A conversation with Heather Brittain Bergstrom

Your short fiction was named a distinguished and notable story for The Best American Short Stories in 2010. You’ve also won numerous awards from The Atlantic Monthly, The Chicago Tribune, and Narrative Magazine just to name a few. What inspired you to write a full form novel? What are the different challenges/benefits to writing short stories vs. novels?

More than being inspired, I wrote the novel in a sort of desperate state after my story collection, which took me seven years to complete, didn’t land a publisher. In my twenties, as a young mother and student, I wrote poetry. In fact, I was accepted into my MFA program in poetry, not fiction. In my thirties I wrote short fiction. I tried my hand at a novel (an early version of Steal the North) when first making the transition from poetry to prose, but I did not possess the skills or, with growing children, have the time. Never formally trained in fiction writing, I taught myself by reading, reading, reading contemporary stories and studying fiction writing guides.

I began my novel anew right after I turned forty. My skills were honed. My oldest child had been at college long enough that I could turn her bedroom into a “room of one’s own.” Writing a novel is total immersion into another world. For me, there were no breathers between chapters as there had been between my stories. As a reader, I continue to enjoy all three genres, but, as a writer, the almost complete abandonment of self required to compose a novel is profound and addicting.

Steal the North takes the reader up the west coast from Sacramento to Eastern Washington—can you discuss why you chose these particular settings?

I was born and raised in eastern Washington. And I have lived near Sacramento, now, for many years. California is definitely a part of my novel, but it is not the main place. Eastern Washington, with its coulees, cowboys and Indians, large rivers and dams, wind and sage, is the backdrop.

I love the west, the mountains, open expanses and ruggedness. I can’t imagine living anywhere else or writing about other landscapes. That being said, California, even Northern California, is very different than Eastern Washington. I would argue that California is different than all the other state in the West. For example, I live almost an hour north of Sacramento in a farming town with a Sikh and a Hindu temple. Within forty five minutes of my house, and surrounded mostly by rice fields and orchards, are numerous junior colleges, two state universities and a U.C. Roadside fruit stands line the highways selling locally-grown figs, kiwis, almonds, you name it. In my novel, California is a place of refuge for Kate, my protagonist’s mom. And it is where she chooses to raise Emmy, her daughter and my protagonist. It’s a safe haven, but not the blood and guts of the novel.

In my short stories, characters are eager to leave eastern Washington. Just as I was eager during high school to escape the sagebrush and miles of “nothingness.” And so I did. But as I grew older, I realized how much, like it or not, I had been shaped by the landscape of my childhood. I had left it, but it hadn’t left me. Returning for visits, I began to see beauty where before I saw ugliness. I had to accept the starkness of my homeland, and once I did, the place captivated me. I longed for the coulees, the wind, and even the sage. I especially longed for the rivers. Emmy is my first character ever to yearn for eastern Washington. Hers is the first migration north, rather than south.

Your protagonist’s mother runs away from her hometown and the fundamentalist Baptist Church. Do you have a personal connection to the church?

I grew up in two different Baptist churches, the second one being far more fundamentalist. I remember, as a teenager, rafting down the Snake River in a long dress. Girls weren’t allowed to wear pants, let alone swimsuits, even for outdoor activities. Each year on the Fourth of July, families gathered at the church to watch apocalyptic movies. I was educated through the tenth grade in an unaccredited basement academy by deacons’ wives, some of whom, like my mom, hadn’t even finished high school themselves. Students were instructed to circle the church should state or federal agents try to close down our school.

However misguided, the church, in particular the less fundamentalist one, gave my family a needed sense of community. Eastern Washington is an isolated place. The overall population is small. Individuals and individual families in much of the rural west tend to stick to themselves. On top of that, the landscape can seem empty, overwhelming, even brutal. In the church we had a large extended family. I still love some of those church members dearly, although I am not in touch with any of them. My characters, Beth and Matt, are partly a reflection of that love.

Without revealing too much, what does the title Steal the North mean?

