What compelled you to tell the story/stories in your most recent book? (And specifically, why this genre?)
Parts per Million is a story of loss and transformation. While there’s quite a fast-paced plot, on an allegorical level the novel is about passing through a crucible and emerging changed. The alchemy of transformation has always fascinated me, how seemingly bad experiences can push people to new levels. I was also fascinated by environmental activists, particularly those who put their bodies on the line to blockade logging roads and sabotage operations they consider disastrous for ecosystems and animals. I wanted the novel to explore that place where commitment and self-sacrifice intersect. When I wrote the first draft, the US was freshly post-9/11, establishing the surveillance state and gearing up to invade Iraq based on a false narrative about weapons of mass destruction. Huge protests were happening in Portland and worldwide, but the war went ahead, anyway. At the time, I was teaching media studies at the Pacific Northwest College of Art and was hyper-observant of the way the build-up to war played out in the media. It was a bizarre and frightening time, and it all came together as material for Parts per Million. The plot involves a crew of environmental/media activists — small voices in the cultural wilderness — trying to hold it together while their country heads for war, they uncover the biggest scoop of their careers, and they grapple with personal tragedy. So there’s quite a bit happening on the interpersonal level. We watch the crew struggle and evolve, and that plays out against the backdrop of history.
What obstacles—either inner or outer—did you encounter while writing the book?
Well, the initial obstacle was that I knew nothing about writing fiction! I’d written a first draft in a sort of obsessed state. I hadn’t heard of the NaNoWriMo challenge, but I essentially did something like that on my own, just madly typing out the story over the space of a few weeks. It was a relief to get the plot down, but I knew my writing technique was green and that the manuscript was not something I’d ever show anyone. So I joined the Pinewood Table critique group and that opened up a new world for me. I spent several happy years taking the novel through several revisions as I learned about voice and point of view and writing in scene and so on.
As for inner obstacles, I was vaguely aware that I wasn’t overburdened by them. Occasionally I had doubts but I just seemed to plow ahead, because I felt like I had nothing to lose. My creative background is in the visual arts. I have an MFA in painting, I have a 30-year exhibition history, and I taught art at the college level. On the other hand, my writing practice felt very different from my art practice because I was so green — the lack of baggage turned out to be a creative asset. I was sort of free-floating with it, unattached to an outcome. In joining the critique group, I was just following a call to improve the writing, and doing that in a non-academic setting was perfect for what I needed right then.
How has writing your most recent book changed or added value to your life?
The Pinewood Table introduced me to so many wonderful writer friends, and I love being part of that community still. I also really valued getting a handle on fiction writing as a craft. I write a lot for work, always have done, so I knew how to write in an academic or formal way, but fiction writing was a new adventure. I think it’s made my everyday writing stronger.
Did you self-publish or did you go the traditional route? Why did you choose the route you chose, and what was that process like?
When the manuscript was shortlisted for the PEN Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, I thought I’d have a little better luck querying agents, but after a couple of years of rejections I seriously considered self-publishing. Yet I hesitated, because while the query process is arduous and fraught with anxiety, the self-publishing process seemed to be that plus learning a lot of technical and promotional skills. The sheer workload involved was intimidating, a learning curve I didn’t want to climb. I was almost ready to put the manuscript in a drawer when Portland publisher Forest Avenue Press turned everything around for me by acquiring the manuscript in 2016!
Are you friends with other writers? If so, how do they influence your writing?
Writer friends are the most supportive, generous people I know. I learned so much from not only the Pinewood Table teachers Joanna Rose and Stevan Allred, but also my peers at the table, many of whom have gone on to be published authors. Jackie Shannon-Hollis, Scott Sparling, Yuvi Zalkov, Kate Gray, Harold Johnson and too many others to list here. And the Pinewood Table is where I met the amazing Laura Stanfill of Forest Avenue Press — years before she founded her publishing house. So yes, my writer friendships have positively influenced every aspect of Parts per Million.
Do you maintain a regular writing practice? If so, what does it look like? If not, how do you stay engaged in your writing projects?
These days my writing practice is simply a personal journal that I keep as the mood strikes. The desire to write Parts per Million was initially a surprise to me — I couldn’t fathom why I felt so compelled belt out that first draft. Then, as I revised the manuscript over several years, the cadence was structured by the Pinewood Table’s dynamic of working on a few pages each week, which broke the project up into manageable chunks. But I’ve never had a strict routine. I’ve always fitting writing around working, so it’s more been a matter of being flexible and adapting.
How many other books or stories do you have in progress right now?
My creative focus visual art, which is my first love. My current studio practice is a painting series that’s been in process for about 18 months. I’m exploring acrylic polymers and how they interact with each other under certain conditions. I feel like a chemist, or maybe mad scientist is more accurate — I barely know what I’m doing! But in truth that’s a bit like what writing Parts per Million felt like — fun and alchemical, stumbling about a lot but I just flowed with it.
Do you view writing as a spiritual practice?
Yes, indeed. All creative activity is a spiritual practice. Writing, painting, building computer programs, gardening, cooking — it’s all a dialogue between what we know and what we don’t know, always opening up to what’s next, what’s possible. It requires an openness and a willingness explore, perhaps to fail, and always to try again.
What would your life look like if you didn’t write?
If I may, I’ll change that question to “if you didn’t create”, and the answer would be, rather sad. Sometimes life gets very busy with work and other obligations and I don’t get into my studio for a couple of weeks. Then start to feel a little nuts, and question the meaning of everything. Creating is medicine. The output doesn’t have to be anything fancy or even something for other people to “consume”, but it has to happen. I need to enter that dialogue on a regular basis or I start feeling lost and lonely.
Why do you write?
This is a question I asked myself over and over when I went through the blast of the first draft. I was baffled! I was a visual artist, why was I writing? What business did I have doing this? I had no ambition to be a writer, and yet I kept at it through the first draft, and I kept at it through the years of revisions. In retrospect, I realize that I had the story in me — the story of loss and transformation — and it needed to be told in words rather than painting. Why, I don’t know. But my body knew that writing was the way to get the story out. The fact that it later got published was a different process, and while the eventual publication was a wonderful outcome after so many years of work, it wasn’t connected to my initial impulse to write the first draft. At that time in my life my creative expression shifted from visual to verbal, and I simply followed along. It was a strange and wonderful experience.
Julia Stoops was born in Samoa and grew up in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Washington, D.C. She is a native of New Zealand and has lived in Portland since 1994. Her Portland-based novel, Parts per Million, was shaped by her experiences in community radio journalism and anti-war activism, and was shortlisted for the PEN Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. A visual artist as well as a writer, Julia Stoops is a recipient of Oregon Arts Commission Fellowships for visual arts and literature, and was a resident at the Ucross Foundation in 2016.