It's hard to say what it means exactly to be an Idaho writer, but whatever it means, Kim Barnes is it. The genuine article. She was born in Lewiston in 1958 and grew up in the small logging towns of Pierce and Headquarters. All three of her books-two memoirs entitled In the Wilderness and Hungry for the World, and a novel called Finding Caruso-detail the North Idaho landscape with which she is so intimately bound. "I consider myself proud to be an Idaho writer," she says. At the same time, Barnes also embodies much more than this tag implies. Over a late-afternoon Clamdigger at the appropriately monikered Quiet Bar in Moscow (where she teaches creative writing in the University of Idaho's MFA program), Barnes tells me she thinks of herself as an ambassador, a writer who brings Idaho to the rest of the world and carries the rest of the world back to Idaho.
The role of being a citizen of both worlds is one Barnes relishes. The attitude of outsiders to an Idaho writer might be encapsulated by Marilynne Robinson, author of the novel Housekeeping, who says in her essay "My Western Roots" that after learning she was from Idaho, people would ask, "Then how were you able to write a book?" Barnes says no matter where she goes, Idaho is always equated with wilderness. When she heads out for a reading or book tour, she's often viewed as "a feral child stepping out of the woods." Barnes recalls a live radio interview in Seattle after the release of her first book, where the interviewer was interested in nothing but the militia in Idaho. She had to patiently explain Idaho is not comprised solely of "Aryans, potatoes and militia."
"I take a perverse pleasure in simultaneously fulfilling and denying these stereotypes," she says, nibbling at a Clamdigger-soaked asparagus spear. She doesn't mind being a curio. When her last book, Finding Caruso, was published in 2003, she dressed like a rodeo queen, befitting one of the novel's main characters, for her reading at the flagship Barnes & Noble store in Manhattan. She sported red, white and black cowboy boots stitched with flames and a leather fringe jacket studded with rhinestones. Yet Barnes takes her charge to represent writing and the life of the mind to the world outside Idaho very seriously. She simply does it with verve.
Her recent appointment as Idaho writer-in-residence by the Idaho Commission on the Arts affords her the opportunity to satisfy the other half of being an ambassador, reconnecting with communities she terms "my people": those in small-town Idaho where she herself was raised. Her term runs through 2008, and she will be paid a total of $8,000 to give a series of lectures and readings throughout the state. Barnes has already visited Culdesac, Nezperce and Kooskia.
"These events allow me to talk from a point of shared experience," she says. She tells audiences how she knows what it's like to grow up in a small town without any true literary role models, emphasizing that when she was young, she had no idea that being a writer was a legitimate possibility. Barnes encourages students that it is a possibility by introducing the literary world as a viable place to inhabit.
Another reason Barnes enjoys her writer-in-residence post is as it was in these very towns she visits where she first experienced her awareness of being a writer. Her husband, poet Robert Wrigley, also served a term as Idaho writer-in-residence from 1986 to 1988. While traveling with him to towns like Weiser, Barnes began to write in the motels they stayed in. She began with poems that were later published in well-known journals like The Georgia Review and Shenandoah and went on to write her own life's narrative in the memoir In the Wilderness, a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize.
Her road to success did not prove an easy one, however. To say she wasn't always encouraged to write is an understatement. "When I was in high school," she says, "my mother found a poem I'd written and tore it up." Barnes felt as though she'd trespassed a Western code, that to betray the emotional life in a harsh landscape was somehow dangerous. Writing required a covertness she often was unable to muster. Later on, motherhood, despite its pleasures, was also an impediment.
"Mothering and writing both come from the same source," Barnes explains. "Good parenting requires creativity and draws from the same well as writing." She experienced difficulty in compartmentalizing these two aspects of her life and often found herself writing whenever she could fit it in, even if it was on a paper towel while nursing a baby in one arm. But she was determined to write. "Writing is how I make sense of my life," she says. "When I'm not writing, nothing makes sense."
Barnes readily admits there were those who nourished her along the way. Her husband has been her long time literary confidant, and she learned a great deal from William Kittredge while earning her MFA at the University of Montana, which she describes as "a precious time." It was Kittredge, in fact, who helped her decide how to end her memoir In the Wilderness. Besides being a guide for her writing, Kittredge also aided Barnes in her teaching. He advised her to always visualize a student's story in its most ideal form, what the story most wants to be or could be. This is advice Barnes strives to implement in the classroom.
Her acclaimed writing and teaching, along with Wrigley's, have brought the two a number of lucrative offers to teach elsewhere, including the prestigious writing programs at the University of Michigan. Yet Barnes and Wrigley elect to stay put. They're building the program here at the University of Idaho, as it's a place they've invested themselves in. Barnes is currently finishing another novel combining the familial mythology that infused her first three books with a more imagined mythology. She can't escape the Idaho landscape, and she wouldn't want to. Her family and her writing are too intertwined with it. As dusk comes through the window at the rear of the bar, Barnes reflects on this western state that has shaped her as both a person and a writer. "I can't imagine living anywhere else," she says. A good thing for her students and for readers everywhere.