David James Duncan father of three, fly fisher, novelist, essayist, speaker, activist, teacher, contemplative, and practitioner of what he calls “direct, small-scale compassion/activism,” was born in Portland, Oregon in 1952 and raised in a working-class east Portland neighborhood in a family in which three generations of ardent Seventh Day Adventists (on his mother's side) preceded him. He attended Adventists services and Sabbath School until age 15 when, finally deemed of age to choose, he bowed out having long before discovered there was more of wonder, grace and God Presence in the burble of a trout stream, a stand of Redwood, a leaping Chinook Salmon, or the wide open sky than in any pulpit or cathedral.
His father introduced him to fly fishing while he was still in elementary and over the years his love for it has deepened into a devotion so deep and a practice so devout it seems identical with religion. Later he would imbue his two novels, The River Why and Brothers K, with the images, metaphors and analogies drawn from fly fishing and intimate connection to waterways.
While in Junior High the loss of his brother (just 17) had a profound affect on Duncan, providing an early and sharp lesson in grief and loss. Awareness of this may have prompted his high school teacher to hand him Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks and from that novel he learned the power of story to enlighten and transform, which sparked in him an undying love of the novel. Says Duncan: "This love had nothing to do with desire for fame, money, or even publication. I was simply smitten by the power of the novel to create an atmosphere in which a reader's inner wisdom would sometimes reveal itself, and I yearned to create such atmospheres on paper myself." (David James Duncan from "An Afterward, Twenty Years Later" p296-297)
For the duration of his high school career he read novels voraciously, "an older friend who went off to Stanford University. He started sending me reading lists and books, and my friendship and correspondence with this guy grew so much more interesting than anything in high school that I basically quit studying anything except great novels."(Smokebox Interview)
In the twelve years after graduating from Reynolds High School, he worked as "delivery driver, tenant farmer, factory grunt, lawn mower, Little League baseball umpire, janitor, tree planter, tree pruner, wilderness retreat caretaker, bartender, truck driver, toy-maker, warehouse manager, house painter"(297) and during those same years he also graduated from Portland State University, explored the paths of the inner or contemplative life, visiting Trappist and Buddhist monks, traveling to India, attempting vision quests, read avidly in the wisdom literature of many spiritual traditions, all the while continuing to read and write fiction.
In 1976 he abandoned a 200 page WIP to begin writing The River Why which he started submitting in1980 and which was rejected by over 20 major publishing houses over the next two years (including all the same ones that had rejected Norman Mcclean's A River Runs Through It several year's earlier) before it was picked up by Sierra Club Books in 1982.
Duncan continued to alternate between the Portland area and the Oregon coast for about a decade after the release of The River Why before moving with his wife sculptor/ceramic artist Adrian, and their two daughters, Celia and Ellie, to live on a trout stream at the headwaters of the Columbia/Snake river systems in Lolo, Montana
Duncan has been a sought after teacher and speaker for schools and events. He was the William Kittredge Visiting Writer at the University of Montana for the fall semester of 2002. He gave the Keynote speech for the Extinction Stops Here rally,September 19, 2006. In 2008 he spoke and read from The River Why at Hope College IDS Student/Faculty Retreat. And is scheduled to be Keynote speaker for the Cardinal Virtues Conference at Viterbo University WI, April 15, 2010.
Two of his most passionate concerns have been for the protection of Norman Maclean's river, the Big Blackfoot, in Montana from the river-killing leaching method of gold mining and pressing for removal of the four lower Snake dams which are driving NW Salmon to extinction. For the latter he has teamed up with American Rivers and will be speaking at their NW regional office’s 8th annual dinner and auction in Seattle on March 4 2010.
His essays and stories have appeared in Big Sky Journal, Gray's Sporting Journal, Harper's, Northern Lights, Outside, Orion, The Sun, Sierra, and a myriad of anthologies, forwards for other writers, and other publications.
Duncan told Smokehouse the interviewer in 2004 that he was working on several long fiction projects, a novella collection featuring female protagonists set in the West, a novel with working title Eastern/Western and a second novel, a comedy about reincarnation and human folly he used to call Nijinsky Hosts Saturday Night Live but has since relegated that title to a section of the whole now with working title:
Non-Rhyming, Non-Catholic Western-American-Dialect
It's under construction as of late February 2010 so has only one page which keeps you abreast of recent or near future appearances, links to info on his books and other publications and media he has any involvement in.
