Spokane novelist Ian Pisarcik talks about the themes of empathy and trust at the heart of his rural mystery Before Familiar Woods

Spokane novelist Ian Pisarcik talks about the themes of empathy and trust at the heart of his rural mystery Before Familiar Woods
Derek Harrison photo

Ian Pisarcik was raised in a part of northwest Connecticut that's known somewhat affectionately as "the Icebox," an area that's remote, wooded and, for most of winter, ridiculously cold. Although he moved to Spokane in 2015 to be closer to his wife's family, Pisarcik's upbringing in rural New England informs his debut novel Before Familiar Woods, hitting bookstore shelves March 10.

A tale of trauma, loss and empathy, the book is set in the small Vermont town of North Falls, a community plagued by a heroin epidemic. As several seemingly disconnected mysteries interweave, we meet a reclusive middle-aged woman whose teenage son was involved in a bizarre murder case that still haunts the town, and an Iraq War veteran whose own child is experiencing issues of abandonment.

Pisarcik, who also works as an attorney, spoke with the Inlander about his writing process, how to create a believable character who's nothing like yourself, and why Before Familiar Woods is such a timely story. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

INLANDER: What was the inspiration behind this story?

PISARCIK: All of my stories have started with an image that I can't shake. In the case of Before Familiar Woods, the image was an old woman sitting on a porch with a deer rifle in her lap staring out at an empty gravel drive. From there, I started asking questions. Who is this woman? Why is she holding a deer rifle? Who is she waiting for? After several drafts and many more wrong turns, the character's voice developed, and at that point the questions became deeper. That's always the goal — the point where you're not so much actively coming up with a story as listening to one unfold.

What are some of the overarching themes that drive the novel?

When we're faced with something we fear or don't understand, the only way through it — the only way to reach a more truthful and harmonious place — is to engage with it. More often than not, that engagement takes the form of communication. When we don't communicate, we grow cold. The other major theme of this book is toxic masculinity, and with that the broader idea that we as a society want to put people in boxes. The problem, of course, is that people don't fit in boxes, and when they don't fit we get scared and our instinct is to try harder to shove them into that box or to declare them somehow defective.

What are the challenges of creating believable characters who are unlike yourself?

Annie Proulx said the worst writing advice she ever received was "write what you know." I tend to agree with her. Writers constantly exercise the empathetic part of their brain. Readers do the same. It's one of the reasons I think books are so important and one of the reasons it scares me that we have a president who brags that he doesn't read. There's a tremendous amount of responsibility that comes with writing a character who is not you. I think the challenge and the solution is to proceed with caution and respect. I don't think it's a process that can be rushed and it's probably one of the reasons this book took me more than five years to write. The other thing you can do, of course, is research. One of the main characters in this book is an Iraq War veteran. I read hundreds of interviews with Iraq War veterans and spoke to many of them. The other main character in this book is a potter. I didn't know anything about throwing on a pottery wheel when I started this novel, but I read about the craft and I took an eight-week class at the Spokane Potters Guild so I could write those scenes more accurately.

How do you think this story will be particularly relevant to readers in 2020?

I think the overarching themes of communication and acceptance are particularly relevant today. There's always been — and continues to be — voices among us that are silenced. But, we're living in a time when a lot of previously silenced voices are starting to be heard. And so, as a society, we have a decision to make. We can seek to engage, understand and accept the people around us, or we can attack and silence them. It probably goes without saying that I hope we do the former. ♦

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About The Author

Nathan Weinbender

Nathan Weinbender is the former music and film editor of the Inlander. He is also a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, where he has co-hosted the weekly film review show Movies 101 since 2011.