Photo courtesy Adrianne Harun
Once, at the Rainier Writing Workshop, when I wasn’t paying attention in class, Adrianne Harun called on me to answer a question about the James Joyce story The Dead. I hadn’t raised my hand. I had a teacher-crush on Adrianne. Back then my ADD was worse than it is now, and though I’d been staring at her, I’d heard only about 20 percent of what she was saying. The anxiety of wanting to impress her flooded out any even remote possibility of my being able to answer correctly. I wanted to impress her because she knew things—strange intuitive things I didn’t understand yet and was aware of not knowing in her presence. I gave the wrong answer, and she seemed disappointed. Years later—this year—just after I purchased her book, A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain, I went into the parking lot to find my car battery had run dead. It was pouring down rain. And so I went back inside, sat down in the bookstore café, and looked at VICE.com, where I saw an article about the Highway of Tears victims. The same ADD that had led me to fail Adrianne also propelled me to jump back and forth between reading the VICE article and her novel, which I realized were about the same issue. An obviously disturbing and important issue I knew nothing about. I became convinced that my car had broken down because I needed to interview Adrianne Harun about her novel. Adrianne, who has worked for years as an editor, teacher, and writer and also runs a garage with her husband in Port Townsend, Washington, writes to us today from the Sewanee School of Letters, where she teaches.
VICE: Why did you dedicate A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain to the Highway of Tears victims?
Adrianne Harun: Some years ago, I heard a radio interview with a writer who’d recently published a book on places NOT to vacation. He mentioned Highway 16 in British Columbia, and I was stunned into listening more closely. I’d been up through Northern BC before and considered it one of the most beautiful places on earth. Then he began talking about missing girls and women. For decades, girls and women have gone missing or been found murdered near Highway 16, also now called the Highway of Tears. Worse, those cases were, at that time, all unsolved. Worse still, many believed that they’d gone largely uninvestigated because most of the victims were indigenous women and girls. I found my way to a website about the Highway of Tears and fell down that rabbit hole. It was like an online scream, with many photos of the missing and murdered, some of them children, many young mothers who left children behind. The situation haunted me, and really, I think it should haunt everyone.
But I’m a lousy journalist, and I also didn’t want to co-opt a real family’s tragedy. So I struggled to find a way to write towards this situation, to call attention to it, without trying to own or define it or even be polemical about it. I wanted more than anything to make the situation and that world emotionally felt. At the same time, such tremendous evil—whether it be personal or systemic or cultural—called up questions I wanted to explore about how much control we might have over our actions, about the nature of good and evil. This will sound ridiculously grand, but I wanted the characters to be alive and to keep living in the reader’s consciousness.
I also want to be clear: A Man Came Out of the Door in the Mountain is not really about the Highway of Tears’ murders. There is nothing magical or mystifying about that situation. In other words, the devil did not do it—men did—and I’d hate for the devil alone to be the excuse.
You remind me of Eudora Welty. There is this tenderness and spiritual concern you have for your characters that as I read I adopt as my own. You seem tapped into them as life forces—as souls that inhabit bodies in a material world enlivened by spiritual forces. This sensibility seems to evoke a sense of the porousness of all borders. It’s as if you’re feeling the energy they’re putting off and the energy coming from other places that they touch. I am reminded of what affects me that I can’t see.
Eudora Welty—what a compliment. Thank you. I love, too, that you speak of tenderness towards the characters—and of the characters as “souls.” I do think of the world, our experiences in it, as “porous”—that is, I believe we invent a lot of the separation we build between seen and unseen worlds to protect ourselves from a kind of chaos. I’m not a believer in any one god tied to an institution, but I do believe in energy, consciousness, and human volition, all of which can take us closer to—oh, a Higher Self or… well, you know, exactly the opposite. I don’t fully believe in forces acting upon the character, but I do heartily believe that energy is there, not just lurking but fully active. “Look sharp,” Leo wants to warn his dear ones. Me, too. Me, too.
Do you consider yourself a writer of magical realism?
Magical realism is used so offhandedly these days, it seems. Any time a story deviates from the instantly recognizable, the label hovers. I persist in thinking magical realism is a specific mode, one that represents the world as it truly is. The walls we build between real and unreal, seen and unseen are probably necessary most of the time for mental health, but that doesn’t mean the unseen is not real. As I often say, c’mon, we disappear each night for hours, our consciousness landing in places that are not “real,” we fall in love, we grow old, we feel huge surges of emotional upheaval, we measure our lives by the invisible counter of Time. These are inseparable from human experience, but they also feel like spells.
The devil is often directly mentioned or alluded to, and characters that seem to possibly represent him influence the actions of other characters in the novel. (It occurs to me that I have an aversion to even bringing up the devil; it makes me uncomfortable.)
