UtahLit book club: Writer tells an epic Western story at a thriller's pace
Like most writers, BK Loren kept a draft of a failed novel in her drawer for years. The story featured a brother and sister whose worries about their mother's illness added urgency to their clandestine neighborhood thefts.
When she re-read the draft years later, Loren recognized the potency of that sibling relationship, "the kind of relationship you don't read about in novels," says the Colorado writer. "We hear a lot about fragmented families, and you can Jerry Springer it all day long, but what's the beauty beneath that? You have that dysfunction because you understand each other. It's only a spectacle from the outside, as it makes perfect sense inside. Healthy? Probably not."
From that draft, Loren crafted "Theft," a novel that on its surface is a mystery about an animal tracker, Willa, who has been tapped to join the authorities seeking her older brother, Zeb, who has gone missing after he confessed to a years-old murder. An earlier working title, "Thicker Than Water," spotlights the intensity of the relationship that's the story's spine.
But the beauty of the novel is in how its ambition doesn't get in the way of the story, which is told with a naturalist's eye.
"Theft's" very real characters unfold a genre-transcending story exploring how a mother's Parkinson's disease splinters a family, while registering the losses that have led to clashes between the values of the New West and Old West.
The book also explores the conflict between what is wild and what is tamed in Western states, as Willa works as an independent contractor monitoring Ciela and Hector, two wild endangered wolves. "Even after working in the field for so long, I'd never learned not to fall in love with the animals I tracked," Willa says.
Beyond its themes, the novel is remarkable for its beautiful sentences and rich paragraphs. The story propels you forward, while the prose makes you want to slow down and enjoy its pleasures.
"I think her writing is just gorgeous, and she's pitch perfect with her sense of place," says Catherine Weller, co-owner of Weller Book Works in Salt Lake City. "A lot happens, but she manages to make her prose sing. That book just flies."
The Tribune will host an online discussion of the Colorado writer's debut novel in our next UtahLit book club on Friday, March 28, at 12:15 p.m. Readers are invited to post questions and comments at Facebook/UtahLit. (See box for directions to text or tweet comments.)
When the past is still present • To enjoy the novel, readers don't need to be aware of its structure, which serves as a literal metaphor for the story.
Willa, the narrator of the book, begins with vivid memories from childhood. As an adult, she's starting to piece together how the splintering of her family has traumatized her life, yet she can only recall the past in present tense. As she moves through her life, she casts her current experiences in past tense.
It's not until Willa, as an adult, confronts a traumatic secret that things shift, in her life and in the story, as the novel's grammatical tenses are restored to a more conventional order. In this way, "Theft's" storytelling mimics the experience of a woman's coming-to-self-awareness.
"I think the fragmented structure, the tenses, all of those things that are in the background should become part of the story," says Loren of crafting a novel. "When a person is going through an acute trauma, they can't enter their present. Psychologically, we know this. Only when things are resolved in the present in the third section of the novel can she finally enter her life as fully and as present as she can be."
The book is filled with mature, accomplished writing, says Jack Shoemaker, editorial director of Counterpoint Press, which published "Theft" in 2012. Last year, the novel won the Willa Literary award prize for contemporary fiction, an award for writing about Western women named for Willa Cather.
Shoemaker doesn't disclose sales figures, but says the book is now in its second printing. "It went beyond our projections and expectations," he says. "It has a proud place on our backlist, and we look forward to selling it forever."
He adds: "BK can write extraordinarily well. I think some people are born with an exquisite ear for language. She's also taken the time to practice her art, and that's not at all common."
Making fiction from life • On the surface, Loren's backstory might seem as layered as her writing, yet all of her life experiences seemed to have provided tinder for her fiction.
Loren, 56, was born in Denver and raised primarily in Colorado, earning a classics degree from the University of Colorado. Afterward, she bounced around for a time, living in New York, Iowa and California, before returning for good to Colorado in 1994. The landscape called her home, which is underscored by her email address: "reddirtgurl."
"I honestly believe the marrow of my bones is the same color as the red marrow of land in Colorado and Utah although I know that's impossible," she says.
Over the years, she supported herself in jobs candy factory worker, cafe server, ranch hand, corporate brainstormer, graphic artist and writing teacher that allowed her to put words together in her head. "I did everything while trying to write," she says. "I loved words. That's pretty much all I knew."
Along the way, she developed an observer's eye and compassion for the issues surrounding America's working classes. At the candy factory in Denver, she arrived before dawn just to line up to punch in. "People lined up early, like a Springsteen concert, just to work," she recalls.
One influential job was working at Eldorado Canyon State Park, where she learned from the late Dock Teegarden, a master tracker, who began tracking wild animals when his doctor told him to get more exercise.
Once, while working security for an art gallery "guarding paintings that were bolted to the wall, not a hard job," she says Loren heard about someone who had been admitted to the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. "I did not know one could study writing in school," she says. She went on to earn a master's degree in fiction writing from the University of New Mexico before studying at Iowa.
Since 1994, she has focused on writing and freelance teaching. Her essays have been publishing in literary magazines and anthologized in "Best American Spiritual Writing." In 2001, she published a memoir of essays, "The Way of the River: Adventures and Meditations of a Woman Martial Artist."
After her novel was published, Loren's recent works were collected in "Animal, Mineral, Radical: A Flock of Essays on Wildlife, Family & Food," which was blurbed by fellow Western writer Pam Houston. Houston labeled Loren a "Rocky Mountain angel of sense-making," calling her essays "compassionate, clear-seeing, beautifully made and tender towards the world and all of the creatures (including humans) who inhabit it."
Loren says she loves to hear from readers who say the fictional story of "Theft" has helped them deal with the loss of a loved one. On an Internet review site, one post commented that the novel was hard to review, because it wasn't about just one thing.
Barbara Norris, a Dallas-area writer and editor, recalls a piece of writing advice Loren shared at a recent workshop. "Narrative is like a constellation. Look for the moments in your story that glow. The rest is not necessary. Like the lines in the star charts, what connects the moments is self-evident. Story is about the moments that glow."
When Loren went on to read from "Theft," Norris understood what she had meant. "Every word shimmers off the page."
"I say the line is the moment, and the plot has to do with what happens next," Loren says she tells writers. "As I write, I try to point people to the moment. I hope the moments are as important as what happens next. If all you have is the future, as the Dalai Lama would say, then you've got nothing."
Exploring the story of 'Theft'
I Join the Tribune's book club discussion of BK Loren's debut novel on Friday, March 28, at 12:15 p.m. at sltrib.com. There are lot of ways to participate: Send comments via text at 801-609-8059, tweets to #TribTalk, or post comments about the book at Facebook.com/UtahLit or email to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
April UtahLit • Next month's conversation will be about former Tribune reporter Tom Zoellner's "Train."
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