“Your story is the best one to tell.” Marian Palaia on writing who you are and what you know

Marian Palaia 2016  the-given-world-paperback

By Marian Palaia

Here is a thing I have been known to tell beginning fiction students: Write about someone who is not you. I tell them this because I am trying to get them to use their imaginations. I am trying to head off the production of another batch of more or less true “short stories” about break-ups, disloyal friends, summers in Paris or Stockholm, winter breaks in Cancun. Of course when you — most of you, of us, straight-out-of-high-school freshmen — are young, and have had our hearts broken, found out our best friends are not who we thought they were, or traveled to Mexico or Europe for the first time, the number of experiences we have had, against which to compare these, is limited. Because it is, these experiences shine exceptionally bright. I totally get this part, but it’s my job to push my students past their limits (as writers). They do not always go willingly.

When I ask students to try to imagine being someone else, whose stories might be more interesting and more complex than the ones they tend to gravitate to, it sounds simple enough, but it isn’t, because they have already been told, over and over, Write what you know. At face value, this is usually taken to mean, Write true stories, starring you. Also, as Willa Cather had it, “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.” And while I don’t disagree with this theory (though it might be a bit of an exaggeration), because there is much in each of our lives that is unique, I do believe it takes most writers a long time to recognize what parts are worth mining, what is most rare and distinctive about their stories. So they write about their trips to Paris, because trips to Paris are what is different to them. Because their lives have been normal, fairly uninteresting, for all they, so far, know.

So I try to explain what “write what you know” means to me. But it’s hard. Maybe because it is a moving target, and it means different things at different times. Maybe it is the DNA sequencing of a tiger, and maybe it is what you know on an emotional level to be true. In the latter case, you might find the proper combination of words and formation of imagery that what your reader experiences is exactly what you were after. Or maybe you won’t know what you’re after, which is not only fine, it is good, so long as you are writing what you know in your heart to be true. Another moving target, but moving targets come with the territory.

A middle ground is one I roamed often in my early writing years (like, 20 of them). It was more or less a schizophrenic place, where I did make things up, but at the same time felt beholden, too often, to adhere to the verifiable truth. My life has been other than ordinary (whatever that is, I know), in that my trajectory was pretty much all over the place, in that there was zero track-able trajectory at all — there was just me, launching myself, mostly blindly, into whatever space was in front of me at the time. Without going into too much detail, for many years I thought writing short stories meant tacking pretty endings onto true stories of fucked-up-ness. Or not pretty, but ways I wished things had turned out, things I wish I had done. Gotten a gun, for example, and shot the bad guy — the real guy, a poker player, who thought breaking into my house to beat me up was the best way to get me to come back to him — and driven off into the mountains with the good guy (the nonexistent one, the perfect boyfriend all the girls in workshop fell in love with) and the cat (also fictional, but the story needed something furry, as a foil) and the pint of Jim Beam (based on a true story lasting years). Etcetera.

For a long time I thought the fucked-up-ness was the story, and this mindset prevented me from creating anything that was more than a series of “punk westerns” (as my workshop mates in Montana called them). Eventually I ran out of punk western stories, and sort of grew up, or maybe it was the other way around. In my forties I embarked for a while upon a “normal” existence (job, benefits, bureaucracy, house, dog, alcoholic boyfriend), and when, after five or six years, it threatened to do me in (I really suck at bureaucracy, and boyfriends), I went back to school, at 54, to get my MFA. And even though I had “grown up,” I still felt beholden to writing old truths, until I took a nonfiction class, which gave me a place to put my real stories, which opened up a vast landscape of lying, which is what fiction writers are meant to do. Problem solved, as in, not exactly.

The first piece of what turned out, 12 years later, to be my first novel, The Given World, begins, “So that was me, going on 18, not too tall, no tits to speak of, brown hair to my ass, parted in the middle and brushed intermittently, worn just far enough out of my eyes so I could see, but my peripheral vision was not what it could have been.” That was me. She/I worked in a gas station, drove a ’67 Mustang convertible which looked like it had been through a war, dreamed of becoming a diesel mechanic (and perhaps joining the Army to do it), smoked copious amounts of dope but didn’t handle being stoned very well, and was more than a little crazy. Heard voices, really. Drove and drove, in search of, on the run from, imagining total wreckage at every turn. That kind of crazy. My kind.

Fast forward to the MFA, the nonfiction workshop, the addition to the story of more stories about this girl, who became Riley, who became (so the real-life story goes) less and less me and more and more herself. As she became more and more herself, the book became a whole lot better, until it became a novel about a girl who was not me. Whew. Except. At least half the book is still me. On the “write what you know” emotional and psychic level, a lot more than half. What goes around comes around.

Horror writer Stephen Graham Jones, in a recent interview with Indian Country Today, uses hypothetical vampire cats to talk about his experience:

. . . the trick is, whatever you write, you invest your whole self in it. So what I have to do when I write about vampire cats in space or whatever is find the story in there that’s actually me, dealing with my dad or with women or something like that. And once you have that emotional core, that dynamo spinning, it just makes the cats in space come alive in a good way.

