A Reflection on Fatherhood

The Source Weekly | September 22, 2005
Craig Lesley writes as both father and son in his new memoir Burning Fence. Subtitled “A Western Memoir of Fatherhood,” the book recounts in episodic fashion the author’s life growing up with an absent father and controlling stepfather and his attempt at redemption in taking in a foster child severely damaged by fetal alcohol syndrome. When his foster child turns violent, Lesley seeks out his dad to help raise the child.

An excellent storyteller, Lesley’s memoir is piercing and emotionally wrought, without ever descending into melancholy. Along the way, he paints keen portraits of mid-century small town life in eastern and central Oregon.

Lesley is the author of The Sky Fisherman, Winterkill, River Song, and Storm Riders and is editor of Talking Leaves: Contemporary Native American Short Stories and Dreamers and Desperadoes: Contemporary Short Fiction of the American West.

The Source Weekly interviewed Craig Lesley by phone about Burning Fence.

How long ago did you first conceive of this memoir?

I conceived of it about four years ago, about 2001.

How is writing a memoir different than writing fiction? Is it easier or more difficult than some of your fiction that is semi-autobiographical?

This was different because I had -- and this was really nice -- the resources of some of the so-called characters there. I could actually talk with my half-brother Ormand and I could actually go out and talk with my uncle Bob. I could go out and talk with both my aunt Sally and my aunt Lela. The difficult part was getting my mother to talk, because -- as I say somewhere in the book -- my mother never talked about my father because she said don’t talk unless you have something good to say about someone. She was, in some ways, the most difficult source, but my girls could get some information out of her from time to time, and I could also get some information through my sister.

I really liked the episodic structure of the book -- did you consciously choose the form or was there a particular reason you chose it?

I am really comfortable with that kind of form. In some ways, it reminds of me of what I did with Winterkill -- although I did it for different reasons. When I wrote Winterkill, I was teaching five classes at a community college and I really didn’t have time to think of anything more than an episode. But here I thought about those rare times I saw my father and would try to get him to communicate. …It almost lent itself to episodes because there were very few times that I saw my father and I remembered them so distinctly.

Did you write a lot that you didn’t use?

I probably wrote about twenty pages that you didn’t use. The part that I was sorriest, I guess, about not using was a part I wrote called “Shoes” where I talked about how my mother had always bought me shoes every year when I’d go back to grade school or high school until I got old enough to buy them myself. But my brother Ormand never got any new shoes. So I just had a scene about -- you’re way to young to remember this -- but in the old days in the department stores they had x-ray machines that you’d put your feet in [with shoes] and they’d x-ray to see where your toes were…They were horrible because they gave off so much radiation. People got ill from them. But it was that great ‘50s belief in technology. That’s the only part that I had really hoped to include. We kept trying to slide it in, but it just interrupted the flow.

There seems to be a lot of regret in your writing about the differences in your and Ormand’s lives. You had it a lot better than Ormand...

Yeah, I did and because Ormand is such a kind and generous open soul, and he has just a great sense of humor, my heart really goes out to him. Ormand was who I would have been if I had grown up with my father and not my mother. Because my mother -- while she didn’t have any money and while she worked low-paying jobs -- really felt a sense of responsibility. We never took a vacation, but I had new shoes.

Fathers and sons play a big role in your books…will the theme ever run dry for you?

Well I think it’s not just fathers and sons, it’s family. I’ll probably always write about family to a certain extent, because there’s history involved in that and landscape -- the territory that you inhabit as a family. I’m really obsessed with central and eastern Oregon and don’t feel like there’s enough work written about those places. …But I think because I am a father -- I was a father both with Wade Whitefish and my own two daughters -- and because my own father and stepfather weren’t up to the task, I think it’s something I’ll always write about. They say you write sometimes from the place where the wounds are, and I think that’s a would that I have. You’re always trying to heal it in some way.

Since writing the book, how have your feelings for you father changed?

Yes, as a matter of fact, they did. I think through Ormand’s generosity and forgiveness of my father I learned to follow Ormand’s lead and forgive him also.

You write about work in the small town west, which is something that you don’t really read about. Generally, people write either romantically or unromantically about ranching, or in nature writing work is really absent. Town work, such as working in your uncle’s store, is not an aspect of eastern Oregon -- or even the entire West -- that you see depicted very often.

That’s an excellent point. One of the things that I try to do in my work is emphasize the importance of work. I think a lot of writers don’t do that and the reason, if you think about it, is very simple -- a lot of writers have trust funds. There are very few writers who come out of working class backgrounds. One of the things that I found out early on when I was sending out short stories was that the stories that had work in them always attracted the editor. The very first story I ever wrote was about working in the Sumpter Lead and Zinc mine over in Kellogg, Idaho. Nobody ever published that story, but everybody always commented on the work aspect in it.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

I feel like this is my most important work to date and that it informs a lot of my novels. Subjects that I circle around in my novels, I really come up to and tackle head on.

I had one other thought...I want to do a story that doesn’t have to do with family. I’m planning for my next book to be about teaching. I want to make it funny. I have thirty-five years of being a teacher and I want to write about my checkered career.

The Source Weekly

In a region with thin media coverage, the Source has been a steady presence for the past 18 years in Central Oregon (especially for the ski/bike/beer town of Bend). Snappy music reviews, enthusiastic event coverage and insightful news analysis, the...
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