Fishing for words

By By Katy Nesbitt The Observer July 09, 2012 04:54 pm

Renowned Oregon author is keynote speaker and panelist at the 25th Summer Fishtrap

Author David James Duncan’s writings are a shining example of Fishtrap’s motto, “Promoting clear thinking and good writing in and about the West.”

On Friday and Saturday the famed Oregon writer will share his thoughts on writing, fishing, and religion as keynote speaker and panelist at the 25th Summer Fishtrap.

Duncan first came to Summer Fishtrap, a week of workshops, readings and lectures held at the Wallowa Lake Camp, in 1993. His second novel, “The Brothers K,” had just been released.

He said his connection to Wallowa County predates that first Fishtrap experience.

“When I was 8, I put on a mask and swam in Wallowa Lake with the trout. I had the revelation of a world inside a world,” Duncan said.

In the 19 years since he first attended Fishtrap, Duncan raised children, published compilations of short stories and essays, and is now in the throes of writing several long works of fiction. He said the love of parenting is why he hasn’t published a novel in 20 years.

“Raising children was huge — so many writers ruin their children. To write a novel I hole up, almost like a monastic. I didn’t want to expose my daughters to that and have them ask, ‘Why won’t you talk to us?’”

Duncan grew up in a tight-knit, Seventh Day Adventist family. His grandparents offered to buy him a car and pay his tuition if he would attend Walla Walla College. Turning his heel on the family denomination, he went to Portland State instead and worked his way through school, earning a degree in English literature.

“If my grandparents had offered me a VW bus with a fly rod rack, I might have taken them up on the offer,” said Duncan, a diehard fisherman since his youth.

The influence of his religious upbringing runs throughout the “Brothers K,” set in Camas, Wash., across the river from his hometown of Troutdale. His concern for wildlife and their ecosystems is another common theme. He said he chose Camas because he wanted the pulp mill he grew up smelling as the backdrop.

A lay ecologist, the impact of the Crown Zellerbach mill fascinated him as he watched salmon and steelhead migrate through its hot pollution.

“They start jumping after they get through that crap to clean off the burn,” said Duncan.

Duncan is also a self-taught philosopher and student of the world’s religions, yet he bristles at fundamentalism. The world is much more wonderful than itemizing and memorizing scripture, said Duncan.

He said he is in awe of the wildness of the air we breathe and the water we need to stay alive.

Duncan said, “The whole ambient universe is wild nature. I love to tell stories that remind people of that.”

He thinks about fishing the same way and peels back the glitz and shine of sporting magazines and catalogs.

To Duncan, fishing is mysterious and is like being immersed in the natural system. He said his earliest memories are rambling along wild ridge lines and rivers, habits he follows to this day.

“It keeps me centered, keeps me sane, and brings meaning to the stories I tell. It is the book I live in,” said Duncan.

If the outdoors is the book in which Duncan lives, this year’s Summer Fishtrap theme is his alley — “Catch and Release, what we hold onto, what we let go, and the one that got away.”

Duncan said he was asked to give his keynote address on the role of storytellers in the West.

“This is my power alley. I can talk about that topic with fishing, with literature, and in spiritual terms as well,” said Duncan.

Working on novel

Duncan fans will be pleased to know that he is working on a novel called “Sun House.” He said it breaks down stereotypes of urban refugees and asks the question, “How are we going to live in the era of the extractive industrial model?”

He said in the stories he now writes he sees the world through mythological eyes.

“I no longer see our situation as a nation state; you have to go to mythology and use proper kinds of monsters and armies of darkness, whether you pour your heart out in a letter to Bob Packwood about coastal timber wars or about Snake River Dams. What really keeps us alive is to do small things with as much love and attention and compassion. Don’t get discouraged, something interesting is always going on,” said Duncan.

David James Duncan speaks at Summer Fishtrap, Friday, July 13 at 7:30 p.m. Go to for more information or call