That spinning dynamo is key (vampire cats, metaphorically, a little less so), and an incredibly difficult thing to teach. Lorrie Moore was my first MFA teacher. She told me, in essence, to write the hard stuff, the stuff that hurts. I believed her, and found that I could write “painful”, without soft landings or happy endings, and I began to, because I was ready. Because I had already gotten all the punk westerns I had in me out of the way. I just needed someone to tell me. And since I do not write horror, or any sort of speculative fiction, instead of vampire cats I had real people — real messed up people — and my relationship to them. A few of those who were closest to me had died by the time I wrote the book (a few others are now hanging on by a thread). My version of cats in space was to bring them back to life, which was a gift, but which also required digging my heart open with a dull implement, like a spoon. I did what Lorrie said. I am very attached to these characters, who were and are my people, and very protective of them, as it turns out. I wasn’t exactly prepared for this.

When I read about my book (newspaper and blog reviews, Amazon, Goodreads, etc.), I often encounter acceptance and understanding of these not-so-imaginary characters (“me” included), and I think, “Yay! Somebody got it.” Less often, but still often enough, Riley’s choice of traveling companions and her inability to get her shit together, in a linear fashion, are a huge source of frustration for readers. At first I was surprised by this, not to mention hurt by what some folks said. I have been advised by more experienced writers to not even read my Amazon and Goodreads reviews. (They say they don’t, and I believe, like, two of them, though it does become much less of an obsession as time goes on.) The easy thing to do would be to decide that these frustrated readers have clearly never had anything bad happen to them, and therefore do not have the perspective necessary to understand Riley and her posse of misfits. That would be the easy thing. But.

I have come to accept, not because I wanted to, but because I have had to, that if the problem is not some reviewers’ un-empathetic (my take, on my worst days) impatience with Riley, some of it must be with my stubborn insistence on telling a mostly relentless series of dark truths, to the point that a lot of readers want nothing more than to be let up, relieved, and released from them. I cannot express how hard this acceptance has been. I’m not even sure yet it has been acceptance. But I do get it, as much as, being me, I can.

Here is a connection, though, which is not completely tangential: a thing I have at times given some thought to, but had not applied directly to my work, but was reminded of recently, at an event at which three writers — all women — spoke about writing, and publishing, and being female in the world of books. They talked about Claire Vaye Watkins’s excellent Tin House essay on pandering, which is (loosely) about women writing what they know men will accept, because it is written, however consciously or unconsciously, to hew to a male aesthetic. They talked about “likable” characters, and whether or not female characters, written by females, are expected to be likable, whereas male characters, written by males, can be anything they damn well please. And it hit me: “Right? There it is.” Riley is not likable throughout much of the book. She is not meant to be likable; nor was I trying to write a character whose nature was to be disliked. Likability was the last thing on my mind as I was writing. Fuck likable. People are complex and messy and they do stupid things. Sometimes they do stupid things over and over for long periods of time, trying to sort it all out — three steps forward, two steps back, or two forward and three back. That. Is. Life. That is male life, and it is female life and it is non-binary life. It is what we all share. One would hope.

If I got to choose, I would say the book that The Given World most closely resembles, in structure, subject, trajectory, is Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which I loved when it came out, and still love after many reads. (I even have the movie poster.) I do not claim to be the writer Johnson is, or was then, but my writing is not, either, what seems to bug some readers about my book. What bugs them is its disjointedness, its main character’s inability or refusal to walk a straight line. I started wondering, so I looked at some reviews of Johnson’s book, and I don’t know if “gratified” is the right word for my reaction to what I found, but it might be. What I found was that readers (percentage-wise, as Jesus’ Son has many more reviews), found our main characters and our story-telling styles equally aggravating. The terms “hot mess,” “lost,” “disjointed,” “not inspiring,” and “broken” are very familiar to me, and would be to Johnson if he read his Goodreads reviews (which I doubt he does, with absolutely no evidence to back me).

One person’s take on Jesus’ Son, pretty much representative of both our one- and two-star reviews:

“Don’t waste your money on this book! If you want to read about drug use and wasted lives, feel free. (Angry at the book club member who picked this book over Tenth of December.)”

I know of at least one book club member who is in similar trouble for recommending The Given World, for exactly the same reason. Long story short, it doesn’t matter.

What matters is, when you are ready to go digging at your heart with a spoon, disregard the advice (from that exhausted teacher) at the beginning of this piece, about your story maybe not being the best one to tell. Your story is the best one to tell. It may take you a while to find it, but if you work at it long enough, you will. And maybe I was too relentless with mine, because I was telling a story I had to get out of me, because I had been carrying it around for so long. It is dark. It is bruising. It is fucked-up-ness piled on tenderness piled on more fucked-up-ness, leading to something that looks something like redemption might look after it has been buried in a pile of refuse under a pile of rocks for a very long time. It is still my story, in more ways than one. And despite its relentlessness, I don’t know, if given the chance, that I would write it any other way.

