This week, I’d like to introduce you to Christine Byl whose new book is Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods (Beacon Press, 2013). Her prose has appeared in GlimmerTrain Stories, The Sun, Crazyhorse, and other magazines and anthologies. Byl lives in a yurt on a few acres of tundra just north of Healy, Alaska, with her husband and an old sled dog. She runs a small trail-design and construction business.
What is the working title of the book? The final title is Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods.
Where did the idea come from for the book? It’s based on my 16-year career as a “traildog”–that is, a member of a professional trail crew. I worked in Glacier National Park, for the Forest Service in Cordova, AK, and in Denali National Park. Since 2008 I’ve run my own small trail design and construction company in Alaska with my husband. Dirt Work chronicles this specific, quirky subculture–people who do seasonal work in wilderness, particularly on trails, and also, the places I’ve come to know through that work.
What genre does your book fall under? Creative non-fiction. A memoir-esque vantage anchors the story, with strains of natural history (animals, places, tools), some lyric bits, and a lot of oral tradition passed down from crew to crew. In that sense, there’s an ethnographic quality to it, as well.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition? Funny enough, years ago on a misty day in the alpine where you could hardly see the person on the trail in front of you, our crew conceived of a movie about us, called “Traildogs in the Mist.” While hiking, we came up with who would play each of us, and the game has moved from crew to crew with me, providing a lot of laughs. I think my star is either Michelle Williams, or for the young me, Robin Wright from Princess Bride days. One foreman was a dead-ringer for Richard Dreyfuss. Another crew leader was Patrick Swayze circa “Dirty Dancing”. I could go on all day.
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book? I cannot do a one-sentence synopsis! Word-cloud list: work, wilderness, Montana, tools, gender, labor, love song, Alaska, dirty jokes,…
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript? Two answers–six months, and six years. The first bit was written in 2002, a paragraph from a different piece that triggered thinking about this one. I wrote probably half of what is now the first chapter that spring. Then, put it away for years. Thought about it a lot. Came back to it in 2008 and wrote a draft in two or three months. So, actual desk writing time, probably five months, maybe seven. But mulling time? Years. Years. My first drafts are often like this. Long incubation periods, and then a draft comes fairly quickly once I’m ready to write. Of course, the revisions are a whole separate timeline! From first paragraph written until book comes out in April will be almost exactly ten years.
Who or what inspired you to write this book? Philosophically: the places I’ve worked in and love, and all the fascinating and unusual people who I’ve worked with that I wanted to describe and honor. Practically: Sherry Simpson, who gave an assignment in a class I took in my MFA years, which was the genesis for that first paragraph. I then did an independent study with her on writing about place that helped me clarify the strong urge to write this book.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? The chapters are thematically organized around tools that I’ve used as a traildog: axe, rock bar, chainsaw, boat, skid steer, shovel. Tools are characters, as much as the people, and they teach me a lot about the way the skills we learn and cultivate affect the kind of life we lead.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? My agent is the incomparable Janet Silver, and the book is published by Beacon Books, an independent press out of Boston. When I look at their list, I feel flat-out lucky to be in company that I so deeply admire.