Yellow Stonefly (Swallow Press, 2018) is a Radford University Professor Emeritus Tim Poland’s second novel. Revisiting characters from his 2009 The Safety of Deeper Water (Vandalia Press), Poland takes readers to the the banks and tributaries of the fictional Ripshin River, where Sandy Holston’s life is postcard peaceful, but only when she stands in waders midstream, rod in hand. Around her, action swirls.
Catching up with Tim Poland prior to his appearance at the Virginia Festival of the Book, we talk a little of the role of place in his fiction, the power of fiction in understanding place, and fly fishing as storytelling.
BOOK CITY ★ ROANOKE: The description calls Yellow Stonefly “a rare fly fishing novel with a female protagonist”. That said, fly fishing is only one piece of this story. What was your primary inspiration?
Tim Poland: Fly fishing and fiction are often coexistent for me, in terms of my work—often hard to separate one from the other artistically. Fly fishing, like fiction, is a narrative act. When the angler stands in the river and casts to a rising trout, that simulated fly and its delivery by the angler is an act of storytelling—the angler constructs and presents a story to the fish, and though it is a fabrication, if the story is well told and believable, the fish will rise.
And that story can flow in both directions. In a way, this is what’s occurring when Sandy is fishing. Yes, she seeks the fish, and she’s remarkably good at that—she skillfully tells the contrived story to the fish and it comes to her fly. But she also seeks another story from the fish and the river—if she fishes well, she’s granted access to dialogue with a wild creature and a wild place, in their own language. And that dialogue will, hopefully, lead her to a deeper, more lasting understanding of her connection and responsibility to that creature and place, and to the human creatures in her life, and how they all combine to define her.
I suppose it’s that intersection—that dialogue between person, creature and place—and the way in which fly fishing creates a mechanism for that intersection that drives much of my work.
BCR: That act of storytelling comes through eloquently, and with subtlety, in several passages, in both Sandy’s fishing and in Keefe’s tying of the flies. What was your own introduction to fly fishing?
TP: Quite some time ago, my wife and I were traveling out west. We were walking along the Yellowstone River in Wyoming, and there was a lone fly fisherman casting out in the river—a real picture postcard scene. I recall remarking to my wife how beautiful what he was doing looked. She remembered and a couple years later she got me a fly rod for a gift. After a lot of bumbling and mistakes, I managed to teach myself how to use it. And, as they say, the rest is history.
BCR: What a lasting gift. A lot of visitors to that area have seen a similar sight, but far fewer have acted on that inspiration. And our own area has some really good access for sportspeople. Speaking of which, there are a good number of places that will seem familiar to those in the New River Valley and the surrounding region. What advantages did fictionalizing the place provide you?
TP: The setting of Yellow Stonefly is, of course, fictional. But you’re also quite correct—the Ripshin River Valley of the novel is clearly a place that’s been teased out of the mountains, small towns, and trout streams of our region. This has been, for me, one of the most satisfying aspects of writing fiction—to reimagine a place, to construct it out of a very real place. And this is one place I would hope my fiction would take a reader—rather than removing the reader to some distant imaginary place, bring the reader into closer contact with the world we actually inhabit. I’m reminded of the line from Marianne Moore: “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” I aspire to that. The setting is imagined, but it’s full of “real toads.”
At the risk of sounding a bit folksy, it’s much like quilting—pull bits and pieces from many different sources/places, then rearrange them and stitch them together into a new configuration to make something that didn’t exist before.
BCR: Both of those analogies are really fitting. I bet here will be some familiar characters for readers as well. I felt like I’ve had real interactions with several of the characters in the novel, and each plays a specific role in advancing the plot and in creating a believable world. Did any of them surprise you as they came to life?
TP: I’m certainly glad to hear that you found the characters integral and believable. That’s one of any author’s main goals. But I don’t think I’d say I was “surprised” by any of them. These characters have been with me a long time. Most of them appeared previously in my last novel, The Safety of Deeper Water,and Yellow Stonefly continues their lives. However, now that I think about it, Edith Moser may have been a bit of a “surprise,” not the character per se, but the depth of her individual story as it’s revealed to Sandy that day on the riverbank. I hadn’t imagined that part until I was writing it, so it was a bit of a happy surprise once it came together.
BCR: Interesting. That scene did linger for me as a reader. I was also left with Sandy’s Holston’s refrain, “We live up there.” It captures the security and stability she seeks at James Keefe’s riverside bungalow. What do you take, or think readers will take, from the way Sandy lives her life, of her relationship with Keefe?
TP: I’m gratified you identified Sandy’s refrain of we live up there as something defining because it is. I’d say it’s the core concept her narrative is driving toward. She seeks something both simple and complex: home. However, the trick for Sandy is learning what home is. At first she identifies Keefe’s bungalow as a sort of paradise, but her understanding of the place is largely physical—it’s a paradise because of the bungalow, the stream, the trout in the stream, etc. What the twists and turns of the novel take her to, I hope, is a more complex understanding of place, to an awareness that, as the novel notes, “[p]aradise was not enough.” The solitary security that Keefe’s streamside bungalow represents is a superficial security and simple isolation without an understanding of the lives that surround it, the dangers, difficulties, and sacrifices that go along with the beauty and stability. I’d hope readers would take that with them after reading the novel.
BCR: That understanding is a life’s work, and it’s a subject worthy of the novel. Doloris Vest, our local bookseller at Book No Further, recognized that and successfully nominated Yellow Stonefly as a Fall 2018 Okra Pick from the Southern Independent Booksellers Association (SIBA). Turning the subject a bit, what role do you see booksellers playing in helping shape a local sense of community and place?
TP: I think booksellers can play a decidedly important role in shaping a sense of community and place. I’m thinking, in particular, of the small, independent bookseller, like Doloris Vest at Book No Further. The bookstore is inherently social. A customer can actually use the product first—i.e., read some of it—before buying. The bookseller can not only guide the reader to what they seek, but also guide them to what they may not yet know they seek and connect what may be well known with less well known, local work. Further, events such as readings and book signings bring people together around ideas and issues. This, of course, applies to informed, capable and articulate booksellers like Doloris.
BCR: Well said. I’ve seen Doloris put Yellow Stonefly in customer’s hands. The book itself has a great design. It looks terrific on the shelf at her Book No Further’s brand new location on the market in Roanoke. We’re lucky to have her at work in the community.
Tim Poland will appear at the Virginia Festival of the Book on Thursday, March 21st at 4 PM at Charlottesville’s Central Library in a panel on Contemporary Appalachia in Fiction with Robert Gipe and Mesha Maren. Readers can purchase the book at Book No Further in the store and through the store online through IndieBound. ★