This essay was previously published on Medium on April 5, 2016. 

https://medium.com/galleys/fuck-likeability-write-what-you-know-write-who-you-are-f4fc7dba8176#.3sxwnz1jf


Marian Palaia is, according to her website, a “writer, wanderer, shit disturber.” Her debut novel, The Given World, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2015. It made the longlist for the PEN/Bingham First Novel Prize, and was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” pick and an Indie Next selection. Born in Riverside, California, Palaia currently resides in San Francisco and Missoula, Montana. To support her writing habit, Marian has been a teacher, a bartender, a truck driver, “chip girl” in a poker room, and the littlest logger in Lincoln, Montana, where she and Ted Kazynski were neighbors, sort of.

Of The Given World, Lorrie Moore said, “Marian Palaia has assembled a collection of restive seekers and beautifully told their stories of love and lovelessness, home and homelessness, with an emphasis on both makeshift and enduring ideas of family. It has been a long time since a first book contained this much wisdom and knowledge of the world. She is a strong, soulful, and deeply gifted writer.”

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Little Miracles Everywhere: Carrie La Seur on How Billings, Montana Got Its Bookstore Mojo Back

Billings bookstore edit -- Carrie La Seur blog post    carrie_la_seur_book_cover

Last Friday night in Billings, Montana, a little miracle occurred, and I was part of it. It has been a season of miracles here in big sky country, and Friday’s was only the most recent.

The story began in 2012, when downtown Billings lost its independent bookstore, Thomas Books. It was not the only bookstore in town, or even in the downtown, but it was the only place offering a full line of new books – the sort of bookstore where you can walk in and count on finding the new Pulitzer winner, or at least a few of the backlist of your favorite regional authors. It was my source for the latest Sherman Alexie, Margaret Atwood, Barbara Ehrenreich, Louise Erdrich, Neal Stephenson, Calvin Trillin, Anne Tyler, and the rest of the short list of authors whose publication dates have me fogging the glass outside the bookstore.

Many locals mourned. We still had Barnes & Noble and Amazon, true. We weren’t exactly stranded on the frontier without UPS. But losing our indie bookstore felt like a light going out. Many conversations between booklovers began,

“I just miss Thomases’ so much.”

There is something irreplaceable about walking among shelves of carefully curated books, touching their spines, sliding the richness of a hardback’s thick paper cover into your waiting hands, reading a few paragraphs, then trying another. The smell takes you places you only wish you could go again – childhood libraries, beloved foreign booksellers. The camaraderie of a bookseller who makes purchasing decisions based on the readers who come to the store, not according to a corporate agenda, is priceless. We missed being greeted by name and the divine seduction of being offered a book that Susan Thomas knew would be exactly right. We were homesick for every bit of it, because a good bookstore is a home: a soul home.

Naturally, people began to talk about opening another bookstore, but the obstacles were tall and hairy, with fangs and oppressive body odor. The market forces that helped to close Thomas Books were still in play. Indie bookstores were recovering slowly from the recession and the blows they’d taken from the growth of e-books and online bookselling, but the profits remained marginal. The capital investment was large. Whoever took on this challenge faced the prospect of a years-long ramp up to the kind of profitability that would make it more than a one-person or one-family shop, carried on the backs of a few very overworked people.

Then someone – we think it was former Billings mayor Chuck Tooley, who is quite the instigator – spoke the word “cooperative”, as in, “What if you formed a cooperative?” Most of us who’d been crying in our microbrews over Thomas Books had only the vaguest idea what a cooperative was. We knew about REI and rural electric cooperatives and the downtown food co-op, Good Earth Market. We suspected common ownership played a role. But how that was relevant to our lost bookstore was unclear. We may have stared at Chuck and encouraged him to have another.

Still, talk proceeded along these lines. To organize the conversation a little, in April 2015 I created a Facebook page called “Bring a Bookstore to Billings”. A small group including me, local novelist Craig Lancaster, attorney Emily Stark, and my husband Andy Wildenberg, a computer science professor, formed a casual drinking club with a bookstore problem and began splitting up tasks to educate ourselves on what it might take to start a bookstore. None of us had any interest in running a bookstore, we just knew we wanted one and no one else seemed to be doing anything about it.

It was Emily who first dug in on cooperative formation by contacting the state cooperative association. This turned out to be the trigger for a spectacular leap forward. We soon heard back from the new head of the Montana Cooperative Development Center, a woman named Jan Brown who fairly vibrated with enthusiasm for the idea of a cooperative bookstore in downtown Billings. Yes, you can do this, she told us. You can do it bigger and better than you imagine, and I will help. She had a whole new set of tasks for us, but it was hard to mind with Jan cheerleading.

We finally sat down with Jan in October 2015. By then we had the rough outline of a business plan based on a cooperative model. Our capital would come from member-owners who would buy shares, we’d elect a board of directors, and the board would hire a general manager. The major problem of which one of us would fall on the sword and run the bookstore was solved. We could hire someone who actually knew the business, and the co-op would provide the funds to pay that person. It felt like genius had struck from the sky.

The intervening months have been a mad rush to stick together puzzle pieces by any means possible. We announced meetings by Facebook and assigned jobs to anyone who showed up. Some people came to a meeting or two then dissolved back into the ether, but this method of constant delegation also resulted in great finds like English professor Precious McKenzie, who tackled real estate hunting and found us a terrific space in a historic building near the center of the downtown. For her next act, she got us a grant from the downtown association for a building feasibility study.

