This was quite a different Bookfest than any I’ve attended before, because, I think, of a lot of subtle but interacting factors. One was the weather: a Canadian cold front was coming through so it was a wetter, chillier experience. I left late, about 5:30 AM, and the Big Dipper accompanied me as far as the Highway 200 exit, but from then on driving worsened until I was going through Rogers Pass (5,610) in a snow storm with big goose feather flakes. I was happy to get to Lincoln where the waitress met me at the door with the news she had just taken a quiche out of the oven. It was spinach and dried tomato, and it turned out she had evidently just thrown a handful of spinach and big slices of tomato into the mix instead of cutting and stirring. I didn’t complain.
The road was slow enough that I got there at ten, missing the panel on “Publishing in the West.” I’m tired of the subject anyway. I’ve attended that panel twice. Russell Chatham is the only one I’d care to hear from at this point and he’d “testified” on Friday. But I had a nice chat with Pat Burk, wife of Dale Burk. We probably hadn’t talked since the Sixties when Dale was the only writer/photographer chronicling the new phenomenon of Western artists. His two books are the subjects of one of my blogs.
The Burks, who are about my age, confirmed that aging is affecting us, affecting the way we see the world. We were such idealists -- we dreamed so big. I ran into Don Marble, a county commissioner in Chester, and one of the “good” lawyers -- now retired and no wonder -- and again hit the theme of “the world is changing,” with his concern for the way economics and politics are going -- far too entwined, far too vicious, far too hard on the little guy and the land. Iraq and the Gulf Coast disasters are wearing hard on us, bringing back semi-subconscious memories of WWII or even the Depression. We resisted the impulse (more or less) to count the number of fine writers missing in action here -- dead, aged, involved in other matters.
The first panel I attended was moderated by a veteran (even founder) who was NOT missing in action: Annick Smith. The topic was “A Boy’s Life -- Male Memoir.” Annick raised four boys so she felt competent to urge on this set of four men. Her approach was structured, with an introduction, and she had interviewed each of the men in the lobby of the Wilma just before, so they were warmed up and confident.
Greg Keeler is someone I don’t really know, but feel as though I do because the Bozeman Unitarians were so fond of him when I was there. A scruffy guy, he says his whole strategy is being the butt of his own jokes -- he says it turns out that way most of the time anyway, so he just uses it. A poet and musician (he composed the conference theme song) he has most recently been a memoirist of Richard Brautigan. Suddenly everyone is curious about Brautigan again, and Keeler was a neighbor and tolerant but protective buddy through some of Brautigan’s wild excesses in Bozeman. Now Greg turns to his own life. Fishing and fish have been the non-mega-charismatic totem of his life, so his coming memoir is called “Trash Fish.”
Doug Peacock, now bald but with short chin whiskers, flowered on this panel. Annick has known him “forever” and her warmth kindled his sense of humor. He said with his poor eyesight (his glasses go on and off all the time) he misread the original panel title and thought it said, “Male Member.” Acting out what that might be like, he narrated, “Dick stood up and went to the door. It was cold outside.” He thought it should be Hemingwayesque, of course.
Fred Haefele, author of “Rebuilding the Indian,” was on one of the panels at the first Montana Festival of the Book I attended. He is considerably mellowed, softened, and more attentive, although once he claimed to be “off task.” He’s a lifelong arborist and I daresay it’s only in this unaccustomed setting that he goes “off task.”
Jonathan Johnson, a much younger man, told how he and his wife had made a plan for finishing college, then holing up in a cabin near the ranch where he grew up, so he could write. He’s a poet, now turning to a memoir invaded by a surprise: a baby daughter. His memoir turned to something more the journal of a pregnancy and birth.
The startling fact of the “Male Memoir” was that Peacock and Haefele -- both in forty/fifty mode -- were also new fathers of baby daughters. What can it mean? None of the babies were the fashionable adopted Chinese females, but full-fledged biological creations in which the fathers took an almost maternal pleasure.
The second panel was “Men and Beast -- Writing Responsibly About the Wild.” The panelists were totally incompatible in method though they all care greatly about the grizzly. Mike Lapinski, an engineer who thinks in bullet lists, diagrams and slogans, preaches “Science,” and whose book is “The Grizzly Maze,” about Timothy Treadwell who tried to become a bear, was the organizer. He alloted everyone their ten minutes and put himself last, so he could run long. He had a few main points: bears are not the dangerous monsters portrayed, leave bears alone, and -- if necessary -- bear spray really works. A handsome rawboned man, he’s clearly a type not often seen at Book Festivals and we’re poorer for it. But it’s easy to understand why he wouldn’t come. He writes hunting books: he’s old-fashioned, right-wing, an effective escapee from the system who won’t vote unless his wife MAKES him.
Gary Ferguson lost his wife tragically in a river rafting expedition last summer. Another handsome man (in a different way) he speaks eloquently about wilderness in the way liberals do, alert to conservative control of the agenda and its weird phobia about science.
Doug Peacock locked his brakes. He’s the romantic who sees the “mythic” bear and understands the deranged war veteran Treadwell. Retreating by reading from his manuscript, he recommended Paul Shepard. I’ve got to get back to Paul Shepard. Is Doug Peacock handsome? For me, a burly bald man in an undershirt holding his cat in his arms -- as depicted in the Festival flier -- is nearly irresistible. He terribly misses Ed Abbey and says there is no contemporary equivalent or replacement.
