Bright Lights, No City : Montana’s the Literary Capital of the Country and Its Authors Have a Best Seller to Prove It

<i> Porter is a free-lance writer in Spokane, Wash. </i>

Circling crows appear like smudges on the pale winter sky, occasionally swooping to peck at frozen road-kill. The last few miles on Highway 15 from Helena to the Butte stockyards are harsh and not that pretty.

At the yard, Ralph Beer struggles against a 1,200-pound cow and the cold wind until the animal is finally in the auction stall. Then Beer lights a cigarette, perches on a rickety fence gate and muses on the state of literature in Montana.

If the stockyards seem like strange environs for serious discussions about literature, in Montana the talk can turn as quickly to rhyme and meter as it can to pork prices or irrigation problems. When he’s not working his cattle ranch, Beer writes novels.


Without a city in the state--and roughly five people per square mile--Montana can claim hundreds of published writers and poets among its past and current residents, and hundreds of thousands of avid readers roaming its many bookstores. Just why that is and how Montana came to harbor the literary likes of A. B.Guthrie Jr., Ivan Doig, Wallace Stegner, Norman Maclean, Thomas McGuane, Richard Ford, Patricia Henley, William Kittredge, James Welch, David Quammen, James Crumley and Rick DeMarinis, to name only a few, is a question not easily answered, but the speculating is a popular pastime.

One theory: “I can’t say for sure,” Bozeman poet Greg Keeler says. “Some of them were born here, and some of us came for the trout.”

The size and distinctiveness of the Montana literary community has resulted in a unique publishing project. Last November, the 5-pound, 3-ounce, 1,161-page volume “The Last Best Place,” an anthology of Montana literature, was published after more than four years of work by its editors.

The title, from a poem by the late Richard Hugo, longtime head of the creative writing program at the University of Montana and regarded by many as the father of the modern Montana writers’ movement, suggests another reason why so many writers have found the state so conducive to work. “There’s nobody there,” novelist DeMarinis says. “In that wonderful isolation, you get to focus.”

What began as a 100th birthday present to Montana for the state’s centennial this year has turned into bookseller’s legend. Barbara Theroux, owner of one of Missoula’s 16 bookstores, Fact & Fiction, said: “I’ve never seen anything like the demand for ‘The Last Best Place’ in my 17 years in bookselling. I sold 500 copies, at $27.95, in less than three weeks. And that’s unbelievable. Then the books were gone, but the demand was just as strong.”

The book covers 180 years and 154 Montana writers. Brainchild of editors William Kittredge, creative writing professor at the University of Montana in Missoula, and writer-film maker Annick Smith, the book is organized chronologically, anthologizing fiction, poetry and personal testimonies, such as excerpts from the journals of explorers Lewis and Clark.

Published by the Montana Historical Society and distributed by the University of Washington Press, sales of “The Last Best Place” have exceeded all predictions. “The first run was 6,000 copies,” said Alice Herbig, publicity director for the University of Washington Press. “And that was completely sold out in two weeks.”

Locating the book outside Montana has been even more difficult. A second printing of 5,000 copies was shipped early this month to retailers around the country and, “it sold out in less than 10 days,” Herbig said--at $40. (The first printing was subsidized by the Montana Historical Society.)

“We sold out of it completely,” said Nola Butler of Butler and Gabriel in Westwood. “We could only get five copies. We’ve reordered.”

A new printing is planned, Herbig said. “A lot of folks in L.A. haven’t been able to get the book because the Montana booksellers were so on top of it,” she said. “Hopefully by August, everybody will have it.”

Ralph Beer, at 41, has always lived on the same 1,000 acres of Montana ranchland along Jackson Creek, except for a brief stint as a cowboy in British Columbia, and time out to get a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Montana in Missoula. The cattle he raises have been under the same brand--Lazy H Triangle--since 1909, and as he says, “that’s a long time, even in Montana.”

Though he spends most of his time on a horse or a mowing machine, Beer still finds time to do some teaching at nearby Carroll College in Helena, to be a contributing editor for Harper’s magazine, and, of course, to write. Beer’s first novel, “The Blind Corral,” won the 1986 Spur Award, given for the best Western novel. When asked for his opinion about why the inordinate number of successful writers in the state, Beer takes a long draw from his cigarette and shrugs.

“Well, it does have something to do with place, but I’m not sure how much. Even before white people wrote here, the native Americans were terrific storytellers,” he says. “Then there’s the program at Missoula. You know writers draw each other to a place. They bring other writers with them.”

The creative writing program at the University of Montana in Missoula, the nation’s second writing program after Harvard’s, was launched in 1920. The distinguished alumni and faculty has included Leslie Fiedler, Dorothy Johnson, Walter van Tilburg Clark, and perhaps Montana’s best-known writer, A. B. Guthrie Jr. But it wasn’t until 1964 and the arrival of poet Richard Hugo to the Missoula Valley that the real excitement began.

