KRISTA EAST­MAN

Poets and Writers - - Nonfiction 2019 -

The Painted Forest (West Vir­ginia Uni­ver­sity Press, Oc­to­ber), a de­but col­lec­tion of es­says in­ves­ti­gat­ing the myths we make about who we are and where we’re from; a lyri­cal ex­ca­va­tion of ru­ral Wis­con­sin, tourist towns, and the “un­der-imag­ined and overly car­i­ca­tured” Mid­west. Agent: None. Ed­i­tor:

Derek Kris­soff. First lines: “This tubby steel ma­chine, this 1978 Chevy Mal­ibu sta­tion wagon, ca­reens a large fam­ily for­ward, makes tinny the sound of our quar­rels and ques­tions while high­way ap­proaches and then un­furls be­hind, ap­proaches and then un­furls. It is from this wagon that we view the sculp­tures, the scrap metal forms welded at weird an­gles onto them­selves, forms that groan at ground in the way of all heavy equip­ment, but forms whose slanted reaches sky­ward warp and mock the ob­ject of in­dus­try. Here, out of nowhere, in the mid­dle of nowhere, stands steel im­prac­ti­cal­ity, love or whimsy or thought made big and em­bar­rass­ing, ma­te­rial and me­tal­lic. They are painted. They are placed, pur­po­sively, along the road. We view and evade them by con­tin­u­ing at fifty-five miles per hour.”

Be­fore I wrote es­says, I used to string to­gether pretty sen­tences I’d call sto­ries and then wait around for the world’s ad­mi­ra­tion. It was kind of like rid­ing my bike through a pa­rade in sunny weather but with a creep­ing sense that some­thing wasn’t right. Af­ter col­lege I dis­cov­ered the es­say and found a way into the real work—the hard work— I’d al­ways wanted to do. I loved the

scrappy elas­tic­ity of the es­say, loved spend­ing time in this place where you bring ev­ery­thing along, where you can fash­ion your own com­pli­cated mis­fit from some com­bi­na­tion of a wob­bly first-per­son per­spec­tive and the bizarre raw ma­te­ri­als of the world. I even liked how, for a while there at least, the es­say was not re­ally capital-L lit­er­a­ture, or not quite pure. My po­si­tion was: “If you need me, I’ll be in the shad­ows work­ing on my bas­tard art.” Even now, writ­ing es­says gives me per­mis­sion—to drag strange things home with­out ex­pla­na­tion, to bring to­gether dis­parate worlds, to live off­line with my se­crets.

When I started the earliest work from The Painted

Forest, I was writ­ing from a se­ries of ques­tions about place and iden­tity and myth and the sto­ries we tell about who we are and where we’re from. I was raised work­ing-class in a small town in ru­ral Wis­con­sin. As I ac­cu­mu­lated more ex­pe­ri­ence of the world, I some­times found I had to ex­plain my­self and my home to oth­ers, putting a com­pli­cated place onto maps where pre­vi­ously there’d been al­most noth­ing at all. I be­came in­ter­ested in the role of telling about a place, in talk­ing back from the pe­riph­ery to a more cen­tral cul­tural power, and in ques­tions about who gets to make art and from what. The book sprang in part from a de­sire to sus­tain and ex­press fas­ci­na­tion for over­looked spa­ces and in part from an ob­ses­sion with the com­pli­cated way we wed the power of sto­ry­telling to our­selves, our iden­ti­ties, and our com­mu­ni­ties.

Af­ter years of pub­lish­ing in lit­er­ary jour­nals, I be­gan to see which es­says were speak­ing to each other and which weren’t. I sent out a man­u­script to in­die and uni­ver­sity press book con­tests, for which it was some­times a fi­nal­ist.

Then I came upon West Vir­ginia Uni­ver­sity Press and its In Place se­ries, which pub­lishes books about “the com­plex­ity and rich­ness of place.” I sent my man­u­script to the ed­i­tor, Derek Kris­soff, who be­gan e-mail­ing me fre­quently and thought­fully, a re­spon­sive­ness that pro­voked mild con­fu­sion un­til it oc­curred to me that the book was be­ing read, care­fully, by the peo­ple who were go­ing to pub­lish and cham­pion it. When I signed the con­tract, I felt more wry­ness than joy. In­side that long-awaited mo­ment of sat­is­fac­tion, I could sense the pres­ence of the same old dis­sat­is­fied beast— the one who ex­ists to de­mand more words and more work, more fool­ish at­tempts at mak­ing sense. It’s a short walk home, to what re­mains to be done.

I was raised work­ing-class in a small town in ru­ral

Wis­con­sin. As I ac­cu­mu­lated more ex­pe­ri­ence of the world, I some­times

found I had to ex­plain my­self and my home to oth­ers, putting a com­pli­cated place onto maps where pre­vi­ously there’d been al­most

noth­ing at all.

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