One Story author Pete Rock (issue #56, “Lights”) has just released his novel, My Abandonment, in paperback. Not only does it have a cool new cover, and a 2010 American Library Association Alex Award to its credit, Pete’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin, has added a reader’s guide for bookclubs. Below is a conversation with Pete from Houghton Mifflin’s website. I’d highly recommend that you pick up a copy of this extraordinary book.
A Conversation with Peter Rock
Why did you write this book?
About five years ago, I read a short mention of a thirteen-year-old girl and her father discovered living in Forest Park, a rugged wilderness that borders downtown Portland. They had been living there for four years in a carefully camouflaged camp, ingeniously escaping detection, venturing into the city to collect his disability checks and to shop for the groceries they couldn’t grow. He had been homeschooling the girl, who tested beyond her age group. A second newspaper article described how the two had been relocated to a horse farm; the father had been given a job, and the girl was to start middle school in the fall. I thought the situation was resolved, and filed the story away; then a third brief newspaper mention described how the two had disappeared one night. I waited and waited, searched the Web, but months passed and there was no more information. The two had truly disappeared. Unable to find out more information about how they lived or what became of them, my mind began to spin out possibilities. I realized I had to tell the story myself in order to satisfy my curiosity.
So is the novel “inspired by a true story” out of necessity?
I’m a fiction writer, and had there been enough information available to write a nonfiction account, I wouldn’t have been interested in writing it. Perhaps some might hesitate at making fiction out of real people’s lives, or see it as a real imposition. I am a little uneasy about it myself but hope that my effort is a testament to my enthusiasm and respect. And wonder.
Describe some of your more physical preparations or research.
I spent a lot of time wandering through some of the more remote sections of Forest Park, imagining scenes, climbing trees. I had the coordinates for the camp where the father and daughter had lived, which had been taken apart, and also encountered many more recent camps where homeless people were living off the grid. I also spent a fair amount of time hiking in the backcountry around Sisters and the Santiam Pass area in central Oregon, through the burned-out volcanic lands where forest fires recently ran, through the snow, my mind traveling as Caroline’s.
What caused you to choose the girl, Caroline, as the narrator?
Generally speaking, I’m suspicious of child narrators—their naiveté often feels manipulative or mannered, their voices grating. So I tried to conceive of this story from several other angles, but was unsuccessful. I wished to convey the wonder and joy in what could be a sadder or more cynical story, and the only way to do that was to let Caroline tell it.
How would you respond to someone who wonders whether a forty-year-old man can write as a thirteen-year-old girl?
I’m not a writer who’s ever been able to write convincingly through narrators who share my gender and age. I think the ways in which we’re alike are far greater than small differences like these, anyway. I’ve been lonely; I’ve wanted to feel secure; I’ve wondered at nature and the fact of spinning around on this earth through the galaxy; I’ve wished that animals could communicate more easily with us; I’ve thought about where my dead friends might have gone…
How did you prepare to write in Caroline’s voice?
I spent a lot of time thinking about what she needed, what she wanted, what she knew and didn’t know, the way she had to believe her world in order to enjoy and survive in it. I spent time reading encyclopedias, as she does, and Golden Nature Guides. I read the books that informed her father’s thinking —Emerson, Thoreau, Rousseau. I read Opal Whiteley’s nature diaries.
Who is Randy?
Randy is a toy horse that Caroline’s father gave her. She’d wanted a My Pretty Pony-type doll, and what she got was an acupuncturist’s horse model— one side covered in numbers and dots, where the needles would go, and the other side flayed to reveal the horse’s bones and organs. Caroline doesn’t know what Randy is for; she just loves him and carries him with her. And Randy does exist in my life as well. One way I stayed with Caroline was to have Randy next to me every moment I was writing the book, reminding me of who I was and what was at stake. A small white horse, reassuring me.