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A writer's road


ROY PARVIN'S HOUSE IS AT THE very end of a country road on the outskirts of Fortuna. Parvin lives there with his wife, Janet, and two border collies, Maggie and Kody, in a house surrounded by woods -- and by pieces of the past. In the front yard there's an old drinking fountain, the grade-school kind with a white enamel bowl where the water bubbles straight up. Nearby is an antique gas pump, a relic from an old service station. Tucked away in the two-car garage are Janet's old Nash Metro, and Roy's 1954 Chevy pickup, vehicles that seem to go with the pump. A path leads from the house to Roy's office, an outbuilding adorned with a large set of antlers, where he recently completed his second book, a trio of novellas titled In the Snow Forest.

[photo of Roy Parvin]Critics praised Parvin's first book, The Loneliest Road in America, a collection of short stories set in the Trinity Alps. It was listed as an "editor's choice" in the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle when it was released in 1997, and that initial success led to a two-book contract with publisher W. W. Norton.

But when In the Snow Forest hits bookstores nationwide next month, the new book should quickly reach a much wider audience than his first. That's because Parvin has been selected by Barnes and Noble as a "discovery author." His book will be featured in Barnes and Noble's national advertising, in displays at stores and in a prominent position on the store's website, barnesandnoble.com.

Parvin's work shows a definite progression. In his new work, he moves from the short story to the novella where the characters have more depth and readers stay with them longer. His third book, already in progress, is a novel.

"The industry definition says a short story is 25 pages or less, a novella is longer than 50 pages, a novel is over 150 pages. But none of those rules is hard and fast. More has to happen in a novella than in a short story. I think that more has to happen in a novel than in a novella. You have to take the reader on a bigger journey."

For now the journey he is crafting in his novel must be set aside for another kind of trip. Roy, Janet and dogs are heading out on a nationwide book tour to promote In the Snow Forest. Parvin will give readings and sign copies at bookstores across the country. The tour begins close to home with a party at Northtown Books in Arcata from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 1.

Parvin was born and raised in New Jersey. When he was 18 he went off to Swarthmore College to study history.

"That's where I met Janet 23 years ago," he said. The couple moved to New York where Roy studied film criticism at New York University.

"Then I realized that I did not want to be a film critic. And I didn't want to pursue film from behind the camera because I don't really like collaboration."

He found work writing and ironically it was a form of film criticism -- sort of. He worked for the cable channel Home Box Office reviewing movies.

"It was fun for the first six months, but after a while I got tired of sitting in the dark watching bad movies. The reviews generally had to be positive and that was difficult when it came to movies like "Rocky II" or Bo Derrick's "Tarzan." It was fun when I could sneak in little zingers that most people wouldn't notice, but living in New York got to be boring.

"We both got tired of the lack of space so we just packed up the car and drove west. The car died in North Platte, Neb., a victim of some bad gas. We just left it there, rented a car and kept going."

The end of the line was as far west as they could drive -- San Francisco -- and the city became their home for 15 years. Janet worked in book production for Sierra Club Books. Roy once again made money as a wordsmith, but he emphasized, "I was not working as a writer." The work, creating manuals for high tech companies, was mostly targeted at engineers.

[photo of Janet Parvin] Janet Parvin   

"Somehow I was able develop an understanding of these arcane high tech devices and write about them. It was actually good training for writing because I had to become a good researcher."

The work was free-lance which meant he had the freedom to set his own schedule and whenever possible he and Janet would escape their urban environment.

"The city was getting more and more crowded and we would go away every single weekend. It evolved to the point where I was spending less and less time working. We bought this property in the Trinity Alps and we'd go up every single weekend."

A couple of things happened that made him rethink his path in life. A close friend was diagnosed with leukemia, which reminded him of life's fleeting nature. And then there was trouble in Coffee Creek where they had their cabin.

"A gold miner wanted to open a mine right near our property. I started this letter-writing campaign. A bunch of our friends had visited us there and I asked if they would help, but I realized that they were too busy with their lives to send letters to the Secretary of the Interior and all these other people.

"So I said, `What if I write a letter for you and do it the way you would write it. Would you sign it?' So I wrote these letters. One would be in Jim's voice, another was in John's voice, then Julie's. Each person's was different.

"And it worked. The gold miner gave up, called off his plans. After I was done I was feeling full of myself. It was a lesson in writing in voice, an important lesson for any writer."

The time was right for a change. In 1993 Roy stopped doing business writing and devoted all of his time to writing short stories. After 10 months had passed he had completed 10 stories, but he hadn't sent any off to publishers.

"I thought the stories were pretty good but I didn't know whether anyone else would. I knew I was getting better. I thought the tenth story was the best I'd ever written."

Janet offered encouragement --a little push. She suggested he attend a writing workshop in the Napa Valley.

"I didn't really know anything about conferences or writing schools, but I went off to this workshop. I didn't have any expectations."

Those attending were asked to send in a story for discussion. Parvin sent his favorite, "May," a dark tale about a woman miner set in the Trinity Alps. He found that people liked it. In fact he said, "The response was galvanic."

Pam Houston was among the writers on the workshop faculty. She is an award-winning author whose book, Cowboys Are My Weakness, was a runaway hit, at least in terms of short story collections. Houston was so taken with Parvin's story that she became his champion.

"Pam carried my story around like an orphan that needed a home. She showed it to a publisher, Chronicle Books, and they called me up. They said, `How many good stories do you have?' I knew that that story was different from all my others, so I said, `I only have one good story.' It was a smart answer. Most people are in a tremendous rush to get published. But I knew that there was something about that story.

