|photo: Amy Leist
Kendra Atleework was born and raised on the dry edge of California at the eastern base of the Sierra Nevada mountains. She moved away for 11 years, mostly spent being homesick and researching the perilous place she left behind--the product of which is her debut memoir. Miracle Country (Algonquin, July 14, 2020) is a family's story of flight and return, bounty and emptiness, and the meaning of home, set in California's high desert, a place ravaged by drought, winds and wildfire. Atleework is the recipient of the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award and was selected for The Best American Essays, edited by Ariel Levy. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota and lives in her hometown of Bishop, Calif.
On your nightstand now:
The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich--my quarantine book club just finished reading this. It's a massive novel that hits just about every note, from bizarre love triangles to the stranger aspects of Minnesota culture to a history of broken treaties and a look at 1950s reservation life.
I'm halfway through Home Baked by Alia Volz, a memoir about the author's parents' weed brownie business in San Francisco in the 1970s.
A couple of recent novels from my publisher I'm excited about: Everywhere You Don't Belong by Gabriel Bump (a dark, funny, coming-of-age story set in Chicago's South Side) and The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai (Vietnam history in the form of a family saga).
I'm excited to start reading All Things Left Wild by James Wade. I love finding fellow books about the West.
Also reading Njáls Saga, set during the Viking Age, written by an anonymous Icelander circa 1270. The battles are many and bloody, and everyone has names like Gunnar the Unwashed. Can't put it down.
Favorite book when you were a child:
This is absolutely impossible to answer, but I distinctly remember getting my hands on Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game when I was about nine, which soon led to half the elementary school getting roped into a mildly violent reenactment. I'm sure the yard duty staff was disturbed.
Your top five authors:
Also impossible, but here are the five that most deeply influenced my book Miracle Country:
Richard Rodriguez helped me expand my interpretation of the West, as well as my relationship to family, culture, history and landscape.
Ellen Meloy comforted me when I was living in Minnesota and terribly homesick for the desert. She helped me articulate the preciousness of landscapes at risk of being dismissed as worthless.
Rebecca Solnit taught me to tell nuanced stories about the past that help me imagine different ways of inhabiting the present.
Robin Wall Kimmerer expanded my understanding of reciprocity with homeplaces and living with respect for beings beyond my own species.
Wallace Stegner helped me understand my relationship to the rest of the world as a being shaped by where I come from.
Book you've faked reading:
I was raised halfway up a mountain. My parents didn't believe in television. Instead they gave us lessons on how to not get eaten by a mountain lion. So I've had to do most of my faking when it comes to popular culture and general knowledge of the human world. College roommates easily convinced me that Elton John really was singing "hold me closer, Tony Danza."
Book you're an evangelist for:
Days of Obligation by Richard Rodriguez. I just counted and I own four of this book--people keep buying signed copies off eBay and giving them to me because I won't shut up about it. It's an essay collection in large part about California's complicated relationship to its own history. And Rodriguez's voice is just dazzling, hilarious and heartbreaking.
Book you've bought for the cover:
Creatures by Crissy Van Meter. The cover, wriggling with sea anemones, suits the content. It's a lush, dark novel about a father and a daughter and a mythical island off the coast of California.
Book you hid from your parents:
My paternal grandmother had a scheme to write a book called Sex After Seventy. It would be easier for me to tell you all the books I wish my family had hidden from me.
Book that changed your life:
Ian Frazier's Great Plains. I read this book right after graduating from college when I knew I wanted to write and was casting about for my muse. I was selling tickets at a haunted house in San Diego and when the shop was empty, I'd creep into the back room and reread this book. I'd spent years running away from my own bizarre little home region and its painful history--it had never occurred to me that I needed to write about home until I read this book.
Favorite lines from a book:
From Mary Austin's Land of Little Rain, 1903. Her thoughts in the desert on the stars:
"They look large and near and palpitant; as if they moved on some stately service not needful to declare. Wheeling to their station in the sky, they make the poor world-fret of no account. Of no account you who lie out there watching, nor the lean coyote that stands off in the scrub from you and howls and howls."
Five books you'll never part with:
The Hummingbird's Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea. This book is pure magic and I could read it a million times. Urrea signed my copy and drew a hummingbird on the title page--if my house catches on fire, you can bet this book is getting rescued.
The Anthropology of Turquoise by Ellen Meloy. In 2015, it accompanied me on a research/camping trip through drought-stricken California, a trip that showed me at once the ugliness and beauty of my home state.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. This is a sweet novel about a bookseller that made me cry, but the way I got my copy makes it extra special. On the day I was deciding which publisher should have my book, I walked over to my local indie bookstore, Spellbinder, here in Bishop, distraught. The folks at Spellbinder stayed open late for me, gave me this book, and sang the praises of the people who became my publisher: Algonquin.
West with the Night by Beryl Markham. My dad, a pilot, gave me this book when I was little and wanted to be a pilot myself. When I write, I'm trying to do justice to the feeling of flight and this huge California sky.
Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin. This short book of lyric essays, published in 1903, describes this weird desert woman in her wanderings around my own beloved Owens Valley, California.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
The Florist's Daughter by Patricia Hampl. I read this memoir of working-class St. Paul when I was 22, living in a tiny sweltering apartment in San Diego, and it transported me into Minnesota's snow silence. The voice was so alive and so intimate and so distinct. Reading this book was like meeting a person you just know is going to be an important friend.
Book that makes you want to write:
Gunnar's Daughter by Sigrid Undset. Written by a young Norwegian woman in the style of the Icelandic sagas, it's icy hot, the prose spare, the violence loaded with historical and political subtext. I read this book twice cover-to-cover the week I got it. It's launched me on a whole new path of research and thinking and a new project to chase around the globe.