Eliot Treichel is the author of the YA novel A Series of Small Maneuvers and the story collection Close Is Fine, which received the Wisconsin Library Association Literary Award. His writing and photography have appeared in a variety of publications, including Canoe & Kayak, BULL, Narrative, Beloit Fiction Journal, CutBank, and Passages North. He’s been awarded a Fishtrap Writing Fellowship, as well as two residency fellowships at PLAYA. He thinks riding bikes uphill is fun, sandwiches are better with potato chips, and that no one should go to bed without a cookie. His only dance move is the moonwalk. He cannot parallel park. Originally from Northern Wisconsin, he now lives in Oregon.
Q: You’ve lived in Oregon for the past several years. Was there anything that initially drew you there?
A: From Wisconsin, I ended up in Oregon after going to college in Arizona and living there for a while. Whitewater kayaking has been a pretty big part of my life since about the age of eighteen, I was working as a whitewater kayaker when I was nineteen. The reason I sort of ended up in Oregon is because there are a lot of really great rivers there for kayaking and you can paddle year round. I was also considering going to graduate school at the University of Oregon to get my MFA in fiction, moved to Eugene, applied to the program there but didn’t get in.
Q: Why did you start writing YA literature?
A: So I was bringing home all of these young adult novels for my daughter and most of them had this recurring narrative where it was boy saves girl and I just got really sick of that so I wanted to write a story where a girl saves herself, but that probably came second. I was leading a backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon on this four day trip; we hiked four miles to get into camp and another couple miles to get our water. It was physically demanding for our whole group of college students and even me as the leader. I have a little bit of a fear of heights and on this trail there are some spots where you look off the edge and I would get vertigo. On the third day, we were hiking down to refill our water and ran into this family: mom, dad, and two little girls, six and ten. The youngest one was crying and had this little dirty stuffed animal, and something about that image got stuck in my craw. I started thinking a lot about, you know, what if these kids were on their own—how would they get out of it? One part of me thought these parents were amazing and cool for taking these kids out on this wilderness experience, and the other part thought oh my god, these parents are cruel. I was conflicted. That’s when I first started writing the book. I knew I wanted to have a girl in the forest and I wanted to kill the father off immediately and then make the girl get out of the situation right away. A trope of YA is dead parents. One of the other things was that there was a news story where the senator of Oregon’s kid was on a field trip for school or the Boy Scouts and he was climbing up on a log, and fell and died. I was really sort of intrigued by this idea of how quickly your life can change, so maybe that’s why I killed off the dad so quickly.
Q: What was your writing process like?
A: For this particular book (A Series of Small Maneuvers), it started off as a book for National Novel Writing Month. I had just done the backpacking trip. It was the beginning of November. I had been working on my short story collection for a while—ten years or something like that, so it totally made sense to try and write a novel in a month. I got like 10,000 words, put it aside, and finished my short story collection. I needed to keep working on something so I brought the novel back, wrote about a draft, and I was lucky enough to get a residency in Kalama which is, like, remote, eastern Oregon. So I had a cabin for a month, no cell phone reception really, no Internet connection—it’s out in the Oregon desert. That’s where I wrote the first real draft of the book, and partly that was to mirror Emma’s experience of being out there and away from home. And I brought drafts home, just kept revising and revising, a couple times I would rent a house on the Oregon coast and write from day to night. It was pretty cool—it can make you a little bit nutty, but my process usually is just moving through a series of drafts and trying to make them better and better. Both books deal with rivers in certain ways. In A Series of Small Maneuvers it’s pretty obvious. In the short story collection it’s set in northern Wisconsin and it’s not really a story cycle because there are different characters in each story, though there are some things that connect them all. There’s a river that’s in every story and there’s a tavern that’s sort of in every story. Rivers and place are always big themes. My first book is about Wisconsin, where I lived. The second book is about the desert Southwest where I lived. The next book is going to be about Oregon, where I’m living now. So I need to move soon.
Q: Did you grow up around a lot of rivers?
A: Yeah, there was a river right at the end of my street. I would go there and tromp through the woods or go fishing.
Q: Is the relationship that Emma, the main character of A Series of Small Maneuvers, has with her father based off any of your relationships, or any relationships that you observed?
A: It’s partly based on the relationship my daughter and I share, and off my dad’s and my relationship, or off my friend’s and their parents, and part of it is made up. There’s this idea of loops that complicate and I think it is a much more interesting story if we see this dad who is on the one hand really wonderful, and on the other hand not that great. That feels authentic to me. I love my own dad and he is wonderful in many ways, but then in other ways he is a total asshole. I didn’t realize this until I became a parent, but parenting is really hard.
Q: What made you want to stagger the chronology in A Series of Small Maneuvers?
A: There are two ways to start a story. One is that we start at the beginning of the story and work towards the dead body. The other is start with the dead body and work towards figuring out what happened. It’s not really a mystery if the dead body comes up at the end, but every mystery starts out with the dead body. I wanted to play around with that structure so I put the dead body up front. Part of young adult fiction is that you have to keep the reader turning the pages. I also wanted to play with narrative structure in some ways. I think you have more leadway in a novel to play around with time and switching points of view. It’s good to have a concept but it’s really important to be willing to let that concept go at some point and realize that the book wants to be its own thing. Make sure you listen to the book.
Q: Did you have any hesitation about writing the book from the point of view of a teenage girl?
A: Part of my decision was that my short story collection is full of “guy stories.” Every story is about a dude who has made terrible decisions and is trying to make up for them in some way. I wanted to move away from that for my next book. There were concerns about not coming off as some guy writing a story about who a girl should be. I wanted to make sure it was authentic, and I struggled with that at times, but it didn’t feel weird. The very first story I ever wrote was from the point of view of a girl. I think the teenage aspect was more challenging than boy versus girl.
Q: Were you ever considering that more teenage girls read YA novels than boys as a factor in the narrator you chose?
A: Some studies have said that girls will read stories about girls or boys, and boys will usually only read stories about boys. That’s part of the reason I wanted to play with the adventure trope. Gary Paulsen’s books got me into reading so I wanted to write a book that would reach who I was as a young reader, but was a girl story.
Q: What advice would you give to young writers?
A: No one is born a writer, or born not a writer. Anyone can do it—it’s just a matter of practicing. For whatever reason you want to write, whether it’s personal or you want it to be published, it doesn’t matter because being a writer is a wonderful thing. Keep writing and ignore your critics. A lot of people will tell you, “You can’t do this,” but if it’s what you want to do, keep fighting and keep writing. Something that was really helpful to me was being a reader on a literary journal, reading the slush pile submissions. You end up reading people who are at your level. Published books have no mistakes; they’ve been edited out, but when you read manuscripts for a literary journal, you will learn to see the mistakes in their work as an editor and then you can see the same mistakes in your own writing.