[photo of Roy and Maggie] Roy and Maggie in front of his writing studio.

"I heard it like a song in my head. But when I wrote it down I couldn't reproduce what I had heard. I kept on trying and getting closer and closer to what the story was. The stories I had written before that were basically first drafts. When I'd get to the end I'd say, `I'm done.' This story kept getting away from me.

"I spent a month on it working eight hours a day, seven days a week, writing and rewriting. Then one day I got the first sentence down, and it was like I knew the rest of the melody. I knew where the story wanted to go and followed it. It was as if the story were being told to me. I had found the voice. I knew that I had created something that was bigger than anything I had done before."

He followed the "May" story with 10 more tales of life in the Trinity Alps. For the most part the characters are outsiders, loners like the troubled Vietnam veteran in "Smoke" who disguises the marijuana plants in his mountain garden by painting the leaves in "Technicolor shades." Then there's the game warden in "Trapline" who sets illegal traps.

For the most part Parvin is not like the characters in his stories.

"I think I gain access to them for a period of time. Like in the first story ("Betty Hutton" in In The Snow Forest), having a big guy who the world thinks of as violent or dumb, but who's not. You explore how it would feel to be that person. That's what drafts are for, to explore.

"In the end it seems like the story sprung from my head, but I probably wrote 4,000 pages to get there. For the title story I wrote 10,000 pages. In a way that's a misleading number, because a lot of that was working on the first paragraph over and over and over, printing it up and printing it up again, seeing what it's like without the word `of' in there, and what has to change when I move `of' from here to there. I literally write these stories sentence by sentence and word by word."

"Betty Hutton" is a picaresque tale about a parolee named Gibbs, "an antique dealer gone bad," Parvin says.

"I like old things, but not the kind of curios and antiquities that Gibbs likes. I knew Janet used to work with someone whose husband sold curios. So I talked to him about it and he gave me catalogue after catalogue filled with Roman carnelians and stuff from the Shang Dynasty."

In the course of his journey Gibbs meets an ice fisherman. (All three novellas include scenes in snow country.) Getting the details right required a bit of research.

"I've never gone ice fishing. It's always fascinated me and I've done a lot of other kinds of fishing, but not ice fishing. I bought 16 books on ice fishing, read them completely, then talked to some ice fishermen. Now people who have read the story are calling me up asking when I'm going ice fishing again. When I say I've never done it, they don't believe me.

"There's an old adage in writing that says, `Write what you know.' Most aspiring writers take that as an excuse for writing autobiography. I see writing as an excuse to become a student of the world."

Elements from life around him show up here and there. In the third novella, "Menno's Granddaughter," the main character drives a Nash like Janet's. Maggie the dog turns up in a couple scenes. But Parvin denies that the characters he creates are veiled versions of himself.

"I basically write the kind of stories I like to read. Maybe that's why my stories aren't really autobiographical. I don't want to read about myself, I want to read about other people. That's the exploration, learning about what makes a person like this tick.

"I get to visit with these people for a very intense period for three or four months at a time. People ask, `Well, what happens after the story ends?' I really don't know. "

Book Cover: In the Snow Forest An excerpt from the title story in Roy Parvin's new collection of novellas, In the Snow Forest.

Autumn: already the sad loss of autumn.

That fall the Trinities were empty of men, Darby the only one left. The only one who didn't sign on with the logging teams when a private timber concern came through back in August, an outfit operating north out of Cecilville, high and far in the granite hills, the rare opportunity to fell the big sticks till the first snows. He'd had an injury, his shoulder, and were it not for that, the insurance money still flowing to him because of it, Darby would have assuredly been with the rest, making the sawdust fly.

It was a last hurrah and who knew when the next such opportunity would come along. Ever since the door to the woods got shut and the public lands forever closed to logging, the crew looked to a man as if they'd woken up late only to find they'd slept through the best part of a movie. And now here they were, knocking the rust off their saws after all these years, leaving Darby behind with the women and children.

There was one woman and her name was Harper and on Tuesdays Darby lunched with her at the Yellow Jacket, the only eating establishment in forty miles. All Harper had was an afternoon, one day a week, the hours a nurse from county public health made the long drive under the trees to check on her kid. Darby didn't know exactly what was wrong, only that it was terrible, an obscure bone malady, and worse.

The crew had put him up to it, at the fare-thee-well at the Timbers the night before they shoved off, more than one of that lot telling him to look after her. Darby and Harper had never been what might be called friends, him only one of the hurly-burly of desperate men who orbited her on their nights out. She'd fallen in with the crowd the way those things happen, after Adcock quit her and the Trinities for good. "I could use a drink of a certain description," she'd tease the crew slyly. And then once the initial rounds were slammed down, "Boys, I'm about two shots shy of wonderful."

They lunched on egg sandwiches and curly fries, watched the fixed-wing planes etch sky above the bowl of mountains, the lazy approach over the lake, its surface cupping from prop wash and then touch down at the midget flyway a stone's throw away. From behind the swinging doors, the clatter of Lynette in the scullery, the air heavy with salt and fried cooking.

It was only one day a week, devoid of romance, unlike anything Darby had known before. The things Harper told him -- he could not make sense of them any more than he understood how the world spun, what drew her interest, the stories, her crazy stories. Sometimes she looked as if she wanted or needed something from him and he couldn't for the life of him guess what that might be.


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