The title evokes the Native American myths in the novel. It also evokes native myths in a larger context. Coyote, Raven, and other Animals—in the time before humans—stole the sun, stole fire from the Sky People, stole each other’s wives, stole food, tails, fancy clothing. Emmy steals the north (her birthright) from her mom, the dad she’s never met, and even her beloved aunt and makes it her own. Reuben and Emmy steal the north for themselves: by taking drives, but also in the way lovers often take possession of places where they share intimacy. And then, of course, the north was stolen from the Indians by whites.

Spirituality is a strong theme in Steal the North. How did you start to make comparisons to the Christian church and Native American spirituality and culture?

A: I kept coming across parallels while writing this novel between the Christian church and Native American spirituality and culture. The healing ceremony that brings Emmy to eastern Washington for the summer doesn’t seem as bizarre after Reuben explains that his people still have healing ceremonies at the end of the twentieth century. Reuben admits he is a “sweat lodge junkie.” His confession makes Emmy’s conflictions with purity seem not as ridiculous. I did not set out to equate these two very different religions and cultures, but I kept finding parallels. If nothing else the Native American spirituality in Steal the North tempers the harsher Christianity. In reality, many tribes have melded their native religion and Christianity. This melding drove the early missionaries nuts. I find it beautiful. A grave on the Colville Reservation often has a cross and a feather, maybe also a basketball, a pile of rocks, and a Bible.

What inspired you to write Native American characters?

I grew up between the two largest Indian reservations in Washington State: the Colville and the Yakama Reservations. My home county is divided from the Colville Reservation by Grand Coulee Dam. I was born and raised in Moses Lake, Washington, a town named after Chief Moses, whose descendents live on the Colville Reservation. Native Americans are very much part of the area where I grew up. There’s extreme prejudice against them for being “drunks” and “lazy,” for being allowed to fish in places where whites can’t (part of their treaty rights), and for being allowed to help manage some of Washington State’s natural resources. I wasn’t taught as a kid to respect or even recognize the existence of these marginalized people—in fact, the opposite.

Our Christian school took frequent field trips to the enormous dams on the Columbia River. Dams scared the hell out of me, so I’d sneak into the tiny Native American cultural centers adjacent to the visitor centers. The museums fascinated me. I didn’t realize as a young girl that the museums were afterthoughts by the Bureau of Reclamation: a nifty place to display the tattered remains of indigenous cultures whose centuries-old and sacred fishing sites were now drowned forever in backwater. In a way, through the act of writing Steal the North, I stepped back into those tiny museums.

What do you want people to take away from reading Steal the North?

Various things. A strong sense of place: the physical land and the people of eastern Washington. A belief in the redemptive power of love. A larger understanding of and appreciation for Native American culture and people. A wrenching feeling for the absolute necessity of family. To witness both the destructive and sustaining forces of religion. And the most ambitious: to perhaps inspire young people (through the examples of Emmy and Reuben) to take possession of their own lives. In doing so, who knows, they may also mend some of the broken parts in their parents and then the world.

When you form characters do you ever incorporate aspects from people you know?

Absolutely. My characters are a mix of the following: reflections of people I’ve known, my imagination, and careful observations of strangers. Beginning fiction writers are sometimes afraid to look at the people they’ve known through the lens of fiction. They feel they must record the truth to the minutest detail. And, yes, truth is important, but the truth they must adhere to is the truth of art. Just because something really happened to your great aunt or your neighbor does not automatically make it truthful in fiction. My favorite type of characters to write are the ones that seek me out, like Rueben in Steal the North. I did not plan to have him narrate, but he jumped off the steps of his sister’s back porch and said, “Hey, let me tell my story.” His chapters practically wrote themselves. On the other hand, Kate was the hardest character to crack—probably because she hit too close to home. I rewrote and rewrote her chapter. Lesson learned.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a second novel. It is similar to Steal the North in that there will be multiple narrators, land is important, and love in central. However the characters in my new novel are definitely misbehaving more than the characters do in Steal the North. I worked as a hired girl at a lakeside mansion in Northern Idaho the summer before my senior year of high school. The novel is partially based on that experience.