FORMER EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR of Portland's Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC), creative writing instructor, author of the critically acclaimed memoir The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, Justin Hocking is a highly prized force in the Portland literary community.
Last week, Hocking released Gallery, a new self-published book of his fiction, produced in collaboration with local letterpress artist Caitlin Harris of Wheelhouse Press, with funding from the Regional Arts and Culture Council. The book's single short story deals with father-son relationships, climate change, mental health, and the mountain pine beetle. Here's what Hocking told me about it over a cup of tea in Northeast Portland.
MERCURY: It's not the most traditional choice to follow up a successful debut memoir on a larger small press with a self-released chapbook. Why did you decide to go this route?
JUSTIN HOCKING: Actually I'm sort of going about it the exact same way that I went about The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, because I self-published a little chunk of that in a chapbook called Beach 90th. And it wasn't necessarily the reason that the larger book got published by Graywolf [Press], but—being around the IPRC, being so involved with the IPRC—I just love this intersection of book arts... and I always wanted to have a hand in that. And books take so long. I wanted to get some of it out into the world more immediately.
Talk a little about where the idea for this story came from.
I don't know that I would want to be pegged as a nature writer, but I think that where we're at with our world right now—the state of the natural world is in peril and... it inevitably kind of filters into my work. And I'm not sure where the original kernel for this piece came from, but I know I did quite a lot of work on this piece when I was doing a residency with [local environmental/arts organization] Signal Fire. I spent a week in a large outfitters tent in the Wallowa mountain range. I worked on this story, and I was paying a lot of attention to little details. Like what the actual bark of a lightning-burned tree trunk looks like.
Up until now you've been known as a creative nonfiction writer. Does this signal a new direction or are you always writing in multiple genres?
I wouldn't say it's really a big shift. I don't know if this story really would reveal this, but I'm trying to break down barriers between fiction and nonfiction—I mean, I'm not the only one who's doing this, this has been happening for a long time. But I think it's one of the most exciting things about where literature's at right now, that so many people are kind of fusing all the genres together in really interesting ways. So a lot of my new short stories look a lot more like a lyric essay than my other pieces.
I have a collection [of stories] that I'm compiling. And I'm working on another hybrid sort of essayistic memoir project that has a subterranean theme to it. So I'm writing about mining, geology, and all these kind of underground things.