About Parts Per Million
Earnest and sensitive John Nelson was compelled to make a real difference in the world, so he abandoned his safe desk job with the Forest Service to join a band of radical environmental and media activists in "Little Beirut" – aka Portland, Oregon. But when he left behind everything he knew to follow his heart, Nelson didn't realize trying to save the world would be so hard.
Against the backdrop of the Bush administration's buildup to the Iraq war, Nelson and his fellow activists Fetzer and Jen investigate war-technologies fraud and corruption at an elite Portland university. As they close in on the truth, they face escalating danger. Meanwhile, Nelson falls in love with Deirdre, a traveling Irish photographer, but she turns out to be an addict who betrays him.
As the streets of Portland erupt with anti-war protestors, the fraud investigation and the wounded relationship spiral towards a tragic climax that forces Nelson to confront everything he believes in and has sacrificed his “normal” life for. He must transcend his losses and bridge the radical / mainstream divide in order to galvanize his community and transform local politics as we know it.
PARTS PER MILLION is visual and filmic, told over 80 short chapters that alternate between the distinct points of view of Nelson, Fetzer and Jen. It weaves a rich tapestry that explores varying motivations for activism within a contemporary imperative to understand the world from multiple places. Character-driven, yet rich in plot, it sets characters’ personal struggles inside a larger world of social change.
PARTS PER MILLION is unpublished and is seeking representation.
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Learn about Brave on the Page, an anthology of 42 interviews and essays by Oregon writers (including me) on writing and the creative life, edited by Laura Stanfill »
Read a Los Angeles Review writeup of Brave on the Page that quotes from my interview »
Meet The Characters
Nelson's driving motivation is to save the world. He left his wife and his safe desk job with the Forest Service to join this band of activists. But the world hasn't gotten any better since he started trying to save it, and now, at 34, he's full of doubts. His ideals remain strong, but the secrecy and the acts of sabotage have become tiresome. His crisis of meaning is exacerbated by the arrival of Deirdre, a traveling Irish photographer with a hazy past. Maybe Nelson can't save the world, but he's going to try to save fragile, rootless Deirdre, and they fall into an intense, rocky relationship.
As the country gears up for an unwanted war, Deirdre propels Nelson towards tragedy. He must transcend the tensions between idealism and reality and vanquish his doubts in order to be reborn into a new leadership role in his community.
The basement stairway is a black hole pulling at Nelson, dragging him down. His hand is on the banister, measured, silent, like defusing a bomb. Not that he's ever defused a bomb, but it probably feels like this, with the sweating and the churning. Bare toes slide forward to find the edge. One step down, and the dark fills up with the heavy beat of his heart.
His hands are cold and wet from the railing and slip on the door knob but it pulls open of its own accord and there she is in the dark foyer. His wet hands catch in her hair. Drag over her skin. Slippery mouths. She breathes like a diver. "Forgive me?" she says, he thinks she says but it's more like an echo off his flesh.
The cheer mushrooms up, echoes off the buildings. Signs dance like wavecaps stretched as far as he can see. Nelson's knees are titanium. His head is crystal, clear and solid. His heart is a ruby, dense with love. He lowers his arms and walks away from the microphone. Hands pat his back, squeeze his arms, rest on his shoulders as he makes his way down the stairs. Fetzer's eyes, Jen's eyes, bright, alive, loving. Isobel yelling in his ear, "Good job!"
And Deirdre. He holds her tight. "Let's get married," he says into her neck, and he's not sure if she heard over the noise of the crowd, but she pulls back, grips his shoulders.
Nelson lets a sliver of light into his eyes. It must be after midnight. The sound of the others' breathing surrounds him. Faint traffic noise bleeds in from outside, and a muffled TV is on next door. Even through the wall he can tell it's the blow-by-blow bombing of Baghdad. Shock and Awe.
Nelson's chest is heavy and uneven like it's stuffed with dirty damp towels. His head seems only partially connected. Moving so slowly it takes him nearly a minute, he turns his feet and lowers them to the floor. He holds his bandaged hand away from the cushions and uses his other hand to push himself up to sitting. Somehow his head follows. His sleep has been dreamless.
At 28 Jen is the youngest of the group. She's a sharp and sarcastic hacktivist who thinks Nelson a square and Fetzer paternalistic. She sticks around because without her Nelson and Fetzer would still be printing that pathetic Xeroxed newsletter they started out with.
