Nestled in a neighborhood of tree-lined streets and tidy bungalows, Molly Gloss's English cottage-style house is an appealing vision on this drizzly morning in Portland, Ore. Overhead, a scrim of gray clouds veils the sky, a darkly elegant foil to the vibrant green of a garden spilling from perennial beds to a lushly planted parking strip.
Dressed casually in jeans and a plum-colored shirt, Gloss greets her visitor on the front walk and introduces her four-legged companions--a 13-year-old Dalmatian named Buddy, and Scout, an abandoned kitten she recently rescued. A beguiling ball of fluff, Scout proves an agreeable distraction as we settle in for a visit, frisking about the living room, attacking our sh laces and at length curling up on the sofa for a nap.
"He's just so damned cute," says an obviously smitten Gloss.
Charlotte Bridger Drummond, turn-of-the-century protagonist of Gloss's new novel, Wild Life (S&S), or any one of Gloss's four great-grandmothers--"Westering women, all" as she describes them in the dedication to The Jump-Off Creek (Houghton Mifflin, 1989)--would feel right at home in this house, with its leaded windows, glass doorknobs and hardwood floors. The place seems entirely suited to a writer who returns again and again in her fiction to the landscape of the West, frontier life and the wilderness. Fringed lamp shades hark back to a bygone era, a fishing creel hangs from the dining room wall and a mantel clock above the fireplace ticks steadily.
"Barry Lopez once said that he thought most writers only have a handful of questions they are always addressing in their work, and that resonated with me," says Gloss. "One of the questions I always seem to be holding in my hand is the question of the human response to wilderness. One of the other questions has to do with community. What is a community? And when you form a community, who are you excluding?"
Gloss, whose gaze is as forthright as her manner, didn't start writing seriously until she was 35. Born and raised in Portland, Gloss, now 55, confesses that she has always liked to write, but that she "grew up in a period when smart girls were encouraged to be teachers or nurses. Nobody ever told me I could be a writer."
After graduating from Portland State University in 1966 with a degree in social science and English, Gloss married and taught briefly at a junior high school.
"I absolutely hated it," she confides with a wry smile. "I was 21 and looked about 14, and with my wee soft little voice they just rolled over me like a steamroller. So I bailed out"--and took a job as a correspondence clerk at a local freight company.
"This is how one becomes a feminist," she says with a laugh. "At that time, they said flat out, 'We do not hire women in management positions.'"
That practice changed around the time she became pregnant with her son, Ben, in the early '70s, says Gloss, who looks back at the experience "as a road not taken. If I hadn't quit and eventually become a writer, I'd be a vice-president by now!"
Over the past 20 years, Gloss has blazed an idiosyncratic literary path. In addition to short stories, she has written four vastly different, though thematically related, novels. Wild Life, which artfully evokes an early 20th-century frontier landscape, from the banks of the Columbia River community where Charlotte resides to the Pacific Northwest wilderness in which she becomes lost and encounters a Sasquatch family, confirms Gloss's place as a premier voice in the literature of the American West.
"The landscape we inhabit as children, inhabits us," writes Gloss in The Dazzle of Day (Tor, 1997), which is certainly axiomatic of her own experience.
"We grew up pretty poor," she says. "My dad's a Texan who worked for the railroad, and we never had very much money, so we didn't own many books. But we did grow up readers, and every week we would all walk up to the library."
By the time she turned 12, Gloss had exhausted the children's section and would wander over to join her father, who was always standing "in front of the section where every book had a big black 'W' inked on the spine. These were all the traditional western novels--Ernest Haycox, Luke Short, Max Brand--so that was my introduction to the adult novel."
Which suited Gloss just fine. A tomboy who loved to ride horses and pretend she was a cowboy, Gloss drove with her family back to Texas every summer to visit relatives, trips she calls "my covered-wagon experience."
"There were five of us and two big dogs and a huge umbrella tent, and driving across that glorious Western landscape that I read about in those adventure stories, sitting in front of a campfire every night--those books were perfect for me at that time of my life."
Later, when she began to value "good writing over adventure," Gloss discovered other western novels that weren't on her father's shelf--H.L. Davis's Honey in the Horn, A.B. Guthrie Jr.'s The Big Sky, Walter Van Tilburg Clark's The Oxbow-Incident and eventually Willa Cather, who remains her favorite writer.
"Ben was a colicky baby, and I was having postpartum blues and kept a desperate journal," she says. Eventually, "it morphed into a place where I wrote little fictional anecdotes and scenes." Working around her family's schedule, Gloss labored to master her craft. Although she had the support of Ed, her husband of more than 30 years who is now deceased, she felt very much outside the loop in terms of the Portland writing community.
"I had no one to talk to about my writing, and I was desperate to find that," she says, so she enrolled in a class taught by local author Ursula Le Guin at PSU (where she herself would eventually teach a course in literature of the American West)--an experience she calls "life-altering."
