Leslie Hsu Oh interviews Christine Byl, Dirt Work

Christine Byl
Our February guest
blogger just released her first book, Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods on
April 16! Dirt Work is a contemplative but unsentimental look at the pleasures
of labor, the challenges of apprenticeship, and the way a place becomes a home. 
This book begins with
Byl’s first season working as a traildog in
Glacier National Park. She never expected this summer gig to turn into a decades long career,
eventually bringing her to
where she runs a trail-design and construction business with her husband.
In Dirt Work, Byl
probes common assumptions about the division between mental and physical labor,
“women’s work” and “men’s work,” white collars and blue collars. The supposedly
simple work of digging holes, dropping trees, and blasting snowdrifts in fact
offers an education of the hands and the head, as well as membership in an
utterly unique subculture. Byl’s new release has been named a top non-fiction
pick for spring by Amazon,
Christian Science Monitor
, and O Magazine. She’ll be making several
appearances in the
Anchorage area this week (scroll down for details).
In your introduction,
you state that Dirt Work “is not meant to be a memoir.” Why was this an
important distinction to make and how do you feel when reviewers label it as
The distinction was important because it speaks to the
origins of the book, my intent. I have always conceived of Dirt Work as a collective story more than a personal one; a story
of my crewmates and me and the subculture we make together, and also, as the
story of these places I’ve worked, places that are as real and individual to me
as people.
But after the first draft, in which there was very little of
myself as a character, several trusted readers said they wanted more of me.
This was a surprise–I thought I was writing a book about tools and wilderness
and work. But readers craved that narrative thread to anchor the other
elements. I was very resistant to write more about myself at first (I’m a
fiction writer! I’m an introvert!), but as I sat with it, I realized that my
experience was integral to the idea of apprenticeship that the book wanted to
plumb. I was the lens that a reader could look through to see the world I
wanted to show. When I started trail work, I was a beginner, a novice, totally
out of my element. The reader needed that entry, especially since the material
and the subculture was unfamiliar to most. Once I thought of myself in the book
as a character, a narrator, and not my entire self that I felt shy about
revealing, it became much easier to offer the pieces that mattered to the
I can see why reviewers label it as a memoir. You have to
put it somewhere, call it something, and the way I usually stumble to describe
it (“this weird blend of non-fiction and memoir and technical manual and
natural history with some dirty jokes and prose poems…”) is definitely
not useful for a bookstore. But really, very refined genre labels are more
commercial than literary. It’s a shelving distinction, not a craft one. To me
the book feels, as I say in the Intro, like “the story of a few wild
places, people who work in them, and how I came to be at home there.” With
a little more of me than I first thought.
You’ve always said
fiction is your first love and you didn’t really “decide” to write this book.
Were you surprised that your debut work was nonfiction? What do you find
challenging or rewarding about nonfiction vs. fiction?
To be honest, I’ve never thought about the book as “my
debut.” When I read your question I was like, Oh yeah, I guess it is! This
is probably because to me, my first book will always be the collection of short
stories I wrote in grad school, even though it’s not published. Debut is
another commercial word–the marketplace needs it, but you have to just write
the book you’re writing.
That said, yes, I am still sometimes surprised that I wrote
a whole book of nonfiction! I have always loved essays–both reading and
writing them–as well as book-length nonfiction. I think it’s a terrific genre,
so much flexibility in the form, so it’s not any critique of the genre itself.
But although I find nonfiction useful and important and innovative, fiction is
the place where the realest me lives. The writer that is most fearless, most
non-attached, most present in the space I associate with deep creativity. Of
course, creative nonfiction requires imaginative elements. It’s not formulaic,
just because it’s based in events. But the creativity that happens when totally
imagining something, every bit of it, and giving myself over to characters and
their obsessions that might have no bearing on my own, is so different.
I’m working on a novel and though it’s kind of a slog right
now, and I haven’t been deep in because of pre-book stuff, I absolutely love
it. Dirt Work was an exciting
process, one I’ve learned a ton from, but fiction grounds me. Weirdly, I feel
most deeply at home in myself when I’m not writing about myself. Fiction
banishes my self-consciousness. Not as in embarrassment, but literally as in
“consciousness of a self.” It’s a very human thing, this
consciousness, but it’s often also a burden, and I love the moments where I get
to escape it. Fiction is one of a few modes that best enable me to do that.
In an interview, you
said that “a memoir-esque vantage anchors the story, with strains of natural
history (animals, places, tools), some lyric bits, and a lot of oral tradition
passed down from crew to crew.” How did you settle upon this structure where
one segment might be a 1st person scene in past tense, the next a 2nd person
present tense address to the reader asking questions like “could home be somewhere
you never lived again,” the next a recipe for a favorite trail sandwich? Did
you cut the segments up and try to fit them together like a puzzle? Or did they
organically fall into place as you wrote?
For the most part, the structure chose itself in a way that
I cannot explain, and feel very grateful for. I did some tweaking midway:
cutting up the discrete sections of each chapter, laying them out, highlighted
by POV and whether they were character sketches, narratives, information,
lyric, etc, and then moving them around if need be so that each chapter felt
balanced. But in general, the overall structure unfolded as I wrote, one
section leading into the next.
I see now that the layered structure comes from the fact
that that’s how I experience a sense of place. The way we become attached to
places, at home in the world, is not a linear process. It’s a process of
accrual, lots of moments and encounters and realizations and efforts that stack
upon each other until there’s this depth, this whole: a relationship. I became
conscious of this echo–structure mimicking experience–late in the writing. It
was a very cool realization and gave me the confidence to go with my gut on the
structure–not to feel compelled to make it more linear or chronological, or worry
that it would seem contrived. I felt, at a bodily level, that this was the
right way to tell this story.
Dirt Work covers 16 years of your life. In an interview, you shared
that it took only five to seven months actual desk writing time. How did you
make the tough decisions of what to leave out? Where to indulge, where to
It took about seven months of desk time just to complete a
first draft, spread out from 2002-2008. One early essay. Slim version of
eventual first chapter written later that year. Then, no work on it for years.
Another three month burst one summer. A last push the winter after that. Then
began revisions, which took about three years. The whole process, from first
graph to book in hands, was about 10 years.
The hardest decisions came around trying to pin to the page
