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Searching for a sense of place

His pursuit of America’s shared narrative takes Egan on a yearly, 40,000-mile trek.

For Timothy Egan, the quintessential American road trip is a search for “place,” for geography overlaid with a shared apprehension of the historical and psychological terrain.

Egan, a Seattle author who is a national reporter for the New York Times, brings Puget Sound landscapes into focus and turns an incisive eye on the larger West in works that include “The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest” (1990); “Breaking Blue” (1992); and “Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West” (1999).

“Every book I’ve written is about finding ‘place,’” said Egan, who speaks here May 16. “Almost all fights in the West are about place. We fight about place because we haven’t figured it out.”

There hasn’t been time, Egan says, for Westerners to create a conceptual frame to make sense of their surroundings.

“The problem, I think, is that we don’t have a shared narrative,” he said. “Jews have a shared narrative, Italians have a shared narrative, Indians have a shared narrative. Here, it’s tabula rasa, it’s still new. One hundred and fifty years old, which is nothing.”

And, he points out, one-third of all Northwesterners have lived here 10 years or less.

The result, he says, is dissonance, as people “rearrange the geography before they know where they are.”

While Egan, whose family has lived here for three generations, says he welcomes newcomers and accepts change, he is quick to add that one need not embrace every alteration wholesale.

“I think there are some things we’ve too quickly erased,” he said. “We’ve erased the fishing culture. We’ve lopped the hills.

“The one thing we all agree on is that the place is stunning. It’s like we were born beautiful. Do we really need plastic surgery?”

Evocative

Egan, although he mourns “authenticity replaced by the geography of nowhere,” steps deftly back from claiming a proprietary lock on authenticity.

Instead – a wordsmith to the last participle – Egan builds images that embody the specificity he wants to convey, so that the authenticity of language is the lens through which readers see “place.”

Red Lodge, Mont., could be called a partly gentrified, blue-collar town, but Egan makes that locale indelible with his description: “Even with a few boutiques and espresso bars, the old town front still wears overalls.”

Toppenish, in Egan’s lexicon, isn’t just a town that acquired some public murals: “In a slump 10 years go, the town came up with the idea of doing to itself what many a person with a head full of cheap beer has done in dives along Seattle’s waterfront: gotten a massive tattoo.”

“I try to leaven things with humor,” Egan said. “I don’t like moral rectitude.”

Ironically, it was a story of environmental catastrophe that gave him his big break as a writer on environmental issues.

Egan, who had worked at both the Seattle Times and the Post- Intelligencer, had been hired by the newly formed New York Times Seattle bureau as a stringer when the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of oil along 1,300 miles of the Alaska coast in 1989.

Egan’s stories occupied the front page for 10 days running, and the reporter was hired by the New York Times, serving a stint as the paper’s Northwest bureau chief.

Currently, Egan is a “roaming enterprise reporter,” a position that has him traveling 30,000-40,000 miles each year for stories. He turns in from one to about three pieces each month. He earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for writing about race in America.

The recent reportage he is proudest of is last summer’s four-part series chronicling the degradation of the environment along the Lewis and Clark expedition trail, and a two-part series published last December about the collapse of rural America.

“There was a huge reaction to both those series,” he said. “It feels great to get all the emails and letters. I can write something ‘above the fold’ and not get a single response. Then I write a feature and got all that response.”

Writing for readers who give instant electronic feedback has increased the pressure for accuracy, Egan says.

“I’m more petrified now,” he said. “I’m more careful now than I’ve ever been. Stories are quadruple-checked.”

But being exposed has an up side as well.

“You know decision-makers are reading your stuff,” he said. “I just think I have a great audience, the paper has a great readership.”

Working as a journalist while penning nonfiction and now novels – his first work of long fiction, “The Winemaker’s Daughter,” was published this year – creates no conflicts for Egan, who calls himself a “hybrid writer.”

“You write,” he said, “about things in a journalistic format first – I’ll never tire of it – and then you can write about it in books.”

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