Online resources for information about David James Duncan:
An Inventory of his papers: David James Duncan Papers, 1959-2002 and undated, Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas
The River Dry -David James Duncan rows through a wheat field to save salmon—and we’ve got pictures - by Sarah K. Burkhalter
The River Why - a novel (1983; 2002 20th Anniversary edition: ISBN 1578050847)
The Brothers K - a novel (1996 ISBN 055337849X)
River Teeth - personal essays, stories and writings (1996, ISBN 0553378279)
My Story as Told by Water: Confessions, Druidic Rants, Reflections, Bird-Watchings, Fish-Stalkings, Visions, Songs and Prayers Refracting Light, from Living Rivers, in the age of the Industrial Dark. -- personal essays (2001, ISBN 1578050839)
Citizen's Dissent (co-authored with Wendell Berry) (2003, ISBN 0913098620 )
God Laughs and Plays: Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of the Fundamentalist Right (2006, ISBN 0977717003)
Frank Boyden: The Empathies (2007, ISBN 1930957572) (Duncan provided companion prose for some of Boyden's 96 drypoint images)
(David James Duncan has been published in many periodicals and anthologies and many of the pieces were then re-published in one of the collections bearing his name and visa versa. This is a partial list of titles for his short pieces with links when available to read online)
What Fundamentalists Need for Their Salvation: In defense of truth, stewardship, and neighborly love - adapted from God Laughs and Plays. This adaptation was awarded a 2006 Pushcart Prize
"Bird Watching as a Blood Sport" in Harper's Magazine in 1998
The foreword to Thoreau on Water: Reflecting Heaven (2001, ISBN 0395953863)
An essay, "A Mickey Mantle koan: The obstinate grip of an autographed baseball" in Harper's Magazine in 1992.
A number of op-ed pieces supporting the preservation of Montana's Blackfoot River
A Native Son of Oregon Writes of Heartbreak, Determination - High Country News -- Interview by Adam Burke regarding My Story as Told by Water. (May 26, 2003) -- This is a text recap by Adam Burke with a few excerpts from the radio broadcast in which Duncan discusses his life, art, passions, and activism. The link to the audio archive in this article was dead. But the quotes from Duncan are worth a glance.
Troutgrass -- a film/documentary about the making of a bamboo fishing pole, following the bamboo from its home in Southern China through its transition into a fly rod in use on a Montana river. Written and narrated by David James Duncan
This year, 2010, Repertory Theatre Book-Its world premiere adaptation of "The River Why" plays on the Center House Theatre stage February 9 through March 7. For more information on the show, or to buy tickets, check out
Watch a Short Preview/Trailer of The River Why Book-It Repertory Theatre's Adaptation
Keynote speech for the Extinction Stops Here rally (September 19, 2006)
Duncan is scheduled to be Keynote speaker for the Cardinal Virtues Conference at Viterbo University WI THURSDAY, APRIL 15, 2010 7:00pm Fine Arts Center Main Theatre
Activism, Fly Fishing, and Fiction—A Conversation with David James Duncan conducted by David Thomas Sumner:
By Hook and By Book: David James Duncan, author and fly fisher, answers questions
The World's Longest Conversation - Smokebox Interview conducted by mail from June 2002 to September 2004
Pacific Northwest Quarterly: Meeting the Author of The Brothers K -- Interview by Daniel Lamberton
Interview: David James Duncan Author of "The River Why" on water, salmon and the policies that are killing them
A Q&A with David James Duncan, author of 'The River Why' on the occasion of the book-it repertory production in Seattle Feb/Mar 2010
Awards and Honors
Honorary Doctorate for Public Service from the University of Portland
American Library Association Best Books Award for The Brothers K
1992 New York Times Notable Book for The Brothers K
Two Pacific Northwest Booksellers Awards -- one for The Brothers K, the other for The River Why
1999 Best of the West: The River Why is given 35th spot on the San Francisco’s list of Top 100 Books of the 20th century
2001 Western States Book Award for Nonfiction for My Story as Told by Water
2001 National Book Award nomination for My Story as Told by Water
2003 American Library Association’s Eli Oboler Award (with co-author Wendell Berry) for the Preservation of Intellectual Freedom for Citizen's Dissent
2006 Pushcart Prize
Inclusion in four volumes of Best American Spiritual Writing
The River Why was chosen as one of100 books from the years 1800 to 2000 that exemplify the best of Oregon’s rich literary heritage by the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission