A heart-rending tale of family, love and violence… Through these characters, in a prose that can hum gently, then spark like a fire, Wilkins fashions a Western fable which spirals down to a tragic end. Following in the literary roots of Montanans Jim Harrison and Rick Bass, Wilkins packs a lot of story and stylistic wallop into this gripping, outstanding novel.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
The following highlights are from a conversation with Joe Wilkins about his debut novel, "Fall Back Down When I Die." To hear the full conversation, click the link above or subscribe to our podcast.
Sarah Aronson: How has the American Dream failed the West?
Joe Wilkins: I think the American dream is part and parcel of our notion of the American west. The trouble is we thought this was the place it would come to fruition. We thought manifest destiny would spread this patchwork blanket of small farms across the entire nation and it didn’t work. It never worked. It still hasn’t worked, and in a lot of ways, especially the High Plains West, the Mountain West, we’re still paying that price economically, ecologically, and physically for this sort of wrong-headed notion. We need to find a better way to be in this place and I think there are people doing that, and I’m pleased about it, but we need to keep working.
Your memoir is The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing up on the Big Dry. Why write this book through fiction and what were you able to reckon with in a different way through the fiction form?
Great question. I think in a lot of ways I wrote my story in "The Mountain and The Fathers," and I’m very proud of the book, but after completing it, I immediately realized that of course there’s lapses, there’s failings in it because it’s my vision of this place. It’s my own look at my own story and that’s valuable and a wonderful thing that I was able to write it and people have responded to it well, but there’s also a lot of other ways of looking at that place. There’s a lot of other experiences that matter in that place. The novel is a chance for me to go back there, to be there again, and try to see it with different eyes. To try to hold these other visions as close to me as I can, without judgement, with a kind of okay I’m just going to be here with this for a while, just watch, just listen, just see. In a lot of ways I’m attempting to do that with the novel.
In a conversation with me you’ve referenced Montana as your primal landscape and not your chosen one. How have you sorted out the difference between these two things?
Yeah, they get confused. It is absolutely the primal landscape. It’s the landscape I see when I dream, the landscape I see first when I close my eyes. It will be with me forever. But I’ve lived a lot of places, and I’ve enjoyed and admired a lot of places. I live now in Western Oregon. In some ways I went from the Big Dry to the Big Wet--this land of ferns and slugs and great, tall western red cedar trees. I deeply love it and I think in a lot of ways it’s becoming a home landscape as well, mostly because of my children’s experience of it. It is their primal landscape. So I’m beginning to know it with them. In a lot of ways I’m beginning to think it’s not as clear cut as I once thought it was: that Montana is just the primal landscape and not the chosen landscape. I think in some ways the valley in Oregon we live in and Eastern Montana will always be in this relationship for me.
About the Book:
Wendell Newman, a young ranch hand in Montana, has recently lost his mother, leaving him an orphan, as his father met a violent end more than a decade earlier. His bank account holds less than a hundred dollars, and he owes back taxes on what remains of the land his parents owned, as well as money for the surgeries that failed to save his mother’s life.
Into this situation comes seven-year-old Rowdy Burns, the illegitimate son of Wendell’s cousin, who is incarcerated after falling prey to addiction. Traumatized, Rowdy is mute and damaged. Caring for him will be a test of Wendell’s will and resolve, and yet he comes to love the boy more than he ever thought possible. That love will be stretched to the breaking point during the first legal wolf hunt in Montana in more than thirty years, when a murder results in a manhunt, and Wendell finds himself on the wrong side of a disaffected fringe group, hoping both to protect Rowdy and to avoid the same violent fate that claimed his father.
This dark and haunting debut novel is an unforgettable tale of sacrificial love, with two characters who win the reader’s heart from the first page to the last.
About the Author:
Joe Wilkins was born and raised north of the Bull Mountains, out on the Big Dry of eastern Montana. His debut novel, Fall Back Down When I Die, speaks to the community, struggle, violence, and care Joe knew growing up in the rural West, and his memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers, captures the lives of boys and men in that desolate country, a place that shapes the people who live there and rarely lets them go.
Wilkins is also the author of three poetry collections, most recently When We Were Birds, winner of the 2017 Oregon Book Award in Poetry. His work has appeared in a host of the nation’s leading magazines and literary journals, including The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, Harvard Review, Orion, TriQuarterly, Ecotone, The Sun, and High Country News. As the winner of the Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency from PEN Northwest, he and his family spent the summer and fall of 2015 living in a remote cabin in the Klamath Mountains along the Rogue River in southwest Oregon.
The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing up on the Big Dry won a 2014 GLCA New Writers Award—an honor that has previously recognized early work by luminaries such as Alice Munro, Richard Ford, and Louise Erdrich—and Wilkins’s work has been anthologized in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, Best American Magazine Writing, New Poets of the American West, and Best New Poets. Of Wilkins’s work, the Indiana Review writes, “The most striking component of it is its awareness of ‘the whole world.’ What is ordinary becomes transcendent. In places derelict and seemingly unexceptional, Wilkins compels us to recognize what is worth salvage, worth praise.”
After graduating from Gonzaga University with a degree in computer engineering, Wilkins spent two years teaching ninth grade pre-algebra in the Mississippi Delta with Teach For America. He then went on to earn his MFA in creative writing from the University of Idaho, where he worked with the poet Robert Wrigley and the memoirist Kim Barnes. Wilkins now lives with his family in the foothills of the Coast Range of western Oregon, where he directs the creative program at Linfield College.