The literary form is different — Corvallis writer Kathleen Dean Moore has swapped the essay for a new novel, "Piano Tide" — but the story at its heart is familiar.
"The novel came to me, I didn't go after it, it came to me," Moore said in a recent interview with The E, and the new book crystallized during a series of summers in an Alaskan tidewater town.
"It became clear to me that what was happening there was a story," she said. "It was the same story that I was talking about in my essays, and that is, how do you love a place? How do you live in a place without wrecking it? Once I had the characters, I could not let it go. They kept coming back after me."
And some of those characters even managed to survive seven drafts written over a 10-year period. More about them later.
"Piano Tide," which some advance readers have pegged as an "eco-thriller," is set in a fictional Alaskan harbor town. The local entrepreneur Axel Hagerman has made a killing by selling off the town's resources — the spruce, the cedar, the herring and the halibut.
But his latest scheme, to export the water from a salmon stream, meets resistance from a new arrival in town, Nora Montgomery, who's just off the ferry with her dog and upright piano in tow. It leads to what Moore called a "stupendous, transformational act of resistance."
None of this necessarily will surprise fans of Moore's beautifully crafted books of essays, which often focused on environmental topics. (Moore, a professor of philosophy, left Oregon State University three years ago to focus on climate-change issues.)
But her sympathy and admiration for all the novel's characters, even the entrepreneur, may come as a bit of a surprise.
"I was really interested in this issue about how we live in a place without wrecking it and I was really interested in this conflict between world views: The view that the Earth is a storehouse of resources, and they're there for us to simply sell out, and the view that the Earth is a gift that's given to us and our obligation is one of mutual sustaining. We sustain the Earth as it sustains us. And so I wanted people to bring those views into conflict, which is exactly what happens here. But I wanted to do it in a way that was fair. I wanted them to be human beings, not stereotypes or characters or philosophy lessons. I wanted them to be real and funny and quirky and loving so even the person who would dam a salmon stream, he's trying to do the right thing. Everybody's trying to do the right thing, but they're doing within these conflicting world views, which brings them into conflict."
As an essayist, Moore would often hear tales from novelists about how characters sometimes burst into full life on the page.
"And I didn't believe it," she said. "Now, I absolutely believe it. And when (the characters) started to be fully fleshed and given spirit and soul and yearning, they would pretty much tell me what they would do and what they wouldn't. And they would refuse sometimes."
"I really tried to drown the teenager. He would not be drowned. So I had to say, 'OK, you live,' which really pleased me."
But it took time for these characters to blossom.
A critical moment came when Moore showed a draft of the novel to an Alaskan neighbor, also a writer. His critique was to the point and brutal:
"You know, Kathy," he said, "I don't care if your characters live or die."
Moore's response: "OK, that tells me what I have to do. So my goal then, and it took me years, was to make my characters so interesting and so affable that people couldn't help but love them. And I started to love them. I would love to invite them all over and just live with them. And I think that's now the strength of the novel." In the process, she said, a number of other characters hit the cutting-room floor.
But characters and setting, as important as they are to "Piano Tide," also have to serve a plot, and there Moore got another surprise:
"Things come. Things happen. I guess if you put people together, they'll do things and some pretty dramatic things happen, one after the other. What I had to learn was not so much how to think about what happens, because the storyteller in me took over there. But what I had to do was think about the timing and the pacing in relation to the chapter endings and things like that."
The final result, Moore said, is an interesting hybrid: A quick read — "an airplane book," as she called it. "I want this book to be sneaky in that sense. It's a quick read, it's a fun read, it can be read (on a flight) from Los Angeles to Chicago. And when you come away, you'll have had a good story but you'll also be thinking about the larger issues that are driving the action, these philosophical questions about what is the right relationship to the land."
And she hopes the fun she had writing "Piano Tide" comes across to its readers.
"It was really, really fun," she said. "I miss it it now that it's done. It was fun because I got to hang out with such interesting people. I got to learn about this fascinating place. Mostly it was fun because I got to be part of these crazy friendships and these people."