Vanessa Veselka's paths converge in award-winning book
Lived experiences often fuel writers, and Vanessa Veselka has walked a lot of paths in her life — literally and figuratively.
Imagination gives way to the file folder in her head, as the biography on her website states, after experiencing being "a teenage runaway, a sex worker, a musician, a union organizer and a student of paleontology," all of which she unabashedly owns. Hitchhiking 20,000 miles as a teenager? Living under the Burnside Bridge? Writing songs and playing guitar for a band?
Yes, she has stories, and Veselka parlays much of her knowledge into writing.
"That's been the beautiful thing about writing fiction," Veselka said.
Her latest work, "The Great Offshore Grounds," won the Oregon Book Awards' Ken Kesey Award for Fiction. After being nominated for "Zazen" a few years ago, she won top honors in the statewide writing competition. Then again, it wasn't much of a surprise, given that "The Great Offshore Grounds" had been given National Book Award 2020 long list credentials.
"Very excited and grateful. It's a lovely feeling," said Veselka, who's 52 and a single mother of an 18-year-old daughter and living in Southeast Portland.
"For all of us, you go up for awards if you're fortunate. I've been very fortunate. There was the long list for the National Book Award in the fall (2020). You develop skills of being absolutely thrilled with a bit of a sort of acting removed.
"There's something sweeter and more intimate about winning a state award, because it's where you are. It feels more meaningful and connected."
Although she can draw on experience, and has a lengthy resume of essays and stories writing for the likes of Salon, The Atlantic, GQ, Bitch magazine, Smithsonian and The American Reader, Veselka admits that it became a headache to see "The Great Offshore Grounds" through to publication.
The book's story: On the day of their estranged father's wedding, half-sisters Cheyenne and Livy set off to claim their inheritance. It's been years since the two have seen each other. Cheyenne is newly back in Seattle, crashing with Livy after a failed marriage and a series of dead-ends. Livy works refinishing boats, her resentment against her freeloading sister growing as she tamps down dreams of fishing off the coast of Alaska.
But, the promise of a shot at financial security brings the two together to claim what's theirs. Except, instead of money, what their father gives them is information — a name — which both reveals a stunning family secret and compels them to come to grips with it.
The book journeys (and sails) from the Seattle underground to the docks of the far north, from the southern swamps to the Great Offshore Grounds.
It was the execution of writing and producing the book that didn't go smoothly.
"It was misery, took me eight years," Veselka said. "Writing was pretty darn miserable, for at least 2 1/2 years writing in a very deep depression, writing five hours a day, figuring if I stood up and walked away I'd never go back. It was a desperate act for many years.
"I questioned every set of values in my life, and the ways I was failing family and not supporting myself well, going deeper into credit card debt. I felt like I was chasing madness and had no idea if I was ever going to land."
She had to switch publishers, landing with Knopf Doubleday. "I'm a chance-taker, and I got lucky in this instance," she said.
"In the end, while the book continued to develop and strengthen, it didn't compromise a single thing. I had the loving and brilliant support of my editor and agent. I got to have the book I wanted. They gave us the greatest cover known to man. That's it for a writer."
Writing an award-winning book comes as the latest chapter in the interesting life of Veselka. She was the member of bands back in the 1990s, playing guitar and writing songs. And, about those bio entries …
Teenage runaway? "I left home at 15. Hitchhiked about 20,000 miles. I wrote a whole article about it for GQ, called 'The Truck Stop Killer.' Went to only eight months of high school, but got into college pretty easily (Reed College in Portland). I was trying to find wisdom in the world. I moved 11 times before the age of 9, settled in New York, but also lived in Alaska. I came to Portland in 1984, I was 15 and living under the Burnside Bridge, eating at Baloney Joe's every day."
Sex worker? Veselka worked as an underage stripper, and then some. "I'm not somebody who owns that as a huge identity, but I put it down (as an experience) because it's an unspoken thing that many women end up doing in different times and different ways that often makes them feel (bad) about themselves. … I had friends who were absolute street walkers. I would have been bad at that. When you're 15 years old, you can't stay at a mission and you can't get a job, because you have no address. Can't sign up for food banks, can't do any systems, you are locked out of any economic support."
Union organizer? "I worked as a union organizer (SCIU 1199) in Washington state for my formative years for health care workers and hospital workers. I'm now working for another union now in Oregon (SCIU 503) as director of organizing. We just won, and I got to be a little part of it, the best nursing home contract in the country."
Student of paleontology? "I always had been interested in archaeology, but in the 1990s it was geology and paleontology. I love the scope of deep time." She took a class from a professor at the University of Washington and the study of invertebrate paleontology and extinction patterns and more "has ended up in my writing."
Indeed, Veselka draws on a wealth of experiences, and maybe serves as maybe her harshest critic.
A friend told her that while "The Great Offshore Grounds" has moments of darkness, "it feels so light, the characters really love each other and you can feel it." Veselka appreciates the comments.
"I was afraid to write about love," she said. "Love changes the events and tone and how you experience things. And, that was a big lesson."
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