Mountain Song

The High Sierra: A Love Story by Kim Stanley Robinson. New York: Little, Brown. 560 pages. $40.

“Often it seems that the more action there is, the less happens,” wrote Ursula K. Le Guin, explaining her frequent boredom with adventure stories. Kim Stanley Robinson is, among many things, a great spinner of adventures—but whether he’s depicting Earth’s colonization of Mars or geopolitical intrigues in Antarctica, the fast pace of events in his novels never crowds out their rich inner worlds.

These inner depths are usually set against and within the drama of landscapes both seductive and deserving of respect. So it’s no surprise that The High Sierra: A Love Story, his first nonfiction book aside from his doctoral dissertation, is a feast of interior and exterior geographies. As with his science-fiction, Robinson’s memoir by way of nature writing both exploits and exceeds genre conventions, as he takes us, again and again, into “the god zone” of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.

CLAUDIA LA ROCCO: Having grown up in Maine, a boat ride from Mount Desert Island, I have to start by saying how delighted I am that your ode to the Sierra Nevada mountains includes MDI as your “heart’s home.” That East Coast landscape has been much in my mind’s eye these past two years in Oakland, as I’ve read steadily through your novels. The High Sierra is intimately in conversation with those books and a departure. Would you talk a bit about your approach to world building in nonfiction versus science fiction?

KIM STANLEY ROBINSON: I don’t like the term “world building,” which comes from writing workshops in recent times and joins as a term other derivative effects like “theme” that are not organic to the reading experience, but are ways that people discussing the writing of fiction try to destrand the various feelings that come while reading fiction. This is somewhat necessary to the discussion of craft, but I think in actual practice people read in a kind of flow state, like a waking dream—it’s a gift, and also a skill that readers can cultivate. Writers then try to write sentences that allow this flow state to bring an internal experience to readers, but when writers get together to discuss craft, or to be taught by someone about it, a terminology has been created that I think is highly artificial. 

Out of all the terms that have been invented—“plot,” “character,” “style,” “setting,” “theme,” “pacing,” and so on—the ones I think most useful and powerful are “characters,” “plot,” and “pacing.” “Setting” is an older name for what now is sometimes called world building, I suppose because there have been quite a few very extensive and elaborate settings, as in Lord of the Rings. But these are secondary to plot and characters, to me. 

For sure, a place can become a kind of character in a story, but only metaphorically. Then it becomes a question of what kind of language brings that place vividly to the reader’s mind. Here exposition comes into play—another category, I suppose. But often the language involved is much the same. 

In my Sierra book, the mountain range is the central character. In somewhat the same way, in my Mars trilogy, Mars itself is the central character. But it wouldn’t work in either case if the humans learning the place weren’t the viewpoint characters.

Thank you for thoughtfully answering an onerous question! My use of “world building” actually came from your mentioning it during this 2014 interview; you noted that the explaining of settings and history is a burden and a pleasure particular to science fiction. It occurred to me that in The High Sierra, you’re explaining a world within a world, guiding readers through your choices of which historical events to highlight, which hiking companions to foreground, and so on. As with Mars in the trilogy, the Sierra Nevada landscape is a primary driver in these choices—and we as readers learn it alongside the people in the book.

Perhaps it’s better to ask about your structural choices in general in The High Sierra; I was so moved by how you built narrative suspense and emotional weight between “characters” (friends, historical figures, wild animals, geological features, and on) while playing with many variations of nature writing and memoir.

Structural choices: that I can speak to. As you noted, there are all kinds of modalities in my Sierra book, and all kinds of different subject matter. As I struggled to find a form for all these disparate materials, I noticed that I had had a very similar problem in the novel I had just finished, The Ministry for the Future. I had solved it there by having lots of short chapters that bounced from one aspect of the situation to another, in an impressionistic way that mainly followed one rule, which was shift from chapter to chapter, bounce around and create some kind of collage by way of variations. It made me a little nervous to transport a method from a previous book into a new one—this can be a mistake—but it seemed to be the best way forward here.

You can imagine a single unbroken narrative that moves almost seamlessly from topic to topic as it carries along—you can see John McPhee doing this sometimes, as in Coming into the Country—but I couldn’t see how to do that without adding more words to create transitions. It began to seem to me that only McPhee can do McPhee, and he has a fair number of imitators who can’t quite do it and are longwinded as a result. For me, it was better to focus each chapter on one angle of the story.   

I love what you said earlier about flow: that moment when a book takes off, so that the experience of reading becomes something that is happening to me as much as I am creating it. Alchemy.

You’re often framed as a utopian writer—and your portrayals of the messy business of change at a societal level, in public debates and backroom dealings, are undeniably engrossing. Yet what often strikes me most is how quickly individual characters become real and dear to me. You make them matter with only a very few details, and they pull me into the flow. Would you talk about how people take shape in your imagination, and how you go about bringing them to life on the page?

I start with a situation, usually. Say I want to write about terraforming Mars—then I need a terraformer, a person opposed to terraforming, a political radical, a Machiavel, a builder, a psychologist, etc. The French structuralists spoke of characters as actants, as the action-doers who make the plot happen. A single character could cover a couple of actants at once, or an actant could be split between a few characters. This I’ve found useful in clarifying things to myself as I get started. Therefore, characters are, at first, kind of just positions, or needed operators of the plot. But this is just the start.

