Leslie Hsu Oh, a writer and former Army Corps of Engineers wife, joins us today with an interview with author Christine Byl, whose memoir Dirt Work has made several recent “must-read” lists. Dirt Work is, according to Byl’s web site, “a lively and lyrical account of one woman’s unlikely apprenticeship on a National Park trail crew and what she discovers about nature, gender, and the value of hard work.”
Byl embraces the backbreaking difficulty of the work, learning how to clear trees, move boulders, and build stairs in the backcountry. Her first mentors are the colorful characters with whom she works—the packers, sawyers, and traildogs from all walks of life—along with the tools in her hands: axe, shovel, chainsaw, rock bar.
Eventually, Byl would turn her trail experience into her career; she now lives off the grid with her husband and an “old sled dog” in Healy, Alaska.
Both Leslie Hsu Oh and Byl graduated from the same Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and they share a love for nature and the outdoors (Leslie herself has explored nearly eighty national parks, monuments, and memorials — hiking, backpacking, and spelunking along the way). Many thanks to Leslie for sharing this piece, which originally ran just after its publication in April 2013 (in a slightly longer format) on the blog “49 Writers.” -Andria
Author Interview: Christine Byl, author of “Dirt Work” (by Leslie Hsu Oh, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
Dirt Work begins with Byl’s first season working as a “traildog” in Glacier National Park. Byl never expected this summer gig to turn into a decades-long career, eventually bringing her to Alaska where now she runs a trail-design and construction business with her husband.
http://www.christinebyl.com; cover photo by Terry Boyd. Cover design by Gabi Anderson at Beacon Press.
In Dirt Work, Byl probes common assumptions about the division between mental and physical labor, “women’s work” and “men’s work,” white collars and blue collars. The supposedly simple work of digging holes, dropping trees, and blasting snowdrifts in fact offers an education of the hands and the head, as well as membership in an utterly unique subculture. Byl’s new release has been named a top non-fiction pick for spring by Amazon, The Christian Science Monitor, and O Magazine. It was also recently shortlisted for the Willa Award, which is for books by women set in the west (and named for author Willa Cather)!
Leslie Hsu Oh: In your introduction, you state that Dirt Work “is not meant to be a memoir.” Why was this an important distinction to make and how do you feel when reviewers label it as such?
Christine Byl: The distinction was important because it speaks to the origins of the book, my intent. I have always conceived of Dirt Work as a collective story more than a personal one; a story of my crewmates and me and the subculture we make together, and also, as the story of these places I’ve worked, places that are as real and individual to me as people.
But after the first draft, in which there was very little of myself as a character, several trusted readers said they wanted more of me. This was a surprise–I thought I was writing a book about tools and wilderness and work. But readers craved that narrative thread to anchor the other elements. I was very resistant to write more about myself at first (I’m a fiction writer! I’m an introvert!), but as I sat with it, I realized that my experience was integral to the idea of apprenticeship that the book wanted to plumb. I was the lens that a reader could look through to see the world I wanted to show. When I started trail work, I was a beginner, a novice, totally out of my element. The reader needed that entry, especially since the material and the subculture was unfamiliar to most. Once I thought of myself in the book as a character, a narrator, and not my entire self that I felt shy about revealing, it became much easier to offer the pieces that mattered to the story.
I can see why reviewers label it as a memoir. You have to put it somewhere, call it something, and the way I usually stumble to describe it (“this weird blend of non-fiction and memoir and technical manual and natural history with some dirty jokes and prose poems…”) is definitely not useful for a bookstore. But really, very refined genre labels are more commercial than literary. It’s a shelving distinction, not a craft one. To me the book feels, as I say in the Intro, like “the story of a few wild places, people who work in them, and how I came to be at home there.” With a little more of me than I first thought.
http://www.christinebyl.com; photo by Lucy Capeheart
Dirt Work covers 16 years of your life. In an interview, you shared that it took only five to seven months actual desk writing time. How did you make the tough decisions of what to leave out? Where to indulge, where to compress?
It took about seven months of desk time just to complete a first draft, spread out from 2002-2008. One early essay. Slim version of eventual first chapter written later that year. Then, no work on it for years. Another three month burst one summer. A last push the winter after that. Then began revisions, which took about three years. The whole process, from first graph to book in hands, was about 10 years.
The hardest decisions came around trying to pin to the page some seriously wily oral tradition–the lingo of traildogs, the stories we tell each other, the way we see ourselves, our canon of important stuff. It’s all so interwoven, which stories, which people, which tales to leave out? For every one trailside story in the book, one joke or prank or seminal moment, there are twenty-five I didn’t write. There’s just no room. It had to have a shape, not just be a mass of anecdote, no matter how appealing the pieces.
