Life, longing and literature
Michael Tevlin has faced nearly every obstacle you can throw at a writer, but somehow, he's still here.
The Southwest Portlander recently published his first book, "Sockeye," which follows a man's unexpected trek back to his hometown in Wallowa Valley, Oregon, following the death of his estranged father.
Tevlin's novel follows the path of Joe Wallace, who's had to make the trip from the Alaska fishing town where he lives and works, back to the scenic northeastern Oregon valley where he grew up. Along his journey, Joe confronts his past, his siblings and himself. He meets a woman, Ana, who helps him rediscover his values and passion for life, all the while redefining what home really means to him.
"I had this sense that I wanted to write a book, and there were a couple of things I felt I was passionate about. I had really gotten into fishing, but also this whole notion of trying to protect the endangered species," Tevlin said. For background research, he volunteered for a nonprofit group that studies salmon and facilitates children's trips to see them spawn.
He chose the Wallowa Valley as the backdrop for his first work of fiction partly because of the region's significance in his own life.
Tevlin grew up in Staten Island, New York. His family used to take summer vacation in the Wallowa Valley.
"I really fell in love with that place," Tevlin said. "It's absolutely beautiful. It's really off the beaten track. It's got these gorgeous snow-capped mountains, very much like the granitic mountains. I learned a lot about that region, both the environment and cultural history of it."
The Wallowa Valley also was home to the Nez Perce Tribe, and the Wallowa River once had a thriving population of sockeye salmon. Dams and overfishing killed off the salmon, but recently there have been efforts to restore them to the river. In "Sockeye," Joe finds himself at odds with his older brother, Howard, who pegs him as an ecoterrorist for joining efforts to remove a dam and restore the salmon.
Tevlin drew inspiration for his protagonist, Joe, from the life cycle, and homecoming of the sockeye. The salmon spawn inland in a stream, lake or river, where they spend a year or two before heading downstream to the ocean. They spend one to three years in the ocean feeding and maturing, before returning to the rivers.
"They get this inborn urge to return to where they were born," Tevlin said. "Some say it's a smell, they can smell their native waters."
Tevlin quickly saw the literary devices that were ripe for the picking.
"The story of the salmon is such a natural story," he said. "The obstacles they face, by getting caught by an orca whale or a fisherman's net, they have to face all these manmade obstacles such as dams, and then on top of that the ecosystem has been so degraded by humans, it's no wonder they're facing endangerment or, in some cases, have completely gone extinct."
Tevlin's own Pacific Northwest journey began when he and his wife landed in Oregon in 1977 to visit his brother, who had already moved here. Tevlin was between jobs with the National Park Service and the couple ended up staying in Oregon to make a go of it.
Tevlin later graduated from the University of Oregon with a master's degree in journalism. Years later, he found himself struggling to support his family on a newspaper reporter's salary. He took a job with Portland General Electric, where he spent a decade before quitting to seriously pursue creative writing. Tevlin eventually started his own marketing company, Tevlin Strategic Communications, which he currently maintains.
If there's a checklist of every way to break a writer's heart, be it via producing news or novels, Tevlin's list might be full.
His book took 18 years to come to fruition. He began writing in 2002.
He toiled for years with drafts, going through roughly 11 versions of the book before churning out a 530-page manuscript. The book was too long to be seriously considered. When Tevlin found a literary agent to help him get it published, she agreed to look at it only if he agreed to cut it down — significantly. A year later, with nearly a third of the story gone, the agent had moved on to another author.
"I was really crestfallen," Tevlin said. "I thought that was my chance and I blew it."
Eventually, he found Black Rose Writing, an independent publishing house that picked up the book. "Sockeye" was released March 12. Then Tevlin's plans for a promotional campaign to get his nearly 20 years of work in independent bookstores was thwarted by COVID-19.
"I'm hoping the book slowly gains steam," he said.
Despite the long slog to get "Sockeye" published, Tevlin already is diving in to his next book. This time, he's tapping his New York roots for inspiration.
While Staten Island is where he spent his formative years, it's also a place he found himself often trying to escape from.
He refers to the East Coast city as "an environmentalist's nightmare."
"The water around Staten Island was so polluted you couldn't swim or eat the fish," Tevlin said. The local beach wasn't suited for swimming either, so he relied on the beaches and woods within a close proximity.
"Some of my love for nature came from not only seeing nature, but seeing how it had become spoiled," he said. As a teen, Tevlin didn't have a car. "I had this incredible longing to get off the island and be somewhere where it was beautiful and clean."
Tevlin said his next book centers on a "kid who becomes obsessed with surfing, but he can't surf anywhere near his home."
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