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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Locally Writ: Vanessa Veselka’s unsentimental love letter to America

Growing up with a pair of writers for parents, Vanessa Veselka learned the value of being able to articulate her thoughts early. But it wasn’t until her late 30s while she was studying creative writing at Reed College that she seriously started identifying as a writer.

Since then, she has written and published several short stories and novels, the latest of which, “The Great Offshore Grounds,” she will discuss with Northwest Passages Book Club coordinator Kristi Burns at 7 p.m. on Sept. 15.

Before writing, “Music was the thing that I cared about, the thing that I wanted to be part of, it was central,” she said. But as she began writing lyrics, she found herself writing beyond the songs, struggling to fit stories to notes that couldn’t carry them. “I wasn’t in the right medium for what I was trying to say.”

Then, when her first short story was published at Reed, she started to see that readers were interested in what she was trying to write. She wrote several more short stories and started dabbling in creative nonfiction pieces, several of which have appeared in GQ, the Atlantic, Tin House, Zyzzyva and Best American Essays, among others.

Success notwithstanding, she still felt a certain degree of “self-conscious writer syndrome.” So, when her first novel, “Zazen,” won the 2012 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for fiction, she was surprised and delighted.

“I had a wonderful ‘coming into the world’ with ‘Zazen’ simply because my expectations were low,” Veselka said. “The fact that it was in stores and that booksellers were talking about it … meant a lot.”

Veselka’s journey from adolescence to adulthood was unusually tumultuous. Before settling into writing, at various times, she had been a teenage runaway, sex worker, musician, union organizer and paleontology student. All of these adventures, ranging from joyful to terrifying, continue to inform her writing.

“The Great Offshore Grounds” tells the story of sisters Livy and Cheyenne as they set out to claim an unusual inheritance from their estranged father. The book explores how individuals begin to navigate ethics and emotions until they find where in the world they belong.

“It’s hard for me to talk about this novel without talking about America, about work … the ingenuity and the agency that people on the economic edge show all the time,” Veselka said.

The title, Veselka explained, calls to mind Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” and the much-sought-after breeding grounds that whalers of the time were constantly trying to reach despite diminishing rewards.

“To me, that idea is so deep in America,” she said. “That there’s always something new to discover that’s gonna save us, always a place where everybody will have what they need, and everybody will be rich if you can only get there … (but) then that place gets farther and farther out.”

Veselka recalled a journalist telling her that the book read like an unsentimental love letter to America.

“And I hope it is,” she said. “That’s a hard thing to say in a lot of ways right now, but I hope it is.”

“The Great Offshore Grounds” is available at Auntie’s Bookstore. For information, visit

To watch the livestream, visit at 7 p.m. on Sept 15. Viewers can submit questions in advance using the same link.