We interviewed bookstore owners across the state and talked over the operation and closure of Thomas Books in detail with the former owner. Psychologist Mark Taylor did a marketing survey and pulled demographic data. I got business plan help from the Service Corps of Retired Executives and Big Sky Economic Development and plugged more and more data into a business plan that soon stretched to 40 pages. We ran financial projections with the help of CPA Ryan Duffy. By the time we asked a feasibility consultant for help, he told us we’d already done the job we’d be hiring him to do.

People began to post bookstore visions on the Facebook page. “Here’s what I imagine our bookstore might be like,” they were saying. “Here’s my favorite bookstore. Can we have something like this?” The creativity of our whole ad hoc community was getting juiced up around the idea that maybe, possibly, we could actually do this. A town really could just decide it wanted an indie bookstore and make that happen, even if no deus ex machina emerged to open one for us. Our wanting and doing might be enough. Beginning to understand that was incredibly powerful.

In the early months of 2016, we got bold enough to take the first step toward incorporation with the state of Montana. Creating a cooperative doesn’t happen with one simple corporate filing, like creating an LLC. After the first filing, share subscription agreements go out and people commit to the number of shares they’ll buy. Then there’s a first general meeting and another report goes back to the state. At that point, incorporation goes forward, shares issue, and member-owners write their checks. That’s the stage we’re anticipating now.

We have commitments for over $24,000 in shares, plus the $8,000 building feasibility grant. We’re more than 1/10 of the way to our 2016 fundraising goal and we haven’t begun the public share marketing campaign. We plan to hire a general manager within the next month and open the bookstore later this summer. It feels giddy and crazy and there’s an element of adrenalin rush to doing a thing none of us has ever done, but it also feels real. We’ve done our homework and the people involved are solid. We believe in each other and in this dream taking concrete form under our feet.

Last Friday night in Billings, Montana, a little miracle occurred, and I was part of it.

Carrie La Seur is a seventh-generation descendant of Montana homesteaders who was educated at Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia, Oxford University (which she attended as a Rhodes Scholar), and Yale Law School. She is an environmental lawyer and the founder of the nonprofit legal organization Plains Justice. She practices law on behalf of farmers, ranchers, and tribal members, and writes when she can from an office in Billings, Montana. She is also a licensed private pilot. Her work has appeared in such publications as Grist, Harvard Law and Policy Review, The Huffington Post, Mother Jones, and Salon. La Seur’s debut novel, The Home Place, was published in 2014 by William Morrow. [You can read my review here and my interview with La Seur here.]

BLACK RIVER seeks redemption in the heart of Montana’s darkness

Black River paperback cover

Black River

By S.M. Hulse

Mariner Books: Jan. 5, 2016

$14.95, 240 pages

 

Anyone who lives or travels in the west knows well the distinctiveness of this region: it’s not just the mountains, valleys, and deserts, or the mighty Pacific Ocean, it’s the big sky, the quality of the light, the dryness of the air, and the sense, always, that anything is possible, both good and bad. And once you get away from the Pacific coast, there is an independent, rough-hewn spirit that is particularly American.

Writers have been exploring the people of the West for a very long time, but it seems as if there is more good fiction capturing this powerful sense of place than ever. In recent years, Peter Heller (The Dog Stars) Kim Zupan (The Ploughmen), Smith Henderson (Fourth of July Creek), Brady Udall (The Lonely Polygamist), and Kent Haruf (Plainsong, Our Souls at Night) have written novels featuring strongly masculine characters and prose and set in Colorado, Utah, and Montana.

Women writers have been their equal in this genre, with the bonus that they have subverted some readers’ expectations by featuring female protagonists. The prose and descriptions are as spare as the laconic characters in their books, but they are digging deeper beneath this crusty surface than the genre’s characteristics call for. Noteworthy contributions include Carrie La Seur’s The Home Place (Montana), Nina McConigley’s Cowboys and East Indians (Wyoming), Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted (Oregon), and Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist (Washington).

S.M. Hulse’s debut, Black River, sits astride these two stellar groups of novels. This slim but potent novel tells of the crisis faced by the protagonist, Wes Carver, when he is forced to return to the tiny town of Black River, Montana following the death of his beloved wife Claire, who expressed a wish to have her ashes spread there. Carver grew up in Black River and followed the men of his family into a career as a correctional officer. But he and Claire left 18 years earlier after a prison riot in which he was held captive for two days by Bobby Williams, a sadist who tortured Carver and left him with crippled hands, forcing Carver to retire and give up his passion for playing the fiddle.

Carver is reluctant to return because two people await him, neither of whom he has wanted to face for many years. He has received a letter notifying him of a parole hearing for Williams, who claims to have found Christ. Carver is determined to prevent Williams from seeing daylight. But the more complex situation involves his relationship with Claire’s son, Dennis, whom they left behind as an especially rebellious and independent 16-year-old. He and Carver have hardly spoken since then. But Claire’s death has forced them to face each other.

Black River probes deep into Carver’s broken heart and hands as he struggles to achieve some type of understanding with Dennis and a path to peace of mind regarding the Williams incident that has haunted him for so long. Carver is not a religious man, so he is not inspired to find forgiveness in his heart or to believe in Williams’ rehabilitation through faith. But he slowly befriends a skittish colt of a teenager with a troubled family life (his father is an inmate at the prison) who works for Dennis on his farm and shares Carver’s gift for music.

