Talking with . . .

    Rich Wandschneider

    An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    FISHTRAP IS A NON-PROFIT EDUCATIONAL organization dedicated to “promoting clear thinking and good writing in and about the West.” The full-time director is writer and RPCV Rich Wandschneider (Turkey 1965–67) who created Fishtrap in the 1980s. Although Fishtrap is for writers, teachers, and readers from across the country, it is firmly rooted in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. What makes Fishtrap so special is the connection to Oregon, and the opportunity to meet people who live and work there on farms, ranches, national forests and in small town stores and offices. For those who live in Oregon, Fishtrap brings emerging and major writers from across the West, and occasionally from other parts of the country and other countries, to this remote spot, and thus provides a window on the world.
         Having known and written to Rich for years, I finally had an opportunity recently to interview him for Peace Corps Writers.

    Where were you a Peace Corps Volunteer and when?

      I was a Rural Community Development Volunteer in Turkey from 1965 to 1967. I had the great good fortune to work in a refugee village — Bulgarian and Greek and Yugoslavian Turks who had come to Turkey in the late 1930s — surrounded by Kurdish villages in eastern Turkey.
           After completing service, I spent a year in D.C. as a “Peace Corps Fellow,” and then went back to Turkey on staff. I was in Turkey as Peace Corps pulled out in 1970, a casualty of Kennedy’s assassination and the Vietnam War and all the bad feelings they engendered across the Europe and the Middle East. (In 1965, pictures of John F. Kennedy hung alongside pictures of Ataturk in small and remote villages.)

    Tell us about Fishtrap? How did it get started? How does it work?

      My wife Judy — who was a childcare Volunteer in Turkey — and I moved to a small town in eastern Oregon in 1971 with the Extension Service to do rural community development. In 1976, with the help of my old Peace Corps partner, Barb Bailey, who then owned the bookstore in Sun Valley, we opened the Bookloft in Enterprise, Oregon.
           In the twelve years at the Bookloft, I met many Northwest writers — Kim Stafford, Craig Lesley, Ursula LeGuin, etc. — and developed a close friendship with historian Alvin Josephy, who has had a summer home here since the early ’60s. Alvin was, and is, a leading figure in telling the American Indian story from an Indian point of view — Patriot Chiefs, The Indian Heritage of America, Red Power, Now that the Buffalo’s Gone, 500 Nations, etc.
           In the early ’80s, Alvin had participated in a series of Sun Valley Conferences on the West , and Kim Stafford hosted Northwest Writers’ Gatherings at Lewis and Clark College in Portland in 1986 and 87. In 1988 we moved the Gathering to Wallowa Lake and Alvin invited some of his eastern friends to join us for a conference on “Western Writing and Eastern Publishing.” Kim and Craig and Ursula and Bill Kittredge and James Welch joined Naomi Bliven from The New Yorker, Marc Jaffe from Houghton Mifflin, and New York agent Julian Bach for the discussion, and Fishtrap just kind of took off.
           We continue to have Summer Gatherings — this July marks the 15th — and we continue to build them around themes: this year, “Writing in Troubled Times” ; last year, “The Legacy of Vietnam.” The Gathering is a celebration of writing — what someone called a “revival meeting for writers” rather than a toolbox for writing and getting published. We have, however, added a week-long series of workshops with the Summer Gathering (although we’re light on the marketing and critiquing and long on writing and generating new material).
          Over the years — very organically — we have added:

      • a Fellowship program which recognizes emerging writers;
      • a Winter Gathering which focuses on public policy issues (e.g., “Fire,” “Water,” “Violence,” and next year some aspect of “Sustainability");
      • an annual community and schools “Writer-in-Residence”;
      • April and October writers’ retreats at a remote donated cabin;
      • and occasional readings and workshops throughout the year.

           Last year, with the help of $60,000 in grants and $135,000 in private donations, we moved into our own facility — an historic home in Enterprise. It provides offices for me — the full-time director, and for a part-time education coordinator and a part-time business manager. It also has a reading/meeting space which seats 20 around a workshop table or 60 for a reading or lecture; a visiting writer’s bedroom; and a home for the Alvin Josephy Library for Writers in the West.
           A steady stream of writers has already made use of the bedroom, and the library is gaining volumes and currently has one wall of bookshelves on the way to three. Three writers’ groups and a book club use the house, and a first Spring Lecture Series featuring journalism, Middle East politics, and the history of rodeo queens was a sell-out.