Hugo, a respected poet and teacher, headed the program until his death in 1982. But during the 18 years of his tenure as director, the university and the town of Missoula educated their own and drew loyal Montana converts into their literary fold.

Blackfoot poet and novelist James Welch, like Beer, has always called Montana home. Born in Browning, Mont., and educated in reservation schools, Welch eventually found himself in Missoula and under the influence of Richard Hugo and the program.

“He made us all feel that anybody could write. We didn’t think there was a chance in the world that we had anything to say,” Welch recalls. “He made us realize that we came from undiscovered territory.” This “undiscovered territory” and the confidence to write about his place there have produced Welch’s heralded novels including “Winter in the Blood” (1974) and “Fools Crow” (1986).

It was the program that spawned the book. “The Last Best Place” is the most recent in a series of efforts that have unified the writing community in Missoula and, to a lesser extent, the rest of Montana.

Gerald Howard, formerly of Viking-Penguin and now an editor with W. W. Norton in New York, says of the work of Beer, Welch and other writers from Montana, “The land is in every sentence.” And about their popularity with readers across the rest of the country, Howard adds, “The American West is a controlling subject in our imagination. What you have in Montana is a primal American subject with very sophisticated writers taking a shot at it.”

Welch agrees: “Indians are an esoteric experience to most people, and combined with good writing, it’s doubly effective.”

Montana writers like Beer and Crumley sell well in Los Angeles, and McGuane and James Welch sell very well, said Dosier Hammond, trade book manager of the UCLA Associated Students Bookstore. “That continuing mythos of the ranch, a horse, wide open landscape, freedom, is extremely attractive to metropolitan readers. When your urban reality is less space, more traffic, ridiculous expense, it is not hard to see why these writers sell well for us.”

Seven years after his death, Hugo’s presence remains totemic. And the creative writing program continues to thrive. The current faculty includes longtime Missoulans William Kittredge and detective writer James Crumley. Other recent success stories from the program include Rick DeMarinis, author of the well-received story collection “Coming Triumph of the Free World,” and David Long, author of a book of short stories “The Flood of ’64.”

In the summer, the Montana Review of Books softball team takes the field. Co-owned and founded by James Crumley and New Yorker writer Bryan DiSalvatore, the team, 11-11 last year, will celebrate its 10th season this year. The outfield, which at one time could boast 12 published novels, has changed. But Crumley still plays a few games a year, and Coach “Buddha” DiSalvatore will be at first base again. Horror writer Neil McMahon (who uses the pen name Daniel Rhodes), one of the few original members still playing, remains in the starting rotation, combining with a changing lineup of graduate students from the writing program.

“We started out 80% social--just guys that enjoyed drinking beer, playing ball and reading books. Now we have a couple of poets on the team,” DiSalvatore says. “Poets are different. They get a hot grounder, a good metaphor comes to them, and they forget to throw to first.”

The literary talk can easily slide from the softball field, down Higgins Street, to Charlie’s Bar, a favorite watering hole for some Missoula scribes. “The Last Best Place” was even on sale there for a time until Charlie’s supply ran out too.

Or on Sunday nights, the Northern Pacific Railway depot, now home to a pub, is the site of Second Wind Readings. The readings, sponsored by the university, are weekly forums for writers to test their latest work in the open.

But Missoula, where even the city cops write novels--Detective Robert S. Reid just published his third, “Big Sky Blues"--is only one of the literary centers in Montana. The beautiful, trout-stuffed Paradise Valley, 300 miles to the east, boasts many gifted writers without benefit of “the program.”

Probably the best known and most colorful is novelist and screenwriter Thomas McGuane. McGuane is the author of “The Bushwhacked Piano,” “Ninety-two in the Shade,” and “Nobody’s Angel” to name but a few. His movies include “Rancho Deluxe” and “The Missouri Breaks.” He left a highly publicized, rowdy life in Key West in 1976 to live permanently at his Raw Deal Ranch in McLeod, Mont.

Some of the flashy life style remains--McGuane recently chartered a plane to Missoula to give a reading--but his place as both a Montana writer and a serious horseman are secure. “I’ve come to appreciate him as someone who gets all the details right,” Ralph Beer said. “Here you have someone foreign to the West, but he has made it his own with hard work.”

McGuane’s fictional town of Deadrock has been compared by critics to William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.

McGuane, who will be 50 this year, raises cutting horses at the Raw Deal, and a new novel, “Keep the Change,” will be published this fall.

The arrival of McGuane 12 years ago, and the subsequent arrival of painter Russell Chatham, created a “hip” atmosphere in Paradise Valley. It is now populated by writers like Tim Cahill and William Hjortsberg, and actors Dennis Quaid, Jeff Bridges and Peter Fonda can be considered at least part-time residents of Paradise Valley. Chatham, who has finally reached long-awaited success as a landscape painter, recently started his own publishing venture, Clark City Press, to publish lavishly produced books by Montana writers like McGuane.