Hulse weaves together the various conflicts convincingly. And although we spend a lot of time in the head of the introverted Carver, the plot moves along as steadily as the river at the heart of the novel. Hulse’s writing is spell-binding; it is spare but poetic, and her western Montana setting is a character that looms over the story’s events. Readers will find Carver’s search for redemption a compelling and illuminating journey.

THE HOME PLACE blends literary fiction, a suspenseful mystery, and a powerful sense of place into a compelling portrait of a Montana family

The Home Place paperback  Carrie La Seur

The Home Place

by Carrie La Seur

William Morrow: March 31, 2015

$14.99, 320 pages

[This is a re-post of my original review from July 30, 2014.]

No matter how hard we try to escape it, our past is with us. We may succeed in fooling ourselves and others for a certain length of time, but the past has a way of sneaking up on us and tapping on our shoulder. As William Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” The same axiom holds true for family and place, the two inescapable, powerful sources that shape us inexorably.

In Carrie La Seur’s masterful debut novel, The Home Place, her protagonist, Alma Terrebonne, has done everything possible to leave her dysfunctional family and its tragic history behind in Montana. She escaped by earning a scholarship to Bryn Mawr College, a small women’s school outside Philadelphia. Having distinguished herself there, she then attended Yale Law School. Now, fifteen years after the winter car accident that killed her parents and took her younger sister Vicky’s leg, Alma is a hard-charging workaholic corporate attorney in Seattle living the sophisticated urban life. She is content, or has at least persuaded herself that is the case.

But a phone call from Billings changes everything. Vicky has been found dead of exposure in one of the city’s drug-infested neighborhoods, and Alma is called home to help arrange for the funeral. While Alma and Vicky had remained in contact, their relationship was fraught with drama. Vicky began a downward spiral after the car accident, despite adapting fairly well to her prosthetic leg. Although she had been taken in by older brother Walt and his wife Helen, by her early 20’s she was a mother to Brittany and was using drugs, bouncing from one job to another, and relying on number two brother Pete and her sympathetic grandparents to help her with finances and child care.

Alma returns home warily but with the sense of obligation and honor that has always served her well. Once back in Billings, she learns the details of Vicky’s death, which generally appears accidental but which has also raised a few red flags for Detective Ray Curtis, a Crow Indian whom Alma knew in high school. With her lawyerly mind now fully engaged by a complex problem, Alma works with Curtis to dig out the truth of Vicky’s death from under its mysterious circumstances. They are both suspicious of some of Vicky’s acquaintances, who are involved in the meth manufacturing and distributing business. Did Vicky simply slip on black ice while taking a drug-addled walk at 3 a.m., or did someone have a motive to kill her?

While her mind is thus engaged, Alma’s heart is pulled back into the past by her family and their ancestral ranch an hour out of Billings: “the home place.” Her grandmother Maddie is still the loving and feisty white-haired matriarch, but age has caught up with her. Walt, a grumbling grizzly of a man, hides in his garage workshop and has little to say to Alma, his wife Helen (in a wheelchair due to worsening multiple sclerosis), or anyone else. Pete, with whom Alma has a good rapport, owns a high-end coffee shop with his partner Shep. Eleven-year-old Brittany had been living an unsettled life with Vicky and is now in need of a guardian. Matters are complicated further by a predatory coal mining company “land man” who is trying to get neighboring ranchers to sell their property. And Alma is surprised to find her high school boyfriend is also back in Montana running the family ranch after finishing his education at Stanford.

La Seur has woven all these strands into a seamless tapestry. The Home Place is a character study of Alma’s belated coming-of-age as she faces her family’s tragic past and complicated present, a mystery that becomes increasingly suspenseful, and a love letter to the Big Sky country of southeastern Montana. The characters are people we care about (or, in the case of the less admirable ones, at least wonder about), the plot is complex and emotionally resonant without sliding into melodrama, and La Seur’s writing is graceful and evocative.

In many ways, The Home Place is the type of novel I like best: literary fiction with an ethical dilemma or mystery at its core, well-written and respectful of readers’ intelligence, but warm-hearted and well-paced. In that sense, it reminds me a great deal of one of my favorite books of last year, M.L. Stedman’s impressive debut, The Light Between Oceans. La Seur has already made a name for herself with this sure-handed and cinematic story. She spent nearly a decade writing it while working as an attorney in Billings, and the time and effort shows on every page. Highly recommended!

Author Carrie La Seur on the unique life of Montana artist-farmer Harry Koyama

Carrie La Seur

Carrie La Seur is a seventh-generation descendant of Montana homesteaders who was educated at Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia, Oxford University (which she attended as a Rhodes Scholar), and Yale Law School. She is an environmental lawyer and the founder of the nonprofit legal organization Plains Justice. She practices law on behalf of farmers, ranchers, and tribal members, and writes when she can from an office in Billings, Montana. She is also a licensed private pilot. Her work has appeared in such publications as Grist, Harvard Law and Policy Review, The Huffington Post, Mother Jones, and Salon. La Seur’s debut novel, The Home Place, was published on July 29 by William Morrow. [You can read my review here and my interview with La Seur here.]

