I’m taking another break from the “Kingdom of the Sick” to think about memoir and story, and the choices writers make as we tell the stories of our own lives and the places we love. As I wrote in Walking Nature Home, “Stories nurture our connection to place and to each other. They show us where we have been and where we can go. They remind us of how to be human, how to live alongside the other lives that animate this planet.”
Here’s a conversation wtih Julie Whitesel Weston, author of the new memoir, The Good Times Are All Gone Now, an unflinching but affectionate portrait of, Kellogg, Idaho, the former mining town where she grew up. The book open with these powerful lines:
I bought a lottery ticket. The prize? Pushing the plunger to dynamite the smokestacks rising above Kellogg, Idaho, on Memorial Day weekend in 1996.
That’s a compelling opening, and Weston’s book is a fascinating story of the town that shaped her. It also illuminates the people who lived there, Weston’s complex family included. I was curious about the choices Weston made in writing this memoir of place, so I asked her to talk about how the story came to be.
SJT: I’ve called The Good Times Are All Gone Now a “memoir of place” because it draws on many people’s stories–not just your own or your family’s–to paint a compelling portrait of Kellogg, Idaho, your hometown. What prompted you to tell the story of the town?
Weston: When I began working on the book, I was afraid the town was going to disappear–go the way of other western mining towns. I wanted to preserve the stories of the town and the miners. Then, too, at high school reunions, my friends and I always commented on how important the town had been to us. I wanted to explore why we had such strong feelings for this place, which on the surface, looks as if it’s filled with toxic smoke, black stumps and ramshackle houses.
SJT: In writing The Good Times Are All Gone Now, you clearly did an enormous amount of research, including delving into geology and history, as well as interviewing many current and former town residents. How many years did you spend researching the book? And how many hours of interviews did you conduct?
Weston: I did the interviews first because I was working on a novel about the long and bitter labor dispute described in the book. I wanted more than my perspective as a teenager. When I couldn’t seem to get anywhere with the novel, I realized I had over a hundred hours of interviews that told the story of the town, so I began writing that story. I knew some of the mining history and my mother had a large collection of books on Idaho that I re-read. I also spent time at the University of Washington Northwest Special Collections library, sorted through old newspapers in Kellogg, found fascinating really old newspapers at the Eastern Washington Historical Society in Spokane, so I worked off and on with research maybe fifteen years. I began writing directly on Good Times when I attended the Imnaha Writers Retreat, courtesy of Fishtrap in Oregon in 1998.
SJT: You’ve said that the book isn’t really a memoir, in the sense that it’s not the story of your life. But your life and the story of your family threads through the pages, taking it from a more traditional history narrative into the territory of memoir. Did your concept of the book change as you worked on it?
Weston: My manuscript went through a number of permutations. In the beginning it was much more memoir-ish and less history and interviews. A writing friend advised me to do a history OR a memoir, but not both. I still ended up with both, but perhaps heavier on the “place” as opposed to the “personal.” I have stacks of old drafts in my office and I’m now using those pages for drafts of another book.
SJT: Some of the family material involves memories that are clearly difficult ones–for example, your father’s rages, his drinking and gambling, and your relationship with him. What impelled you to include those difficult memories? Did you find yourself censoring them at all?
Weston: My story of the town was not complete without the story of my mother and father, so I needed to write about them. My father was a major character in the town in my growing up years. It was at the reunion when several friends and I sat around a table and told things we’d never known about each other. The ‘50s and early ‘60s were times when secrets were kept, but in the ‘80s, some of them came out. I decided if my family was going to be in the book at all, it should be a whole portrait. And yes, I did censor things. Not all secrets needed to be divulged, particularly because my mother is still alive.
One of the rewarding aspects of having my book in print is the number of letters I’ve received–some from people I didn’t even know. Many of those letters tell more stories and occasionally stories that were secrets too. I think my readers have felt released and relieved because I was honest in my book.
SJT: The structure of The Good Times Are All Gone Now is complex, beginning with what seems like the end: the scene of the smelter chimneys, the symbols of the town’s mining life, being blown up. From that ending, you work backwards in time to trace the story of the town, the mines, and the community as a whole. How did you decide where to begin, and in what order to tell the story?
Weston: Where to begin and in what order to tell the story took me a long time to figure out. Once I saw the dramatic photos of the smokestacks falling, I decided that was my way into the story. That, too, is how most people have even heard of Kellogg–that headline: Toxic Town Blows Its Stack.
SJT: At the end of the book, it seems like you want to believe that Kellogg is reinventing itself, but you are not quite convinced. Would you write a different ending today?
Weston: Today, Kellogg still teeters. When I wrote the ending, it looked as if Kellogg would become known as a four seasons resort, with all the implication
s that has for lower wages, lack of affordable housing, transients and so on. The recession has hit hard: loss of jobs, no wages, no sales or purchases of homes at all. It feels a little as it did after the mines closed. So no, I wouldn’t write a different ending today.
SJT: It’s hard to look home and family square in the face and admit that we care and no, all is not well. But that’s the essence of a good story: it’s not easy, and it doesn’t necessarily end happily, just like life. A good story is honest, and true to itself. And it’s written with love, even with the subject is difficult. Good job, Julie Weston!
And on a personal note: Richard’s feeling so good that he’s thinking about sculpture again. In fact, we’re talking about a collaborative project or two–after he’s through with his initial course of radiation and chemo. We’re still walking hand in hand, happy in the moment. Bless you all for your support!