Friday, May 21, 2010


In Montana there are two university sources for original public radio shows: one in Missoula for people west of the Rockies and one in Bozeman/Billings for people east of the Rockies. The ecologies, cultures, and lingo are different, but there is a bit of crossover. A Missoula show that has recently shown up on Yellowstone Public Radio is “The Write Question.” It’s about authors in the West, interviewed by Cherie Newton. I assume she catches these folks as they pass through Missoula for various reasons. She is on the staff at the Missoula station.

I have no idea what individual came up with the original category called “Montana writers.” Missoula was the original location of the famous “platform” though the publisher at Globe-Pequot, which is back east, once said all he had to do was put “Montana” on the cover of a book to make it sell. The Montana Festival of the Book, which happens in the fall in Missoula, exemplifies that platform (or did before they got to bouncing around with NPR back East) but it was a while before I realized that it is mercantile-based. Missoula is a college town, so I had the idea it was intellectual or analytical, but writing in Montana is clearly about sales -- saving the ranch. Having a “good paying job.” The Montana Festival of the Book is the literary equivalent of the CM Russell Museum auction in Great Falls. Both are organized by town, not gown. Nevertheless, the typical Montana writer is a college professor raised on a ranch. Theoretically.

At one of the earliest Montana Festivals of the book I met Mark Spragg, who is from Wyoming where he grew up on a dude ranch. He was just finishing a book promotion tour and was about as exhausted as a man can while remaining upright. It was a mingle-and-tingle evening part of the festival, back when it was still amazing to see other writers. Now that the Festival is all about consumers, I keep suggesting an informal potluck picnic for AUTHORS. Everyone nods and smiles. They’re busy. It won’t happen. Commerce rules. Next is family.

But I really like Mark Spragg. This was before his brush with Hollywood and Gentle Ben, the grizzly (or the latest of the tribe) in “An Unfinished Life,” and he was quite unspoiled about the whole writing thing. (Not to imply that he’s spoiled now.) So I was pleased to see that he was being interviewed on “The Write Question.” You can listen to it, too, thanks to the magic of the Internet. Go to The book is “Bone Fire” and the date of the post is May 19. Much of the interview is Mark reading from his book, which is a plus.

“Hear Spragg talk about writing and his new novel on The Write Question Thursday evening, May 20, at 6:30 (Yellowstone Public Radio) or 7:30 (Montana Public Radio). Or listen online.”

Newton runs a blog with the same title, “The Write Question: A radio program that explores the world of writing and publishing in the western United States.” Not “Montana writers.” I don’t know whether that’s a conscious choice to leave tightly defined regionalism, or whether it’s to allow people like Mark who is from Wyoming but pretty much the same ecosystem. I don’t know how far south she goes or whether she includes the coast. On the radio program there is a second participant (with an English accent) and the two simply remark on what they are reading every week, which seems pretty wide-ranging.

Susan Wickstrom, a former academic reviewing from Oregon, went with a regional emphasis, thus reinforcing the idea that writers are local. She says, “Wyoming is a serious place. It's home to Devils Tower, the Grand Tetons and Dick Cheney -- you can't get more serious than that. And according to "Bone Fire," Mark Spragg's latest novel, Wyoming is a place where serious people are scrabbling to find happiness in a barren emotional landscape.” This is the Sam Shepherd theory of Western writing.

“This web of interpersonal drama is strung together with a methamphetamine murder mystery, which seems sort of an afterthought. The real story here is people dealing with death, disease and relatives who seem like strangers. Modern life is seeping in from all sides, but it's still a grim place, where folks need to have a pretty good reason to smile.”

None of this was mentioned on Newton’s radio interview. Maybe regionalism is a monicker imposed from the outside rather than developing from the inside.