Jen suspects Deirdre is an undercover federal agent, and lobbies to kick her out. Jen is outvoted, and her subsequent relationship with Deirdre is tainted by her resentment. Anyhow, there are way more important things to think about than some stupid photographer: The Bush administration is reversing environmental protections, threatening war on Iraq, and rolling out the Department of Homeland Security. Quit wasting time, people. There's work to be done.
This is so unbelievable. We get home from a big firebombing only to play host-with-the-most with some random stranger. What the fuck was Franky thinking? He’s a goddamn house sitter, not a hotel manager. Of course Nelson, being ambassador from planet dork, is into it right away. And Fetzer caved in like five minutes! Bunch of rescuers.
The woman Frank so generously invited into our headquarters stands in the doorway, looking around like she’s hungry and there might be a stash of food conveniently laid out somewhere among the filing cabinets and desks.
“Stay there,” I tell her. Last thing I need is her snooping through our stuff.
"For fuck's sake, Deirdre. We just wanted some help getting inside this stupid campus. Don't tell me this is going to turn into some long-term art project."
But she's smiling in a conspiratorial way that makes me pause. "Ah. But Dr. Reynolds would be a collector of fine-art photography, wouldn't he. And he attends the openings."
Fetzer strokes his chin. Nelson smiles, and I have to admit, the idea of that prick seeing our mugs all over his swanky gallery walls is pretty funny.
The door to the building opens and my heart goes ka-bang again. A woman in a long brown coat steps out. Fetzer comes out behind her. Who's the woman? But she walks in another direction and Fetz comes towards the car.
He's a weird color.
Please, God, or whatever you are, I have never asked you for much.
Fetz opens the door, sinks into the seat. Drapes his pudgy hands over the bottom of the steering wheel.
"It's her," he says. A sound like a flock of bats rises up, screeching pins into my shoulders, my brain, beating me down.
Then when they were diddling around processing the crap in my pockets, stupid female cop said, "What is this, anyway?" and she waved the cable in my face. That I'd picked up off the basement floor.
"That's an Ultra ATA IDE ribbon cable to connect your hard drive to your controller card, and it was ripped out of my computer when my house was trashed by two violent criminals. But you arrested me for peacefully protesting. Can you tell me how that makes sense?"
Bitch was already pissed off I didn't have ID. She squished her mouth. "You and your friends are costing the city a lot of money."
"George Bush cost the city a shitload of money in August. Arrest him."
With his shaved head and black combat boots, Fetzer could be mistaken for a tough guy, but he's really a pussycat underneath. The household's oldest at 49, Fetzer takes it upon himself to be a den mother to the others. Except sometimes his concern is misguided, like when he helps Deirdre keep her drug problem a secret.
Fetzer is a Vietnam Vet, so his anti-war activism comes from a personal place. He is also the mechanic of the group, and particularly proud of the diesel '85 Oldsmobile Toronado he's converted to biofuel and tricked out with custom electronics. But he's let the paint go dull and he distressed the new head unit to make it look like the old one. No point attracting unnecessary attention.
I got the needle to 70, and sagebrush and rocks and the occasional salt pan passed us by as we barreled along towards the Oregon border. We were sleepless, and that dammed oily burnt smell hung around even though we all had on clean clothes and the ones from the op were in two layers of black plastic bags in the trunk. If we were smart, we would have dumped the bags, but we were too poor to throw clothes away, and anyway, we'd have to be super smart to deal with dumping. Fingerprints on the bag, buttons, zippers. Too much to deal with. Could've burned them, but fires tend to attract attention. Like the one we videotaped. It was hitting the news right then on the car radio.
Nelson kept staring out the kitchen window. Jen pulled off her headphones. "Nelse?"
"Hmm?" Nelson turned to Jen, his eyes polite and there-for-you. I almost said, There's something you need to know about our guest, the one lying self-inflicted under the only fine sweet thing left of your grandma's. But I didn't. Because by then Deirdre had me disarmed. She'd looked up at me from that sweaty bed and whispered, "Promise you won't tell them?" Her hand was tight around mine. "I've got to get away from that shite. Fresh start. No one even thinking it about me." She squeezed even harder. "Please, Fetzer?"
Before midnight Dee and Nelson slipped out to the bathroom and came back with a big-ass chocolate cake. For me. Fifty candles poking out of its dark shiny frosting. And the singing, everyone singing. Dee and Nelson's hands under the heavy cake, their eyes locked on it, their feet shuffling forward into the dark room, their candlelit smiles. Shoulder to shoulder, holding the cake steady like a sacred thing of joy they were bringing to an altar. It was one of those moments you don't forget. The sweetness of it.
