Brian Doyle: Yearning for the Sea

photo: Hob Osterlund

American essayist, editor and fiction writer Brian Doyle received his B.A. from the University of Notre Dame in 1978. After working at various magazines and newspapers in Chicago and Boston, he has, since 1991, edited the University of Portland's Portland magazine. Doyle's books have four times been finalists for the Oregon Book Award, and his essays have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, Orion and American Scholar and have been reprinted in the annual Best American Essays, Best American Science & Nature Writing and Best American Spiritual Writing anthologies. He's also received a Catholic Book Award, two Pushcart Prizes and a 2008 Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

A prolific writer of essays, stories and the prose poems he calls "proems," Doyle has published 12 books, including the essay collection Spirited Men, about male musicians and writers; The Wet Engine, about "hearts and how they work and do not work and get repaired and patched, for a while"; and The Grail, about a year in an Oregon vineyard. His first novel is the "sprawling epic elephantine serpentine" (his words) Mink River. The same might be said of his second,The Plover, a seagoing adventure and so much more.

Granting that The Plover is not a sequel to Mink River, what drew you back to Declan O Donnell as a main character?

No kidding--a hundred times at book clubs and readings people have asked me, What happened to Declan??!! (who just sails right out of Mink River on his boat near the end and gets no Normal Narrative Closure). Finally, I thought, out of sheer curiosity, I would type for a morning and see if there was any energy there--and whoosh, away it went.... I think now (I always think about my books after I write them, not before) I must have wanted to write a sea novel for years--I just adored Stevenson and Kipling and Conrad and Jack London and voyage-logs and sea stories and Kon-Tiki as a boy.

In both books you have community healers: Worried Man and Cedar, Taromauri and the Minister. Even the gull in The Plover is a healer. Does every story need a healer?

Hmm. Good question. I didn't do that consciously; I suppose it says something about me--maybe as a Catholic or a dad or a guy liable to seeing the fingerprints of the Mercy everywhere--that healers and mystics and broken saints sprint through my books. A psychologist would have a field day with me.

Did you do copious amounts of research on birds, the sea, currents, islands, navigation, the stars...? There is so much lore in the story, where did it all come from?

Oh yes, I worked like a horse on all that. I knew nothing about boats and ships and navigation and nautical lore and hydrology and oceanography, but (a) I am a fast avid hungry omnivorous reader; and (b) once I am into something I happily pour myself into every bit of study I can find; and (c) a good friend of mine is a retired admiral in the U.S. Navy; and (d) a Navy friend of his actually did live alone on small boats deep in the ocean for years and had tart blunt answers to every question I asked. Plus I love maps. Plus I have a Pacific island jones bigger than Kauai. Plus I am a bird addict by nature, anyway, and all birds are my constant study. Each one a novel with feathers.

The menace of the Tanets and Enrique starts early and is a constant throughout. Yet, you allow reconciliation with Enrique. Is this part of the "healing" lesson?

Again, not really conscious; it just sort of happened that the decision has got to be made on the boat (not in the author) about that guy. The conscious part for me was watching Declan slowly thaw and open and let other people into his bricked-up heart; what happens with his enemy had to be part of that, in the end. But it's more like the story led me there than me planning that. My novels are headlong adventures for me, too--I have only the vaguest idea of what might happen, and it changes radically over the course of the voyage. I like to be surprised, just as I hope readers are surprised. Doesn't seem as much fun to be in control. I have three kids; I learned long ago I am in control of nothing but admitting that I am not in control.

Why do we go to sea?

We yearn for it. The salt water in us. We came out of small seas. It's open and vast and maternal and savage and dismissive and I think we starve for it sometimes. We go there when we are bleak and dark and just stare, don't we? We go there to calm down and listen and be at the edge of all things. I think there's really and truly some inchoate inner tuning fork in all of us set to the sea. Water's holy, and moving water is irresistible. We dig rivers and creeks and the seething ocean and sit and stare at them like we do at fires. Plus I think there's some very old thing in us about boats, too--we are an adventurous species....

You say "We are starving for story." Is that why you write?

Well, I write mostly because I am a nut who cannot not write; as my late friend George Higgins said, writing is a benign neurosis. Plus, I occasionally get paid in excellent bottles of wine. But I do think stories are food and song and ways to speak when mere words cannot carry the ball. I think we are story junkies, and stories are what nations and religions and towns and families are composed of. We have story-sized holes in our heads and hearts and the right story at the right time opens your head and heart like a key turning in a lock. I have written a handful of stories that were the right story at the right moment, I think: the essays "Leap" and "Dawn and Mary," for example-- things that needed to be said, things that in an odd sense I cannot take full credit for; they were stories waiting to be told. I sort of feel like that with my novels--like the chracters were waiting impatiently for me to get to the keyboard finally.

Piko and Pip are are unique and irresistible. They seem to knit everything together.

I am not very sure where they came from, quite. My lovely bride, my first and trusty reader, says Piko is based on my brother Peter, but that wasn't conscious. The Pip--she just arrived, asserted herself, presented herself to be told, and, to be honest, I think she is the star, the hero, the center of the book.

Edmund Burke provides a philosophical subtext throughout. He supported the American Revolution, did not support the French Revolution and is generally cited as the founder of American conservatism. How do all these disparate elements fit? Is it enough to say that he was an original thinker?

Oh yes--original as could be. I have always been fascinated with him, and The Plover was a chance to explore and plumb and read and plunge into his life and work at length, with immense pleasure. He was born poor and Irish, under a cruel English empire, and he ended up star of the English Parliament--what a story! And it's a mistake to think of him as "conservative" in the way we think of the term--he was roaringly concerned with the poor and oppressed, thought that government was responsible for all its citizens, that our revolution was a terrible shame for England and that England was at fault for it and we were right to be appalled at our treatment by imperial buffoons. He thought the French Revolution was mostly murder in which one set of arrogant thugs succeeded another. You cannot read Burke as anything but Burke; conservative scholars of our day who want him for a patron saint would be well advised to actually read him thoroughly. He's no one's flag bearer, which is one of the things I like about him. Plus oh my god what a writer, who often wrote down his speeches after he delivered them, from memory, isn't that incredible?

What's up next?

I'm working on another novel. --Valerie Ryan

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