Seaside native Karl Marlantes is the author of the bestselling books “Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War” and “What It Is Like To Go To War.” These books come from his intensely personal experiences from his time serving in the Marines during Vietnam.
His most recent novel, “Deep River,” continues mining his personal history, but in a different way. It’s a family epic centering on Scandinavian immigrants in the late 19th century as they struggle to adapt to life in a small logging town in Western Wahkiakum County just off the banks of the Columbia River.
We spoke to Marlantes, who now lives near Duvall, Wash., about growing up in Clatsop County, what inspired him to write about the immigrant experience and growing up in a multilingual home.
Jordan Barbosa: After writing about your experiences in Vietnam, what inspired you to write about the area where you grew up?
Karl Marlantes: First of all, I just love the area I grew up in and there’s a sense that if you love something you want to share it.
I grew up in Seaside when it was a logging town. It’s a very different sort of culture today. And Astoria was basically logging and fishing and plywood mills. That’s the era I grew up in and I loved my childhood.
I think I also wanted to talk about the darker side about growing up in that culture. I mean fishing and logging today are still two of the most dangerous professions in the world.
Five of my friends lost their fathers in the woods to logging accidents. And my step-grandfather got his legs crushed in a log boom accident, had one amputated. My Greek grandfather lost an eye in a sawmill accident. They were dangerous times.
So I wanted to try to express the juxtaposition of what a wonderful time it was: there were dances, there was community. Those loggers made their own violins and they played them with their friends. The men and women mended nets together.
What I feel is just the irony of the heroism of these people.
Think about that physical kind of work. They worked from dawn to dark six days a week — and still went dancing.
The irony is there’s no more old-growth forests. We cut it all down. And the same goes for the damn building, heroic effort. Seventy-two, 73 guys died building Grand Coulee Dam. So we could flip a switch and get electricity. But there is no Columbia River anymore, it’s a series of dams and lakes.
And then I have my own background. My mother’s first language was Finnish and my step-grandfather was a Swedish speaker but born in Finland. My biological grandfather, who inspired one of the characters in the novel, was a Norwegian speaker. My brother and I called it cultural-linguistic schizophrenia because there were five languages in the house.
JB: That’s a lot.
KM: We ended up speaking English because it was just too crazy, you know. I wish I had learned a couple of those languages. I tell people I can name all the cookies in any language.
JB: You talk a lot about the immigrant’s experience in your book. Can you talk more about that?
KM: Absolutely. There’s two things. First of all, I wanted to show the immigrant’s experience from the immigrant’s side and just the difficulties of language. In the novel, whenever they’re speaking from outside their own culture, they have a difficult time speaking. The have like three words like “Good worker” or something and it’s pretty tough and they don’t catch what people are saying. Having a novel gets you into the skin of people like that. And another thing is that I’ve also thought about is that it’s human nature — not America, it’s humans. We are so capable of demonizing anybody other than ourselves.
And my grandmother was a communist, right? She baked cookies and danced on Friday night. I mean, she was a grandmother! Her political view was that capitalism was bad and she had very sound reasons for it.
She grew up under the Russian czar, an extreme form of capitalism that hadn’t been mitigated by laws. I could understand that. But she’s not a demon, she’s my grandmother! So, my character, Aino, she’s a radical communist, but she’s just a girl. We have to get over demonizing because we won’t get anywhere with that.
JB: You could say division kind of defines America.
KM: It is human nature. Aksel is the character that keeps telling Aino: “Aino, it doesn’t make any difference whether we’re communists or capitalists, it’s whether we have good people or bad people running the place.”
JB: What was it like growing up in Seaside? I hear your dad was the principal.
KM: He was, much to my chagrin. When I was a little kid he sold insurance and worked at the bumper cars, which I thought was marvelous. It was amazing for a seven-year-old’s view of their dad.
He went to school on the GI bill, got his degree to teach, was a high school teacher, then became principal just as I was about to go to high school — which was just horrible.
My mother started the Lutheran church in Seaside because there wasn’t one. She was very sort of “active.” She left school when she was 14 and she was the brains of the family, everybody knew that, even though my dad got the education. And I had a paper route with the Astoria Budget when I was in second grade. 19 customers.
JB: Do you have any plans after “Deep River”?
KM: I do have plans. The next novel is actually going to explore what I call “American naivete.” That’s what I’m sort of thinking about right now. I’m going to set it in the American embassy in Helsinki. I might take one of the characters from “Deep River.”
Marlantes will speak at the Cannon Beach Book Company at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 11, and at Beach Books in Seaside on Tuesday, Aug. 27, at 7 p.m.