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Speech and fire are key in local author's second novel

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John Whittier Treat — Photo courtesy of the author
John Whittier Treat — Photo courtesy of the author

John Whittier Treat's latest novel, First Consonants, has arrived at a good time.

A haze of wildfire smoke has hung over Seattle for what seems like forever, and if past years are any indication, the coming winter will likely be another record-breaker in snowfall. While First Consonants is primarily about stutterers, it's also about the environment.

"One of my teachers was an environmental writer, and she had a big influence on me," Treat recalled. "She said, 'You don't have to make every book you write about climate change, but the environment should be there somewhere.' So I took that to heart."

Treat is currently an emeritus professor at Yale, specializing in Japanese literature, but he "retired from full-time work nine years ago, and I've been doing creative writing since then — almost entirely short stories and novels."

Northwest settings
All of his works of fiction, he said, are about the Pacific Northwest. "I'm not a Seattle native, but I've been here 39 years," Treat said while introducing himself over Zoom.

His debut novel, The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House, was published in 2015. It follows two Gay men in 1983, during the AIDS epidemic, as they take refuge in the heart of Seattle.

Image courtesy of Jaded Ibis Press  

First Consonants is set in Seattle as well, at least in part. It starts in the suburbs of a fictional district based on Issaquah, where the main character, Brian, grows up in an environment where his stuttering is a constant source of alienation. He eventually ends up in Alaska, in the vast Tongass National Forest.

"I wanted to write about, one, how the world treats a stutterer," Treat said, "but also how a stutterer sees the world. So the book is made up of those two stories."

An early passage of the book shows Brian acting out, in response to a teacher chiding him for his condition. This "acting out," Treat said, is an important part of the narrative. As the story goes on, Brian "does some really terrible things as an adult," Treat said. "And it's all rooted in his frustrations about communicating fluently with the world."

But Brian is far from the only stutterer in the book. Treat shows a keen interest in the intersections between cultures and identities, like that of Eastern Washington preppers and Gay men, or stutterers and a number of other life experiences.

First Consonants also has a Gay stutterer, who struggles with internalized homophobia. "I was very interested in the relationship between homosexuality and this speech disorder," Treat said of the character. "You know, everybody knows about lisping. David Sedaris has a hilarious bit about going to a speech therapist when he was in school, you know, to cure his lisp. But anyway, a lot of Gay men — I don't know about Gay women — stutter."

Treat asked that not too many details of First Consonants' plot be revealed, but he did want to leave readers with this: "When you're writing about the environment, you have a choice. You can write about water, which is rising or disappearing, or you can write about fire.... First Consonants is about fire."

Image courtesy of Jaded Ibis Press  

A fresh point of view
As for his process, Treat isn't a mono-tasker. "I don't know if I have attention-deficit disorder, but I definitely have a short attention span," he said. "So I work on several things at once, because I can't do one thing all day long.

"But what happens is... they finish at the same time. You don't read anything by me for years, and then suddenly six things come out."

It's fitting, then, that Treat already has another book well on its way, called The Sixth City of Refuge. "It's about two guys from LA, who for various reasons need to check out of the fast lane," he said, "and they move to this town in Eastern Washington. Their troubles follow them, but they get involved with the local survivalists' underground."

Aside from Treat being a stutterer himself, there were two books in particular that inspired him to write First Consonants: Sorry by Australian author Gail Jones, which features a woman who stutters, and Mouthquake by Canadian author Daniel Alan Cox.

Beyond those two examples, Treat said, "stutterers don't generally get a good deal in literature. Stutterers are generally evil, or they're spies, they're terrorists — it's always a marker of something deeper in a person. It can be a moral fault, or it can be political."

"Originally, I wanted to write a story about a stutterer who saves the world," he added. "And a little of that lingers in the book, but finally, to be realistic, I couldn't have him literally save the world. But I wanted to tell the story of a stutterer from a point of view that has very seldom, if ever, been explored."

You can learn more about John Whittier Treat, and where to find his works, at https://www.johnwhittiertreat.com/.