When her friend vanishes in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness of Idaho and Montana, DJ Lee travels there to find answers. The journey ends her fifteen-year quest to uncover her family’s troubled history in this remote place. In Finding Home in the Bitterroots (Oregon State University Press), Lee struggles with wild animal encounters, dangerous river crossings, bush plane flights in fog, and strange characters who come to the mountains to seek or hide. Lee, a Regents Professor of English at Washington State University where she teaches literature, creative writing, and experimental/hybrid courses, learns about the life cycles of salmon and wolverine, the regenerative role of fire, and Nimíipuu land practices teaches her to embrace the land and her family’s past. Told in a nonlinear narrative structure, the book engages with dreams and ghosts, the familiar and the uncanny, as well as the question of how to deal with history and memory. The book’s 28 photographs are illustrations and a visual narrative all its own.
Read on to find out how she does it, and also for a chance to win Finding Home in the Bitteroots.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What kinds of things did you read?
My mother read to my brothers and me all the time—narrative poetry, short stories, and novels like Charlotte’s Web. Sitting on the sofa, leaning against her body and cuddled into my brothers in that quiet, imaginative space, made me love stories. My mother was and is a wonderful storyteller herself. Everything important she taught us was through story – stories of warning or humor or transgression, and I learned early on to embrace narrative as a way of knowing. When I was in grade school, I wrote as much as I read. My mother kept hundreds of those early attempts at narrative, and when I read them now, I see how I was working through childhood anxieties through writing. A story I penned at twelve about a monster slithering from a dark swamp behind our house was clearly my fear of puberty creeping up on me.
What’s the strangest job you’ve ever had?
Cleaning houses. When I was in my teens, I worked for a cleaning company in Seattle. For some reason they sent me to the homes of single mothers. One was usually having sex while I was cleaning. I remember being horrified and fascinated as I scrubbed her cupboards or folded her laundry while her toddlers wondered around; I could hear laughing and moaning through the curtain that hung where the door to her bedroom should have been. Another was a hoarder who kept stacks of decades-old junk mail, thousands of rubber bands, and containers of every size and shape, and piles of whatnot. She had a son she never saw. I wanted to toss some of her piles—they were hard to clean around—but I could see she somehow needed the extra stuff as a comfort. My favorite mother had two young daughters and owned a wardrobe of expensive clothes that I’d try on when she wasn’t home.
Which talent do you wish you had?
Writing, for sure. It’s strange to say this on a writer’s forum, but when writing is difficult (all the time!), I fantasize about people for whom writing comes easily, those who can whip up a story like they’re simply taking down dictation. A teacher once told me the world of authors was divided into “natural writers” and “working writers,” those who penned perfect words in perfect order, and those who had to work for it. He put Flannery O’Connor in the former category and David Quammen in the latter. But I don’t know. Jericho Brown, who is one of today’s most graceful, gifted writers, visited my university last week and talked about his struggle. I was stunned. I had no idea. Maybe all writers wish for this talent.
Have you ever traveled to do research for your writing? Where did you go?
I started my writing career as a 18th and 19th-century literary historian. Meaning, I traveled to libraries and archives in England, Scotland, and the U.S., and then wrote scholarly books about what I found. My favorite places were small, damp cellars where a solitary custodian (usually an elderly volunteer) knew about every piece of paper that had made its way into the place. In archives, I came across scores of letters and diaries and strange artifacts like ancient puzzles and writing desks and pressed leaves and locks of hair and, once, a human jawbone. For my most recent book, I made more than fifty trips into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness on the Idaho-Montana border, mostly on foot, but also on horse and mule and by bush plane.
Tell us about your next big project.
I’ve been working on a book about the polar north—Greenland, Svalbard, Alaska, and Iceland—where I traveled after my daughter left home and wasn’t in contact for three years. No worries—she is back now!—but her absence was really difficult for me. I was drawn to the stark beauty and extreme dark and light of the High Arctic as a way to cope. It wasn’t until later, after she was safe again, that I realized the parallel between the losses of the Arctic—melting ice and shrinking polar bear habitat, for instance—and the near loss of my daughter. I’m also a hand paper maker, so I’m assembling (slowly) on a nonfiction artist book and art exhibit about Arctic kelp.
DJ Lee (she/hers): is a Regents Professor of English at Washington State University where she teaches literature, creative writing, and experimental/hybrid courses. Her creative work includes over thirty non-fiction pieces in magazines and anthologies. One received a Pushcart Prize special mention, another was finalist for the Terrain Nonfiction Prize, and another won a scholarship to the Disquiet Literary Program. She has held residencies/workshops at the Arctic Circle Artist Residency, Women’s Studio Workshop, and the Johns Hopkins Conference on Craft and Science. Lee has published eight books on literature, history, and ecology, most recently The Land Speaks. She’s director of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness History Project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a scholar-fellow at the Black Earth Institute, where she served as guest editor for About Place Journal. She loves to connect with people in person or online: Website/blog; Facebook; Instagram; Twitter.