"Joe Wilkins is a writer of great power and heart, and Fall Back Down When I Die is a riveting and timely novel.” – Jess Walter, National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestselling author of Beautiful Ruins
BB: What acts of reclamation are occurring in Fall Back Down When I Die?
JW: There’s a kind of reclamation Verl’s character and a couple other characters in the book are enacting, trying to reclaim something that was never there. And so that, again, is unsustainable. It leads to violence, leads to a way of seeing the world as something that we can abuse, use, and ignore others’ claims on. But we can reclaim some things. We can reclaim stories. A lot of characters in this book are so silent about their stories. And it’s in the act of sharing them that they find their way to being who they can be. Wendell does it by the end, Maddy does it by the end. Gillian is enacting that, as well as Glenn. They’re trying to tell their stories, trying to tell their part in this wider story that they’ve suddenly been wrapped up in. I believe telling our stories can be an act of reclamation. Admitting what we’ve done to one another, especially here in the West, alongside this history of genocide. Admitting that and finding a way we might work together going forward, might move into a future where we might be hopeful again. And so in the book I see these characters enacting all kinds of reclamations. Some characters reclaim a way of being we might call a better kind of masculinity, and that’s something I’m thinking about a lot in my own writing: how we might be men and also own the stories that have come before us. We have to find a way to discard what is old and broken, what leads to broken lives and broken families, and hold on to those things that keep us whole and keep us together.
Sarah Aronson: How has the American Dream failed the West?
Joe Wilkins: I think the American dream is part and parcel of our notion of the American west. The trouble is we thought this was the place it would come to fruition. We thought manifest destiny would spread this patchwork blanket of small farms across the entire nation and it didn’t work. It never worked. It still hasn’t worked, and in a lot of ways, especially the High Plains West, the Mountain West, we’re still paying that price economically, ecologically, and physically for this sort of wrong-headed notion. We need to find a better way to be in this place and I think there are people doing that, and I’m pleased about it, but we need to keep working.
“Gorgeous . . . Spellbinding . . . The land itself is almost a living character in the book, rendered both beautiful and ominous in Wilkins’s poetic prose . . . A gripping debut.” —Sarah Gilman, High Country News
“Early in Joe Wilkins’s first novel, Fall Back Down When I Die, he writes, “The moon came up whistle thin. A tooth, a claw, the leanest blade.” This language carries through the rest of the novel, and it is symbolic of the stunning, haunting, and complex story that Wilkins weaves.” —Andrew Jones, Split Rock Review
Been a wonderful spring and early summer of readings, and I’m pleased as can be Fall Back Down When I Die is garnering great reviews across the Northwest!
“There isn’t a wrong note in Wilkins’s novel. He manages to pull off the development of characters simultaneous with a growing sense of unease; the storm is becoming visible on the horizon…Wilkins is evolving into one of our best American writers.”―Chris La Tray, The Missoulian
“Nuanced and textured…Fall Back Down When I Die seeks to point a way forward toward community and compassion, toward understanding.”―Rachel Hergett, Bozeman Daily Chronicle
“Powerful…This is a story of realistic, complex characters whose lives intersect on a big canvas — as big as eastern Montana…Joe Wilkins infuses his novel with a sense of personal attachment to both the history and current realities of life and conflict across the vast landscape.” – Mindy Cameron, Lewiston Tribune
Wilkins’s propulsive debut, “Fall Back Down When I Die,” takes place in and around the Bull Mountains of eastern Montana during the Obama presidency, when anti-government paranoia escalated into sporadic crescendos of violence. Mr. Wilkins charts that course with skill and concision […] Though he stresses the persistence of kindness and community, the enduring depiction in “Fall Back Down When I Die” is of a small-scale civil war pitting towns, neighbors, childhood friends and family members against one another. Blood ties to the land result in generation-spanning blood debts.
To read Joe Wilkins’s first novel is to spend time in eastern Montana, to feel the sharp wind cutting across the cedar ridges, through the sagebrush and bunchgrass, kicking up dust that gathers into grit at the corner of your eyes. It is to hear the sweet, languid whistles of the meadowlarks in the fields. It is to feel “the gravel and the ruts and the old cracked tires” beneath you and to see, above you, always, the wide sky, its “whole box of colors” and its “extravagant stars,” that pull of the sublime to lift your gaze from the intractable earth. And it is to know how hard-earned the beauty is. Wilkins achieves a rich evocation of place through seasoned language, tough and tender like the steak the characters are always eating. It is a landscape where they chew on their trouble, pick old bones, are gnawed at by their losses.
Wilkins’s novel feels insightful amid the ongoing debate over public land and legal rights, but it’s also timeless, and it treads the same kind of territory as writers like Kent Haruf and Ivan Doig, digging into quiet stories of people living close to the land.
“Wilkins delivers a Shakespearean mix of family drama and mortal danger in crisp and beautiful language . . . He renders the effects of violence and trauma on the daily machinations of human lives . . . The world of the novel, rural Montana, is presented with the native realism of someone familiar with the people, language, landscape, and controversies of the ‘way out here’ . . . He captures the social dynamic of communities of few people spread over many swaths of land . . . This novel instills hope. Wilkins has produced a remarkable book filled with characters who, despite their inherent differences over how to exist on the land, remind us of the myriad reasons that every person might be loved.”—Jason Hess, The Oregonian