Karl Marlantes knew the first draft of his novel was too long when he sent it to his editor, but he was surprised when he didn’t get a response. One week turned into two weeks, turned into three … turned into 10. Finally, his editor sent a six-word email: “Great stuff. Too much of it.”
Marlantes went to work, cutting his 350,000-word opus down to 200,000 words. He had to lose two of his characters in the process and trim away 150,000 words — a number equivalent to a longish novel. His lightened-up novel at 713 pages was likely better for it.
Marlantes is returning to the City Opera House stage on Aug. 11, nine years after his last appearance here. He was one of our earliest authors in the National Writers’ first official year as a nonprofit. (Doug Stanton spontaneously announced NWS from the stage when Elmore Leonard was here in July of 2009 — 10 years ago).
In 2010, Marlantes spoke about his New York Times bestselling novel, “Matterhorn: A Vietnam Novel,” to a fully packed Opera House. It was a fascinating night — an evening when former war protesters and veterans from all the wars felt free to express themselves. Marlantes shared during his visit here that he was a liberal when he left to fight in Vietnam, but switched to the conservative side after being mistreated as a returning vet.
“The Vietnam vets were made to pay a heavy price to help the country grow up,” he said. “Vets shouldn’t have to pay for a war policy they didn’t make.”
The theme of differing viewpoints — and archetypal stances toward living life — also runs strong in his new novel, “Deep River.”
The story was inspired by Marlantes’s ancestors who left Finland in the early 1900s and settled in a Pacific Northwest logging town, settled predominantly by Swedes and Finns. In the novel, three siblings grow up in a close-knit family, each deciding to leave at different times, driven out by poverty and the cruelty of Russian occupiers.
Marlantes borrows archetypes from the ancient, epic Finnish poem “Kalevala,” which translates to “poems of Kaleva.” The main character, Aino, is also based on Marlantes’ grandma, a communist who believes that collective action can fix an imperfect world with people coming together for fair wages and safe working conditions. Another brother believed that achieving great wealth would protect him from suffering, while another brother sought meaning from organized religion; he later turns to more mystic beliefs. Still another character is fiercely independent, believing in the power of the individual.
“You have belief in both the power of the individual and the collective, but neither one alone will solve our problems. You need to balance both of them to get it right,” Marlantes said.
Another message: these early immigrant settlers were beyond tough.
“The loggers were incredibly heroic. They took down trees that were 14 feet across and it took a couple of days, two guys working dark-to-dark with axes and crosscut saws. But the result of this heroism was there was nothing left of the trees. I think we need to remember both. They didn’t think twice about the trees; for them, it was putting food on the table.”