Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Big Sky is Full of Literary Stars

Montana is big.  Montana is sparse.  Put them together and there's a very good chance I'll never grab a ribeye at the Cattle-Ac in Scobey or roam the forests of Yaak, sticks crunching under my boots.  It's just something we accept as a way of life here in the Big Sky State: our 147,000-square-mile rectangle lends itself to an every-man-is-an-island mentality.  As writers, we populate even smaller communities of fellow scribes and readers, rarely bumping into others of our ink-stained ilk.

But once a year, a five-pound bag of book-lovers' sugar is dumped onto the ground in Missoula and, like ants, we stream toward the Garden City to get our two-day fill of readings, panel discussions, autograph sessions, poetry slams, and more than a little bit of after-hours writerly drinking.  The Montana Festival of the Book is a literary gorgefest.  Every year, I stagger home with armloads of books, my hands still warm from the handshakes of new friends.

The hub of the Fest: the bookstore in the Holiday Inn's atrium

It's the premiere book event of western Montana, perhaps the entire state--though some would argue the merits of the High Plains Book Festival in Billings, the Helena Festival of the Book, and the on-again off-again festivals in Great Falls and Meagher County.  I don't know about those other gatherings, never having attended--though I hope to someday--but I can vouch for the fact that this year's Missoula festival (the 12th annual) was a slam-dunk delight.

Sponsored by Humanities Montana, the Festival of the Book always manages to attract headline acts--Montana writers as well as literary stars from beyond our borders.  This past weekend, we were treated to the likes of Bonnie Jo Campbell, William Kittredge, Thomas McGuane, Melanie Rae Thon and Rick Bass.  The 2011 Montana Festival of the Book was made double-good by the fact it ran side-by-side with the annual conference of the Western Literature Association.

It's taken me five days to fully process everything that went down last weekend and I'm still not fully clear and functional in thought, so I'll just give you a few snapshots of the event as a sort of scattered tribute to everyone who worked so hard putting together the festival.

Thursday, Oct. 6

David Cates reads at Fact & Fiction (photo by Ken Stolz)

The festival unofficially kicked off with two events: a celebration of the Missoula Writing Collaborative at Fact & Fiction bookstore where we were treated to readings by David Cates and Caroline Patterson and a special tribute to Montana's new poet laureate Sheryl Noethe by a young, poised student named Chelsea Niewald who held us breathless with a story of how, as a Native American student just arrived from the reservation, she was inspired by Noethe's poetry.

McGuane reads "The House at Sand Creek" (photo by Ken Stolz)

Then it was off to the Wilma Theater to watch Tom McGuane receive a Distinguished Achievement Award from the Western Literature Association.  After spirited introductions by Missoula Mayor John Engen and William Kittredge, McGuane took the stage.

"I find that the more distance I have from a story, the less I like it," he told us. "Well, this one was just published last week in The New Yorker so it's not yet distasteful to me."

He clutched a sheaf of papers which glowed under the stage lights.  It was the typed manuscript of his short story "The House on Sand Creek" and he read it to us in an ebullient voice, often cracking himself up mid-sentence (and rightly so--just mention the words "rubber fried-chicken drumstick" and you'll bring smiles back to the faces of those who were there).  My only complaint with the story is that it ended too abruptly.  Perhaps it's part of a larger McGuane mosaic?  A chapter from his next novel?

McGuane signs one of his books for Shann Ray after the reading

Friday, Oct. 7

Contributors to the new anthology West of 98 debate cowboys and suburban "ranchettes" at a long table at the front of the ballroom in the lower level of the Holiday Inn, talking about the challenges of defining the West against its longstanding, iconic place in literature.  Here are a couple of snippets from that conversation:

William Kittredge:  New York feels about Montana the same way that France feels about the U.S. (appreciative laughter from around the room).  So yeah, I'm a regional writer and I'm proud of it....People don't always understand the state.  Friends will ask me, "How're things out in Montana?" and I ask them, "Which Montana do you mean?"  We have 50 different Montanas out here--we have the Missoula Montana with retired old English professors like me; we have the Hutterite Colony Montana; we have the Latino Montana with its farm laborers; and on and on.  You can find many Montanas and our literature reflects that.

Robert Wrigley:  All writing for me is either elegiac or celebratory or both....The West will always retain for me the potential for wildness.  Maybe it's just the illusion that we still have a place to run to.  But for me, the West will always manage to abide.

*     *     *

In a smaller, more intimate room, Jenny Shank reads from her novel The Ringer. It's a powerful story about a Denver cop who shoots a Mexican immigrant he mistakenly thinks is a drug dealer during a no-knock raid.  Later, Shank will tell a different audience she felt compelled to spotlight the Mile High City because you just don't find much about it in American literature.  "I wanted to write a novel about Denver," she said, "because there's not really a lot of literature about the city.  You have to go back to John Fante or even Katherine Anne Porter's 'Pale Horse, Pale Rider' to find Denver as a main setting in fiction.  I can't say I added much to the canon, but I at least wanted to get in my two cents."

