Montana: Big Book Country

Jane Smiley

Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley (A Thousand Acres) is on stage at The Union Club Bar & Grill in downtown Missoula. Earlier in the week, she turned 68. Jane Smiley has been publishing books—26 by my count—since 1980. Short stories, essays, non-fiction, young adult stories, and more. She is wearing blue jeans and a checked shirt. Unassuming? To say the least. She takes her turn at the “Pie and Whiskey” night like just another writer reading her stuff. She moves her hand around her chest and neck to emote and underscore her words.

Among others in the lineup are Bill Kittredge (born in 1932). He wrote A Hole in the Sky: A Memoir and many other books. He co-produced the movie “A River Runs Through It.” He taught creative writing, too, at the University of Montana.

The rules for the evening are that your readings have to mention pie (there is a whole table full of yummy pie slices, including Sweet Potato) or whiskey. Or both. It’s a much-anticipated event at the Montana Book Festival and the room is packed and stiflingly hot.

The MC’s are Sam Ligon and Kate Lebo. This a franchise, it turns out, and there’s a book called Pie & Whiskey: Writers Under the Influence of Butter and Booze. Ligon’s reading is hilarious, full of energy and attitude.

'The Inlanders' panel

The Montana Book Festival started a day before I arrived, on Wednesday. It ran through Sunday, Oct. 1. Panels, pitch sessions, readings, presentations, workshops, and awards. It’s a big whirling Mix Master of words and ideas. Events stretched from 9 a.m. into the evening every day through the weekend at a variety of venues in downtown Missoula—senior centers, art galleries, libraries, schools, bars, and two (count ‘em!) independent book stores mere blocks apart. It’s hard to imagine a hungrier flock of readers. The presentation space at Fact & Fiction Bookstore was small but packed for a 75-minute reading called “Bold Women and Rebels of the West” at mid-day on Friday. Packed, I tell you.

At a panel called “Inlanders: A Reading and Publishing Panel With Fugue And Willow Springs,” the aforementioned Ligon tells the assembled writers to not be discouraged even though his magazine accepts “one tenth of one percent of fiction submissions.” Ligon is the editor at Willow Springs Magazine, published within the MFA at Eastern Washington University. He’s also a novelist.

It’s “liberating,” Ligon argues, to know that there is “nothing you can do” to get published. It’s ALL subjective, he says, so just write the best piece you can. Whatever the magazine recently published, he said, is exactly what they don’t want next. And don’t submit any nature poetry. “I do not like it,” says Ligon, as proof of subjectivity itself. “I do not want the moon to be a bruise.” And don’t mention that you were nominated for a Pushcart Prize, he says. “What else did you not win?” he asks. “The National Book Award?”

Montana Noir panel

Hilarious. And true.

To understand how good you are, says one of Ligon’s fellow panelists, get a job reading submissions for a literary journal. “You will see what sucks.” One of the panelists reads a funny—very funny—poem about nipples. More specifically, hairy nipples.

At Shakespeare & Co., across the bridge over the Clark Fork River by the road heading south out of town, nine short story writers talk about their entries in Montana Noir, the latest in a series (90-plus volumes) of short story collections from Akashic Books.

The store is bright and sharp. My friend Keir Graff, who co-edited the volume with James Grady (the author of Six Days of The Condor, many novels, short stories, screenplays and journalism, too) said he and Grady tried three times to interest Akashic in the project. Their final pitch effort was “The Last Best Pitch.” It came in the form a noir short story about their plans and apparently one of the Akashic editors was a character in the story. Sold! They weren’t going to be outdone by Zagreb Noir or Brussels Noir. One of the stories in the volume is called “All The Damn Stars in the Sky,” by Yvonne Seng. (A title that begs the reader to devour it, no?) Grady’s entry, a powerful piece called “The Road You Take,” is about strippers ferried from Montana town to Montana town.

The 'Montana Noir' crew

At the Dana Gallery at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, about 30 people turn out to listen to a panel I’m on with fellow mystery writers Christine Carbo, Gwen Florio and Leslie Budewitz. Carbo has three mysteries out, a fourth on the way and a fifth in development. Florio has four mysteries out, a fifth on the way, and a stand-alone literary novel due out next summer. Writers write... Florio is one of the “Montana Noir” authors, too. Budewitz, author of two series of cozy mysteries (seven books out so far), is finishing up a darker stand-alone novel of suspense that sounds anything BUT cozy.

Leslie’s idea stemmed from an incident from her high school days. It’s been brewing all these years. On the panel, Leslie makes a great point about the need for fictional characters to change. When characters get punched, she says, they don’t bounce back up in the same shape. “They aren’t like the Pillsbury Doughboy,” she says.

At a panel on women’s fiction, all the projects sound interesting. Compelling. Again, Fact & Fiction Bookstore is packed. SRO. Jamie Harrison, whose novel The Widow Nash apparently includes lists of earthquakes and all the damage they have caused, quotes Hilary Mantel (“Every novelist is failed historian”) and Mark Twain (“Figure out your facts and then drop them like a hot potato”).

Montana mystery writers Leslie Budewitz, Gwen Florio, Christine Carbo with a writer (yours truly) from Denver. Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of America panel.

Back at the Union Club Bar & Grill later that night, the Montana Noir writers read samples of their work and, yes, the bar is full again and the patrons are rapt and attentive and appreciative. A bottle of “Noir Creek” whiskey is passed among the writers. It would take you years to read all the books produced by the Montana Noir crew.

Graff opens the readings with a sample of his story, “Red Skies of Montana,” about erstwhile arsonists and a skiing development on Lolo Peak. Apparently Lolo Peak had its own forest fire this summer, one of the hottest and most fiery summers in recent memory in Montana. The real-life fire happened long after Graff conjured it in his story. Graff promises to “use his powers for good” next time around.

When Graff finishes dropping a few f-bombs from his story on stage, two young boys approach him holding out a copy of Graff’s middle-grade novel, The Matchstick Castle. They ask him to sign it. Graff writes both adult novels and middle grade novels. Yep, writers write.

Fall festivals are cool—beer, cider, pumpkins, you name it. Make mine books. The Montana version is bustling and energetic. A worthy destination and totally worth the trip. Next chance I get, I’ll be Montana bound.

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“Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book.”
― Jane Smiley, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel

Mark Stevens
Mark Stevens is 2016 RMFW Writer of the Year. He writes the Allison Coil Mystery Series--Antler Dust (2007), Buried by the Roan (2011), Trapline (2014) and Lake of Fire (2015). Buried by the Roan, Trapline and Lake of Fire were all finalists for the Colorado Book Award; Trapline won. Trapline also won the 2015 award in genre fiction from the Colorado Authors League. Kirkus Reviews called Lake of Fire "irresistible." More about Mark on his website.

5 thoughts on “Montana: Big Book Country

  1. Your account makes me drool, Mark. I can’t rid myself of the “bruised moon” image. It’s very much subjective.

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