Smoking With Spencer Wise

Read the Story December 15, 2008
story art

This is one of my favorite stories of the issue. What was the inspiration for this unusual and delightful story?

The whole challenge for this story was finding something to complement the potato plot line. I heard the musician Josh Ritter on a live album saying how he grew up in Idaho and the Rotary club had something of a Mafioso presence in his town. So that’s where the potatoes came from. The first few drafts didn’t have the Kootenai Native Americans, but I when I started researching their story for a vague and totally unrelated project I realized this was exactly what my story needed. Experience tells me to follow my gut feeling while somehow ignoring the fact that my instincts are usually wrong, lead me in the wrong direction. He’s a very shady character, my instinct, and we have a complex and tortured relationship. This time, however, he was right. Once the two elements were in place—the potatoes and the Indian reservation—I knew I had to just keep working at it until it felt right.

Can you talk about your use of symbolism in this story—the potatoes for example?

Well this story, unlike many other stories of mine, is overtly political. I didn’t set out to write something political, that’s a sure-fire way to bore the pants off a fiction reader, but as the story developed I realized it was clearly a story, on at least one level, about a historical pattern of exploitation. I mean, the Kootenai Native Americans have a very complex and unique history. Obviously, years ago, they occupied a much larger landmass than the one they presently own. On September 20, 1974 they declared war against the U.S. government, led by this pretty remarkable woman named Amy Trice. I think the most dangerous weapon she owned was flyswatter. The “war” lasted all of three days and ended when the U.S. government conceded 12.5 acres of land. But prior to the war there was no reservation and the Kootenai lived in deplorable conditions with inadequate housing and no medical care. Trice has said in an interview that had they not gone to war the tribe would probably be extinct. That is a rather longwinded explanation but it’s important. I mean, the clash between the narrator of my story and the young white boy has deep roots, of which the boy has no real understanding. He’s simply an emissary of the Rotary club coming to sell potatoes. The narrator knows differently. His grandfather was involved in the three-day war. The question naturally arises, what business do I have writing a story about Native Americans, and the answer is none whatsoever. But it’s an age-old story that could just as easily take place anywhere in the world where one group of people systematically exploits another. The white Americans who live in the town adjacent to the reservation won’t leave the Kootenai alone. They’re greedy. But the boy is naïve; he thinks it’s his duty to sell potatoes, which is why he won’t leave the porch; whereas the narrator believes it’s his duty not to fold, which is why he won’t leave either. It’s implied, I suppose, that in the past he has consistently bought the potatoes, but this time it’s different. He takes a stand. The memory of his grandfather provokes this transformation.

The first line of this story is succinct yet lengthy—it packs a lot. “This boy I admired and pitied had the courage or stupidity I’m not sure which, to come onto our Indian Reservation, walk up to my door, and try to sell me a 70lb sack of potatoes saying he represented the Idaho Rotary Club, and right away I knew I had a problem.” For many writers, getting that first line just perfect is tough. What was your experience?

First lines are tough but endings are much harder for me. The ending is everything in a short story. A good ending is like a perfect Olympic dive, all the theatrics happen in the arch and then at the final moment the body crimps, the diver pulls together and knifes into the water without a splash. All that’s left is a ripple. As far as beginnings go, in a one-page story you need to get the conflict out right away. There isn’t time for a loving description of the mountain ranges. I tried to pack the opening sentence with plot and conflict while still giving a sense of the narrator’s ambivalent feelings toward the boy.

“The potatoes won’t eat themselves.” What a line. The dialogue in this story is polite and diplomatic—he doesn’t tell him to get the hell off his porch. Are these two men representing a larger conflict?

Getting the right tone for the story was tricky. This is one of the stories that my sister saved. In the earlier versions the tone was seething and vitriolic. The narrator’s indignation and resentment were much more intense, too intense, as my sister pointed out, and you almost felt like you were being attacked. When I gave the narrator a more polite tone the story got much better. All the anger and hurt remains unspoken, percolating through the story. Rather than having the narrator riffing on dispossession and the burden of history, that burden, manifest in the sack of potatoes, is literally in the boy’s hands weighing him down. Of course the boy just thinks he is selling potatoes, but the narrator sees it differently.

What was your experience writing this story—where were you, how long did it take, how many drafts etc? All that curious stuff.

Looking through my computer I wrote about 22 versions of this story from July to September. The longest version clocks in at around 18 pages and contains every somnolent detail you’d ever want to know about the Kootenai Indians, like what symbols are on their crest. The Kootenai’s story is very interesting but my recital of the events was dreadfully boring. I wrote the first draft of the story in Austin and the final version I wrote in Napa, California this past summer when I was attending the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. There was an open reading at the conference and the director told us to keep it to about a page, so I got up early and chopped what was a ten-page story at the time down to the bare essentials. I have a tendency to ramble in my fiction so it was partly an exercise in brevity. Plus, I worked extra hard so as not to embarrass myself in front of this girl I had just started dating in Austin, who, by divine providence, happened to grow up in Napa and she was home on vacation and came to the reading. Afterwards she slipped me a note that said, “I heart potatoes.” It was all very sweet. Shortly thereafter, we broke up, thus slamming the hood on my summer of dumb luck.

About the Author:

Spencer Wise is from Massachusetts and now lives in Austin. He is working on a MA in creative writing at the University of Texas.