Willamette Alum Scores with New Novel
"An immensely impressive debut." That's the level of high praise that Willamette University alumna Heather Parkinson '97 and her first published novel, Across Open Ground, have garnered from book reviewers like Will Blythe at the New York Times. It's quite an accomplishment for someone who didn't intend to write a book.
At Willamette, Parkinson, an English major, was a Fulbright Scholar finalist, a Rhodes Scholar finalist and the recipient of a Carson Research Grant. After graduation, she attended Boise State University and taught English composition. Once taking a fiction writing class, she found herself one week without a story to submit.
"I went back to one of the stories I'd written for my Carson project and it started evolving," Parkinson explains. "I never intended to write a novel. As I worked on the story, it just proceeded in a linear fashion and got bigger."
Parkinson's novel, set in 1917 as the United States is entering World War I, features 17-year-old Walter Pascoe, a novice sheep herder, and his lover, Trina Ivy, a trapper with a troubled background. Walter is drafted and goes off to war, leaving pregnant and penniless Trina to fend for herself. It's a story that examines the psychological toll war exacts on soldiers and on those left behind. A rich blend of historical and literary fiction, Parkinson says Across Open Ground's lush setting and characters were inspired by the work she did during her Carson project.
"I don't have a personal history with sheep or ranching," she says. "My Carson research provided me with the story's background. The characters and the place just pulled me in."
The story pulled Parkinson in so deeply that she spent the next two years working on it. For the first year, she wrote part-time while pursuing her MFA and teaching. The writing became so involving that she dropped out of the graduate program to write full time, a process she found both inspiring and challenging.
"Writing can be very isolating and even lonely," she says. "You write for those days or moments when it seems to come together; when the characters take over and you don't feel like you're doing the work. The characters have to tell their own stories or it just comes out sounding flat."
There must have been plenty of those "coming together" writing days because Amazon.com calls the book "a deceptively quiet work of staggering depth, infused with dignity and heart wrenching emotion." The Idaho Mountain Express Arts Editor, Adam Tanous, said Parkinson "seems to have a natural sense of when to let her prose run and when to rein it in" and called the writing alternatively "clear and precise" and "evocative and lyrical."
The quality of Parkinson's work impressed both agents and editors. Most first-time novelists have difficulty landing an agent to represent them. Not Parkinson. She submitted the first 50 pages of her novel to six agents who represent other authors she admires. Almost immediately, the agents began calling asking to see the entire novel. Once Parkinson selected an agent, the manuscript went out to literary publishers. Two made offers. Parkinson chose Bloomsbury, the publisher of the Harry Potter books. They offered Parkinson a "substantial" advance that has allowed her to work fulltime on her second novel.
Parkinson says the flexibility and intellectual curiosity that a small, liberal arts college like Willamette fosters has helped her tremendously as a novelist. Professors like now-retired Rich Sutliff and Ken Nolley encouraged her to design her own degree and follow her interests. "The professors let me pursue my interests," she says. "It's really valuable because, in the writing life, you have to create your own goals and live in your own world."
Aside from writing her second novel, the next chapter in Parkinson's life includes attending film school in southern California. She says she fell in love with movies in Ken Nolley's film classes at Willamette. That interest has inspired her to pursue a three-year graduate program that will lead to an MFA. Will she write or direct films? Perhaps, she says. Or maybe she'll be a university professor. "I've always wanted to pursue teaching and be a professor," she says wistfully. "That's always been my dream."