But the literary luminaries are not confined to the Livingston area. Less than an hour’s drive west on I-90, for a while paralleling the rugged Yellowstone River, is the quiet mecca of literati, Bozeman. Here some of the Western myths that fuel the American imagination still exist. Men with coyote-skin caps sit at bars and shout for whiskey, and women dine on mesquite-grilled moose steaks. But “the New Bozemians” are writing to change the myths--or at least to even the score.

Once, and to some degree still, considered a cow town by those in Missoula, Bozeman can claim writers as elegant but diverse as David Quammen and Lynda Sexson, poet Greg Keeler and science fiction best-seller Kathy Tyres.

The house Quammen shares with his biologist-illustrator wife, Kris, is just blocks from Bozeman’s Main Street. After wading through knee-deep snow to reach the door, a recent visitor counted enough skis in the foyer to outfit the Yellowstone Ski Patrol. Quammen, 41, known for both his fiction and natural science essays, moved to Montana after completing a Rhodes Scholarship in Oxford, England.

“I was sick of ivy-covered academia, but basically I was looking for trout,” he remembers. Having never set foot on Montana soil, Quammen first arrived in Missoula by Volkswagen bus, fly fishing gear in hand.

That was 1973, and the author has lived in the state ever since, producing three novels, a collection of novellas and two volumes of essays. He was the recipient of the 1987 National Magazine Award for Essays and Criticism for his monthly column, Natural Acts, in Outside magazine.

“I’ve lived in half the towns in the state,” he says. “Montana is a beautiful place to live, and ski, and fish, but I don’t think people come to Montana to be better writers.” Unlike Missoula, where the writers have the camaraderie of a writing program, the Bozeman authors seem to go their own way. “There’s no male-bonding pod over here--there is no pod of writers at all,” Quammen comments .

He laughs and adds, “Generally, if you said, ‘Would you rather go to a spaghetti supper with a group of writers or a group of biologists?’ I’d take the biologists every time.”

Poet, professor, singer-songwriter and environmentalist Greg Keeler also calls Bozeman home, and for a reason common to many. “I came here to fish,” he says. An offer of a teaching job at Montana State did figure into it, he admits, but the fish were the thing. His latest collection of poems, “American Falls,” is alive with Montana’s natural beauty and swarming with fish.

Keeler affirms his neighbor, Quammen’s, sentiment. “Bozeman is a good place to write because each writer can establish their own attitude. For some of the people who studied under Hugo in Missoula, that was harder to do.” It was like being pulled along in the draft behind “a big semi,” Keeler said. “He was larger than life.”

If establishing a distinct literary identity in a rural state peppered with authors is difficult at times for men, the problem is doubled for women. “The male-female ratio in Montana is 4-to-1,” says novelist Sara Vogan, for years a Missoula resident, but now living in San Francisco.

“The male-bonding thing was very important there--at least in Missoula, in the literary circle and in the town. There was such a niche there where women were placed, it was hard to transcend that.” Vogan left Missoula nearly 10 years ago, and there is evidence that the times may be changing.

Poets like Patricia Goedicke, Dennice Scanlon and Linda Weasel Head are beginning to be published. And there is the Rattlesnake Ladies Salon in Missoula--a small group of serious women writers who meet monthly to listen and critique each other’s work.

“They have the toughest standards in Missoula,” says DiSalvatore of the Rattlesnake Ladies. “They are much tougher on each other than we (the male writers) are.”

Lynda Sexson came to Montana State in Bozeman in 1976 to teach religious studies. Since then, she has completed a collection of short stories, “Margaret of the Imperfections,” recently awarded the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award for 1988. Sexson, 46, is part of no clique, no writing program, and has achieved success.

About the effect of the state on her writing Sexson says, “It doesn’t matter where the place is, the place is really in the head. But when I go out walking, I hear and see the magpies and the slender harebells and then they work their way into my stories.”

While Sexson’s work may truly “have no accent,” the state can claim several women writers working from a Western perspective. Patricia Henley, a former Bozeman resident, published her collection of short stories, “Friday Night at the Silver Star,” to much acclaim in 1986.

Born in Lewistown, Mont., nearly 50 years ago, Mary Clearman Blew knows the struggles of being a woman and a writer in Montana. “In the past, the idea of the lone, anti-social male has been the model for what people expected to read about (in Western fiction).

“That has so dominated our idea of what the world is that women have had a hard time trying to establish a counter point of view,” Blew says.

“I didn’t come for the skiing or the trout fishing--and I’m not a member of the ‘boy’s club,’ ” confesses Sexson. “I feel as though I am taking up Montana space wrongly.”