A Sense of Place: Novelist Alexander Maksik’s Pacific Northwest

Deborah Hardee / Europa Editions

The author of this month’s much-anticipated Shelter in Place opens up about a grunge-fueled young adulthood, a once-in-a-life time adventure, and a memory of a maximum security prison, as told to Francesca Giacco.

Alexander Maksik’s novels span vast landscapes, both physical and psychological. In You Deserve Nothing (2011), he undercut the typical romanticized view of Paris with intrigue and existentialism. A Marker to Measure Drift (2013) saw a picturesque Greek island through the eyes of a refugee as she processed unspeakable trauma, desperate for food and shelter. His latest, Shelter in Place, is perhaps his most ambitious: a riveting, darkly beautiful novel set in a small town on the coast of Washington.

Due out September 13 from Europa Editions, publisher of Elena Ferrante’s wildly popular Neapolitan novels, Shelter in Place is poised to be one of the big books of the season—the kind of sweeping story that encompasses so much of what it is to be human.

Joe March’s story begins at twenty-one, his life stretched out before him, seemingly full of possibility. As he grapples with early signs of bipolar disorder, his mother commits a random, brutal act of violence, fracturing his family as he knows it. Soon after, Joe finds love with a girl named Tess—a consuming love, at once thrilling and terrifying, that leads him to entirely unexpected places.

Maksik’s voice is distinctive and vivid, giving us a portrait of a life that is honest, visceral, truly extraordinary. Here, he reflects on his connection to the places, sounds, and memories that inspired his new novel.

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When I was seventeen, I hiked the Olympic Peninsula, and slept on those beaches, in those woods. I tore mussels from the rocks and roasted them on wood planks. I saw a doe give birth to a fawn while a nervous buck stood by. I saw two beached whales and came across a cove littered with Nikes, the remnants of a shipwreck. All that over the course of a few days. After a lifetime of traveling, it remains one of the most extraordinary trips of my life.

And then I went to college in Walla Walla, Washington, where, alongside wineries and wheat fields there sits a maximum security prison. All through those years, I was haunted by that place. The way on a foggy night, the prison lights would make the whole sky glow yellow. We used to drive up into the hills and park in an onion field and smoke pot and watch the sunset. But even then I couldn’t ignore the prison where they executed prisoners.

And I spent a lot of time in Portland and Seattle in those days, seeing shows and wandering around trying to look tough. Nirvana released Nevermind in the first month of my first year of college. All that music, that whole scene is inextricable from those years. Everyone had a band. Or at least a guitar and a few chords. We talked about music obsessively. I spent all my money at a great record store in Walla Walla called, I swear this is true, Hot Poop, which, by some miracle, is still there.

I have vivid memories of being up in those onion fields listening to Kurt Cobain moan on while the sky turned pink over the prison, believing that I’d reached the apotheosis of deep feeling. I felt similarly driving along the Columbia River listening to Soundgarden on the way to break up with my girlfriend in Eugene. It’s all a little embarrassing now, but there was such pleasure in it then. So the Pacific Northwest, and Washington in particular, became a place that exists in my memory as so many different things at once—dangerous and beautiful and wild and strange—and I’ve wanted to write about it all for more than twenty years now.

There’s no question that these conflicting associations played a large part in the forming of this novel, not only in place, but also in tone and story. I’ve always liked the idea that place is as much of a character as any of a book’s people. I hope that’s true of Shelter in Place