She clears her throat and starts with The Ringer's opening scene where the tough-guy cop finds himself coaching a little girls' tee-ball team called the Purple Unicorns: "On the first day of tee-ball practice, Ed O'Fallon learned that his primary mission in coaching his daughter's team would be to convince the fielders to pay attention to the action at the plate. Instead, the girls preferred to concentrate on refilling aeration holes with the grass-topped earth plugs that littered the outfield like turds."

A rough-looking man who appears to have started his drinking early this day ("early" meaning somewhere in the vicinity of 8 a.m.) wanders in and takes a seat at the side of the room.  He fidgets for a few minutes, then pulls out a janitorially-large keychain which includes, among other things, a nail clipper and begins trimming his fingernails.  When he's gone through all ten fingers, he restlessly fiddles with the keyring, keeping rhythm with some internal music.  Shank plows forward, reading over the jangling.  The drunk dude is annoying, but we let him be.  He's just part of the 50 different Montanas in the room.

Jonathan Evison (left) and Alan Heathcock parley at the evening reception as Kris Saknussemm listens in

There is a Readers' and Writers' Reception at The Florence on Higgins Street that night.  Let me just say two things: 1) I hadn't eaten all day.  2) The free wine went down cold and delicious.  Let's leave it at that.

Saturday, Oct. 8

Festivals and conferences like this have a way of leveling the playing field between author and reader, creating some curious intersections.

This morning, eager to sweat out an evening of alcoholic toxins, I rose early, made my way to the hotel's fitness room and got on the treadmill.  As always, I'd brought along my trusty Kindle and started reading the stories in Bonnie Jo Campbell's American Salvage as I walked my five miles.
He was standing in mud, leaning on his round-end shovel, when he saw the big orange snake folded on the rocks beside the driveway, its body as thick as his stepson's arm. Jerry dragged himself out of the waist-deep hole where he'd been digging around the dry well and moved along the side of the building, approached the rocks heel-toe in his mud-caked work boots, trying to move silently in the overgrown grass. The snake was orange with red and gold, but close up, its skin reflected green and blue as well-strangely, the blue of his wife's eyes-and the shiny coils of the snake suggested his wife's coppery hair.
I thought to myself, Wouldn't it be the oddest thing if right now Bonnie Jo Campbell walked through that door while I was reading her book?

I don't have to tell you what happened next, do I?

It was a total Field of Dreams moment: If you think her, she will come.

Bonnie Jo, her hair neatly tied back in a rubberband, pushed through the door of the fitness room, got herself a towel, then stepped on the treadmill next to mine.  I could have (should have) said something, but my tongue was paralyzed--like I'd almost stepped on a thick coppery-orange snake--and the opportune moment passed.

I continued to walk the belt, my knees a little shakier than before.  I tried to concentrate on the words on my Kindle, but the presence of their author jogging in place next to me made it next to impossible.  Just as I'd idly thought her into existence, I fervently prayed she wouldn't look over and see American Salvage on my screen.  Would she be flattered?  Or would she think I was some kind of pathetic stalker of writers?

I reached forward, clicked out to the main menu of the Kindle and switched to Our Mutual Friend.  No chance in hell Dickens would be coming through those doors for a session on the weight bench.

Like I said, odd intersections abound at the book festival.

*     *     *

Six hours later, I'm back in the ballroom for a panel called "I'm in a Western State of Mind--the Novel" with Jonathan Evison, Jenny Shank, Joe Henry (author of Lime Creek) and...yes, Bonnie Jo Campbell.  I sit a goodly number of rows from the front, hunched over, hoping Campbell doesn't recognize me as the Treadmill Stalker.

Moderator Kim Anderson opens the panel by saying, "I think most of us are tired of defending and defining Western literature.  Wouldn't you all agree?"

And from there, the panelists are off and running with another session of wrestling the notion of the West into a clear-cut definition.  Not an easy thing to do.  It's like wrangling greased eels into a tin can.

Saying she set out to write the "quintessential American novel" with her latest book, Once Upon a River, Campbell (who hails from Kalamazoo, Michigan) offers this great line: "The West is more American than America.  The West is like America on steroids."

Evison chimed in with an explanation of how and why he wrote West of Here: "There are 42 different viewpoints told in a bifurcated narrative.  I wanted to create a kaleidoscope of characters and events all colliding together.  What I ended up with was a fucking mess."  (Empathetic laughter from the writers in the audience.)  "With West of Here, I wanted to subvert history and tell America's story.  I wanted to ask the question, 'Where do we go when we can't go any farther West--literally and figuratively?'  Since the novel's publication, I've been to a lot of these types of panels and events and no one's been able to answer that question."

*     *     *

There's more, so much more, to tell you about this year's Festival of the Book.  I haven't even mentioned the panel discussion on the Coen Brothers' western films, the steampunk art workshop, the reading called "Horses, Hookers and Hellions," the poetry karaoke tribute to the late great Ed Lahey ("He had the most beautiful and large soul and it spilled over into all our lives," Noethe eulogized), or the two panels I moderated--one on blogging and one focused on the non-death of the short story.  There just isn't enough space or time to do the festival justice.

Besides, I have a new stack of books waiting to be read.

*Unless otherwise noted, all photos by David Abrams

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like an awesome time. Although if you'd have told us Charles Dickens walked into the fitness room? I'd have believed you.