WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- Craig Lesley has savored his share of success as a novelist, but that doesn't mean his heart has ever strayed far from the joy he finds in teaching.
Lesley, a 1967 Whitman graduate, is back on campus this academic year as a sabbatical replacement in the English department, teaching classes that bounce from composition to creative writing to Native American Literature.
"I'm loving every minute," Lesley says. "The students here are wonderful. They remind me a great deal of my own college-age daughters. They work hard and take their studies seriously, but they also enjoy what they are doing. They are happy. It's invigorating to work with such great young people."
Lesley has juggled teaching and writing for more than three decades. After earning a master's degree in English at the University of Kansas in 1970, he settled in the Portland, Ore., area to teach English and creative writing at Clackamas Community College for the next 25 years. More recently, Lesley served a three-year appointment as the Hallie Ford Professor of English and Writer in Residence at Willamette University. He also was at Lewis & Clark College for one year as a Visiting Fiction Writer and Writer in Residence.
"Teaching is where I started, and it's something I love to do," Lesley says. "The day-to-day interaction with students, the give and take, is something I enjoy tremendously."
For all its rewards, writing lacks the communal nature of teaching, Lesley says. "Writing is something that came to me a little later in life, and it can be kind of lonely. You sit in a room, writing, trying to create a fictional world. There are times when you feel very isolated. It can be a struggle."
Those struggles notwithstanding, Lesley's writing career began to blossom after he received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which financed a year of studies (1976-77) at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. That led to his completion of a Master of Fine Arts degree (creative writing) at Amherst in 1980.
His first novel, "Winterkill," was published in 1984 by Houghton Mifflin. Set in central Oregon, it tells the story of Danny Kachiah, a contemporary Native American rodeo rider, and his struggles to regain both his teen-age son and a sense of his Nez Perce heritage. The book drew immediate praise, winning book-of-the-year honors from the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association and the Western Writers of America.
"River Song," a sequel to his first book, drew more praise and honors in 1989, and was followed in 1995 by "The Sky Fisherman," which focuses on the coming-of-age of a young boy in a small Northwest river town, set against the backdrop of a tenuous coexistence between whites and Indians. "Sky Fisherman" was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, captured Lesley's third award from Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, and was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award.
"Of my books, Sky Fisherman is probably my favorite," Lesley says. "If I'm giving someone a gift, Sky Fisherman is the book I give. One of the central characters in the book was based on my uncle, a legendary fishing guide on the Deschutes River. The character and the setting mean a lot to me."
Lesley's fourth novel, "Storm Riders," published in 2000, won the Oregon Book Award and attracted a second Pulitzer nomination, but it also exacted a more personal toll on the author. The story revolves around an Oregon professor's attempts to help a young Indian boy damaged by fetal alcohol syndrome and abandoned by his parents. It draws heavily on Lesley's real-life experiences with just such a child, the nephew of his first wife. It was 30 years ago when Lesley assumed guardianship of the boy, who was four at the time. The strain of caring for the child contributed to the breakup of his first marriage and later complicated life with wife Katheryn Stavrakis and their two daughters.
"'Storm Riders' was by far my toughest book to write because it was so personal," Lesley says. "The challenges and rewards of raising a damaged child were monumental, and they were just as difficult to write about."
The boy lived with Lesley for 14 years. "He has remained a part of my life. We get together three or four times a year and stay in touch by phone. He's living in southern Oregon now and involved in a long-term relationship with a woman. Life is difficult for him, but he seems to be doing well. He's a success story given all the difficulties he's has with fetal alcohol syndrome and mental retardation. He gets a state support check each month, but he's living independently and has a small business collecting scrap materials."
In addition to his four novels, Lesley has edited two anthologies of short stories, "Talking Leaves: Contemporary Native American Short Stories (1991)," and "Dreamers and Desperadoes: Contemporary Short Fiction of the American West (1993)." In 1997, he toured France with a group of authors to promote their works on the American West and Native American cultures. "There is very high level of interest in France about the West and American Indians," he says.
Over the years, Lesley has stayed in close contact with Whitman, faithfully attending his reunions and giving any number of writing workshops and literary readings, both for students and alumni. He accepted an honorary degree at commencement in the spring of 1991.
"I've always wanted to come back to Whitman to teach," Lesley says. "The timing in this case worked out perfectly. I was finishing my three-year appointment at Willamette when the sabbatical position opened here at Whitman."
While Lesley is no stranger to college campuses, he gives the highest possible marks to the students he's encountered thus far at Whitman. "The students here are very bright, open and independent," he says. "I remember when I was a freshman at Whitman, wearing white socks and a bad haircut. I didn't have a clue about a lot of things. Now, the first-year students are very astute, very intelligent, and very willing to participate in class."
Lesley, who served as Whitman's student body president as a senior, likens today's student activism on behalf of the environment to the battles his generation waged for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. "I'm also impressed with the extent to which today's students are involving themselves in the surrounding community," he says. "Some are working on local environmental issues, but many others are helping with reading programs in local schools, and with other projects."
There remains the possibility that Lesley's youngest daughter, Kira, will follow her father's footsteps to Whitman. A senior at St. Mary's Academy in Portland, Kira has narrowed her college search to Whitman, Brown and Amherst. "Kira has shown a strong interest in politics," he says. "She just finished helping with the Bradbury campaign in Oregon. She remains undaunted by any campaign losses. She looks forward to her next opportunity."
Lesley's oldest daughter, Elena, is a junior this year at Brown, where she was just appointed editor-in-chief of the Brown Daily Herald. "Elena is leaning toward being a journalist," he says. "She's a wonderful writer, I think. It could be that we're going to have a journalist and a politician in the family."
One aspect of Whitman that hasn't changed over the years is the enthusiasm of its faculty, Lesley says. "My professors at Whitman were wonderful teachers. That's what I remember most about my days as a student, and that part of Whitman hasn't changed at all. Today's faculty brings the same sense of joy to its teaching."