Brooklyn, Montana: Carrie La Seur on the power of place


 

I’m often asked about how I write Montana so well, and I’m tempted to paraphrase Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good as It Gets when asked how he writes women so well: “I think of a man and I take away reason and accountability.” It’s fairly obvious to anyone observing publishing these days that American novels need to be about Brooklyn, or at least give it a hefty cameo, so to write Montana in a relatable way, I think of Brooklyn. Then I take away traffic and substitute horse and cattle manure for dog shit.

No really, bear with me. Brooklyn is distilled Montana. This revelation came upon me while spending a sabbatical year in Manhattan last year, observing writer mecca from the unfashionable proximity of the Upper West Side. I would’ve lived in Brooklyn, but my hipster credentials were insufficient to get me past Dumbo. At the checkpoint I had “insufficient body art”, could name only one Jennifer Egan novel, and gave the wrong answer to a question about German beer. The gender-undefined sentry, in hip boots and short shorts in November, summarily turned me back. But the mustaches, enjoyment of spectacle, peculiarities of dress, contempt for outsiders and elevation of eccentricity – all this would be right at home in Big Sky country.

Some people leave home and adapt with apparent effortlessness to new surroundings. After childhoods spent eating Spam in polyester, they pick up urbane habits and fashions as if someone had passed them a secret codebook. I envy and resent these people. I write about the starker end of Montana – the eastern and southern expanse – because it’s the place I’m closest to understanding, and even here it’s a work in progress figuring out how people tick.

Mysteries like my frightening, rheumy-eyed grandpa Ray, who owned a lamp that sang How Dry I Am and reportedly beat my dad with his belt back in the day, absorbed my childhood curiosity about the world. I had to put my energy into the family jujitsu of passive aggression and devastating one-liners. By the time I learned that other people don’t talk to each other this way, I didn’t have many friends.

Perhaps the hardest thing about writing Montana is the silence. “I want to write a novel about silence,” one of Virginia Woolf’s characters famously announces. “The things people don’t say.” The silent rural woman or man whose words have drowned in the horrors of long isolation and family trauma is a pioneer trope, but also a reality that persists into the semiconductor age. Modern people have reduced the impact of our surroundings to the minimum possible. We might be living anywhere. But rural Montana isn’t like that – it acts on you. It demands attention, caution, and greater effort, from shoveling the walk to staying upright on sheet ice, treating dangerously large wildlife with respect or bending to the sometimes maddening demands of community.

My attempt to infiltrate a Brooklyn writer’s group confirmed that I hadn’t left Montana far behind. We were a few months in and tensions were beginning to rise as we read each other’s work and expressed, as is the general idea, some critical opinions. Conflicting perspectives on race, religion, gender, immigration and other complex identities bubbled to the surface and splattered on the wall. One evening the lone man in the room took a contrary viewpoint on a novel excerpt and the next thing I knew we were all out in the alley throwing punches – metaphorically. Actually, we just all got very tense and wrapped up early. The escalating exchange of vicious emails over the next several days was the next best thing to a classic Montana bar fight I’ve ever seen. But so tidy! No blood, no assault charges, just the same level of social breakdown. This bar fight wouldn’t end in drunken pledges of brotherly love, though. The group was over.

The key difference may lie there – you don’t have a huge city to lose yourself in when you fight with friends in Montana. You keep facing the same dysfunctional reality day after day. Same with the landscape: Sure, it’s breathtaking at first, but dig deeper. The soil is poor and rocky. It won’t bear, there’s not much rain, someone else owns the water rights, the growing season is short, and you’d better have a job that pays the taxes and provides health care.

Writing Montana as a place means acknowledging its power to defeat you, because interacting with Montana over generations changes people. It makes us resilient, wary, and foul-mouthed (except for you, Mom). I haven’t penetrated Brooklyn’s mysteries deeply enough to know if the same is true there, but I suspect it is. Any place with a strong identity gets into your soul through rhizome tendrils you’ll have a hell of a time tearing out. Montana just gets at you faster, because here there are fewer protective layers, and right there is the secret to writing well about Montana. We’re all at the mercy of the planet we crawl on. In Montana, the veil that often hides that fact is lifted. Winter kills, spirits walk, plants and animals must grow or bad things happen. Begin with the harshness, the anguish that life here can be, and the transcendence will reveal itself in the natural order of things.


Carrie La Seur’s critically acclaimed debut novel The Home Place (William Morrow, 2014) won the High Plains Book Award, was short-listed for the Strand Critics Award for Best First Novel, and was an IndieNext pick and a Library Journal pick. La Seur’s second novel, The Weight of An Infinite Sky, a family drama set in southern Montana and loosely based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, was published by Morrow in January 2018.

Her writing appears in such diverse media as Daily BeastEyes on the International Criminal CourtGrist; The GuardianHarvard Law and Policy ReviewHuffington PostKenyon Review OnlineMother JonesOil, Gas, and Energy LawRumpusSalon; and Yale Journal of International Law. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop Summer Session and was a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the 2016 Sewanee Writers’ Conference. La Seur’s education includes a degree in English and French magna cum laude from Bryn Mawr College, a Rhodes Scholarship, a doctorate in modern languages from Oxford University, and a Yale law degree.

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