In seconds we were summoned out of Franky's car and led away from each other. Dee gripped Nelson's hand. "I need you to step over here, ma'am," said the cop. Dee just wound her hand tighter round Nelson's arm. The cop went and got a female cop. I don't know what she said because by then I'd been escorted to the other side of the road, but she pried Dee from Nelson and led her away.
Jen was sitting on the ground near the house with a big tall dude standing by her. Nelson was in a cop car. Franky was in another cop car. Dee was taken somewhere behind the fire truck. Cops went in and out of our house.
Pretty much the loneliest I'd felt in a long time.
Deirdre is an Irish photographer traveling the U.S. She lands in Portland and her money and plane ticket get stolen – at least that's what she tells the activists when they let her crash for a night. To Jen's irritation, Deirdre ends up staying. But she's creative and whimsical, and a breath of fresh air during these dark days. She might drink a little too much, but she and Nelson fall in love, and Fetzer is relieved to see Nelson happy. Even irascible Jen is eventually won over by Deirdre's cooking. Deirdre settles in to her new life with the activists, and takes photographs of the household. These become a body of work in an exhibition at the same university the activists are investigating for war technologies R&D corruption. When the university makes the connection, they're not at all happy, and the blowback triggers a cascade of events that tip Deirdre over the edge and the household into chaos, with powerful consequences for all.
She leans towards him and her face goes wide and bright. "Hey, you know that part in Peter Pan where Peter is marooned on a rock in the ocean, and the tide is rising and he knows he's going to drown?"
The table's pink Formica swims with overlapping swirls. Why does she make him feel like he's never read a thing? "No."
"It was probably left out of the Disney version. So he's standing there and his heart is pounding and the water is lapping at his toes. And it suddenly occurs to him, 'To die would be an awfully big adventure.'"
The points of her smile are like blades. The sore place swells in his chest.
And her fingers on my arm when we climbed over the fence. Digging in, letting go, leaving white marks under the freckles for a second. Then she was stepping onto the tracks, looking down them one way, then the other, like a little kid hoping to see a train. And on the way back, she goes and slips her hand under my hair like she owns it and asks what kind of shampoo I use and says it's beautiful.
"Not you, too," I said. It's bad enough having modelboy Franky nag me about 'hair care'.
But she told me that when she was a kid she prayed every night for curly red hair. And that they'd called her japhead in school, and said her mom bonked a chinaman.
"Bloody racist where I come from," she said. "It was good to get away."
Dee's place was decorated all over with strings of colored lights. There was a little bit of dancing but mostly we drank wine and talked and nobody was in a hurry to leave. My mind drifted in and out of the conversations, and the colored lights winked on and off all around us. A strand came loose and dangled close to Deirdre's head. She was laughing at Isobel's jokes and the reflections off her hair turned red, then green, then gold, then blue. She looked pretty in the soft light. More feminine, less angles.
GALLERY 1: John Nelson
As a visual artist, it was a natural avenue of exploration for me to depict Nelson visually. He's in several paintings created between 2003 and 2006.
In the paintings and in writing I was curious to explore John Nelson as an everyman figure: average build, average height, average clothes. He's sensitive, and burdened with the weight of the world, and when he experiences tragedy it's transformative, allowing him to find his true role in life.
GALLERY 2: The Setting
PARTS PER MILLION is set in Portland, Oregon. When they’re not traveling, the activists Nelson, Jen and Fetzer live and work out of a dilapidated old duplex, one of the few houses left standing in their industrial inner Southeast neighborhood.
GALLERY 3: The Protests
The buildup to war during the fall of 2002 and 2003 saw Portlanders take to the streets. Many of the street scenes in the story are influenced by real events, but not all the photos here are mine. Some were gathered from Indymedia and other sources at the time.
How much of your novel is fact and how much is fiction?
The characters are entirely fictional, as are their activities. The university they investigate is fictional too, an amalgam of local institutions.
The inner SE industrial neighborhood the characters live in is real, but some streets are "fudged" for the sake of narrative flow. The characters live on Novi St, which is a fictional street between Ivon and Clinton.
The characters' radio show is fictional but is not unlike something you might hear on KBOO FM, Portland's community radio station.
Every word the characters read in a newspaper or hear on the TV is verbatim from news reports during the fall of 2002 and winter/spring of 2003. However, the source was sometimes changed for aesthetic reasons: e.g. to avoid repetition of sources. The one exception is the report of the Maryville firebombing heard on the car radio in chapter 2. That is entirely fictional.
