Brian Doyle is the author of The Grail: A Year Ambling and Shambling through an Oregon Vineyard in Pursuit of the Best Pinot Noir Wine in the Whole Wild World (Oregon State University Press), The Wet Engine (Paraclete Press) and five collections of essays. Doyle’s work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, American Scholar, Orion and in the Best American Essays anthologies of 1998, 1999, 2003 and 2005. He is editor of Portland magazine, the publication of the University of Portland, in Oregon.
Your most recent book, The Grail: A Year Ambling and Shambling through an Oregon Vineyard in Pursuit of the Best Pinot Noir Wine in the Whole Wild World -- a finalist for the Oregon Book Award-- has, perhaps, the longest subtitle in the history of literary non-fiction, and opens with a 400 word sentence. What was your thinking in starting with such depth and detail in the title and first sentence?
Well, (a) I have a running battle with the wonderful writer David James Duncan over who can get the longest subtitle on the cover of a book (he's winning at the moment with the subtitle of his MY STORY AS TOLD BY WATER (Confessions, Druidic rants, reflections, bird-watchings, fish-stalkings, visions, songs and prayers refracting light, from living rivers, in the age of the industrial dark),and (b) I really really really wanted my book about wine to be fun, headlong, sprinting, entertaining, anecdotal, personable, friendly, sinuous, quicksilver, amusing, conversational, because the vast majority of the other wine stuff I read was so lugubrious and serious and stentorian and serious and sniffy that I was dead set on NOT being that way, and the people who make wine are not that way, they're storytellers, dusty and funny and harried and energetic, so it seemed to be the book should be that way. I really wanted to take readers along for a ride, and why not start from the very beginning, you know? So off we go! here's a story! I'll tell you a story! is the whole dynamic of the book, from the cover on, eh?
How do you balance your life as editor of Portland Magazine (which has consistently been voted the best magazine in its class) with all the other writing you do (magazine pieces, essays, books, young adult non-fiction, poetry – the list goes on!) and then balance that with being a good husband and father?
in that order. On my gravestone I'd be proud if it read A GOOD DAD. Everything else is second.
How do I balance my hats? Answer: I don't, very well. I am always egregiously behind in something. But I keep thinking I am the luckiest guy who ever lived -- I have had the most interesting marriage in history, I was granted three magic holy squirming children, I love my work, and I apparently cannot help being absorbed by hearing and recording and shaping stories. I appear to be addicted to small true stories. I remember, grinning, what a late novelist friend of mine said: writing is a benign neurosis.
What I find most delightful in many of your essays is the combination of self-deprecating humor and the depth of faith that you reveal. Do you think being Irish Catholic adds an element to your writing, and if so, how do you harness it?
I have often thought that being an American of Irish extraction is perhaps the best recipe for being story-addled and tall-tale-addicted and interested in lovely lies and jokes and anecdotes, because if ever there were two more oral aural storymad cultures I don't know of em. And Catholicism is that way too, the whole faith turns on stories, heck the whole new testament is a travelogue and profile of a real mysterious guy by four very different writers, fussy Matthew the reporter, John the mad poet, Mark and Luke sort of sweeping editorial dudes. Catholicism trades in archetypal tales of enormous human emotional power, the mother and child, the death after life, the band of brothers, the rebellion of ideas against the empire, the swirl of stories keeping the mad idea alive two millennia later, and I might argue that the sheer crazy persistence of the story is the most amazing thing of all about Christianity and indeed all religions. You ever have a bad day as a writer and think maybe stories are all piddling pissing in the wind, you remember that Christ died a long time ago and it's a good thing his friends were great storytellers.
s for me and faith and humor, well, I believe in miracles all the time, they are all around, beginning with: we are alive. I don't question miracles, and Catholicism is a vocabulary for me to grapple with the sea of miracles in which I swim. A kid asked me once if I ever saw a miracle and rather than get all metaphysical I pointed out that I saw children climbing OUT OF MY WIFE. And as regards grinning it seems to me that a sense of humor is the best tool in the world for love and story, and laughter is a particularly powerful form of prayer. For example one of my ambitions is to undermine that coward murderer bin Laden by making people laugh at him, which I'd bet is the one thing he can't stand; arrogance hates laughter. So I just wrote a piece about bin Laden's bald spot, and his weird addiction to video. I mean, the guy must spend all his time looking for the right combat jacket to wear, you know? As if he ever would actually stand up and fight for what he says be believes. I think he believes in bin Laden being important.