"I Was Sweating It Out For Democracy": A Conversation with Anna Keesey

“Here is a fine novel, written with grace, about the settling of Oregon and the evening redness in the West. The desert town of Century is about to consume itself with greed and vengeance when a young orphan from Chicago shows up with a moral clarity that outstrips her age, to remind us that characters matters, and that justice is pursuant to conscience. Little Century is a frontier saga, a love story, and an epic of many small pleasures.”

— Joshua Ferris, author of The Unnamed and Then We Came to the End, winner of  the 2007 Discover Award for fiction

Dear Reader,

I’m crazy for Anna Keesey’s debut, Little Century, partially because I’m fascinated by stories about the opening of the American West, partially because she’s created a terrific voice in the character of Esther Chambers, but really, in the end, because her writing style is simply fantastic: spare and precise, earnest and ferocious. Comparisons have already been made to My Antonia and the film There will Be Blood, but let’s also add True Grit, Lonesome Dove, and Deadwood to that list.

Anna Keesey talks about period research, writing about the high desert, and the uglier side of American enterprise — among other  things — with Discover Great New Writers.

How would you best summarize Little Century?

I’d say this: In the juniper and sagebrush desert of Central Oregon, in the year 1900, a recently-orphaned girl of eighteen arrives in the town of Century to visit a distant cousin, a cattle rancher. Though she’s astonished by the austerity of the landscape and would like to flee home to Chicago, the girl, Esther, stays on, partly because her cousin Pick has inveigled her into taking a homestead claim under false pretenses, and she feels she has to keep her promise to him. But she soon sees that the town is in the grips of a range war — a competition between cattle people and sheep people for grazing land and water — and as the belligerent factions become more open and more violent in their competition, she becomes as embroiled in the economic, political, and romantic complexities of Century as any of the natives. The hostilities become the fire in which her adult self — her ethics, loyalties, loves, and vocation — are forged.

When did you first come up with the idea for the book?  

I had messed around with a few ideas for stories set in the high desert, blundering up various pathways and having to retreat because I was essentially still thinking as a short story writer, which was of course the only thing I’d done before. In that form you sometimes need relatively little plot, and the lyric movement, or the movement of the consciousness of a character, can shape the story. At some point, in reading about the history of Central Oregon, I read an account of a famous 1904 case that appeared to be connected to an ongoing conflict between sheep and cattle folks over grazing opportunities, in which a storekeeper disappeared and was later found dead out on the range. It was unclear what exactly had happened, whether it was a murder or a suicide, and if murder, who the culprit, and what the motive. That little mystery, that long-gone gap in the historical record, seeded the book. I just wanted to go into that world and imagine not what DID happen, but what COULD have happened — making that COULD a version that was full of currents and properties and details that held particular resonance for me. It’s world-building, like what a speculative fiction writer does. I suppose all historical fiction — if not all fiction — is speculative fiction, and I felt myself totally enlivened, imaginatively, by that opportunity for speculation.

Please tell me about the high desert where the novel is set. What drew you to it as a setting for your novel?

If you’ve ever been anywhere in the Great Basin of the west, you know some of the radical, hot, demanding beauty I’m describing. But one of the things that’s so amazing about Oregon’s peninsula of Great Basin, the central and south eastern part of the state, is that it’s so different from the western part, the Pacific Ocean side of the Cascades. That’s the Oregon of the stories, the rain-soaked fertile territory that drew the initial settlers who farmed and logged. And that’s where I grew up, in the wet Willamette Valley, where, as my grandmother used to say, you can stick anything in the ground and it will grow. But when I was a kid my father used to take us east across the Cascades to go skiing, and I was always weirdly stirred by the golden dryness and spicy smell and hairy straight Ponderosa pines and spiky juniper. I was accustomed to bronchial-looking oaks dripping seafoam-colored oak moss, and big dark wet droopy Douglas fir. I just always felt the desert was a kind of magical place. I’m not the only one, of course. It’s become rather…richly populated.  

Your main character Esther Chambers is at a major turning point in her life. How much do you identify with Esther, or how much of yourself did you write into her?