    Who are some of the writers that have been to Fishtrap?

      Over 150 writers have now read and taught at Fishtrap events. Ivan Doig and Sherman Alexie, Terry Tempest Williams, Gary Nabhan, Naomi Shihab Nye, David James Duncan, Pattiann Rogers, Ursula Hegi, and Yusef Komunyakaa have all been here. And so have “new” writers Kathleen Tyau and Andrew Pham and Aflredo Vea; agents Mary Evans and Gary Fisketjon; historians Richard White and Stephanie Koontz; and journalists Tim Egan and Ann Taylor Fleming.

    In what ways do you think Fishtrap is special?

      What marks Fishtrap as unique is that all kinds of writing are considered. Poets meet historians meet journalists meet song-writers. We don’t “jury” people into our workshops, and we don’t talk much about “how to get my novel published.” We encourage new writers — last year Vietnam Vet Geronimo Tagatac, who has published only a handful of stories and no books, but to whom we had awarded a Fellowship the previous year, taught a workshop alongside Yusef, and he did a marvelous job.
           Finally, we are not on a college campus or in a hotel room. We live in one of the most beautiful places in the country — at the edge of the Eagle Cap Wilderness and a stone’s throw from Hells Canyon of the Snake River. Fishtrap attendees constantly tell us that what makes the experience here different is the contact with this Western place and the people who live and work here.

    What did you do before you started Fishtrap?.

      College, Peace Corps, Pentagon March, Poor People’s Campaign, Oregon State University Extension Service, bookstore, Pika Press (small publishing company), Little League and Babe Ruth baseball and kids’ soccer coach, local school board, all of the above and more.

    Is your interest the writers or the community in Oregon?

      Writers and community are totally interwoven. Maybe especially in Oregon. The issues we deal with — environment, agriculture, forestry, salmon, Indian affairs, violence, sustainability, social justice, downwinders . . . — on a daily basis are what we think about and write about. Even “science fiction” and “fantasy” writer Ursula LeGuin, probably Oregon’s best known writer in any national or international sense, writes about environmental issues and issues of gender and class.
          Our writers are wed to the themes of history and geography.  I sometimes think that it’s because white history in the American Northwest is so new — the last Indian War (the Nez Perce War) started right here in Wallowa County in 1877 (I literally shook the hand that shook the hand of Chief Joseph), and so much of what draws people to the Northwest to work and live is the mountains and rivers and forests and soil. We can’t stretch to New England or Mississippi lengths for family history, or duplicate the ethnic mixes of New York or Chicago, but we have big sky, Indian ghosts, and utopia hunters as recent as the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh to inform our stories. Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, a symbol of the importance of writing and writers in the region and surely one of the finest bookstores in the land, employs writers and scholars aplenty. Powell’s was recently unionized. That’s community issues meeting the printed word.

    What about your own writing? What have you published?

      I’ve tried to write about Turkey from time to time over the years, but have always put it aside and gone back to a day job. The bookstore brought day job a little closer to writing.
           About 18 years ago I started writing a column for the local newspaper. It’s called “Main Street,” and I shoot my face off about politics, the characters and events of my 31 years of living here, and once in a while a story from those Peace Corps days. In these writing years — I was past 40 when I began the column and began writing seriously — I’ve had a couple of pieces of fiction published, but mostly essays. They’ve appeared in High Country News, Northern Lights, Adoption Magazine, The Oregonian, and other small regional publications.
           Now that Fishtrap has reached some kind of solid citizen status, and with the inspiration of that 40th Peace Corps Celebration, I’m turning to the old Turkey stories. But this time my idea is to write them for a Turkish audience. Maybe some younger Turks and some city Turks would enjoy tales of rubes on the frontier in their country a generation ago, when there were people who remembered coming in as refugees from Bulgaria, when Kurdish radio blared in from Iraq and Syria, when a John Kennedy half dollar generated conversation about assassination politics and sympathy for all Americans, when there was a heartfelt welcome to a couple of naive young Americans who had come to share their lives.

      For more information about Fishtrap, contact Rich at:

        Fishtrap
        40 Grand Street
        PO Box 38
        Enterprise, OR 97828

        (541)426-3623
        fax/ (541)426–9075

        rich@fishtrap.org