This essay was originally published on the Public Books website as the July 29, 2014 installment of “Public Streets,” a biweekly urban observations series curated by Ellis Avery (reprinted here with the author’s permission). In it, La Seur profiles the unique life of Montana beet farmer and Western artist Harry Koyama. 

Montana Avenue in Billings is a startlingly urban raft on the vast, grassy sea of rural southern Montana. It has microbreweries, artists, a cowboy hat–fixing genius, solar-powered lofts, and huge summer street events, along with homeless people, addicts, and the occasional break-in or fatal stabbing in an alley. Saucer-size rodeo buckles, business suits, elaborate mustaches, and sleeve tattoos co-exist.

Shop doors stand open on summer evenings, when the draw of Harry Koyama’s narrow gallery strengthens to an irresistible force. Harry himself is the lure, as much as his flamboyant canvases of wildlife, wild places, and the vivid people who populate southern Montana. His presence pulls in locals who normally wouldn’t think of buying original art.

“You end up doing a lot of explaining,” Harry says, hands on knees on a straight-backed chair in the small studio behind his shopfront, having given a visitor the comfortable sofa that dominates the space. “Most people have some kind of enjoyment of art whether they know it or not.”

HarryKoyama_bighorn

In his 60s now, Harry came to painting late, after 35 years farming east of Billings. His hands are smooth but still bear the signs of rough work. He is slight and brown, with thinning hair and a face that falls into smiling lines even when he isn’t smiling.

In this place, Harry is an unlikelihood. Although ethnically Japanese, he has lived a classically Montanan life. His father, Tom, was born in Sheridan, Wyoming, the son of railroad immigrants from Wakayama, Japan, who established a farm south of Hardin, Montana. Harry was born and raised in Hardin (current population a bit over 3,500) with seven brothers and sisters. He earned a fine arts degree and kept his creativity alive doing commissioned metal art—a popular local form—in winter. After a triumphant struggle with cancer in the ’90s, Harry returned to his boyhood love of painting. Collectors responded so passionately that by 2003, he was able to paint full-time. Now his pieces go around the world, including to the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Beijing, where one of Harry’s massive bison watches over Ambassador Baucus.

As history has a way of doing, World War II intervened in this pastoral American story. Tom Koyama left for California shortly before the war broke out and married Emiko Kubo there in 1942. The War Relocation Authority arrested the pair on their honeymoon and shipped them to the Gila River War Relocation Center southeast of Phoenix, Arizona. Friends in Montana intervened and secured the Koyamas’ early release by insisting that the war effort required Tom’s expertise at bringing in the sugar beet harvest—but not before Harry’s eldest sister was born in camp.

Although Tom and Emiko never spoke bitterly of their imprisonment, they had camp friends who did so the rest of their lives, Harry recalls. His boyhood in the prosperous postwar years was distant from the experience of his parents and grandparents, but there were poignant moments. One of his art professors, Ben Steele, was a survivor of the Bataan Death March who struggled to put the past aside when a young Japanese American named Harry walked into his class in the 1960s. “I never knew until years later,” Harry says of his old friend Ben, who welcomed the younger man to their Billings artists’ group when Harry moved to town in ’07.

HarryKoyama

As one of very few Asian Americans in the area, Harry occupied a middle ground between the white ranching community and the Crow Indians whose reservation borders Hardin. Today his art also occupies that middle ground. He paints Crow tribal members in full powwow regalia, as well as ranchland that has since been strip-mined for coal. His paintings often come with a story. “This is on so-and-so’s place,” he’ll tell a visitor, or “I saw that pheasant up Sarpy Creek a few years ago.” Relentlessly, the work calls out to the place.

Most of the year, Montana presents a nearly monochromatic landscape: white in winter, brown in summer, with a bright green moment in late spring. Raised on that sober palette, Harry Koyama is wanton in his use of color. His bears are red. His bison glow golden.

“Color is my own enthusiasm with the profession and the medium,” he says. “Being able to express yourself with color is why I get into the vibrancy.”

The animals are more lively and real for the impossible shades that represent them, because Montana’s wildlife is surreal, bigger than life, impossible to believe when you see it for the first time. The color evokes the awestruck feeling of those encounters.

Encountering Harry, surrounded by these canvases, is a similar experience, a flash of brilliance on a quiet day, a busy street at the heart of a place he holds in the palm of his hand and offers, without bitterness.

 

Carrie La Seur on The Home Place: “I wanted to tell a good story, one that the people I’m writing about would appreciate”

Carrie La Seur  The Home Place ad

In a year distinguished by outstanding debut novels, Carrie La Seur has written one that stakes its own claim to the distinctive territory known as the literary suspense novel. I was pulled in on the first page of The Home Place and the story had me riveted until the last page. I was equally impressed by the quality of the writing and the multi-layered plot. There is a great deal going on in The Home Place but it never feels overloaded or heavy-handed. The many characters and conflicts, the murder mystery, the love story, and the threat posed by coal mining to the ranchers’ way of life in southeastern Montana are all handled so expertly that one would never suspect that this is La Seur’s first novel. And she wrote it while working full time as an attorney and raising children. You can read my review here

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You have such an interesting and impressive background. Educated at Bryn Mawr and Yale Law School, Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, public interest lawyer, and now author. Having grown up in Billings, what made you decide to head east to a small, private liberal arts school? Did you experience culture shock moving from Montana to Philadelphia, or had you been yearning for city life for so long that you adapted easily? Did you plan to become a lawyer while at Bryn Mawr or did that come later?

