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Lesley visits town that inspired book

by: Submitted Photo - Author Craig Lesley

A fictionalized Madras is the setting for award-winning Northwest author Craig Lesley's book "The Sky Fisherman" -- this year's Community Read selection.
   A former local resident, Lesley will return to Madras, Warm Springs and Culver on Friday and Saturday, April 20 and 21, to speak at both high schools, make three public appearances, and conduct a special writer's workshop (see schedule below).
   While the names have been changed, local readers have enjoyed guessing which locals inspired some of the characters in "The Sky Fisherman." "Jake," the book's self-reliant, charismatic river guide and sporting goods store owner, was based on Lesley's real-life uncle Oscar Lange of Madras, and sparked the idea for the book.
   "Oscar was such a legendary character, I knew that I wanted to write a novel with a character like him at the center," Lesley said during a phone interview last week.
   The author also drew on his own experiences of living in Madras from 1957 to 1961, during his junior high and high school years. Like the teenager "Culver," in the book, Lesley worked at his uncle's sporting goods store, fished and took river trips on the Deschutes with him.
   He was student body president in junior high, and freshman class president at Madras Union High School. But when he was 15, in a serious farm accident he was crushed under the wheels of a mint chopper and spent three months in the hospital. He kept up with school through a tutor at the hospital, but had to use a wheelchair for three months, crutches for six months, and wear a back brace for two years after that.
   About the time he recovered, his mother took a job in Woodland, Wash., and he finished his last two years of high school there, once again being elected student body president -- this time at Woodland High School. Lesley went on serve as the student body president of Whitman College in Washington, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1967, then earned a master's degree in English in 1970 at the University of Kansas.
   During the summers, Lesley returned to Madras for eight years to work as a river guide on the Deschutes River with his uncle Oscar.
   He taught English and creative writing a total of 25 years at Clackamas Community College, but didn't begin writing seriously himself until he received a fellowship which financed a year of studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Lesley went on to earn a master of fine arts degree in 1980 at Amherst, and an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Whitman in 1997.
   He has taught at Willamette University, Lewis and Clark College, and Whitman College, and currently teaches at Portland State University.
   The hit of his first novel, "Winterkill," published in 1984, launched his writing career and won Lesley the Best Novel award from the Western Writers of America.
   The success of that book was followed by "River Song" in 1989, "The Sky Fisherman" in 1995, "Storm Riders" in 2000, and his memoir "Burning Fence" in 2005. Both "Storm Riders" and "Burning Fence" were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and he has also won an Oregon Book Award and three Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association awards.
   Roots in Madras
   Although his mom and stepdad moved around a lot when he was young, Lesley said he always thought of Madras as home.
   "Madras was an exciting place to be back then. They were putting in the dams and there were a lot of construction workers who were single and liked to hunt and fish. They would come into the sporting goods store and I liked to listen to all the stories of the other places they had worked," Lesley said.
   He and his author-editor wife Katheryn Stavrakis live in Portland and have two daughters, Kira, who's a student at Brown University, and Elena, who was encouraged to be an intern reporter one summer at The Madras Pioneer.
   Her dad said he steered her toward the job because, "I thought that Madras was a real interesting place with its mix of the three cultures. I thought it would be good for her to be in a rural area and see the workings of a small town." Elena is now a journalist with the St. Petersburg Times in Florida.
   Since he was also teaching full-time, it took Lesley five years to write "The Sky Fisherman." Besides his uncle, the author said he wanted to write a story about the codes of a small town.
   "A couple of exciting events happened while I was in Madras -- the fire and the flood which are in the book. And I wanted to get across the idea of community and how people work together. They may have different outlooks, but they come together in a crisis," he said.
   While Madras residents may get hung up on the use of actual events and characters they recognize, Lesley emphasized that the story is fiction.
   "People (outside of Central Oregon) realize it's a fictional place," he said, noting he used composites of some people to create characters that would reflect the facets of small-town society. "People from other states, even New Hampshire have even written to me and said, `This could be my hometown,'" he said.
   Book changes course
   But work on the book came to a halt after just two years when his Uncle Oscar died unexpectedly.
   "I was grief-stricken and didn't write for a year. Oscar's death affected the book enormously. Ironically, it became a much better book -- much deeper," Lesley said.
   Currently, the author is working on another memoir. "It's about teaching, which I've been done now for 37 years," he said.
   With all his books, he noted, he's been fortunate to have a wife who is a good book editor. "We work in partnership. Once she approves it, I know it will get by the people in New York," Lesley said, adding, "I'm looking forward to coming to Madras."