My fourth book is about to come out in print—the advance copies, in fact, may already be out by the time this post runs—and my mind lately has been dwelling on my first book, The Devil’s Share. It’s the story of a kid from Fairbanks named Jack who goes to work for a hunting lodge in the Nutzotin Range of the Wrangell Mountains. Things go sideways when his boss is killed by a bear, and Jack winds up working with some dodgy outfitters who, among other pursuits, use packhorses to move drugs and guns over the Canadian border. Then he runs away with a girl, and things really take a turn for the worse.
I’ve probably written and voiced that synopsis a couple thousand times since the book came out. Prospective readers, to say nothing of friends, family, and publishers, are forever asking you what your book is about, and you have to tell them something. Eleven years after I began writing the manuscript, and six years after it was released, these words have become little more than a rote mantra. Writing a book is a gratifying experience. Talking about that book becomes gradually less and less so over time, not the least because as you continue to grow and evolve as an artist you start to see all the things you did wrong. And that first book, being by definition the oldest, will inevitably reveal to you the writer all your weaknesses to a degree that makes you want to bury your face in your hands and race off the stage in tears, searching desperately for a closet to hide in.
For example, there’s a murder in The Devil’s Share (one of several, actually) that in all honesty is probably way more gruesome than it really needs to be. I freely admit that I was deep into Cormac McCarthy at that time in my life, having just read his Border Trilogy and Blood Meridian. If I’m being completely forthright, I think I was maybe trying to out-Cormac the man himself, as evidenced by the lack of quotation marks in all the dialogue. It’s this more than anything that fills me with a powerful urge to crawl under the enormous stack of old manuscript drafts on my office floor and never come back out.
There are a great many writers I admire—Richard Flanagan, Jim Harrison, Sarah Vowell, David Roberts, and of course McCarthy—but now as I’m starting work on my fifth book I can say with absolute certainty that I do not want to be Cormac McCarthy, nor any of the others. I want to be Kris Farmen, which is to say I want to write the best books I can and get them into the hands of readers. Despite all the cringeworthy mistakes in that first novel, I still do believe in the story itself. The Devil’s Share says things about wilderness, horses, the American frontier, and the people who made their lives there, to say nothing of the guns and violence that came with it, that I have yet to encounter anywhere else. More than one reader has said glowing things about it (not just my mom and dad, for the record). There’s also the palliative of knowing that every single writer in the world probably looks back at their first book with similar feelings.
None of this should be construed to discourage new writers from putting pen to paper for that first book, though. A writer never stops making mistakes, and to not write because you don’t want to wind up making a fool of yourself is to deny the purpose of one’s being.
It’s tempting sometimes to go back and re-edit that first book, by my sense is that as a writer you’re always better off channeling that energy into your next project. The books you’ve already written belong to the ages. Like Bob Dylan said, the artist must be continually in a state of becoming something else. Art is a highway that stretches to the sprawling horizon, and you can’t get there if you’re walking around in circles.
Kris Farmen is a novelist, historian, and award-winning journalist whose books include Weathered Edge, Turn Again, and The Devil’s Share. He is a semi-regular contributor to The Anchorage PRESS, and his work has also appeared in Alaska magazine, Mushing, Russian Life, and The Alaska Dispatch News, among others. Blue Ticket, his new novel, will be released in early 2016. He divides his time between Homer, Fairbanks, and Anchorage.