The descriptions of rallies and protests are closely based on my experiences. (Indeed, they did pepperspray babies at the Bush protest in August '02. You can see a picture of the family in distress in the photo gallery.) The exception is the M20 protest the day after Iraq was invaded. I had to work that night and so gathered anecdotes and notes from others to flesh out that scene.
Why is Parts Per Million told from three points of view?
The first draft of the novel was written in omniscient 3rd person, then as I explored deeper I became committed to writing in character voice for several reasons.
First of all, as a writer it's challenging and liberating to remove yourself as the authorial voice and speak as another character. It forces you to reconsider every single sentence.
Secondly, I'm attracted to the narrative device of building a picture using incomplete, and sometimes unreliable or conflicting accounts. As a reader I like to be engaged in sorting it all out and deciding what to believe and what to doubt, so it was natural to explore that device in my own writing.
Thirdly, there's something democratic about telling a story from more than one point of view. It's a way of working with the idea that there is no single "right" perspective. No person's account can carry more authority than another's, and although we share a tremendous amount of experience, our subjectivity is the place where existential questions get interesting.
Why are Nelson‘s chapters in 3rd person, when the Jen’s and Fetzer’s are in 1st person?
Each character's formal point of view choice relates to their personality. Jen is impulsive, angry, and quick, so we get her in 1st person present, in "real time", so to speak. Fetzer is the oldest and wisest, and he has processed the events of the story. Thus his version of the narrative is retrospective, in 1st person past. Of all the characters Nelson knows himself the least. Giving him a 3rd person present voice was a way of adding a little bit of distance, or disconnect, to his version of the narrative.
Why doesn't Deirdre have a point of view?
In earlier drafts Deirdre did have a point of view. But her backstory and interior drama was so big that it dominated the story. And the main arc of the story is Nelson's. Deirdre's purpose as a character is to wring him out and change him. It wasn't appropriate for her to upstage him.
Why did you write about that particular time and place?
The height of the Bush administration was an absurd, fascinating, propaganda-filled, scary time in American history. As I was living through it I felt compelled to record the experience.
Portland was a hotbed of anti-war activism. Eager to support an alternative to the mainstream media, I dove into community news radio. There was so much to say about what was happening in our society. Americans were being manipulated into believing a false case for war and accepting new fascist institutions such as Homeland Security, Operation TIPS and Total Information Awareness. And ordinary people really were being thrown out of shopping malls for wearing Peace t-shirts, and being questioned by authorities for requesting non-flag stamps at the post office. Meanwhile hundreds of Muslim men were arrested and detained indefinitely. There was never a slow news day for alternative media workers.
But after a while I became frustrated because my work in alternative news felt like preaching to the choir. Fiction, because it has entertainment value and has lasting power (compared with a news story), seemed like a good alternative tactic, a way to give voice to a point of view that was being shut out of the conversation.
It was a crazy, messed up time, and I wanted to depict that time through complex characters as they grappled with the everyday experience of absurdity and anxiety.
Is your novel more character driven, or more plot driven?
I don't believe this polarity is necessary, and I strove to balance the two aspects. The characters are intimately drawn, react in nuanced ways, suffer the consequences of their own and others' decisions, and experience growth and evolution. And their activist work puts them in danger and creates external situations and internal tensions they must grapple with. All this against a backdrop of real events in recent history.
What's your next book about?
It's set in a near future in which American society is fascistically restructured around a huge food crisis, and class lines are redrawn along tight control over food production and rationing. A rogue biohacker, desperate to free her husband who has been imprisoned for growing a home vegetable garden, creates a biological agent that attacks only the elite – that is, meat-eaters.
About the Author
Julia Stoops was born in Samoa and grew up in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Washington, D.C. She is a native of New Zealand and has lived in the USA for 24 years.
A visual artist as well as a writer, Julia Stoops is a recipient of Oregon Arts Commission Fellowships for both Visual Art and Literature. She has experience in alternative radio news journalism and anti-war activism, as well as a background teaching media studies, visual art, and history of ideas. She is married and lives in Portland, Oregon, a city for which she holds great affection.
Julia is the founder and creative director of Blue Mouse Monkey, a branding and web design company. She is an alum of Portland's popular Pinewood Table writing critique group. She has dabbled in flash fiction, examples of which can be found here, here, and here, but her favorite creative space is the long form. PARTS PER MILLION is her first novel.