Another useful conceptual tool is protagonicity. Does a novel have high protagonicity or low protagonicity—meaning the story is maybe spread out among a lot of different characters, who might be considered minor characters, except there aren’t any major characters. The story I intend to tell determines or suggests how I might go about deciding this. 

Characters are often based on people I know, but two people combined to one, or one person spread among several, or genders switched—that last move is often a really stimulating one, someone new comes from that.

And lastly, once or twice a story of mine has started with characters. What if a mercurial character and a saturnine character fell in love? Very funny! And so I got 2312. Also, in The Gold Coast, I thought my parents and my friends, and even myself, would make a good story about the 1970s in Orange County. This came close to the problem of writing The High Sierra, and I felt an obligation to present everyone at his or her best—all but me, whom I could beat up on and no one would complain.

But these are special cases. Usually, I begin with a situation and plot, then actants become obvious, I grab a name, and a character begins to emerge, by what they do and what they say. Then, for me, they either stay just actants, or else, at some point in the process, they spring to life. This feels real to me, but it’s like Calvin thinking Hobbes is real—I don’t want to claim anything mystical, it’s just a feeling. It sometimes feels like I’ve gotten out of the way and become a channel for a character who seems to be quite different than I am, but distinct to me, and speaking. This is the golden zone for writing novels, if it happens. 

I always think of the Widow Kang chapter of The Years of Rice and Salt. This for me is the great moment of “not me, them.”

What shifted when it was you and them, translating real people from your life to the page for High Sierra?

Writing about people I know and love, in High Sierra—that was a completely different kind of experience.

It was hard to keep my friend Terry from taking over the whole book; that’s just the way it was with him. I cut a lot of text, and tried to get a grip on my own feelings about our long friendship, but it was hard. For the rest of my friends, much easier. As for writing about myself, which is to say, memoir, I’d say it’s a weak genre. I read a bunch of memoirs and a few were really good—Beryl Markham, V. S. Pritchett—but most were not. I didn’t like the sensation of judging my younger self, and I was compressing so many memories into so few sentences—it was a weird exercise in summarization. I’m happy to conclude I’m a novelist, and like writing about characters who are as little like me as possible. Of course writing that, it sounds a bit crazy. They are all conveyed in my sentences, and I’m making them up, so how unlike me are they? I can’t tell. I do enjoy the feeling of other people speaking through me, even if it is just a crazy feeling.

The Terry sections were so tender—almost painfully intimate, yet respectful of all the things one can and can’t know and say about others.

One of the more playful but pointed aspects of The High Sierra is your study of place names, which you separate into the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Arguing that there’s not much Good, you urge a lot of renaming, while remaining ambivalent about names.

Early in this serious game, you note that “Names are nouns; greatness lies elsewhere.” Then in discussing the Sierra’s Mount Thoreau, a naming you sparked, you note that Thoreau “wrote down what he saw and thought in prose so precise and expressive that it manages to jump the gap from mind to mind, and change people. Surely this jump has partly to do with names.”

I am intrigued by these two thoughts, that this powerful jump has to do with names, yet greatness lies outside of names. They seem somewhat paradoxical, but I think maybe I’m not fully understanding. So, my question: Could you say a bit more about these two statements, and how or whether they’re related for you?

Maybe they’re not that related. Nouns are important to language, of course, and Thoreau’s language was indeed amazingly expressive and powerful. So to that extent, nouns work, yes. And names are nouns, but of a special kind. I don’t think names are in themselves containers of greatness. My thought there was that there could be good, bad, and ugly names, but that great names were quite rare. I’d hold to that.

The thing to take from this tangle of thoughts, perhaps, is that language is always changing with use, and names should also; and the names in the Sierra Nevada were mostly bestowed between 1860 and 1930, and people had a lot of fun with that, but didn’t do an outstanding job (if that’s even possible). So the game of it should continue, and we should change some of the names. Happily, after I finished High Sierra, a friend sent me A Guide to Changing Racist and Offensive Place Names in the United States, published by the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers and The Wilderness Society, available online. It turns out that a lot of people are interested in taking up this action, which is great.

Great indeed. OK, final question, sticking with book recommendations. You include The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada by John Muir Laws in your essential eight Sierra Nevada books. Laws’s paintings, you write, are “abstracted to help understanding.” I love this phrase, which solves why bird books with photographs are often less useful to me than drawings. Do you think that good nature writing also abstracts to help understanding?

That’s an interesting idea, and I think there must be something to it. Language itself is an abstraction, so that’s one level at which it has to happen. Then also, the experience of wilderness is such a gestalt, and so elusive, that you have to destrand it somehow to talk about it in any way more detailed than something like Muir’s “glorious!” So that destranding is analysis, and then there’s discussion, but somehow the feel of it still slips away. I think it’s right to conclude that it’s inexpressible. And saying “it’s inexpressible” doesn’t therefore express it, even though you have expressed something. Maybe just that being in wilderness is something that you do, an experience in place and time that is somehow a mental space, an abstraction-in-the-real, a kind of human moment. Even if you want to talk about it afterward, as obviously I do (or did), it resists description. Thus my 540 pages, I guess. Worth a try!

Claudia La Rocco is the author of The Best Most Useless Dress (Badlands Unlimited, 2014) among other publications.