DIEHL: Where did this novel begin for you?
SMITH: The plot came to me in a crazy post-partum dream. I was participating in a scenario on an island near Seattle, with environmental devastation, a religious sect, strange women, and imminent peril. It was incredibly vivid—full color, smells, tastes—and came with backstory, in that way that dreams sometimes supply a parallel universe to make sense of strange happenings. Getting the dream onto paper wasn’t as easy as transcribing, obviously, but it was as complete a vision for a story as I’ve ever had when I began writing.
DIEHL: How was writing this book different from writing your first? Did writing Glaciers prepare you to write Marrow Island in any way?
SMITH: It must have, although I’m not sure I could tell you how. The lack of plot in Glaciers allowed for more poetic, lyrical chapters. I could labor over language in a way that I didn’t have the time or energy for in Marrow Island. And since the plot of Marrow Island was so complicated, it felt like learning to write a novel all over again. But knowing that I could execute the vision for Glaciers and that people responded to it–that definitely gave me the confidence to have a stab at another book.
DIEHL: While reading Marrow Island, I had the sense that a wealth of research went into the project. How much of this story originated from prior knowledge and interests, and how much of it came from new research?
SMITH: Research was really important, though I didn’t use half of it. I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest my whole life, so the landscape—geography, plants, animals, weather—are part of my consciousness. Digging deeper into the places and things I thought I knew was the best part of writing the book. For one thing, every trip to the coast or the woods felt justifiable as “research.” I became obsessed with mushrooms. My trail running pace slowed significantly in the fall and spring when I would stop every few feet to take a picture of different specimens; I interviewed everyone I knew about their experiences with psychedelics; I have lots of mushroom paraphernalia now, and of course lots of books. The thing about research, when you’re writing fiction, is that you have to be ready to soak it in and let it do unconscious work, because if you put too much of it into the story itself, it can get really boring. I didn’t want to fill pages with descriptions of mushroom farming, just to increase the page-count, or prove that I knew something about it. If it didn’t make sense to labor over those details in the scene, I held back or edited out. And, of course, I made stuff up that sounded scientific, but wasn’t…
DIEHL: Can you share a fact about mushrooms that didn’t make it into the book?
SMITH: I can’t actually remember all the facts that made it into the book… I guess one exciting thing that has come about since I finished writing the book is that Paul Stamets (whose book Mycelium Running was a huge source of inspiration) has been working with scientists at Washington State University to save bees with the help of mycelium. It’s an incredible story–you can look it up online–about everyday observations leading to breakthroughs in science. Bees who drink this sort of dewy nectar that forms on certain kinds of mycelia are more resistant to hive die off. It’s amazing. Mushrooms serve roles in the ecosystem that we’ve only just begun to understand.
DIEHL: The chapters in this novel alternate between 2012 and 2016, which adds a rich texture to the story. The scenes that take place in 2016 cast suspense on her time on the island, and also helped me to feel a connection with and warmth for Carey before even Lucie did. Can you speak to the chronological structure of this novel and how it came about?
SMITH: I had intended on writing the story linearly, starting in the islands and working toward the aftermath in the Malheur. But early on I started to get restless with Lucie’s deep contemplation of the past. It felt really heavy. As an exercise I skipped ahead to a time in the future, when I knew she would be in the Malheur, and I enjoyed writing that chapter so much that I decided to stick with that structure of moving back and forth in time. It was an editorial headache, later, to make sure the timelines were in sync—I had butcher paper timelines written in multi-colored Sharpie pinned to my office wall—but it energized the story and increased the tension.
DIEHL: Were you inspired by any real-life communities when writing about the group on Marrow Island?
SMITH: Only vaguely. Intentional communities were one thing I didn’t want to add to the list of things to research. I even avoided reading other books that came out dealing with communal living and environmental activists because I didn’t want them to influence my story.
DIEHL: Why was it important to avoid researching communal living and other environmental activists? How did this strengthen your story or your writing process? Research is so often encouraged, I’m interested in this idea of when it is smarter to avoid it.
SMITH: Well, I guess I should qualify that answer by saying that my parents were New Age types into counter-cultural religious movements, herbal medicine, vegetarianism, etc., at various stages of my childhood. And in Alaska, where we lived until I was ten, there were a lot of back-to-the-earth homesteaders, people who lived off the land and had their own highly idiosyncratic philosophies for what they were doing and why. Seattle, where we lived after we left Alaska, had its fair share of individualists and free-thinkers: my aunt was a follower of some guru who took us to really bizarre prayer meeting/pot lucks; my best friend’s parents were master-gardener Episcopalians who worked for the EPA and followed the “live simply so that others may simply live” motto. By high school I had friends were becoming activists for gay and women’s rights, and environmental and social justice movements. At twenty I marched in the WTO protests with both the Lesbian Avengers and the Sisters of the Holy Names (the order that ran my high school), and went to talks by environmental scholars like Vandana Shiva. I knew people whose phones were tapped because they were connected to members of the ELF. I did my senior capstone as an undergrad on politically and socially engaged spirituality. So, I guess I didn’t feel like I needed to research because I had solid background in those areas already. I avoided reading novels that covered communal living (like Lauren Groff’s Arcadia) and environmental issues (like Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder) because I didn’t want those novelist’s stories to influence what I wanted to write about.
DIEHL: One of my teachers once told me that every character we write is a version of ourselves. If this is true, how do you relate to Lucie the most?
SMITH: That sounds something straight out of dream analysis—that each person dreamt about represents a part of the dreamer. I don’t know if I agree with that, but it’s an interesting proposal. Certainly Lucie shares some of my personal details: she cares about the natural world and human relationships with the land; she went to a Catholic girls’ school; she has a thing for park rangers; she’s prone to moodiness and indecision and seasickness. But she responds very differently to the world than I do. That was part of the fun of writing her, creating a character who would put herself in dangerous situations, or do questionable things like feed shrooms to a dying woman.
DIEHL: Were you influenced by any other art forms while writing Marrow Island? (In spirit and content, this novel reminded me so much of two indie video games I love – Firewatch and Oxenfree. Any chance you’ve heard of these games?)
SMITH: That’s funny. No, I’m clueless about video games, as my eight-year-old can attest. (I’ll look those up, though. I’m intrigued.) I am constantly inspired by music and visual arts, though, movies included. I loved M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (I know that’s a controversial thing to say that could lose me some readers, but I think it’s a beautiful modern fairy tale), and I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge the influence there. I mention Neko Case in the book—it’s an alternate history of the Northwest, but Neko Case belongs in all of them, in my opinion—her entire oeuvre influences me. I didn’t realize this until after I’d written the book, but the last scene is evocative of a verse of one of her early songs, “Favorite.” It actually wasn’t the inspiration for the scene (that’s another story), but it didn’t surprise me that there was an echo of her in the final, dramatic moments of the book.
Alexis M. Smith‘s debut novel, Glaciers (Tin House, 2012), was a finalist for the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction and a World Book Night selection in 2013. Her second, Marrow Island (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), a winner of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award, has been called “beautifully wrought” (O, The Oprah Magazine) and “transporting” (Vanity Fair). She has published fiction and non-fiction in Bon Appetite, Portland Monthly, Tin House, Tarpaulin Sky, The Portland Review, and Lilac City Fairy Tales. She lives in Portland, OR with her wife and son.