"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
This summer, we drove 3000 miles across the country, from our temporary home in the North Country of New York to our permanent home in Oregon, in the middle of a pandemic and in the midst of tragedy and protest. The good folks at Orion Magazine asked me to narrate our readying for the trip, as well as the trip itself. You can find the resulting essays here: Crossing a Riven Country, Part 1 and Crossing a Riven Country, Part 2.
Here’s a sneak peek from the second essay:
We left in a light rain, the sky gray and shadowed and close.
We waved goodbye to our rambling, white house, to the park and little downtown, to the Grasse River, and not long after—I’m not sure exactly where, maybe north of Syracuse, our first mixed CD still spinning—we entered, suddenly and completely, that other world: the fast, loud, American universe of the interstate, of movement and hurry and the next stop, the next thing. After a year in the quiet of the North Country, after four months of sheltering at home, it was a shock. But perhaps even more shocking was how quickly—we weren’t even out of New York State—I found myself adjusting to it again, the rushed rhythms, diesel stink, and breathlessness.
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Along the verge, I named sumac, maple, spruce. Across these months at home, I have grieved the delights of travel and sport, the sustenance and texture of community, yet this time has reminded me, taught me once again, how myriad and lovely are the slow and close at hand, how much we might see when we take the time to look carefully, that the pace of our wider culture, of capitalism, often obliterates what is near and intricate and dear.
I knew this. I grew up way out on the plains of Montana long before cell phones and Wi-Fi, grew up miles from neighbors, the land itself close at hand. But barreling down I-90 just east of the Pennsylvania state line, I had to remind myself.
I just love the literary community that’s been built around the High Plains Book Awards over these last years, and it was a real treat to be a finalist for the 2020 awards alongside friends Pam Houston and Jory Mickelson. It’s even better to find out Pam’s Deep Creek took home the award in creative nonfiction, Jory’s Wilderness//Kingdom landed the poetry prize, and Fall Back Down When I Die is the 2020 High Plains Book Award winner in fiction!
Here’s what 2020 judge Sue Henderson, author of the “achingly magnificent” The Flicker of Old Dreams, had to say about Fall Back Down When I Die:
This is just a magnificent work of art on every level. I read it twice—first, gripped by the story, which is both intimate and sweeping. Then I went right back to the beginning to read it slower and marvel over the rugged poetry.
Wilkins takes the reader deep into the Bull Mountains, where tensions surrounding land rights and hunting regulations turn violent. We meet unforgettable characters—a man who doesn’t feel ready to care for a child, a teacher who doesn’t trust the child is in good hands, and a group of disaffected traditionalists who feel squeezed out of the only life they know. Every character is tangled up in relationships with each other that go back generations, all tied to the memories and the history of this land. The result is a story that surprises with compassion, mercy and sacrifice.
-Sue Henderson, Citation for the 2020 High Plains Book Award
My fourth collection of poetry, Thieve, is here! Big thanks to Chris Howell and everyone at Lynx House Press for bringing this one into the world! Here’s a bit more about it:
Joe Wilkins, winner of the Oregon Book Award and the High Plains Book Award, returns with his fourth book of poetry, Thieve, his most ambitious collection yet.
Thieve is a pointed, political book, though the politics here are local, particular, physically felt. The central sequence―all subtitled “Poem against the Crumbling of the Republic”―was written in direct response to the Wilkins’s own transition from rural poverty in eastern Montana to coastal liberal comfort in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, as well as the presidential election of 2016, which brought to the national consciousness the grave division in American society between urban and rural people. Thieve is Wilkins’s poetic attempt, as someone who knows/has known both worlds, to speak across that chasm.
Thieve also interrogates chasms and barriers between the human and the natural, the present and the past, the parent and the child, between what we earn and what by grace is given.
Joe Wilkins’s poems, several of which are aptly subtitled “Poem Against the Crumbling of the Republic,” connect us by fragile threads to a past, a Western past that’s a stand in for our larger American past: the hardscrabble and hardworking, a grace and gratitude for what came before, and for what needs further reckoning, or mercy.
-Nance Van Winckel, author of Our Foreigner and Book of No Ledge
Big news: Fall Back Down When I Die is a finalist for the prestigious First Novel Prize from the Center for fiction. Feeling real good about this! Here’s more from the Center for Fiction:
We are pleased to announce that debut novels by Chia-Chia Lin, Julia Phillips, Pitchaya Sudbanthad, Ocean Vuong, Joe Wilkins, Lauren Wilkinson, and De’Shawn Charles Winslow are shortlisted for the 2019 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize! The finalists will read from their books and celebrate their achievement with the wider literary community at the First Novel Fête on December 9, 2019, to be held at the Center’s downtown Brooklyn location. The following evening, we will present the award to the winner at the Center’s Annual Benefit and Awards Dinner in New York City. Judges this year are Maaza Mengiste, Claire Messud, Tommy Orange, Emma Straub, and Monique Truong.
The First Novel Prize, launched in 2006, was created as part of our literary nonprofit’s central mission to promote the art of storytelling and help further the careers of new writers. This annual prize carries a $10,000 cash award. Each of the other shortlisted authors will receive a $1,000 award.
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