I got good scholarship support to go to Bryn Mawr, but it was a huge culture shock for me. I went there because I wanted to see the world. We could barely afford it. I typed all my papers in the computer center, worked in the dining halls, walked dogs, etc. By the time I graduated, I had an idea that I’d like to be a lawyer, because I wanted to have the tools to represent people I had grown up with who had never gotten a fair shake.

When did you start writing? Was it always a part of your life or is it a more recent development?

Writing has always been my primary form of self-expression. I kept journals for many years and still dip into one now and then. When I was a kid, I’d write plays and have my friends and little brother act them out. I’ve tried a few writing classes, but they always took the joy out of it. The moment writing ceases to be a joy, I get up and walk away. Without that, there’s no point.

Which writers have had the greatest influence on you, both as a writer and as a reader? (I always assume they’re not necessarily the same, as one can love some writers but not be inspired to write like them.)

This book began as a little project I gave myself to tell something like the homecoming story Anne Tyler told in her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes, but for myself, with characters and problems that interested me. But I’ve never thought in terms of wanting to write like someone. Every word is derivative in some way, but you’ve got to mean it as your own or why write it?

I’m a terrible reader of novels. I’m hypercritical. I keep looking for that childhood experience of being so swept away in a book that I can’t bear for it to end and I want to read it over and over, like I did with C.S. Lewis or L.M. Montgomery or L’Engle or Tolkien. Something about Doris Lessing satisfies me lately, although I couldn’t say exactly what. It has to do with puzzling out big questions in a very engaging way. I love biography, history, and histories of ideas. Agrarians have been blowing my mind lately. I could read Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Michael Pollen, or farm memoirists like Kristin Kimball all day and night. It’s probably consistent that Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer made me very happy. I like to read about people having complex, long-term interactions with places, delving into seasons and soil. And then Neil Stephenson and William Gibson and Arthur C. Clarke because my husband said they were geniuses and made me read them, and he was right. Tomorrow I will change my mind about all of this.

Obviously, there are some similarities between Alma Terrebonne and you, in terms of where she was raised and educated and her career choice. How did you decide which autobiographical aspects to use in The Home Place? Did you start out writing a memoir and it turned into a novel because it gave you more freedom and allowed you to include more than your personal experiences? A few authors have told me this is how their novel began (e.g., Brittani Sonnenberg with Home Leave).

There are settings and characters that are very familiar to me, and of course themes that I wanted to explore, but the story really isn’t very autobiographical. It was certainly never a memoir. If anything, I used details from my own life to emphasize the fact that my fictional characters aren’t as improbable as they might seem.

The Home Place is a character study and the story of a family dealing with a tragedy amid a web of complex relationship dynamics. The writing is often lyrical and there is a palpable sense of place. These are all characteristics of literary fiction. Yet it is a murder mystery set against the rural drug culture and complicated by the environmental issues posed by Big Coal trying to expand mining in Montana. What were the challenges of writing a “literary thriller”? How did the plot evolve?

Alma needed a compelling reason to come home, and something to keep her in Montana long enough to deal with what she left behind. That required an urgent event right away. Once I decided what that event was, much of the rest fell into place – as much as you can say that about a novel that easily went through a dozen rewrites. Mostly I wanted to tell a good story, one that the people I’m writing about would appreciate.

Do you view The Home Place as a sort of “belated coming-of-age” story? I’ve read several novels in the last few years in which characters who have been away from home for a long time feel the pull of “home” (both family and place) and experience a transformation in acknowledging this connection.

There are definitely elements of the bildungsroman here, especially considering how long it took me to write it.

As you wrote The Home Place, did you picture certain actors playing each role? Or when it was finished and existed outside of you? It’s a very cinematic read, and I found myself doing that as I read. Are there any plans for a movie?

To tell you the truth, I didn’t think about that until you asked. I wasn’t picturing famous faces.

It’s probably not the greatest commercial choice, but if they left it up to me I’d go for Noomi Rapace – who played Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish version of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movies – for Alma. She kicked ass, and Alma has more than a little fight in her to get where she is. The accent might be a challenge, so then Rooney Mara.

For Ray, I love Evan Adams, but he might be a little old for the role. For Vicky, Taryn Manning, “Pennsatucky” from Orange Is the New Black. Maddie: Betty White. Helen: Someone like Debbie Reynolds or even Sally Field. Pete: Channing Tatum, all the way. Walt is Woody Harrelson or Nick Nolte in hairy, crazy mode. Chance: Nobody too pretty. I never said he was handsome. Someone like a young Hugh Laurie.

No movie deal yet.

What is your writing routine? Do you write in a particular place? What five things do you need in order to write?

