NEW YORK (Reuters) - The sweet smell of mint opens “The Oregon Experiment” but it is the acrid fumes of gasoline which pervade and ignite Keith Scribner’s new book.
The novel brings together a young and angry anarchist named Clay with Scanlon Pratt, a professor of radical politics, and his wife Naomi, a professional “nose” who has lost her sense of smell.
Clay targets nearby banks with homemade bombs, a local secessionist pushes for separation from the United States and the husband and wife provoke their own personal problems. But even as the characters awaken chaos, they crave security and peace.
Scribner talked to Reuters about the origins of his novel, his research into the sense of smell and why the lack of good shoes is keeping anarchists from bringing down the U.S. government.
Q: What inspired the book?
A: “My wife and I had just had our first child when the World Trade Organization had their meetings in Seattle, which led to the (1999) riots and demonstrations there.
“(Our son) was just three months old and I had an idea for a character who had sympathy for the goals of the demonstrators but also wanted a safe and secure society for the baby to grow up in. That basic conflict began the novel.”
Q: How did you research anarchists?
A: “Someone gave me the number of an anarchist. I called the guy and we set up a time to meet ... So I showed up at 2 p.m. and waited ... and waited ... and he never came.
“The next day ... I was able to reschedule with him and we met a few times and he introduced me to some other guys. It was really great for me to understand what makes these guys tick — absolutely essential, really.”
Q: The professor’s wife has lost her sense of smell, and with it, her job as a professional “nose” in New York. What research did you do for her character?
A: “One of the really fun bits of research I did was with Yosh Han, who is a perfumer in San Francisco. I went to her studio and I told her about Naomi wanting to make a Northwest family of fragrances. She just pulled out 300 to 500 essences, all natural. We made some imitation of the frog juice (which is created in the book). We gave it a really rank smelling base note, and together we created this fragrance.”
Q: How does your book, set in a small Oregon town, speak to larger world issues?
A: “Whenever we read fiction about any little couple living in any little place, we’re not just reading about those people. If they’re good characters, they speak to all of us.
“On a more political level, more and more we are seeing characters like Clay who are shut out of the American dream. They are angry about it and frustrated about it.
“Clay, for me, is this character who embodies that anger — like we saw in the London riots. There are these structural inequities that they feel they’ll never be able to get out from under. They act from passion and they react.”
Q: What keeps anarchist movements from being more successful?
A: “The guys I met profess to not be brick throwers and destroyers of property. But they believe in local self-help movements. They want to make as much stuff as they can on their own and they want to keep money local in the economy.
“They have community gardens. They grow their own food. They have weavers, they make clothes. Oh, and they make beer of course. They’ve got that down.
“But they can’t figure out how to make shoes. Shoes, of course, are incredibly difficult to make. And there is this great attitude among them, like, ‘if we could only learn how to make shoes, we would no longer be roped into the system. But the fact we have to go out and buy shoes means we’re under the thumb of ‘The Man.’
“Anyone can sew together a little piece of cloth, but to make a descent shoe, in which you’d want to go out and demonstrate, it’s tough.”
Reporting by Chelsea Emery; editing by Patricia Reaney