"It was the first time that someone I deeply respected said to me, 'You are a writer,'" says Gloss (who is a "huge fan" of Le Guin's, with whom she is now friends, and confesses that she used to fantasize about running into her in the grocery store).
In 1981, she sold her first short story, "The D ," to Calyx, and a "fairly steady" stream of other stories, mostly science fiction, followed. If books are like babies, however, only one of Gloss's--her first--had an easy birth.
Outside the Gates, a YA fantasy she calls "a fluke" that began as a short story for her son's Christmas present, was sold quickly by agent Virginia Kidd to Atheneum and published in 1986.
In it, Gloss staked out territory that would quickly become familiar in her work: a boy, cast out from his community, struggles for survival in the wilderness.
The book did well, but meanwhile, the dearth of western novels with women protagonists continued to nag at Gloss.
Still, she hesitated to write such a book herself. "This was the mid-'80s, there weren't any western series on TV, nobody was making western films, and Louis L'Amour owned the western book market," she explains. "But I wanted to write the book that I couldn't find on the shelves."
Kidd offered The Jump-Off Creek to Atheneum, which inexplicably lost the manuscript twice over the period of almost a year ("it was a bad time for them, they had just been bought out by Scribners," says Gloss magnanimously), and finally sent it to Ruth Hapgood at Houghton Mifflin, who snapped it up nine days later.
"It worked out well in the long run," says a sanguine Gloss. "Houghton is Willa Cather's publisher, and A.B. Guthrie Jr.'s, and they have a strong backlist about women in the West, both in fiction and nonfiction."
Published in 1989, the book was a PEN/Faulkner finalist and garnered Gloss the Oregon Book Award and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association award. At the time, however, she recalls ruefully, she was convinced that writing it "was a mistake career-wise," particularly since it took a year to sell, and she immediately went back to work on a "safe" project--a science fiction novel.
When The Jump-Off Creek made a bit of a splash, Gloss found cause for concern as well as delight.
"At every reading, somebody would ask whether I was working on another book about a woman in the West, and when I would tell them, actually, it's a science fiction novel, you could see them visibly lurching backward, appalled," she recalls.
Such reactions were "pretty scary," says Gloss, who nevertheless chose to go forward with her new manuscript. "It was six slogging years getting it written."
A futuristic novel about a utopian community that travels to the far reaches of space to settle a new frontier, The Dazzle of Day, too, had a rocky road to print. "It was turned down at a number of places, including Houghton Mifflin," says Gloss. "The literary houses would read it and say, gee, this is beautiful, it's lyrical and poetic, but there's a spaceship in it, and the science fiction houses would say, gee, this is beautiful, it's lyrical and poetic, but there are no robots or laser guns."
Eventually published by Tor (acquisitions editor David Hartwell "has literary taste in science fiction," says Gloss), the book was a critical success, earning impressive reviews (it was named a New York Times Notable Book), a second Oregon Book Award and a Whiting Writer's Award for Gloss, but "what's happening is just what I feared," she laments. "The book is very much about landscape, as I think all my work is, but it's just not being read because the science fiction label is so off-putting, which is sad for me, because it was a hard book to write and I think that it's a good book."
Wild Life, on the other hand, a richly textured blend of adventure, myth, nature writing and literate musings on such topics as the creative process, family life and social mores of the day, was "a joy" to write.
"I wrote it in about three years, and every part of the process was a pleasure," says Gloss, an enthusiastic researcher who immersed herself in everything from logging camp history to memoirs of turn-of-the-century women writers, which, along with the western fiction by women of the same era that she collects, inspired the character of Charlotte.
Once again, the road to publication was strewn with obstacles. Part of a two-book contract with Tor, Wild Life was neither a science fiction novel nor a traditional western to be slotted under St. Martin's companion Forge imprint; Gloss was also concerned that her book wouldn't get serious review attention.
"This was heartbreaking to me," she explains, and consequently decided to buy the book back. Meanwhile, Kidd had fallen ill. "It was a very stressful summer, buying this book back and also looking for a new agent all at the same time."
Gloss eventually landed with Wendy Weil, and although it took some time to sell the book--"neither of us is very sure why," says Gloss--she is clearly delighted with her new home at Simon & Schuster, with Weil and with editor Roz Siegel, and with the glowing reviews Wild Life is receiving, including a starred one from PW.
"It's a great relief after going through all this," says Gloss.
Recently widowed, Gloss has suspended work on her next novel--tentatively set in 1910 on Washington State's Long Beach Peninsula and featuring a woman ornithologist--until fall, or perhaps longer.
"With all the changes that have taken place in my life, I'll just have to look at it and see, when I get back to it, whether it still interests me," she says matter-of-factly.
Like the memorable women about whom she writes, with their characteristic fortitude, she will doubtless light out for the territory again.