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Artist Profile Series: Peter Donahue

Erika Enomoto

Communications Manager

Peter Donahue of Methow Valley is a writer and English teacher at Wenatchee Valley College-Omak in Okanogan County. In 2015, he participated in Artist Trust’s EDGE Professional Development Program. “Before the program, I didn’t have a publisher, an agent, or any network to speak of - and now I have all three,” he shared. Earlier this month, Peter released Three Sides Water, which was the book project that he brought to the EDGE program. We recently caught up with him to hear more about his book and being an artist in Okanogan County.

Could you tell us more about Three Sides Water?
Three Sides Water is a triptych of short novels, each about a young person who finds a sense of purpose and agency in order to survive the threatening circumstances that beset them. All three short novels are set on the Olympic Peninsula and involve little known aspects of peninsula history: a famous magician/mentalist who built a compound on Rialto Beach in the 1920’s, Fort Worden when it was a center for “juvenile delinquency” in the early 1970’s, and the mill town of Shelton, one of the centers of the “Sawdust Empire” from the 1930’s to today. 

What inspired you to write this book?
Ten years ago, during a trip to the Olympic Peninsula, I stumbled upon these curious aspects of Olympic Peninsula history and started digging deeper into them, spending time in Forks, Port Townsend, and Shelton and just getting to know the peninsula better. I also read a lot of fiction about the peninsula, including the novels of Patricia Campbell, written in the 1950’s, which sadly today are mostly forgotten. What kept inspiring me most, though, was how the characters continued to reveal themselves (and surprise me) as their stories evolved.

How did you first hear about Artist Trust?
My wife, who’s a painter, tipped me off to Artist Trust. We’d just moved back to Washington, and I didn’t know what kind of arts opportunities were available. I wasn’t even looking. My writing was in a bit of a slump. She urged me to apply to the EDGE program for writers. I participated in the program in 2015 and learned a lot more about Artist Trust programs and grants.

How has your participation in Artist Trust’s professional development programs like EDGE helped develop your career as an artist?
The EDGE program was a milestone for me. It helped me recommit to Three Sides Water. It taught me how to present my work, develop literary and professional community, and pursue grants and other opportunities. It helped with everything from establishing an online presence to landing an agent and publisher. Most of all, it gave me confidence to put myself and my work forward in ways I never had.

What are the benefits and challenges of being a “rural artist?”
Rural life is so much richer than I ever imaged when I lived in cities. Of course, I miss how energizing the city is. There are many literary events in Spokane and Seattle I miss out on. On the other hand, I’m equal distance from both cities (about five hours to each) and like to alternate going to one or the other. Yet, I always appreciate coming back to The Methow.

What is the future for the arts community of Okanogan County?
Art happens everywhere - no matter what. Okanogan County is no different. It’s such a diverse place: border communities, the Colville Reservation, ranchers and orchardists, New Agers and Mennonites, immigrant families and migrant workers, retirees and recreationalists… And we have great arts organizations, like the Omak Performing Arts Center and Methow Arts Alliance, and many wonderful artists and writers. What’s more, Okanogans come out for the arts. So the future is bright.

Do you have any tips and advice for artists looking to take their practice to the next level?
Tips #1 through #10: Persevere. Keep creating and keep putting your work out there. I’ve always been reticent about my own work, afraid to extend myself to people and organizations, fearing my work wasn’t good enough or that I’d come across as too self-promoting. But what I’ve learned is it’s about sharing what I’m passionate about, writing and literature, with those who share that same passion. This recognition has changed how I look at my work, making me bolder and more willing to take chances.

Peter is currently writing a novel set in Okanogan County with the expectation that “it’s going to be as big and bizarre as the county itself.” He is also busy traveling around the state for a book tour promoting Three Sides Water, and his next appearance will be at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Books on Friday, May 18, 7:00 PM. View the book tour schedule on his website at peterdonahue.org. You can read a recent interview by City Arts that delves into themes that appear in Three Sides Water here.