Susan Marsh, winner of the 2014-15 Sarton Award for her contemporary novel, War Creek, has felt all her life that the beautiful and wild world we inhabit is of great importance, both for its own sake and for the psychic wellbeing it brings to our souls. Perhaps it is because she grew up near wild beaches, woods and mountains.
“My parents liked to car-camp,” Susan says, “so we took the old Rambler to parks all over the state, and camped in an army surplus canvas tent. I was drawn to the natural world in part due to this upbringing, and also because of some teachers in high school and college who instilled in me a curiosity about science.”
Susan, who was born in Seattle in 1953, received a geology degree in 1976, and then went on to graduate school to get a degree in landscape architecture. After graduation, she went to work for the Forest Service.
“I value community, family and friends and the concept of citizenship in the form of giving back,” she says of her decision. Susan, who has over 30 years of experience as a wild lands steward for the Forest Service, admits to both selfish and public-spirited reasons for wanting to work in conservation.
“I sought outdoor work, and I believed in the value of our shared public wildlands where people could get away from the noise and congestion of cities and suburbs… I chose the Forest Service because I had worked seasonally for the agency during summers between my years of college. I worked in many capacities during my time there, ending with a position of overseeing the recreation and wilderness program for the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The work that was most satisfying was having what influence I could to encourage respectful stewardship of the land we hold in common.”
While War Creek is Susan’s first novel, she has written several non-fiction books that speak of her love of the outdoors and her environmental concerns for the land. These include: Cache Creek: A Trailside Guide to Jackson Hole’s Backyard Wilderness; Saving Wyoming’s Hoback: The Grassroots Movement that Stopped Natural Gas Development; A Hunger for High Country (a memoir with a mission); The Wild Wyoming Range (a coffee-table book featuring photographs and essays, coedited with Ronald Chilcote); and Beyond the Tetons, Targhee Trails (coauthored with Rebecca Woods).
While these books are mostly about Montana and Wyoming, War Creek takes place in the Cascade Mountains of Washington.
“Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, where I was an avid hiker and backpacker, the North Cascades drew me like no other place. I spent a summer doing an inventory of roadless areas and got to know a number of great places on the east slope of the Cascades. I had wanted to write a story set there for a long time, and it took about as long to figure out what the story was going to be,” Susan says. “I wanted to tie together several elements—a fraught relationship between a father and his grown daughter, the destruction of old ranger stations and fire lookouts that symbolized Forest Service history, and imperiled wildlife and wild land. The setting allowed me to do this in a way that explored the basic themes of understanding, forgiveness and coming to terms with what is lost and cannot be saved.”
“When one writes about an outdoor setting, a character can be given some reflective, solo time doing something other than staring out a window,” Susan says. She thinks of setting as a strong participant in her story. “A character can be riding a horse or hiking to a high pass, or doing something else interesting… In reading stories that are not based outdoors, I often find myself wondering—where are we? What time is it? Is it spring or fall?”
Susan also thinks of the grizzly bear in her book as a character. “The bear is an emblem of a quickly vanishing wilderness. A threatened species, it was being considered for reintroduction into North Cascades National Park at the time my story takes place. The bear, like the ranger station scheduled for demolition, is one of the valuable parts of a place in danger of being lost.”
The authenticity of the setting in War Creek comes from the fact that Susan knew it well.
“It struck me at the time as a perfect wild area, sandwiched as it is between the Glacier Peak and Pasayten Wildernesses and North Cascades National Park. I have spent a fair amount of time in the mountains in that part of the state of Washington.” But she doesn’t know it as intimately as someone who lives in the region, she says. She sees this as positive because it allowed her to make up some places that didn’t exist for her fictional story. “Though War Creek Ranger Station is made up,” Susan says, “the creek is real. I chose it for the title and main setting for the book because it is wilder than some of the adjacent drainages that have more trails and lakes as destinations, and the name seemed perfect for the relationship between father and daughter.”
The Sarton winner credits the women in her writer’s group as having the greatest influence in helping her understand the elements of craft and storytelling necessary to reach her writing goals.
“They challenged me to try fiction when I was focused on essays—and convinced that I couldn’t possibly write a made-up story. My editor for War Creek, Marthine Satris, was also enormously helpful in helping me make that book the best it could be.”
Susan also credits insightful readers, whether writing friends or professionals, for challenging her to dig deeper. She is thankful for other writers “whose work I read with wonder at their ability to turn a phrase, tell a story, and find fresh ways to illuminate age-old themes.” “I’m lucky to be retired,’ she adds. ‘While I was working full time I used to get up at 5 and write for an hour or so before getting ready for work. Then I had my evenings to write. This wasn’t ideal in terms of my best-energy schedule, but it was the time I had and I was determined to do what I could. Now I can use the hours between rising and mid-morning, which are my best hours for writing. It is a gift.”
Even so, Susan makes writing a first priority, rather than trying to cram it in among other activities. “I don’t travel, or go to parties, or overschedule my days. I don’t answer the phone between 7 and 10 a.m., and most of my friends know that. I do have a writing space. It’s in an upstairs bedroom, and at the moment, it’s terribly cluttered. But I can close the door and have the quiet space I need to concentrate.”
When asked what advice she would give to other writers, her first suggestion is to read, then she repeated a quote by Judith Barrington: “Just as composers go to concerts and artists visit galleries, writers read. You will learn, in the most enjoyable way, more about style and language from reading good literature than you will ever acquire from workshops and how-to books.” But Susan also says that each writer has to discover what works for her. “In general, I’d say to take in all the advice you can. Everyone has a unique set of schedules, rituals, and other behaviors that help bring on the work.” Things that work for her include not waiting around for inspiration, Susan says. “The more consistent you are the less time you’ll spend trying to remember what you were up to, and can reenter the state of mind required to dive into your work and move onward.”
“Ask: what you are trying to understand or reveal to yourself? Many authors say they write to understand how they feel or what they think, and I agree with that. If the revelation that comes feels fresh and insightful to the author, it will be so to the reader. If you already know the answer, why ask the question?”
Susan also suggests that it’s helpful to fill notebooks with draft prose, and recommends pencil and recycled paper. “Anything that feels temporary, so you don’t get hung up with having to write your best when you are really a wanderer with a butterfly net trying to grab things out of the air. Ask yourself: Why does this story matter, and why do I care enough about it to write it?”
“Talent is less important than persistence. Revision is your friend, but there is a fine line between not enough and too much. Tune your editor’s ear and have others look at your manuscript — but only after you’ve taken it as far as you can without help. Don’t get discouraged when the right words refuse to come. Writing is hard work.”
Winning the Sarton award, Susan says, has given her the boost she needed to stop questioning the value of her efforts and get back to work on a set-aside novel.
“Several people are reading for me, and I will have a developmental edit by a professional editor before I start sending out. So that will keep me busy for a while. I have the beginnings of another story coming into being, so it’s waiting in the wings for my attention. And I’ve been picking up the poetry notebook lately. Though I don’t consider myself much of a poet, I find that writing and reading poetry helps my prose.”