I think you’re right to feel uncomfortable. Here’s something funny: We’re trained not to mention evil as if we might conjure and give it substance through our thoughts. Yet we are also trained to think of such conjuring as nonsense. All of us have felt it, if just in a passing acquaintance, in public figures, in varying degrees. An extreme example: My husband and I were once traveling, sleeping in the car or in out-of-the-way campgrounds, only once feeling ill at ease. No, ill at ease is too pale a phrase. At one point, we stopped in a roadside turnout to eat lunch. A van pulled in and parked at the other end of the turnout, an ordinary van with an ordinary-looking fellow driving. Almost without a word to each other, we stuffed our sandwiches back in the bag, all but ran into the car, and fled. Only miles down the road could we catch our breath, the dark feeling coming from that van was that intense. Years later, we still remember how quickly we moved, how it seemed as if we were pushed, and how when we finally could talk, we could not give name to the terror that occupied that oh-so-ordinary van. Later, we learned that area had been the hunting ground of a particular murderer who preyed on young couples. True story.
Adrianne and the good people at Penguin were kind enough to let us run an excerpt from A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) LLC. © 2014 by Adrianne Harun.
Albee Porchier was in a bad state that morning. Two big fights the night before. Car windows smashed in the parking lot, a few more holes punched in the walls. One fuckhead had ripped out the sink plumbing in Room 11. What the hell was the point of that? He could have used both the new gal and Madeline but Madeline had gone up to the hospital to get her blood checked again. Or so the niece, that Ursie, said. More likely, Madeline was having one of those days. She had an ailment, unspecified but prone to flare up during work hours. It happened. He hated to admit it, but after a decade or more of owning the Peak and Pine Motel, Albee expected continual failures from his staff. So he was working Ursie hard while he could.
She had surprised him. Seventeen, just out of school, she was Indian all right, a H’aisla like Madeline, but also half-Ukrainian, he’d guess, or German. She had that big-boned, Slavic look to her mixed in with everything else. A good gal, he’d decided, maybe too nice and quiet to see what had been left behind in some of his rooms, but a dedicated worker. He didn’t need to direct her and stay on her the way he usually did with his maids. Even before he’d come back from the Sub-Rite with the new PVC pipes and fresh spackle, she had swept up the glass in the parking lot and started on the empty rooms, and the curses he’d been about to bark dissolved into a nasty taste he spit into the weeds.
Not a sign of last night’s fight remained. The tortured cars had screeched away, and the lumber company’s big diesels had followed. In fact, other than Albee’s own black Chevy, only a single vehicle, the Econoline van that arrived a few days ago, remained, still parked almost out of sight behind the dumpsters. Mild fellow, some kind of entertainer, it seemed. A musician maybe. Or a magician. With a silly rhyming misspelling of a name: Keven Seven. Funny, Albee couldn’t quite remember when he’d come in, a few nights ago at least. And for some reason, Albee could have sworn the musician had wandered down from the highway bus stop alone, until he noticed the van and felt the vague prick of a recollection: a half-heard conversation, a woman’s voice engaged in a bargain of sorts, a duffle tossed onto the curb, a whispered curse thrown after it. Well, how many of those exchanges had he overheard. As he picked up a shard of glass Ursie’s broom had missed, Albee no longer wondered at the fellow’s need to isolate his vehicle. God knows how he’d slept through last night’s ruckus.
After she’d cleaned up the parking lot, Ursie retrieved her cart and vacuum and began on the first floor. She skimmed dirty sheets off the beds and covered their sloping mattresses with rough, clean ones, shaking out each worn yellowed pillowcase so that it almost snapped in mid-air before the pillow fell seamlessly into its open pocket. She picked up shredded paper wrappers and the jaundiced ends of cigarettes and empty bottles and sticky glasses and wads of tissues. She averted her eyes from the plastic garbage cans she emptied into her big black plastic bag. She ran the toilet brush around the stained toilet bowls, cleaning as best she could the grime between the cracked linoleum, the thin brown paneled walls. You couldn’t get the smell out. Too many men had moved through here and their sweat and farts and piss and cigarette smoke and everything else she didn’t want to think about permeated the rooms from the stained blue carpets to the broken acoustic ceilings. Not to mention the creeping stench of damp mold. She sprayed window-cleaner, poured bleach, and plowed the vacuum from one edge to another, and at best the stench was furrowed beneath the chemicals, making Ursie a little bit sick all day. She wanted to open windows and call up a storm that would cleanse and sweeten, but the truth was, the men would be back at sundown, ready to go again, and Albee had forbidden her.
“Too many goddamn thieves around here,” he told her, when he noticed her struggling with a window in Room 6. “You give them the tiniest crack, and they’ll take everything.”
Ursie couldn’t imagine what they’d take from the motel. The televisions were bolted down; the phones didn’t work; not even the toilets flushed with regularity. But she had nodded, wrestled the window closed, and wondered privately if she could bring a box of baking soda and sprinkle on the carpets without him complaining. Although she’d only been working at the Peak and Pine Motel a few weeks, she’d already developed a feeling around several of the rooms. Room 11 was pure trouble. Two minutes inside, and you could feel a creeping despair press in off those scarred walls until you were choking with it and pissed off, too. Did you deserve this? Was this really your intended life? Those unfortunate to land in Room 11 ground their cigarettes out on the dresser or right into the paneled wall; they slashed at the carpet with pocket knives and bottle openers and smashed the overhead light bulb and cracked the television once they realized the bedside lamps were permanently affixed to the tables and couldn’t be hurled. They left cracked and putrid vials by the washroom sink and empty syringes on the carpet beside the bed. Ursie would like to burn sage and sweetgrass in there and purge it of all its sour rage.