Few images in American history are as iconic as the cowboy riding toward the sun, his 10-gallon hat tipped forward to shade his eyes as he sets off to save the fortuitously comely schoolmarm. Author John Larison, who will be reading from his new novel “Whiskey When We’re Dry,” on Thursday, April 11, at Newport Performing Arts Center, grew up on that narrative, devouring books by such luminaries in the genre as Louis L’amour, and yet, the western he penned took a different route.
“I grew up reading westerns and loved them,” Larison said “But as I got older I started to question how they are built on these divisions: there’s one kind of man, one kind of woman. We think of them as an accurate portrayal of American history but so much has been made up or exaggerated, like the typical cowboy hat is relatively new and there were only 10 bank robberies between 1859 and 1900.”
So Larison’s “hero” ended up about as far from the quintessential cowboy as you can get: a girl in her late teens who, after becoming orphaned, dresses in men’s clothes and travels across the country to find her brother.
“I didn’t start out with her,” Larison said. “I opened myself up to hearing a story and this voice appeared as if it was sitting on my shoulder one night. I could feel this tone of longing for a lost time and a sense of culpability and even a little guilt; it was very compelling. It felt more like I was transcribing than just writing — interviewing her more than simply planning out a novel.”
The experience was new for Larison; he hadn’t heard voices when writing his first two novels. Luckily, he heeded this one, as “Whiskey” is not only his most popular novel so far, it has been nominated for this year’s Oregon Book Awards, is on the Los Angeles Times bestsellers list, was a “Best Book” pick by O Magazine, and is now being developed for the big screen.
The book also won glowing praise from one of Larison’s literary idols, David James Duncan.
“My first novel was set on Oregon Rivers and featured fly fishing,” Larison said. “Since that’s a theme he writes about too I sent him a copy and pestered him until read it. Once he finally did he said, ‘Wow, this is terrible.’”
Bloodied but unbowed, Larison penned a second, similar novel and sent that off for what he now knew would be honest and unflinching feedback from Duncan.
“The second he said was okay,” Larison said.
As they say, the third time is a charm.
“He really said he really liked this one,” Larison said. “I was so relieved.”
The book also impressed members of the Newport Library Foundation, who chose it as the text for this year’s Newport Reads! Now in its 14th year, the community reading event sees the group select one author per year from five books nominated by board members.
“We try to find ones accessible for a wide audience since we are asking all of our community members to read it,” said foundation chair Karen Apland, “We also try to pick things that teens will be able to read. There have been some questions about this one since there is violence in it, but it’s not graphic and is realistic to what was going on at the time. She’s a great character and it’s nice having a female character to read. It’s a very human story, but also so entertaining.”
Larison didn’t set out to write a book appropriate for young adults, though he’s glad it turned out that way, since his 12-year-old daughter read it.
“I was a little worried about the reaction, but it’s been overwhelmingly positive,” he said. “Kids are exposed to violence at every turn these days. I wanted to show what the ripple effect of violent actions can lead to even long after they happen.”
Larison developed the character partially based on a woman he met when he was writing parts of the book at a wildlife refuge.
“She taught me to throw a lasso,” he said. “She had on chaps, had rough hands from hard work and a pinch of Copenhagen in her lip; she was one of the most interesting people I had ever met and I couldn’t find her in any books I’d read, so I wrote her.”
Though Apland wasn’t the one who brought the book to the group, she’s very much looking forward to the presentation.
“He’s a bright and funny guy and I think people will enjoy the event even if they haven’t read the book,” she said. “But they will probably want to read it when the talk is over.”
If so, copies will be available for purchase and signing at the April 11 event.
Larison will read from his work at 7 pm at the Newport Performing Arts Center, 777 W Olive Street. For more information about Newport Reads!, go to https://newportoregon.gov/dept/lib/nr2019.asp or call 541-265-2153.