A couple weeks ago I was fortunate to have had an opportunity to publish an interview in the Independent with author Christine Byl in support of the reading she was doing in town that week. I met Christine briefly at the Montana Festival of the Book, and then we corresponded a bit during the time she was doing a book tour behind Dirt Work around the Pacific Northwest prior to her return to Missoula. I was happy with the interview, but as is typical, the total number of words we produced about doubled-up the amount of space the paper had room for. That means a fair amount ended up on the cutting room floor. Now that a couple weeks have passed, I figured some folks might be interested in reading the entire, unedited thing. It isn’t all that long, really, and I think Christine is an interesting person. So here it is. . . .
Doing the Dirty Work
When author Christine Byl took a seasonal job building trails in Glacier National Park in 1996, she assumed it would be something she would do a season or two before moving on to a more “real” job. Nearly twenty years later, she’s still building trails — from her home in Alaska — and has written a book, Dirt Work, published in April of 2013. The book is a story of the pleasures of hard work, Byl’s personal experiences with the wild, and what it is like to be a woman in a “man’s world.” Byl took time from her book tour of the Pacific Northwest to answer a few questions for the Indy.
Indy: You have ties to Missoula, correct?
Christine Byl: I moved to Missoula in 1995 after finishing college, ostensibly for a “break” before going to grad school. (All moving to Missoula stories start this way right?) I started on my first trails job in Glacier in 1996 and spent winters in town from ’96-’02. I love Missoula. If it weren’t for Alaska, I would definitely live here.
I: Through the book, we get a pretty good idea of how friggin’ hard the work was. When did you find time and energy to write? How much of this book was written while things were happening versus what had already happened? I mean, were you writing in the early years, or did you realize at some point however many years in that what you were doing and experiencing, particularly from a woman’s perspective, was a story worth telling?
CB: I was already writing when I moved to Missoula–actually, I moved here in part because I was drawn to a town with a reading and writing culture. I wrote in the winters, and actually published my first short story while I lived here.
As long as I’ve done trail work, I’ve written very little during the field season. I am constantly thinking and mulling over things while I work, but all my writing on the page happens in the off-season. The book was written intermittently over a span, about 2002-2009. All of the Glacier stuff was written way after the fact, and I think it started because of how much I missed Montana. I had never written about it when I lived there, but once in Alaska, I thought about it a lot. The book itself began with the stuff about tools, particularly the axe. I never meant to write a non-fiction book, let alone a memoir, but once I started on the tools, it drew me into the larger story of the subculture–which I think is fascinating, and not well enough known–and then my own story became the lens through which to explore that world.
I: The book is divided into sections based on the primary tools you used in the work. But there are also breaks between sections — short musings on nature, or one in particular about lynx — I’m curious how this kind of storytelling came about. Was it something premeditated, or did it just happen along the way?
CB: I wrote the way I think, which is in layers, sometimes driven by ideas, sometimes characters, sometimes images, always with language central. I try not to over-think things in the early stages, just trust my instincts to get things on the page. I also write poems, so occasionally material–the lynx, the sea gulls, some of the packers’ dialogue–would come as a poem. When I was done with a decent draft, I went back to it and wondered if it needed a more typical structure, but I realized that the way the book had unfolded, in pieces and layers, really mimics the way a sense of place accrues. It’s not a linear process. So I decided to let it be.
I: Have you encountered any issues with gender as it relates to the type of book Dirt Work is? I guess what I mean here is that if one looks at your negative reviews in various places where one can find them, a common theme is that readers felt like you didn’t reveal that much about Christine in the narrative. I don’t necessarily agree, but this isn’t some tell-all memoir either. I guess what I wonder is if there is some bias that seems to think any woman who writes an “outdoor” book needs to be some deeply emotional “finding herself” type story, particularly given the success Cheryl Strayed has had with Wild, which is a totally different book from yours. Do you think people come to your book expecting something like that because you are a woman?
CB: For sure some people have an expectation for a more emotionally disclosing story, especially since Strayed’s book came out just a year before mine. And yes, I think there is definitely a bias, or perhaps an expectation, regarding women writing non-fiction, that we will be more personally confessional, more focused on the self than the larger world, more interested in “our own story.” There is, of course, much good writing like this. But if this isn’t what you write, it can be frustrating to be pigeon-holed, or critiqued for writing another way. I don’t think men get this personal pressure. I have not seen Barry Lopez or Michael Pollan critiqued by people who wish they felt more connected to them, who want to know how they met their spouse, etc. It’s also frustrating when reviewers or readers pass over the larger ideas in books by women (in my case, about work and gender and wilderness and apprenticeship) in order to focus on the more personal details. I would much rather talk about the subculture than about my personal life, let’s put it that way!
I: In the early days of your career, working in and around GNP, you are one of a handful of women. When you move to Alaska, you are about the only one. Has that changed much in the near 20 years since you started? Are there more women doing this kind of work now than when you started?
CB: I don’t know how the Glacier crew looks these days, but I think that was an unusual experience, working with four or five female crew leaders. I think there’s been a gradual increase in women in labor and trades overall, but certainly not exponential, and although there are women on crews, a small percentage of them stick with it for much more than a few years. There’s still a lot of cultural bias, and subtle institutional barriers, that prevent women from committing to a manual career.
I: Toward the end of the book, you make a point that “being a woman in a ‘man’s world’ is an activism, a standing up to assumptions and limits and proclaiming with our bodies, our whole selves, I can be however suits me.” Has anyone challenged you on a statement like this, or how you have chosen to exercise that activism? One of the themes running through the book is the crude nature of the humor among the workers, for example, and the foul language, etc. Behavior that isn’t considered particularly “female” by the culture at large. Some might say you are “betraying the cause” or something by not attempting to change that kind of behavior. Have you been challenged along those lines?
CB: I strongly disagree with the notion that women exist in order to attempt to change anything about men, about male culture, whatever. We can certainly try if we want to, but women exist for the same reason men do–to be our fullest selves. I think I’d be betraying the cause of feminism far more by prescribing certain behavior as appropriate for women than I would by cussing. In general, those criticisms come from men who want women to be a certain way, not from women, who just want to be whoever they are already, whether it’s culturally appealing or not. And I’ve got news for those who think that women are generally not inclined to swearing or dirty jokes or voracious appetites. I’ve worked with bawdy women and prudish men, and everything in between. As with any quirk of personality that is often ascribed to gender, I have found there is actually far more variety within the genders than there is between them.