Wow. That’s hard to answer. She undergoes a kind of brutal maturation that all adolescents go through, which I certainly remember and identify with, in which they move from the relatively protected space of childhood into responsibility, perception, and risk. Not that all children have protected childhoods, because of course they don’t, but there’s a kind of fluidity, a protection from full consciousness, that children have and have to relinquish for the pleasures and sorrows of adulthood. In the book, Esther makes the better part of this transition in the space of one year — it takes most of us a lot longer to put it all together, to become a self we recognize as continuous and integrated. I have a strong memory of feeling like I had to figure everything out on my own, without asking questions, and of being embarrassed and full of self-loathing when I was at a loss, and she has some of that. I identify with Esther’s loneliness, certainly, and her receptivity to children and animals and funky eccentric people, all of whom I myself find consoling. I have her built physically quite a bit like me — that may be the telling fact — tall and broad-shouldered and light-haired. But she’s less talkative than I am and more disciplined and meticulous. I would never have the patience to do what she does in the novel — repairing mistakes on a typed page with little bits of paper!  

Little Century takes place at the beginning of the 20th century — what kind of research did you do about the period in order to tell this story?

I’d read a number of 19th-century and early 20th-century novels and memoirs, and with a bit of historical reading as well, it’s not too hard to get a snapshot of that gilded age, turn-of-the-century America. I read a lot of old newspapers — The Oregonian and various small-town Oregon papers — and looked at lots of photographs of old Oregon. I did a lot of reading on a need-to-know basis — that is, I needed to know who the Native Americans were who originally lived in Central Oregon, and where they were at the turn of the century, and how one operated a printing press, and what kind of typewriters were available, and when Robert Louis Stevenson’s poems were published in the United States and so on. It’s kind of a drag sometimes. Early on I had assigned Esther a particular typewriter sold at the time, with a name that was thematically useful to me: “The National.” Through many drafts of the book it was called The National. Then, as I was checking on something else, I realized that the National was actually configured such that the typist could not SEE the words typed — one had to lift up the carriage to check. And that would not work for my purposes in Esther’s typing scenes. That was one of the places where the fiction writer in me rode rough over the historian and I was like, “Screw it! I’ll make up my own brand of typewriter!”

While it’s a historical novel, Little Century is also very relevant to our present because it is in part about the uglier side of American enterprise. Could you talk a little bit about this aspect of the novel?

Sure. It was certainly on my mind, because I was writing the book mostly during the Bush Administration and the Iraq War, and I was extremely troubled by what struck me as imperialism and self-righteousness and transgression against individuals in name of a larger cause. I was worried about corporate control of the media, about the simplistic “othering” of the “enemy,” and the kind of coercion and exploitation — and worse — being done in the name of democracy. I mean — extraordinary rendition? Really? I was sweating it out for democracy — still am — and that flows into the book, repeatedly, in the form of the tiny but morally significant tensions in the town of Century. It wasn’t so different from now, in 1900. There were plutocrats and robber barons and a wide income gap, and there were ill-advised foreign wars characterized by jingoism. One of the pleasures of the research was reading some of Mark Twain’s anti-imperialist writing on the Philippine-American War, which was really a disgrace as far as I can see (though I’m no expert), and which Twain rejected in very powerful words. He was a very smart, humane guy, and he knew a misuse of American power when he saw it, and the profound connection between that misuse and corporate interests. After our recent economic crisis, it seems pretty clear that the profit motive, untempered by personal ethics or at least regulation, is a toxin. It makes people delusional, and crappy things happen. I know I felt I was referring to that force in the book, though it may not be readily apparent to all readers.

Who have you discovered lately?

I’m really playing catch-up with my reading because I’ve been working full-time as a college professor for years, and writing a book and raising a little boy, none of which leaves a lot of time for reading. But this summer, for the first time in years, I’m not writing a book, nor do I have a kid in diapers! I just had the pleasure of reading Madeline Miller’s novel The Song of Achilles, and I found it so absorbing and lovely that I rue having to wait a while until she can write the next thing. I also just flinched my way, with great speed, through Gillian Flynn’s hilarious and scary Gone Girl. I’ve read some historical stuff recently — Mary Hallock Foote’s memoir, some writings of the Oregon suffragette Abigail Scott Duniway, and Timothy Egan’s book about the Forest Service, The Big Burn. I’ve been rereading some Alice Munro and W.G. Sebald, always astonishing, both, and I’ve been repeatedly returning to Christian Wiman’s collection of poems, Every Riven Thing, which I think is gorgeous.  In the past year I was completely knocked out by Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, and Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. I’m looking forward to the next book from a number of writers I really admire — novelist John Brandon, poet Averill Curdy, and the estimable, inventive Peter Ho Davies. Sometimes I look at all these folks and think, Gee whiz, how do people write that well? What river did they drink from as children, because I want to go bathe in it!  

Cheers, Miwa

Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked. by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.