When it comes to live readings, John Rember is out of practice.
“I’m kind of dreading it,” the author said during a phone interview. “I’m afraid I’m gonna go through the reading mispronouncing every third word.”
The day he was supposed to leave on his last book tour, the pandemic shut everything down. In response, he penned an article for the Los Angeles Review of Books titled “It’s Not the End of the World.”
“But it kind of was,” Rember said. “It’s kind of an exciting time to be alive. But it’s a little scary as well.”
In the depths of the COVID-19 lockdown, he started writing 2,000 words a week.
“I thought maybe it’d be a good idea for somebody to write down what everyday life was,” Rember said. “I got old enough to be a primary source for historians.”
Rember will read excerpts from the resulting book, “Journals of the Plague Years,” at the Hailey Public Library on Thursday, March 16, at 5:30 p.m. This collection of essays started with a wish that his ancestors had journaled more.
“It’d be a really valuable document right now, to have somebody writing what it was like to be alive during the 1918 flu and World War I and World War II and the Great Depression,” Rember said. “But people didn’t write it down.”
Looking back, he realized how quickly we forgot the devastation of the pandemic. The U.S. lost more than 1.1 million people, according to data submitted to the World Health Organization, but “it’s not a topic of conversation or really much thought these days,” Rember said.
On paper, much of his work seems grim, though his approach leavens heavy subjects with humor.
“If you dedicate yourself to telling the truth about what you see, inevitably, it’s going to be a little bit dark,” Rember said. “If you’re writing dark stuff, you have to make it palatable somehow or you lose your audience. When all you can do is laugh because otherwise you’d be crying, you better figure out a way to laugh.”
In addition to his books, Rember has published work in “Travel and Leisure,” “Wildlife Conservation,” “High Desert Journal” and “The Huffington Post.” He meditates on the triumphs and tribulations of modern life, as well as “the natural world and what’s happening to it,” he said.
“I don’t know what kind of writer I am because that definition seems to keep shifting,” Rember said. “A lot of the things I’m writing these days are little reflections on what the world looks like, and sometimes I’ll hazard a guess as to what you might learn from what you see.”
Currently, he lives with his wife, Julie, in the Sawtooth Valley—a place he chronicled in his 2003 memoir “Traplines.”
“We’ve been hunkering down here in Idaho and living very quietly and trying not to bother anybody,” Rember said.
The couple gets outside as much as possible, hiking and backcountry skiing. From that vantage, they witnessed the tourism influx during the pandemic summer of 2020.
“Everybody left the cities and came to the Sawtooth Valley and it seemed like they were carving out little campsites with chainsaws for a while,” Rember said. “We thought that might have been the beginning of this huge refugee migration, but it didn’t happen last summer. So, I guess we’re safe for a while.”
Rember is a fourth-generation local, born in the Sun Valley when a portion of the lodge served as a hospital.
“It was a small town. Everybody knew everybody else, for better for worse,” Rember said. “There was no stoplight, and it was a pretty good place to grow up.”
He went to Ketchum Elementary. “They had good teachers. The hot lunch program was lousy,” Rember recalls. As a child, he saw the rise of The Community Library in its first iteration, where the Gold Mine is now.
“After school almost every day, I used to go there and read books,” Rember said. “That was one of the reasons I turned out to be reasonably literate.”
He still remembers old-timers everyone seems to have forgotten.
“There’s a tendency for people who are new to the valley to see themselves as pioneers and homesteaders and forget that there’s been many generations of people before them, probably an uncountable number, if you consider the Indians who were here,” Rember said. “There’s been some deliberate destruction of history—which I consider a sin—that went on in the valley for people to sanitize their histories. I’m pretty sure that’s still going on.”
He has seen the level of wealth in the Wood River Valley increase exponentially.
“Those citizens of Ketchum weren’t here in their second or third houses—they were in their only house,” Rember said. “Growing up in the Wood River Valley, you realize that having a lot of money doesn’t make you happy. So, that frees you from trying to get a lot of it, I guess ... The Wood River Valley right now really needs to examine very carefully how it’s treating its servant class.”
Through his writing, Rember can’t help but interpret what he sees.
“That’s kind of an occupational hazard—just keeping eyes open and then not being afraid to tell the truth is something that strikes me as being really important,” Rember said.
He got his start writing short stories for the Idaho Mountain Express.
“At the time, the Mountain Express needed copy, and I supplied it,” Rember said.
Patrons would give him feedback while he bartended at Slavey’s, a Main Street Ketchum saloon.
From there, he started teaching at The Community School.
“I think I was the fifth or sixth faculty member hired at the Community School,” Rember said. “At that time, it was this very experimental place. We were kind of making it up as we went along ... We got some people educated out in the world, and they got into good colleges.”
Later, he became a professor at the College of Idaho.
“If you’re looking for a way to make your life worthwhile and to do some good in the world, teaching is a really good way to do it,” Rember said.
Despite his love for the Wood River Valley, he isn’t particularly enamored with Hemingway, its patron literary saint.
“He probably wasn’t as nice a person as he was a good writer,” Rember said. “But that may be true of all of us.” ￼
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