some seriously wily oral tradition–the lingo of traildogs, the stories we tell
each other, the way we see ourselves, our canon of important stuff. It’s all so
interwoven, which stories, which people, which tales to leave out? For every
one trailside story in the book, one joke or prank or seminal moment, there are
twenty-five I didn’t write. There’s just no room. It had to have a shape, not
just be a mass of anecdote, no matter how appealing the pieces.
But as for the overall decisions, once I settled on the
form–each chapter focused around a tool and a geographic region I’ve worked
in–the pieces came together pretty organically. It was a specific story, the
story of my apprenticeship as a traildog, and not the story of sixteen years of
every facet of my life. Every choice was in service of that–does it support
the larger story, about the people, the culture, this life?
Early versions of
material from this book were published as essays in anthologies and journals
spanning 2006 to 2011.  For example, the
wedding scene (p. 108) and the definition of dirt (p.20) roughly appear in
different order and verb tense in an essay named “Dirt.” Tell us about your
revision process. How tough (or easy) was it to revise these essays to book
length? Share with us how you handle those doubting moments when you feel like
you’ve made your manuscript worse than earlier drafts.
The essays got folded into the book they were prefiguring.
Those early chunks were little flares that my writing brain sent up: Hey, hear
this? Remember these stories? I think you want to return to this. They were
very much seeds from which the book grew, not complete efforts that had to be
undone or altered. Perhaps because of that, I didn’t feel as if I was making
things worse. I have had that feeling before, of course, many, many times. But
with this book, I felt as if I were growing plants, or following tracks. It
took real effort, but it also had an inner engine, like when you wake up in the
morning and see your kale has emerged overnight, or when you see ermine prints
crossing your ski track in the snow and you follow them and realize there’s
this whole other world beyond your own, with a living momentum.
What is your approach
to writing about others? Did you share early drafts with Gabe or anybody else
that appears in the book and revise if they objected to anything? Have you
heard from any of the “traildogs” you apologize to in your acknowledgements for
poaching a story or getting a detail wrong?
I am of two minds about this. On the one hand, I don’t think
writers need permission to write anything. I think our task, particularly in
creative nonfiction, is to write honestly and bravely, candid about our own
biases and limitations, aware that the only perspective we can write from is
our own. When we write about others, we are writing our version of them, not
some essential thing, but we’re free to write whatever we want.
I also strongly believe that I owe it to those I write
about, and to myself, to be as ethical as possible, and to err always on the
side of compassion and largeness of heart, a Golden Rule version of memoir, I
guess. Write about others as I would hope to be written about, with the same
eye toward accuracy and empathy and consideration of nuance. I wouldn’t write
myself in a flat or stereotypical fashion, and even when writing about my
failings, I would show myself a degree of compassion. So, I have to do that for
other subjects as well. Not sanctifying, or showing only the good stuff. But in
my gaze at others, seeing their complexity, not just what first occurs to me.
And considering how they would feel about certain details exposed.
For example, one person I wrote about is very, very private.
I left out things I could have easily put in, about living together, about her
personal quirks, that might have made her feel vulnerable. Since I didn’t need
those details to serve the larger story (even though some of them were great
character-building bits) I left them out in deference to her way in the world.
I think the fact that I’m also a very private person helps me err on the
conservative side of writing about others.
I haven’t heard from anyone yet, since the book has only
been out a week. (Except for Gabe, who was fine with his appearances.) I’m sure
I will eventually hear, especially from traildogs, about particular details I
got wrong or remember differently: You weren’t on that hitch, or It was Park
Creek, not Ole! That’s the oral tradition for you. But I hope that I got the
heart of things right. I’m sure there are some missteps, but it was a risk I
was willing to take. I think that world is worth honoring, knowing about, even
if someone else might put things differently.
In Chapter One, when
I read the line “Dirt is an old word, an earthy word,” I wondered if it was a
response to an assignment that we both received from our mentor Sherry Simpson.
That line was indeed from Sherry’s mosaic-essay exercise,
which she gave in my first ever nonfiction class. I don’t think of Dirt Work as a grad school book at
all–because I was a laborer before I returned to school, remained so during,
and am one after, and because it was mostly written much later, half set in a
time after I finished my MFA–but I joke with Sherry that I owe this book to her.
I had never written about trail work or Montana
until I had to do this essay on a word I chose. I picked dirt, and the first
pieces of the book were born. I’m not a big user of writing prompts–they often
feel artificial to me, and I have enough stuff I want to write about–but this
one is really useful. It allows the writer to direct the content (by choosing a
word that is meaningful to her) but then asks for a wider lens than she might
ordinarily use on her own (explore the word from as many angles as possible).
It works from a passion outward into an unknown, which is a great trajectory
for uncovering essential work.
As a fellow recipient
of the question “when are you going to get a real job,” I appreciated this
thread throughout the book and how you handled the skeptics. Does the question
“Am I wasting my life?” get more difficult to answer as you age? Do you think
ten years from now, you will still remain true to that narrator who hollers
from rooftops “do what you love, be proud of what you do”?
Well, ten years from now my job will probably have changed a
bit. Nothing lasts, after all, least of all knees and elbows, and new
opportunities always arise. But I hope that “be proud of what you do”
would be a thing to carry with me no matter where I end up, an inner compass
that guides exterior choices, and helps me settle in to change when it happens.
Really, my life, as a laborer and as a writer and as an
everything else, moves between these two poles all the time: Confidence and
niggling doubt. Contentment and worry. Rooftop hollering and internal mutters.
I don’t think I’m alone here. Old or young, seasonals or not, almost everyone I
know and love, or admire from afar– people who throw their whole selves at
things but also think deeply about them–move between headlong and humble. I’m
turning forty this summer, and I think if anything, aging has been helping me
learn how to pivot more gracefully.
Byl received her MFA in fiction from the University of
Alaska-Anchorage in 2005, and her prose has appeared in literary magazines,
journals, and anthologies including The Sun, Glimmer Train Stories, Crazyhorse,
and others. Byl lives off the grid with an old sled dog
in a yurt on a few acres of tundra just north of Denali
National Park
. When she isn’t
working outside or writing, she loves reading, homestead projects, wilderness
adventures, and anything that happens in the snow. Check her out at www.christinebyl.com and on Facebook. You can read an excerpt from Dirt Work here.

