Neil Mathison’s short story “The Cannery” won the 2013 Fiction Attic Short Story Contest and has just been published in Modern Shorts: 18 Short Stories from Fiction Attic Press. An excerpt from his story “Wintering Over” can be found here. The full story appears in the July/Aug 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Wintering Over”?
Two things inspired me to write “Wintering Over.” First, I wanted a story that captured the deep love I have for British Columbia’s Inside Passage. For thirty years, each August my family and I have sailed its channels, anchored in its coves, weathered its storms in a place where the montane world juxtaposes with the marine world, where granite peaks, glaciers, and summer snowfields overarch saltwater rapids and deep inlets, where bald eagles overfly orca whales, and where heart-stopping beauty coexists with the unforgiving hardness of the land. But I also wanted to explore the experience of growing old. So many stories, including my own, focus on youth and childhood, perhaps because the youthful page of life is blank enough that the consequences of our actions seem to have greater moment. But how, I wondered, do change and revelation play out when we are supposedly set in our ways?
And one other thing: I have a great fondness for bears.
The old man notes fairly early on that he sees the bear as a “fitting companion” for his intended solitude. Is this a way of communicating that some breed of solitude can be achieved with or even through company? Or is this observation more about the narrator seeing something he knows he will try to keep himself separate from?
The old man sees the bear as a creature sharing his appetite for solitude. Bears, especially male bears, are notoriously solitary animals. Initially, the bear affirms what the old man thinks he and the bear need. But this bear is actually a mother with a cub, not a solitary creature. The bear and cub foreshadow what the old man will discover: connection to others, especially family, is what he truly needs.
Would you describe the old man’s desire for solitude as a way for him to engage with or avoid himself?
I think to engage, although he would, early in the story, deny it. He would probably insist that he was trying to connect with place, with his island, with the natural world at large. As it turns out, his solitude is probably necessary to clear away the fog of a life long lived and prejudices closely held.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
My early work was closer to my own life experiences. Not memoir exactly, but based on incidents I experienced or observed. As I’ve matured as a writer, I’ve become more facile at creating characters and incidents that owe more to imagination than to real-life history. Still, how you live or have lived always informs your work. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
In terms of process, as I’ve grown older, I write more slowly, partly because my wife Susan has retired and we travel a lot, but also because I’m not in such a rush to get words on a page. A metaphor I like from the visual arts (although perhaps not completely apt) is that old paint has more depth with time.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Particle physics is one: I was a Navy nuclear propulsion engineer, a far cry from being a particle physicist, but in our navy training we studied particle physics. I loved its improbability—time running backwards, entanglement, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. For me this was a liberation from the hard, intuitive certainties of a Newtonian-physics world, thus a doorway to wonder and magic. We live a universe where, out of nothing, a new universe might spring, why ultimately I became a writer: so I could live a life creating wonder and magic “out of nothing.”
Travel and the outdoors is my other major influence: I grew up traveling with my parents and siblings, mostly in the West, but also “back East” and even Europe, where I developed an intense interest in place, especially the geology of place. In my writing I try to incorporate both physics and a sense of place.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
The worst advice was “write what you know.” Way too constricting. I prefer a modified trope: “Write what you want to know.”
The best advice I received was from Jana Harris, one of my teachers in the University of Washington Extension Fiction Program. Jana’s advice: “Read like a thief.” Don’t be shy, Jana said, about lifting plot, character, voice from other writers—it will enrich what you write and will ultimately be your own.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I’m spread a little thin. I’m working with editors on an essay collection, Volcano: an A to Z and other Essays about Geology, Geography and Geo-Travel in the American West, winner of the 2016 Bauhan Publishing Monadnock Essay Collection prize. The collection is slated for publication by Bauhan Press next fall. I’m writing a nonfiction book about my wife Susan and my travels with our sixteen-foot, Airstream Bambi travel trailer, tentatively titled Bambi Diaries. And I’m working on a collection of linked short stories, working title Inside Passage, of which my Kenyon Review story “Wintering Over” is one.