Peyton Marshall still remembers the first time she felt like she had managed to communicate in writing.
She was in sixth grade, with a teacher who required students to keep journals. One day, Marshall wrote about a place in the playground she went to when she felt anxious or lonely – and the teacher chose this journal entry to read aloud.
This experience was, Marshall recalls, “super mortifying.” But it also stood out as a successful moment, a moment when his voice was heard.
Marshall took advantage of this moment, leaving his home in McLean, Va., to study creative writing at Reed College, where his teachers included Oregon poet Maxine Scates, and at the University of Iowa in his prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In 2014, she published her first novel, the dystopian thriller “Goodhouse”. And this year, the Portland author is the only Oregonian among 35 writers to receive creative writing grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.
The NEA, an independent federal agency, awards $25,000 grants annually with the goal of nurturing writers’ careers and continuing to “expand the portfolio of American art.” Competition for scholarships is fierce – the NEA claims to receive more than 1,600 applications each year.
This year’s grants are for writers working in fiction and creative non-fiction. While Marshall has written non-fiction, she leans towards fiction.
“I love being able to follow my interests with fiction,” Marshall said. “Writing non-fiction you get caught up in what really happened and moral dilemmas like ‘Should I write about this, what would this person think, is this really a good idea?”
“But with fiction, everything is open, which is a bit intimidating. It is only limited by your imagination and your ability to put it together.
It was his imagination that sparked “Goodhouse”, in an America where the sons of convicted felons are stripped of their last names and families and sent to state-run “Goodhouses” to be made into model citizens. . Marshall tells the story through the eyes of a boy named James who recently arrived at a new Goodhouse after religious radicals burned down his old one to “purify” the children.
“I dreamed I was James, then I woke up and wrote down some notes from the dream,” Marshall said. “And then it kept coming back to my head.” Before she knew it, she had written 60 pages.
On a trip to California after the dream, she came across a Ghostbusters TV show at Preston Castle, about 40 miles southeast of Sacramento. The castle was once home to a well-known reform school, the Preston School of Industry (its wards included Beat poet Neal Cassady, Black Panther activist Eldridge Cleaver and singer-songwriter Merle Haggard). Marshall booked an overnight visit.
“It was really strange,” she recalls. “They have since closed the juvenile prison (Preston Youth Correctional Facility) that they built next door. But while we were there there was a breakout and you could hear the sirens and they were saying, ‘We released the dogs.’ »
“The gravity of what this place was and what the Preston School of Industry was really struck me.” That’s when she knew she had to finish “Goodhouse.”
The novel she is currently working on is totally different: it is inspired by her family’s stay in Morocco some seven years ago, when her husband, Pauls Toutonghi, a Portland novelist and associate professor of English at the Lewis & Clark College, ran a study abroad program there. .
“We were going to visit different seaside towns and you could see the old ports and the old buildings and the old markets, and I got really interested in the history of those different towns and the history of the Mediterranean in the late 16th , early 17th century,” Marshall said.
“You have Spain first expelling the Jews, then the Moriscos”, descendants of Spanish Muslims forced to convert to Christianity. “You have the Ottoman Empire expanding and creating regency states in North Africa, the growing conflicts between Christians and Muslims, and just a lot of money coming in, which is creating a lot of conflict. And I have just started drawing characters, different people in different situations.
Marshall plans to use his scholarship to complete this novel.
“It was a really nice surprise to get that call,” she said. “As a writer, you have these long stretches of time where you’re just in your head, it’s just you and your notebook and it’s not a public thing at all, and you’re like, do you still interesting work, are you still a writer, should you keep doing this?
“For the government to call and say… ‘can you please work on this’, it’s pretty mind blowing.”
For Marshall, the scholarship is a vote of confidence not only in her, but in artists and art in general.
“Art makes life worth living,” she said. “I really believe it enriches our world, and there just isn’t a lot of support for artists. There should be more support for artists. Even with what we have, I think it still sends the message that art matters, artists matter, their time is valuable, and their contribution is real.