Andrea Peacock, Doug’s wife, was nothing like I expected and with her analytic journalists’ outlook came closest to providing some kind of overview. She seems young, flexible, and sympathetic, but -- as she reported -- she is capable of spending the entire last summer reviewing written records, hardly going outside.
One of the problems I found with this year’s festival was that there was no time between sessions for meals, schmoozing, taking a quick shopping break and so on. I guess it’s my own fault for not wanting to miss anything, but Richard Wheeler and Sue Hart (the star of last night’s premiere showing of her movie on Dorothy Johnson) invited me to lunch and I had to turn it down since there was only a forty-five minute interval. It’s hard to be in Missoula and not have a little time to prowl.
I “do” the festival all in one day because I don’t want to leave my cats overnight, but there were several small dogs at the festival. One lady sighed, “We’ve already had four dog fights this morning!” Since they were all dogs that weighed less than maybe five pounds (One vet I know claims that dogs that weigh that little are no longer dogs, but rodents.) the biggest damage was to eardrums.
On an empty stomach and at my usual naptime, I got into trouble at the next panel by sitting in the back with Mary Clearman Blew -- whispering, we thought -- until a very nice librarian-type lady came back and rebuked us severely for damaging the event. Mary went into administrator mode and apologized. I personally felt defiant. If you ask me, there are too many “nice ladies” at this event. They’ve grown gray-haired over the years, but they still worship “culture.”
The panel was “The New Novel” and was moderated by the blonde Festival Goddess herself, Kim Anderson. Everyone on the panel was young enough to be my offspring. I recognized Kevin Canty (whose daughter is ten years old) and he spoke about going to the computer and listening for voices from some other place. (There was a great deal of emphasis on “how do you get your ideas?” Rather like the lady who told me she loved to blog but had a hard time coming up with ideas.) He’s funny and easy, but that’s surface.
Claire Davis was quite different than I expected from reading “Winter Range.” I thought she’d be less huggable, less mordant. I guess it’s the tension between those contradictions that makes her interesting. Her new book, “Season of the Snake,” is about a woman married to a sexual predator who doesn’t see it. Claire, Mary and Kim Barnes belong to the outpost of Missoula literary society in Moscow, Idaho, which these days accomplishes more and better stuff than the Mother Fort. Next on the horizon is an anthology women over forty. (Frankly, I don’t care about that. Where’s the anthology for women over sixty?)
Jess Walter, of Spokane, was almost like a white version of Sherman Alexie. His most recent novel is about a guy in a witness protection plan, sent to Spokane, where rubbing elbows with good citizens makes him rethink (or maybe for the first time “think”) about what a democratic society ought to be. Jess played poker with two of these-type guys, and seems fully capable of rendering them as they are. One re-offended and is back in the slammer.
Dean Bakopoulos is the token import, the exec. director of the Wisconsin Humanities Council. His recent novel was “Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon.” He was a high energy, funny guy but I don’t remember anything specific. Garth Stein is a similar type guy who’s from Seattle. The truth is that I don’t know these books, don’t really know what the authors are talking about, and am not motivated to read of them -- oh, maybe Claire’s. The theme of this panel was about being an “outsider,” but it appeared to me to be about something like personal blogging, an exploration of one’s own internal world and the voices that come from “someplace else,” other people’s lives. I must be getting old and cranky.
Luckily, Kirby Lambert, art curator at the Montana Historical Society, had just been to the blogging panel when the next panel started and said that my name had come up in a defense of how blogging is just a lot of interior rambling -- the moderator there said that what I posted was well-written and obviously I’d spent a lot of time on them. I hope I’m an influence instead of an anomaly.
The last panel was “Forged in Fire.” The fire-jumper, Lori Messenger, had been whisked off to respond to water: she is running an emergency response center in the Gulf of Mexico states. Mary Clearman Blew read her essay about fighting wildfire while suspecting she was pregnant. On a quick break in a small town after hours, she appeared at the only drugstore just as they were closing -- smoke-smeared and weighed down with her Nomex garments and other gear. The women of the town sympathetically found her a pregnancy test and gave her advice about a time and place to take the test. Negative. But later she had a daughter. (Where are all these girl babies coming from? That “other place” the writers kept insisting was an inspiration?)
Kim Barnes’ essay was about the terror of being the one left at home while her family went out to risk their lives. A tall, beautiful woman, Kim is newly gray in front and it becomes her. The only moment in which the terror returned to her was when she spoke of her daughter wanting to fight fire.
Phil Drucker wrote a story he claimed was named for “one of my earlier ex-wives.” It was a cliff-hanger but he assured us he didn’t burn up in the end. The plot hinged on two fire-fighting readiness groups who got into a water fight on a hot afternoon and then had nothing left for fighting the fire that broke out. Mary earlier had organized an anthology of Idaho writers on “water,” and jokesters like Phil suggested, “Well, now you need to do fire, earth and air!” Okay, responded Mary. And Phil could co-edit! The earth anthology is now being organized and air after that. Mary is reading submissions for “air” and says they’re good.
One of the most valuable parts of the schedule is the thumbnail bios of the writers, which I use all the year long to try to keep track of developments. I’d like to see this bunch of bios posted on the Montana Arts Council website, or maybe the Montana Festival of the Book website. WITHOUT noting how much money they make for the glory of the Montana economy.
Worrying about the pass, I left straightaway, but it was cleared and graveled. Enough snow along the way to track elk. On the west side the snow became dark rain Thin pewter rents tore the low indigo clouds into long silvery streams with a star here and there like a fish. The streams formed an estuary, and by the time I was north of Choteau, the Big Dipper was sailing along with me and the sky was a huge net of glittering stars.