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In Nance Van Winckel’s second book out this year, a Spokane-centered family eyes its past

Nance Van Winckel, a Liberty Lake author and poet, will read from her two books published this year Friday at Auntie’s Bookstore. (File)
Nance Van Winckel, a Liberty Lake author and poet, will read from her two books published this year Friday at Auntie’s Bookstore. (File)

A train crash, a family swept to sea, a dropped baby, a botched surgery. The events in Nance Van Winckel’s short-story collection “Boneland” are dramatic and life-altering.

But her stories focus less on the events than on her characters’ efforts to understand them – not only how to live with their ramifications, but what happened, exactly, or why or how.

Van Winckel, of Liberty Lake, will read this week in Spokane from the book, her second out this year.

“Boneland” (University of Oklahoma Press) is a collection of linked short stories. Each stands on its own, but characters and events overlap, and the stories build on one another. They’re told from various relatives’ perspectives – often the blurred-to-nearly-blind perspectives of narrator Lynette after her Lasik surgery – and in various years, spanning from 1958 to 2005.

Along with their personal histories, Van Winckel wrote in an email interview, the narrators are trying to make sense of their shared family history in a setting – in and near Spokane – that’s still connected to a fertile past: “I doubt I could have set these stories in any other place,” she wrote.

While many stories in “Boneland” take place in Spokane, Montana figures in, too, as a family elder digs up bone fragments on the family ranch to piece together into some indecipherable shape – maybe Tyrannosaurus, maybe mastodon, maybe steer.

The author of five books of poetry and three collections of short stories, Van Winckel’s honors include two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Pushcart Prize. Friday at Auntie’s Bookstore, she also will read from her book of poems published earlier this year, “Pacific Walkers.” The poems were partly inspired by the unidentified-bodies list maintained by the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office.

In the interview, Van Winckel, professor emeritus in the master’s in creative writing program at Eastern Washington University, talked about her work.

Q. When people write about the landscape in the Northwest, they’re often looking up and out – tall mountains, tall trees, big water. “Boneland” seems to look down, at fossils, sand, grit, ancient seashells, the paths carved by glaciers. Why did you set the stories in “Boneland” in Spokane and locations nearby? Could these stories have worked anywhere?

A. The characters in “Boneland,” like many in my family and extended family, keep Spokane as a kind of hub-home. They may live now near Davis Lake or Kootenay Lake, but still consider Spokane home base. As do I. Its sights and sounds are quite available to me as backdrops, so of course I use what I know best and most intimately.

I like your idea about the looking up vs. down, and that’s so true. My narrators ARE trying to make sense of where they’ve been, the larger ancestral histories (footsteps of predecessors), even going back, we might say, to the ages of mastodons and dinosaurs. … Spokane is the place I know best, and it has such a perfect mix of a rich past that’s still quite intricately connected to and “alive” in its present.

Q. Along with fossils, your characters dig up their family’s history by retelling it from various vantages, sorting through what happened and what might have happened. What’s your interest in how people view their personal histories? What motivates us to keep looking back?

A. I found that my characters, as I “aged” them into adults, began to question versions of their own histories – events they’d actually lived through, the family stories they’d been told were true. What adults tell youngsters may not always convey the “complete” truth. Or, as young people we may remember only the details we were able to process at the time. As adults we can often understand a wider range of the who, what, why and how of events, for instance what truly motivated someone to do X.

Digging here is both literal (as with the dinosaur fossils) and metaphoric, trying to SEE, or piece together a full and complete picture. Reconstruction. In an old Montana cattle barn, as characters glue together fossilized dinosaur bones unearthed from their family ranch, a reader may suspect that this dinosaur is nothing more than a mishmash of several different species, with maybe even a mastodon bone tossed in because it “seemed” to fit. So a full and complete version of any history, even our own, may be impossible. So much of what we believe or accept about history comes from fragments – and how well, or if, we can make them fit.

Q. “Boneland” is a book of linked stories, and some of your other books of stories and poems are linked, too. What appeals to you about linked collections?

A. All four of my books of stories and the last four books of poems have been linked. For me it’s a joyful part of the discovery process to experiment in each book with a new (to me!) way of connecting individual stories or poems.

To suggest a kind of parallel, I like about mosaic tile work, for instance, how each individual tile may be looked at closely and stand as a beautiful “thing” by itself. But when the viewer moves back, she might see the larger picture all the combined tiles make together. The small black and gold tile becomes the pupil of a stag’s eye. Often I don’t entirely know, as I’m working on these individual “tiles,” what the whole of the construction will be, but rather “sense” this as my mission, feeling that larger picture looming, gradually discovering the whole.

Q. You’ve published a book of poetry and this book of short stories in one year, and you’ve been working on “pho-toems,” digitally altered photos with added text. What other mediums do you work in? What makes you venture into a new genre or medium?

A. It’s really just been a fluke that both books came out in the same year. I’m not really all that prolific. It’s been 12 years since my last book of stories and six years since the last book of poems. And yes, I have been working back and forth in both genres in those intervening years. I work many hours a day, and part of what helps me sustain my energy is to move among a few in-process projects every day, rather than just the same one. So I’ll work on poems in the morning and then revise a story or tinker with a pho-toem in the afternoon.

Not that I’d compare myself to Picasso, but I do totally “get” his process of having several paintings going on different easels at the same time. He’d work on many in the course of day. I find when I step away from Project X and work on Project Y and then Z for a while, when I return later to Project X again, I’m happy to reconnect. I find too that I may suddenly have new ideas or experiments in mind to try with X. The subconscious mind, I’m convinced, continues to work on things while the conscious mind focuses elsewhere.

Now about those pho-toems – and thankfully, no, there’re no other mediums – those are very much front and center these days. Although I am working on a book of prose poems right now, my main other project consists of these altered photographs. Most of these, my own shots, are of walls or boxcars with graffiti, old signage, or decrepit murals. To these I digitally “tag” back with small contributions of my own words and/or some graphic material I’ve lifted from one place and brought to live elsewhere. There was a show of this work recently at Barrister Winery, and it was fun to watch people go up close to interact with the text and explore the components. Those individual tiles again? It’s collage of course.

And along those same pho-toem lines, I’m also altering the pages of an old encyclopedia. This is not erasure art. I do not erase. I substitute. In place of passages from the Know-It-All- Voice-of-the-Universe, I insert my own material. I like pages with lots of graphic material on them. I call this series “Book of No Ledge.” Please allow me to give you the true scoop on the variety of bird beaks in the world. These altered pages have begun appearing in literary magazines, and I suspect there may eventually be a print book of them, or perhaps an e-book. Since the encyclopedia is 13 volumes, this project may well last me the rest of my working days. And if so, I think I’ll die happy.



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