Wickstrom continues, “What is it about Wyoming that makes the humor so dry? Maybe it's the hard water. The jesting in "Bone Fire" is so deadpan, it's possible to count the laughs on one hand -- provided a finger hasn't been cut off in a ranching accident. But that's not to say the book is humorless -- there is a gentle hilarity that permeates.”

“The story moseys along as the characters muck through their trials and unhappiness. It seems Wyoming has the same mundane problems that occur anywhere in the world. But these somber Wyomingites have each other, and that stubborn loyalty is what makes it all bearable. Even more meaningful is their unbreakable tie with the land.”

“Spragg's Wyoming is quiet and beautiful and very real. He is a master at balancing minimalism with eloquent depth to paint a striking portrait of place . . . Reading "Bone Fire" is probably a lot like spending some time with the folks in Wyoming: A serious pleasure.”

And there you have it: the Montana writers “platform” except the label is changed to “Wyoming.” Simple.

The radio readings go to quite a different place, the mythic. Everyone is “spiritual” now. I’m mocking a bit, but it seems well-handled in the parts Mark read. The little girl in the movie has grown up and developed her Druid artist side by acquiring a huge literal bone pile in the middle of a meadow (antlers included -- typical in the West before antlers were worth money) and creating around it, as though it were a “bonfire,” a circle of figures also made of antlers. (Figures somewhat similar have been floating around in the art mags for decades.) This all ties in to “burning man” scapegoating, shamanism, and creativity as salvation. Mark Spragg in person reminds one of Ivan Doig, but his writing is nothing similar. Still, they hit the same platform: the land, the land, the land; the generations; tangles of bad errors; redemption through the spiritual; and nary an Indian.

But then, I base this judgment on one radio program. Listen for yourself and then we can all listen to the other shows and read the other books. The more discussion, the more growth in writers and the broader the platform. I want to know what Newton finds out about publishing. That may be the real “right question.” At least for authors. If you take a mercantile approach.


Anonymous said...

The Montana Festival of the Book is organized by Humanities Montana, with offices on the UM campus in Missoula and a largely academic staff. It features literary fiction and nonfiction, and barely includes commercial literature of any sort, especially not mainstream or popular fiction or genre fiction. A minor exception is mysteries. It focuses heavily on academic presses and small presses devoted to literary fiction. One rarely sees a commercial, mainstream novel or author featured in any of its programs. It is a gown, not town, operation through and through, steeped with expertise supplied by the university. It invites literary authors, mostly with academic credentials, and only rarely does it focus on mainstream fiction or popular nonfiction such as is published by commercial houses. Its only platform is inherent in its mission: to focus on Montana-oriented literature and authors. Its mission is to encourage humanities within the state of Montana.

prairie mary said...

Richard Wheeler is a genre writer who specializes in Westerns. He is married to Sue Hart, a professor in Billings who is deeply involved in the Montana Festival of the Book.

There are NO "academic presses or small presses devoted to literary fiction" in Montana.

The Festival is held in Missoula's motels, shops and public library. Go to the website: to see a list of the authors included.

Richard Wheeler is not on the list of authors and organizations at "The Write Question." There are two publishers, both of whom publish a lot of picture books.

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

You are certainly right about the gifted Mr. Spragg who lives in Cody and, I gather, Red Lodge. Indeed, Wyoming is producing the best regional literature currently. Craig Johnson and C. J. Box are splendid. Most of that state's literary renaissance lies in the realm of mysteries.

Montana does have some fine mystery novelists, especially in Missoula, and they are often given a chance to read at the book festival. Mysteries are the only genre or commercial literature that is regularly welcomed there.

That is probably good. The festival, after all, is devoted to introducing the best Montana literature to the public, and it does so very well, year after year. That is why it largely focuses on literary fiction but does not exclude the occasional fine work rising from the commercial publishing world.

Anonymous said...

Dear PM, You are quite right. I am not featured on The Write Question or any other public or academic broadcasting because of my vocation as a genre western novelist, which automatically places me on the bottom rung of the literary ladder.