I write whenever I get a chance. Much of The Home Place was written on the couch after the kids went to bed. The only 5 things I need are 5 minutes of peace and quiet, and sometimes that’s all I get.

What has surprised you about the process of writing and publishing your first novel, both good and bad?

It’s all surprised me. I knew nothing. I was stunned to find an agent and ecstatic to sell my book. The whole thing is still hard to believe.

Fun Questions

If I were a car, I would be… a bicycle. A really fast one.

If I were a city, I would be… Melbourne, Australia.

If I were a pet, I would be… a horse.

If I were a product from the Home Shopping Channel, I would be… ? (I don’t have cable.)

If I were a TV show, I would be… Firefly.

If I were sushi, I would be… unagi.

If I were a movie, I would be… The Thomas Crowne Affair.

If I were a fairy tale character, I would be… the witch.

If I were a Disney character, I would be… Quasimodo.

If I were an actor, I would be… broke.

If I were a sound, I would be… the song of the western meadowlark.

If I were a beverage, I would be… Laphroaig.

If I were a year, I would be… next year.

Dog or cat person? Dog.

Beatles or Stones? Stones.

Dylan or Springsteen? Springsteen.

Half-full or half-empty? Leaving glasses of water sitting around is just asking for trouble.

THE HOME PLACE blends literary fiction and a suspenseful mystery into a seamless tapestry

carrie_la_seur_book_cover

The Home Place

by Carrie La Seur

William Morrow — July 29, 2014

$25.99, 304 pages

No matter how hard we try to escape it, our past is with us. We may succeed in fooling ourselves and others for a certain length of time, but the past has a way of sneaking up on us and tapping on our shoulder. As William Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” The same axiom holds true for family and place, the two inescapable, powerful sources that shape us inexorably.

In Carrie La Seur’s masterful debut novel, The Home Place, her protagonist, Alma Terrebonne, has done everything possible to leave her dysfunctional family and its tragic history behind in Montana. She escaped by earning a scholarship to Bryn Mawr College, a small women’s school outside Philadelphia. Having distinguished herself there, she then attended Yale Law School. Now, fifteen years after the winter car accident that killed her parents and took her younger sister Vicky’s leg, Alma is a hard-charging workaholic corporate attorney in Seattle living the sophisticated urban life. She is content, or has at least persuaded herself that is the case.

But a phone call from Billings changes everything. Vicky has been found dead of exposure in one of the city’s drug-infested neighborhoods, and Alma is called home to help arrange for the funeral. While Alma and Vicky had remained in contact, their relationship was fraught with drama. Vicky began a downward spiral after the car accident, despite adapting fairly well to her prosthetic leg. Although she had been taken in by older brother Walt and his wife Helen, by her early 20’s she was a mother to Brittany and was using drugs, bouncing from one job to another, and relying on number two brother Pete and her sympathetic grandparents to help her with finances and child care.

Alma returns home warily but with the sense of obligation and honor that has always served her well. Once back in Billings, she learns the details of Vicky’s death, which generally appears accidental but which has also raised a few red flags for Detective Ray Curtis, a Crow Indian whom Alma knew in high school. With her lawyerly mind now fully engaged by a complex problem, Alma works with Curtis to dig out the truth of Vicky’s death from under its mysterious circumstances. They are both suspicious of some of Vicky’s acquaintances, who are involved in the meth manufacturing and distributing business. Did Vicky simply slip on black ice while taking a drug-addled walk at 3 a.m., or did someone have a motive to kill her?

While her mind is thus engaged, Alma’s heart is pulled back into the past by her family and their ancestral ranch an hour out of Billings: “the home place.” Her grandmother Maddie is still the loving and feisty white-haired matriarch, but age has caught up with her. Walt, a grumbling grizzly of a man, hides in his garage workshop and has little to say to Alma, his wife Helen (in a wheelchair due to worsening multiple sclerosis), or anyone else. Pete, with whom Alma has a good rapport, owns a high-end coffee shop with his partner Shep. Eleven-year-old Brittany had been living an unsettled life with Vicky and is now in need of a guardian. Matters are complicated further by a predatory coal mining company “land man” who is trying to get neighboring ranchers to sell their property. And Alma is surprised to find her high school boyfriend is also back in Montana running the family ranch after finishing his education at Stanford.

La Seur has woven all these strands into a seamless tapestry. The Home Place is a character study of Alma’s belated coming-of-age as she faces her family’s tragic past and complicated present, a mystery that becomes increasingly suspenseful, and a love letter to the Big Sky country of southeastern Montana. The characters are people we care about (or, in the case of the less admirable ones, at least wonder about), the plot is complex and emotionally resonant without sliding into melodrama, and La Seur’s writing is graceful and evocative.

In many ways, The Home Place is the type of novel I like best: literary fiction with an ethical dilemma or mystery at its core, well-written and respectful of readers’ intelligence, but warm-hearted and well-paced. In that sense, it reminds me a great deal of one of my favorite books of last year, M.L. Stedman’s impressive debut, The Light Between Oceans. La Seur has already made a name for herself with this sure-handed and cinematic story. She spent nearly a decade writing it while working as an attorney in Billings, and the time and effort shows on every page. Highly recommended!