Q&A with Rick Attig

We continue our series of Q&As with past Raymond Carver Short Story Contest winners by interviewing Rick Attig, who won an honorable mention for his story “Oregon Grind” in the 2011 Carver Contest.

Attig is a writer and journalist who recently left his job as associate editor for The Oregonian newspaper in Portland to write fiction. He twice won The Pulitzer Prize, including the 2006 prize for editorial writing, and was a 2008 Knight Fellow at Stanford University. Attig is now writing short stories as well as a series of middle-grade mystery books. His wife, Courtenay Thompson, also is a former journalist. Attig has two sons, Mitchell, 23, and Will, 10.

Carve: How did “Oregon Grind” come about?

Rick Attig: I wrote “Oregon Grind” to submit for my first workshop in the low-residency MFA program at Pacific University in 2010. The genesis of the story was a roadside coffee stand I stopped at many years earlier while driving through a dying timber town in the central Oregon Cascades. As a newspaper journalist, I covered the collapse of the Northwest timber industry in the 1980s and ’90s. I’ve lived in Oregon all my life and watched people who worked in many traditional industries—wood products, farming, ranching, mining—lose not only their occupations, but also the broader societal respect for what they did with their working lives. “Oregon Grind” changed over many drafts, and along the way I wound up deleting a scene I loved in which the protagonist, Foster, is sitting, confused and angry, in a job retraining session that he knows is futile. At its heart “Oregon Grind” still is a story of economic humiliation. I write a lot about people who have lost their jobs—and their identities—because of changing times that they don’t see coming, and don’t entirely understand. Somewhere along the way I realized that I was also writing my own story—the newspaper business, where I spent my working life, is going the way of the Oregon timber industry. 

C: Can you tell us about the dynamics of being both a journalist and a fiction writer?

RA: I was a newspaper journalist for 25 years before I turned to fiction. For most of that time, I was an editorial writer and member of The Oregonian’s editorial board, which produces the unsigned editorials for the paper. It was a fabulous job—I left The Oregonian and journalism a few months ago—but I’d say it complicated my transition to fiction. Too many of my stories—and lots of people thought my early drafts of “Oregon Grind” suffered from this—seemed written to make a point, like newspaper editorials. I was writing about issues, not people. Nobody wants to read a short story about economic dislocation. They want to read about compelling characters who are caught up in the swirl of changing times and struggling to survive. My journalism background is useful in many ways—I make deadlines, I’m pretty productive, I have a lot of ideas and stories to draw on. But every time I sit down to write I have to fight this old instinct that every piece of writing must “matter” in some way. I struggle against this earnestness every day.

C: Tell us a little about the mystery novel you’re working on.

RA: I’ve recently finished a manuscript and I’m looking now for an agent to help me find a home for a 70,000-word middle-grade mystery tentatively titled Tomb Warriors.

The protagonist is Carver Ralls, who goes to China with his beloved bulldog, Zeus, and his archaeologist mother who is an expert in underground robotics. From the moment his jet-lagged dog drags him into the predawn darkness of Beijing, Carver is on the run, chased by men with creepy red eyebrows and threatened by the shadowy leader of an international cartel of antiquity looters. He’s headed to Xi’an with his mother, Charlotte, invited by skittish Communist Party leaders to help solve China’s greatest ancient mystery: What’s inside the 2,200-year-old tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor? Carver is a sabre fencer and skinny boy of 14 still hurting from the death of his father at an archaeology dig in Greece a year earlier. Carver pushes away his worried mother and can’t accept that his father is gone—Peter Ralls’s body was never recovered. Then the mysterious cartel leader with the initials “GK” starts writing on Carver’s travel blog, hinting that he knows what really happened to his father. Carver meets the smart-mouthed daughter of a Chinese archaeologist and a Xi’an boy who hawks fake spring water to the thirsty tourists who visit Qin’s army of terracotta warriors. The trio confronts not only the Red Eyebrows gang, but also a bumbling young Chinese bureaucrat who may be on the take, a formidable government censor in stiletto heels and an angry old woman with a glass eye, who recognizes Carver even though he’s sure he’s never seen her before. Carver’s search for the truth—and fight to survive—leads him deep into China’s ancient history.

I went to Xi’an and Beijing last year to experience the sights, smells and tastes of China and make the place come alive for readers. I hope to use my reporting and writing skills, curiosity, sense of humor and love of travel to hook young readers on the history and culture—and the mystery—of places around the world. 

C: Can you give us a teaser passage from the novel?

RA: Here’s a page or so from the manuscript:

They left the Old Summer Palace through the seldom-used east gate. The only other person in sight was a man on a bench with his face buried behind an open newspaper. A taxi rolled up to meet them.

“We’re in luck,” Le Le said. She leaned in the cab’s window and spoke, turning and pointing at Zeus. Carver couldn’t see the driver. She said, “Hop in, Digger, the dude likes dogs.”

The man on the bench lowered his newspaper, jumped to his feet and lunged toward them. It was the Jolly Red Giant.

“Le Le, watch out!”

She turned just as the giant shoved her backwards through the open door into the rear seat. Then he grabbed Carver around the shoulders and started to drag him into the cab. With a snarl, Zeus leaped at the attacker and latched on to the hem of his T-shirt. Carver twisted free as the man flung the bulldog aside. The cab driver, who also had fire-red eyebrows, reached over and tried to hold Le Le in the back seat, but she pulled away and dove outside. The giant attacker backhanded Carver in the chin, knocking him down. Then he snatched Le Le by the ankle and held on as she struggled to escape. Zeus charged again, teeth snapping, and the big man let go of Le Le and swatted the snarling dog, knocking him across the pavement. Carver climbed back on his feet, stepped up and, as hard as he could, kicked the man between the legs from behind. There was a clink of metal falling onto asphalt as the man toppled face first into the back seat, his legs dangling outside the cab’s door.

“Kuài zǒu,” the man groaned to his partner, crawling into the cab. ‘Drive away.’ The driver floored it and the cab sped off. Le Le and Carver stood shoulder to shoulder on the sidewalk, both panting with exertion and fear.

“Digger, my father said you were some kind of fencing champion,” she said. “I didn’t know hot-shot fencers kicked guys in the balls.”

Carver rubbed his already swelling jaw. “They do when they don’t have a sabre and the other guy is the Jolly Red Giant.”

Le Le knelt where Zeus lay stunned on the sidewalk, a chunk of the man’s T-shirt hanging from his teeth. “Thanks for saving me, Bunny Rabbit.” She leaned in to kiss the dog’s dark forehead, but Zeus’ brown eyes narrowed and his lip curled.

“I wouldn’t push it,” Carver said. “He’s a little worked up.”

Le Le backed off. “I get the message. He’s not a kisser.”

Carver spotted something bright on the street. He picked up a small metal object about five inches long.

“What’s that?” Le Le asked.

“I’m not sure, but that big oaf with the red eyebrows dropped it when I helped him into the car.”

It was half of a small bronze tiger that had been split lengthwise down its back. Chinese symbols lined the animal’s flank. The flat back side of the figure featured two small holes, like it was meant to fit snugly together with the tiger’s missing half, which would look like its mirror image.

“It looks old,” Carver said.

“Well, there you go, Digger,” Le Le said. Her sarcasm was back. “Just what you came for. Your very own piece of ancient China.”         

The 14th annual Raymond Carver Contest is now open until May 15th.