But as for the overall decisions, once I settled on the form–each chapter focused around a tool and a geographic region I’ve worked in–the pieces came together pretty organically. It was a specific story, the story of my apprenticeship as a traildog, and not the story of sixteen years of every facet of my life. Every choice was in service of that–does it support the larger story, about the people, the culture, this life?
What is your approach to writing about others? Did you share early drafts with Gabe or anybody else that appears in the book and revise if they objected to anything? Have you heard from any of the “traildogs” you apologize to in your acknowledgements for poaching a story or getting a detail wrong?
I am of two minds about this. On the one hand, I don’t think writers need permission to write anything. I think our task, particularly in creative nonfiction, is to write honestly and bravely, candid about our own biases and limitations, aware that the only perspective we can write from is our own. When we write about others, we are writing our version of them, not some essential thing, but we’re free to write whatever we want.
I also strongly believe that I owe it to those I write about, and to myself, to be as ethical as possible, and to err always on the side of compassion and largeness of heart, a Golden Rule version of memoir, I guess. Write about others as I would hope to be written about, with the same eye toward accuracy and empathy and consideration of nuance. I wouldn’t write myself in a flat or stereotypical fashion, and even when writing about my failings, I would show myself a degree of compassion. So, I have to do that for other subjects as well. Not sanctifying, or showing only the good stuff. But in my gaze at others, seeing their complexity, not just what first occurs to me. And considering how they would feel about certain details exposed.
For example, one person I wrote about is very, very private. I left out things I could have easily put in, about living together, about her personal quirks, that might have made her feel vulnerable. Since I didn’t need those details to serve the larger story (even though some of them were great character-building bits) I left them out in deference to her way in the world. I think the fact that I’m also a very private person helps me err on the conservative side of writing about others.
I haven’t heard from anyone yet, since the book has only been out a week. (Except for Gabe, who was fine with his appearances.) I’m sure I will eventually hear, especially from traildogs, about particular details I got wrong or remember differently: You weren’t on that hitch, or It was Park Creek, not Ole! That’s the oral tradition for you. But I hope that I got the heart of things right. I’m sure there are some missteps, but it was a risk I was willing to take. I think that world is worth honoring, knowing about, even if someone else might put things differently.
As a fellow recipient of the question “when are you going to get a real job,” I appreciated this thread throughout the book and how you handled the skeptics. Does the question “Am I wasting my life?” get more difficult to answer as you age? Do you think ten years from now, you will still remain true to that narrator who hollers from rooftops “do what you love, be proud of what you do”?
Well, ten years from now my job will probably have changed a bit. Nothing lasts, after all, least of all knees and elbows, and new opportunities always arise. But I hope that “be proud of what you do” would be a thing to carry with me no matter where I end up, an inner compass that guides exterior choices, and helps me settle in to change when it happens.
Really, my life, as a laborer and as a writer and as an everything else, moves between these two poles all the time: Confidence and niggling doubt. Contentment and worry. Rooftop hollering and internal mutters. I don’t think I’m alone here. Old or young, seasonals or not, almost everyone I know and love, or admire from afar– people who throw their whole selves at things but also think deeply about them–move between headlong and humble. I’m turning forty this summer, and I think if anything, aging has been helping me learn how to pivot more gracefully.
Christine Byl received her MFA in fiction from the University of Alaska-Anchorage in 2005, and her prose has appeared in literary magazines, journals, and anthologies including The Sun, Glimmer Train Stories, Crazyhorse, and others. Byl lives off the grid with an old sled dog in a yurt on a few acres of tundra just north of Denali National Park. When she isn’t working outside or writing, she loves reading, homestead projects, wilderness adventures, and anything that happens in the snow. Check her out at www.christinebyl.com and on Facebook. You can read an excerpt from Dirt Work here.
About the interviewer:
Leslie Hsu Oh lived in Alaska for seven years while her husband worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. She has hiked, white water rafted, spelunked, and rode on horseback through nearly eighty of the national parks, memorials, and monuments in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain.
Her writing and photography has appeared or is forthcoming in Cirque, First Alaskans Magazine, Fourth Genre, Kids These Days!, Novel Adventures, Rosebud Magazine, Stoneboat, Under the Sun, and elsewhere. “Between the Lines” (a chapter adapted from her memoir-in-progress, Fireweed) was named among the distinguished stories of the year by Best American Essays.
She earned an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in creative nonfiction from the University of Alaska Anchorage, where she currently teaches, and a masters from Harvard University. She is the recipient of the Rasmuson Individual Artist Award, the first Julius B. Richmond Young Leader in Public Health Award, the first National Award for Excellence in Public Health Leadership, the Sun Memorial Award for exemplifying a commitment to improving the health and well-being of people in underserved populations, and the Schweitzer Award for reverence for life.
After losing both her mother and brother to liver cancer caused by hepatitis B (a disease preventable by vaccine), she founded an award-winning grassroots nonprofit called The Hepatitis B Initiative in 1997 that is still running today in several states.