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Feeding the soul with Oregonness

'Mink River' author Brian Doyle takes center stage next week
by: VERN UYETAKE Lake Oswego’s Brian Doyle is an award-winning author, essayist and editor of the University of Portland’s Portland Magazine. “Mink River,” his first novel, has just been announced as being an Oregon Book Award finalist.

Lake Oswego author Brian Doyle believes stories are crucial to life.

'They are nutritious - they're food for the soul,' he said. That being the case, he is responsible for many well-fed souls who are reading his novel, 'Mink River,' this year's Lake Oswego Reads selection.

Doyle comes from a family of storytellers. His father, who is 90, wrote for newspapers and, in fact, until just recently wrote a weekly column. He taught him that stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. And to tell a story something has to happen; you have to push the action along.

Obviously, Doyle followed that sage advice. He is an award-winning author, essayist and editor of the University of Portland's Portland Magazine. And 'Mink River,' his first novel, has just been announced as being an Oregon Book Award finalist.

Doyle said 'Mink River' has been 20 years in the making, starting when he and his wife, Mary, lived in Boston. He said he came to Oregon because of love; Mary is a native Oregonian.

"'Mink River' is a celebration of Oregonness,' he said. 'A song of Oregon. It began as two guys speaking to each other in my head. They talk about time as being fast, slow and as a thing … time as a being.'

The two guys are Cedar and Worried Man, who make up the Department of Public Works for the community of Neawanka, a fictitious town on the Mink River on the Oregon Coast. The novel gives the reader a bird's-eye view of the people and events of the community.

Doyle promised Mary that he would finish the novel. They both wanted to find out what happened in the story.

'I didn't think while writing it,' he said. 'I just did it. Most of all the Oregonness came out. Time and grace were characteristics (of the writing) and it has a flavor of a certain defiant gentle courage.'

He said that while he was writing the book he was excited to get to the next page. Unrealistic events, such as carrying on conversations with a talking crow, seemed very natural to occur. And even some of his characters surprised him.

'I was surprised and disappointed by one character, Grace. She is a rough and tumbling character.'

Doyle called a novelist friend and related to him what Grace had done, actions that Doyle would not have condoned. The friend said that was a good thing; it meant the character was real.

'Characters are like an author's children and they write themselves. If they don't do things that surprise you they aren't real. The characters that are real are those you love. A great secret to writing good fiction is letting go and letting your characters be themselves, make their own story,' Doyle said.

Doyle, who is fascinated by natural history, studied birds, botany, Salish history and culture and Gaelic in preparation for the novel. He amazed his family with his excitement in discovering there are 113 different kinds of grasses in Oregon and other obscure facts.

'A good novelist has an idea and takes it out for a walk and sees what will happen,' he said. 'Fiction is playful and surprising.'

Doyle said he had to cut pages of lyrical passages from the book. 'Something has to happen - sex, death or tension, or all three,' he said.

When asked what he would have included more of, he said he would have liked to write more about Crow and the nun.

Doyle hopes that 'Mink River' will be added to all high school and college reading lists.

'I want kids to read it. I would love for it to be the ninth greatest novel. I really want people who live here to read it. It's holy, painful, funny and about Oregon. And it's written because of love. It's my thank you to Oregon. It's thorny, salty, mixed with graces. It's my gift - catching and telling stories.'

Doyle will speak at 7 p.m. next Wednesday, Feb. 8, for the Lake Oswego Reads author presentation at Lake Oswego High School auditorium on 'The wild lovely threads of story that compose and create a community.' Admission is by ticket only; however, Tualatin Valley Cable TV is recording the presentation. Broadcast times will be publicized.

Lake Oswego Reads coordinator Cyndie Glazer reminds those with tickets that they must be seated by 6:45 p.m., as empty seats will be given to those without tickets.

Many Lake Oswego Reads events are planned during the month of February in celebration of 'Mink River.' For a complete list, visit www.lakeoswegoreads.org. If you can only attend one event, Doyle suggests you attend the reading Feb. 22 in the Shoen Gallery in Shoen Library on the Marylhurst University campus. Noted poet and Gaelic teacher Gerard Killeen and Doyle will read snippets of 'Mink River' in Irish. The event begins at 7 p.m. and there is no charge.



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