Co-sponsored by UAA MFA Department and Alaska Quarterly
Review, Christine Byl will be reading at UAA’s Consortium Library on April 23
at 7:30pm. On the 24th, she’ll be
signing books at Fireside Books from 4-6pm
in Palmer. On the 25th, she’ll be signing books at the Wild & Scenic Film Festival
at the Palmer Depot from 6-8 pm.

5 thoughts on “Leslie Hsu Oh interviews Christine Byl, Dirt Work”

  1. Kris Swanguarin

    Congratulations on Dirt Work. I hope you will do a signing at Gulliver’s Books (Fairbanks) sometime soon — lots of dirt devotees up here too.
    Some of my fondest memories at the park were seeing, hearing and smelling the trail crew return weary but animated to the shop after a day in the field. I look forward to reading the inside scoop and what was out of the reach of my excavator all that time.

  2. Kris,
    Thanks so much for commenting. It's great to hear from you. I will be reading/signing in Fairbanks, May 18th at Gulliver's, 6 pm. I hope I see you there!

  3. This is one of the very best, most meaningful (at least to me) interviews I've read in a long time–both the questions and the responses. Many thanks to you both.

  4. Thank you Nancy. And thank you Leslie. And thank you 49 Writers-I've done lots of mulling as a result of reading these interviews over the years.

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