Oregon State professor Keith Scribner’s third novel, “The Oregon Experiment,” tells the story of Scanlon and Naomi Pratt, a couple who migrate from the East Coast to a small university town in Oregon. They are expecting their first child.
Scanlon, a professor of political science with radical sympathies, is almost immediately drawn into Oregon’s secessionist movement, as well as its free-spirited leader. Naomi, a professional “nose” (perfumer), has spent the past seven years mourning her lost sense of smell. Its sudden reemergence upon her arrival on the West Coast revives her world for her, but makes her consider her past – and future – in ways she never has before.
We recently had the chance to talk to Scribner about the book, secessionism in Oregon, making perfume, and what happens to a couple when they land in a totally new place.
Where did you get the idea for the story of the Oregon Experiment?
The initial inspiration for the novel came during the WTO demonstrations in 1999 in Seattle. It was about 3 months after my first son was born. At that time I got the idea for a character who is at once excited about these radical demonstrations and anti-globalists, and at the same time is very conscious of the safe and secure world he hopes to have for his new baby.
The book is set in a small college town in Oregon, and the protagonist is a college professor. How autobiographical is this book?
I too have come to Corvallis from the Northeast, like Scanlon and Naomi. I teach in the English Department. I’m a creative writer. Scanlon is a political science professor. I understand those East Coast attitudes about Oregon, and the West, and in fact anywhere that’s not the northeast, or really, anywhere that’s not New York City. And maybe the autobiography ends there. Scanlon, for example, feels very alienated in his department. It couldn’t be more the opposite for me.
What made you decide to make Scanlon’s wife a perfumer? What kind of research did you do on professional “noses” for the novel?
The research was so much fun. I read a bunch of stuff about the nose, the biology of smells. I read some memoirs about people’s relationships to their sense of smell, and also about anosmia, which is the loss of the sense of smell, which is what Naomi suffers from in the beginning.
In the novel Naomi wants to create a northwest breakthrough fragrance, the first in its own new family of fragrances. So I read a lot, and wrote most of the novel just based on that research.
And then someone introduced me to a perfumer in San Francisco named Yosh Han, and she invited me down to her studio, where she makes perfumes not from synthetic essences, but from natural essences. She gave me the entire day, and we basically made the perfume that’s in the book.
And the first part of your question, why Naomi is a perfumer – One of the reasons I think it works so well is that the book is in part about how memories can haunt us, and how Scanlon and Naomi have run from the East Coast to the West, and in many ways have run from their pasts. I’d almost go as far as to say most literature is concerned with how our pasts define us.
So the nose, which as you know is the most direct connection we have to our pasts, is the perfect thing for Naomi to be so consumed with, because there are olfactory memories and olfactory associations that are her demons.
You set the backdrop of the book against the Pacific Northwest secessionist movement. What made you interested in secessionist movements, and why do you think this is uniquely Oregon?
The book started with those WTO demonstrations that weren’t about secessionism, but about people who generally thought corporations were getting too big and too strong, and that we’re losing our sense of the local.
I was interested in that from the start. Scanlon is a political science professor who’s interested in radical action and mass movements. And I wanted to think about something that the federal government really wouldn’t tolerate. I think secession is that line. There’s no way that this group will ever succeed. There’s no way that Oregon will ever secede from the U.S. If Scanlon was going to get involved in radical action, I wanted it to be one where he hit a wall.
There’s a great history of secessionism in Oregon. There’s a lot of secessionist groups throughout Oregon history. One of the biggest and longest running is the State of Jefferson in southern Oregon and northern California. They actually seceded in 1941. They seceded just before Pearl Harbor was bombed. And in the name of national unity and patriotism they gave up their secession. But at least in spirit they’re still alive.
Most broadly defined, secessionism gave birth to our nation. And also our biggest crisis, the Civil War, was about secession. And then of course secession is a metaphor in the book for characters moving from a state of being unified or whole to separateness.
What made the idea to put Scanlon into a futile situation appealing to you?
Well this is the really cynical part. I feel in so many ways my generation has been let down by politics and government, and I’m not talking just in the last 10 years. In my entire adult life it’s been what feels like one corrupt, hopeless situation after another. My generation doesn’t really have, from my point of view, glorious defining moments.
So I thought if Scanlon was going to get involved in political action and a political group, it seemed to be the most truthful if it was something that he couldn’t make succeed. There is a kind of political success in the end of the novel. But Scanlon misses it.
What do you think about the secessionist movement is so seductive to Scanlon, especially coming from the east coast?
Secession is something he writes on already. On the east coast he feels like all the studying he’s been doing is studying other academics. It’s all secondary research. He gets out here and thinks, ‘Wow, my fieldwork is my next door neighbor.’
It seems like with Naomi rediscovering her past and rediscovering her sense of smell, and Scanlon’s immersion into this subculture, the book is about their marriage, and what happens in the wake of these events.
Here we are, talking all about politics as though it were a purely political novel. It’s really not. All of these things are very much the framework, but it’s as much a domestic novel as a political one. It’s about their marriage. It’s about the strains of a marriage when someone is ill. It’s about the moral drift that can happen in relationships and careers and how we justify those things. And coming to a new small town that’s not your own culture, a foreign place. And the strain of having a child and of having breast infections when you’re nursing, and of temptation and wandering and loyalty and betrayal within relationships.
It seems like they’re experiencing life on different wavelengths. Is the book about them and how they do or don’t come back to each other?
Yeah, drifting apart then coming back together or not. You have to read it for that. But you’re right. One of the very early notes I have about this novel is that I wanted to explore spiritual, cerebral and bodily reactions and ways of engaging with the world. Smell is our most primal sense and Naomi operates on this primal level. Scanlon, who’s an academic, is, not surprisingly, operating on a more cerebral level.
You and your wife are both writers. What’s it like having another writer to bounce ideas off of?
It’s great. We’re constantly bouncing ideas off each other. We’re also usually each other’s first readers. She is probably my most honest reader, and can be brutally honest. I feel sort of guilty because she never reads anything of mine that’s finished. All she reads are drafts that are too messy to even show my good friends, who I think of as my first readers. The process is raw and intimate, and our marriage is profoundly deepened by working together so closely.
What do you hope non-Oregonians will get from the book? How do you think Oregonians will view it?
My writing about a subculture of Oregonians is no different from John Cheever writing about Westchester County or Annie Proulx about Nova Scotia. Those are subcultures too. Novels explore particular people in particular places to reveal truths about human nature and insights into who we are.
I think the book is an homage to Corvallis and Oregon and all the things that I really love about them. I love that you get a lead on organic chickens when someone comes into your office. I love when people drop by the house with five pounds of salmon because they had a good catch. I make wine with a bunch of professors, many of them from pharmacy and engineering. When we’re pressing or we’re bottling, it’s a huge party and all our kids get together. I really love it. That’s the rich Oregon life that the novel celebrates.
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, (Random House) “The Oregon Experiment,” comes out on June 14, when Scribner will begin his book tour at 7:30 p.m. at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside, Portland.
Scribner’s two previous novels, published by Riverhead Books (Penguin), are “The GoodLife” and “Miracle Girl.” “The GoodLife” was selected for the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers series, and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.