Author John Daniel on transitions, perseverance

Emma Knudson, Staff writer

Three-time Oregon Book Award recipient John Daniel began the night in the Austin Reading Room, as many authors participating in the Readings at the Nick series do, by talking about Linfield.

“Linfield seems to understand the importance of writing as curriculum,” he said. The audience, chiefly English and creative writing professors and students, all nodded in agreement.

The nature writer then began talking about his own transitions as a writer, which served almost as a set-up for the evenings reading from his debut novel “Gifted.”

Beginning as a poet, he claimed that moving from poet, to memoirist, to novelist, felt “organic.” Daniel said the novel was a trial to publish, with editors initially rejecting the finished project.

After many years and a few drafts, “Gifted” was published in 2017, a novel rooted in nature, human hardship, and difficult transitions.

The main character and narrator, Henry, is a 35-year-old recounting his young life in the form of a written memoir. Henry relates an interaction with a deer in the first excerpt Daniel read.

He’s a teenager at the time of this encounter, but the presence of the deer causes him to remember an important moment he had with a bird at age three.

The bird drew near him, creating a moment of self-awareness and awe within the young Henry.

He called it “the first time he felt sorrow,” because the bird flew away, but also “the first time he felt joy.”

In another excerpt, Henry is older and has turned away from people to nature for solace. A quote by William Stafford hovers around in his mind, “Who are you really, wanderer?” The quote carries him through a difficult, stormy hike that nearly kills him.

After many attempts to start a fire, trying to blow on the sparks “like a prayer,” he wanders off. He stumbles upon glowing embers of a fire someone must have recently lit. At this, Henry says, “I was meant to trust my life in it.”

After the reading had ended, audience member and Professor of creative writing Anna Keesey asked why he chose for the narrator to be 35 recounting his life as a teenager. Daniel discussed the characters “need” to write his story, but doing so at a young age was “heavy to handle.”

He also compared the character’s experience to his own as an author, saying that getting the story out and away from oneself is almost “therapeutic.”

The idea of the nagging story within oneself resurfaced when someone in the audience asked Daniel about the nature of his transitions as an author. Daniel said that one genre “informs the other,” but the process is slow and the challenges “take trust.”

He said that continuing with a story that bugs the writer is important, and perseverance through rejection is necessary.

Regarding how he would persist, Daniel said he would think, “Dammit, it’s a real story and I’m gonna work on it until I get it right.”