There's a progression in Tim Egan's books, from Spokane to the Pacific Northwest to the West in general - and now, with his novel The Winemaker's Daughter, on to the broader themes of the literary West. Breaking Blue recounted Tony Bamonte's solving of a 54-year-old Pend Oreille County murder case which had been covered up by the Spokane Police Department. In The Good Rain, Egan retraced the steps of a Pacific Northwest explorer, ranging from the Cascades to the ocean, from urban splendor to reservation squalor. Lasso the Wind broadened the focus to all 11 Western states, with essays on grazing rights and the irrigation of desert cities like Las Vegas.
But Egan -- who went to Gonzaga Prep, lives now in Seattle, and whose brother is Inlander freelance writer Dan Egan -- wanted to pursue the kind of truth that isn't constrained by empirical facts. Nonfiction may offer factual truth, but a novel can get at the deeper kind of truth that commingles reason and emotion.
"This is the great thing about being a journalist and then trying to write a novel," he says. "You're sort of bound in nonfiction: You have to follow the dots. You have a story, and you have to stay with the story and the facts and the dates and the characters. Here you're unbound. I love writing about these themes, and I wanted to internalize some of this stuff - well, for one thing, I wanted to inhabit the mind of a woman for a while and see what that was like. I mean, I hate to say this, but women are basically more fascinating than men."
He laughs. "The pie chart of my brain is sports 60%, food 20%, fart 3% -- you know how that is -- and all the rest of the stuff is in a teeny sliver. My women friends always talk about [the issues raised in the novel] much more openly. I'm always struck by that."
Egan's central character, Brunella Cartolano, is busy enough with issues of city planning and waterfront reclamation over in Seattle to have overlooked the struggles of her octogenarian father, a winemaker in the Columbia Gorge whose world-class winery is suffering from a drought. Brunella is drawn back to Eastern Washington by encounters with a childhood friend, an unexpected connection with her work in Seattle, some Indian activists and a stoic Forest Service official. She's compelled by personal loss and her own passionate curiosity to examine her heritage, her goals, and even her sense of where she most belongs.
Likely fans of the novel will include wine lovers, firefighters, land speculators, Indians both on and off the rez, mountain climbers, deep-sea fishermen, mystery novel enthusiasts, foresters and irrigators, Washington residents on both sides of the Cascades and even Seattle Mariners fans.
Egan enjoyed his novel's five-year discovery process: "It was a research-heavy novel, and every area was fun -- obviously, researching the winemaking was great fun," he says. "The second time I was in Italy -- we lived there in '97 and then again in '01 to do specific research in the Piemonte" for the Italian interlude late in the novel - "we lived in Italy above this winemaker, in the Chianti region, a guy named Sergio," Egan recalls. "He was an old paisano who made Chianti, so I could just go downstairs and watch him, talk to him, and the winery was a couple hundred years old."
Egan also enjoyed "coming back here and finding out about Washington's pioneer winemaking. The Italians really were interned at the start of World War II, at Missoula," he explains. "That whole scene, that happened, though most people don't know about it. And early Italian winemaking in this state started in Walla Walla at the turn of the century. They were these southern Italians, these paisanos, who made some pretty good vino. But then Prohibition came along."
The page-turner section of the novel is an account of firefighters parachuting into the midst of huge wildfire in central Washington. "That just comes out of doing stories on smoke jumpers," says Egan, ever the reporter. "I've been on a million forest fires, and I really admire those guys. I think they're heroes."
Egan has tried in all his books to define what's unique about the American West. "If you're from the East Coast, you may write about 9/11 fire fighters, or you write about spies or something," he says. "In the West, you can write about our heroes. To me, those smoke jumpers are amazing individuals. They don't make any money -- they just put their lives out there. I wanted to write a book that staked a claim for our mythic heroes."
That's where the freedom within fiction to manipulate and massage the stark facts becomes especially useful. In The Winemaker's Daughter, says Egan, "I wanted to take some characters and make them somewhat larger than life -- these Indian characters, and the irrigators, and the early wine culture, and all these touchstones of Northwest life."
Brunella Cartolano, in attempting to reconcile the needs of competing urban and rural factions, stands out as one of those heroes. Passionate about lost causes, she's still humble enough to realize that she occupies a small spot on a much larger canvas, as the following excerpt shows.
"She knows she will never be linear and tidy," Egan writes. "She could no more stay in the lines than a mountain lion from the Cascade wilderness could learn to love a parking lot. All she really wants is to belong, to see herself in the story, her link in the chain of Cartolanos dating back to an Etruscan feast; to a Roman bath; through years of defying the plague that swept the peninsula like the winter fog of the Po Valley; through the fresh air of the Renaissance to the magnificent chaos of the risorgimento; to the hungry years, the ugly time of fascism; to the wanderings of the last century, the leap across the Atlantic, across the continent to the American far corner, digging a toehold in a new land; then only to play her part, to dig in a little deeper on her own and keep the baton of life moving; to have a baby and say, You are me, and we both belong here. Is it so hard to fit?"
Brunella's father Angelo discovered where he fit. Paying attention to the microclimate of his coulee, he created one memorable wine after another, making a home for himself and his daughter far from the Italian Piemonte. In similar fashion, as the vintner-in-prose of The Winemaker's Daughter, Tim Egan has created his own kind of memorable vintage.