’ve been writing fishing stories and poetry for 30 years, but it’s always been on the back burner, behind jobs that pay, family, novels, actual fishing, and so on. About once a year I take my bundle on the market, submitting here and selling there. But ambitious stuff about fishing and the outdoors is not exactly a hot property. The poetry that gets bought tends to rhyme. The fiction that sells and reads is of the Santiago genre. You know it: man vs. beast, in which the man is old and savvy or young and callow; the beast is hoary, cagy, scar-lipped, monstrous-racked, and endowed with curiously human faculties and attributes.
David is interested, not only in presnting his own work, but the work of others. So – give his page a read, and maybe it will get your creativity flowing too.
In the name of full disclosure I have to reveal that a poem of mine, Ephemera, was recently posted on StoryArc. Thanks David.