Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Favorite Novel

A friend, seeking to read one of my novels, asked me which was my favorite. That was the one he wished to read. I said it was Sun Mountain. That is the story of a Wisconsin youth who leaves his placid home in search of adventure, and finds it in Virginia City, Nevada, on the huge silver deposit known as the Comstock Lode.

The novel follows the young man, Henry Stoddard, from youth to old age. That is not a popular sort of novel these days. It covers a whole life, and how the young man evolved, first as a journalist and then as a mining executive. It is not melodramatic, or thick with plot or action. Neither is it a literary novel, seeking to supply readers with insights. Instead, it is a story of the evolution of a humdrum young man, a middling sort of youth, who grows as life tests and troubles him.

That, to my mind, is what a good novel is about. I began long ago as a genre novelist, writing stories rich with plot and action but short of character. I grew bored with that, and I suspect my readers did too. I wanted something more, such as the evolution of personhood as life tests us, and we grow or don't grow, we conquer or we fail, or we find solace in an unexpected quarter.

I rarely write genre fiction now, having found that historical or biographical novels are more rewarding and closer to who I am and what I want to leave with the world when I am gone. I have taken historical figures, written accurately about events in their life, but also found ways to interpret these events and their impact on my protagonist. Those novels include my studies of John Charles Fremont, Major Marcus Reno, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, and the Irish refugee and Civil War general, Thomas Francis Meagher.

In the case of Sun Mountain my protagonist, Stoddard, is entirely fictional, but drawn from myself. He is the only one of my hundreds of characters who is based in me and my responses to life's troubles. In a way, if you are looking for me in my fiction, you will find me present in Sun Mountain.

Monday, December 8, 2014


I was wondering whether there might be a print of the famed portrait of Gene Tierney in the film Laura. Turns out there isn't. I would have bought it in an instant if I could. Gene Tierney was the most breathtaking woman on earth. You can see the portrait by Googling it (movie laura portrait). I suppose this is bizarre, but I would have hung the portrait in my living room.

But the music lives on, hauntingly beautiful, lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Try listening.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Writing Business

For years I have been an observer of an academic organization called the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. It is the umbrella group for some five hundred college and university writing programs, usually leading to Master of Fine Arts degrees in various branches of writing. These programs churn out thousands of bright, shiny writers with MFA degrees attesting to their command of fiction or poetry or nonfiction. There are enormous annual conventions, drawing thirteen thousand or so writers, and these are far and away the largest such conventions in the country. The group also sponsors numerous workshops where these writers can teach others to be masters of writing too. Since an MFA is usually considered the terminal degree in the field, all these busy young people enter life at the pinnacle of their profession. They are writers. They are professionals.

I know of nothing like it in the history of literature. For a princely sum, a young person can become a master of writing, certified by a fine university or college, and can enter the world with lofty credentials that, say, separate him or her from accountants or plumbers or shoe salesmen. It is a matter of entitlement. It is true that jobs for such graduates are scarce, but the organization resolves that by creating new writing programs and hiring MFAs in creative writing, to staff them. So the enormous academic enterprise is somewhat self-sustaining, even while enriching the universities that charge several tens of thousands of dollars to complete an MFA degree.

There is an odd quality about this. MFA degrees are not generally offered for genre literature. You will not find MFA programs that will turn you into a top-flight writer of science fiction, or western fiction, or romance fiction, or even mystery fiction, which has better credentials than other genres. That is because genre fiction is considered mere storytelling, not worthy of academic attention.

If a young Larry McMurtry were to write Lonesome Dove now, and submit it as an MFA paper, he would not get far with it. It would be regarded as a western, beneath academic consideration.

A large part of New York publishing continues to produce genre fiction, some of it excellent, but it is unlikely that writers with their shiny new MFA degrees would feel at home among the storytellers. That is because storytelling is not considered art in most academic quarters.

All of which is good.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014


My publishing arrangement with Open Road is coming together and I am happy. It has the potential to revive many of my western titles and improve my bank account. I am impressed by the company. They have been cordial and gracious.

Last week I stumbled in my study, common enough for unsteady older people, and lurched into a corner of the wall, where my ribs took the jolt. I dismissed it as a bruise, but the hurt didn't go away, and by Monday I was ready for a trip to the ER. I summoned my caregiver, Marnie Gannon, who has been a godsend to me ever since the seizures. The verdict: I broke a couple of left-side ribs, close to my broken left arm and shoulder. They were not displaced, and all I can do is wait for them to heal, breathe deeply and often, and hope the pain will go away. The doctor advised me to use a cane regularly, if not a walker.

As usual, my dear friends in Livingston rushed to my aid. Joanne Gardner brought me turkey and all the trimmings. Her fiance John Lowell left his phone number and an offer to help anytime. (It is hard for me to get up, lie down, roll upright and his offer of aid means a great deal.) Maryanne Vollers, who is starting a book with a North Korean defector, brought gorgeous pumpkin pie. Jean Sandberg brought fine turkey soup and we spent time catching up. Robin Ogata brought salmon patties and tender baby potatoes, and an hour of good conversation. She well remembers her own broken ribs. Margot Kidder showed up with a chicken pot pie, salad, and a story that topped mine: a few years ago she fell off a camel and broke four ribs. I showed her my new Hudson's Bay Company blanket, since she's Canadian. She grew up with HBC blankets.

Tammy Smith came by, cut my hair, trimmed my beard, and told about the T-Rex head, found in eastern Montana, she and Matt are putting together for the Museum of the Rockies, and a Canadian buyer.

My new gray fedora arrived from Miller Hats, a little darker than it had appeared on-screen, but just fine. I will keep it. The social security administration has finally made the widower adjustments to my account, and I will be receiving more.

I am ready for next year.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Going Home

One thing I've learned in old age is that well-meaning young people have plans for you, and those rarely coincide with your own hopes and dreams. When Sue, my wife, was brought to the nursing home near me in Livingston by her children, all she could think of was going home. That was not possible; she needed fulltime care, and her house in Billings needed major repairs. But she never stopped yearning for her own room, her own bed, her own bath, where she had nested for decades. Her second home, my own, was nearby and I was able, employing her wheelchair, to wheel her over on mild days where she could spend time in her own surroundings. That brightened her life a great deal, and I was filled with joy to have her come home with me.

Recently I cared for a friend just out of the hospital. He had Alzheimers and wasn't well enough to return to his own home a few blocks away so it was arranged that I'd watch over him a few days. But his deepest yearning was to go home, where he had lived most of his life, and each day he asked, over and over, when he could go home.

I knew what that was like, having encountered naysayers when I was ill, and swiftly got his caregivers to help him get home as fast as possible. His friend and attorney paved the way. The home nursing people from the hospital signed off. A caregiver was hired to be with him mornings and evenings. And soon he was home, vastly happier after being twenty days away from his nest. I am glad I helped out. I did all I could to help him live the life he wanted to live in his last years.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Reborn Novel

A year or two ago, between contracts, I wrote a short novel about a young widow trying to hang on to her husband's small gold mine. He had died in a tunnel collapse, leaving her alone in the mountains, surrounded by human predators who were willing to do anything to steal the mine from her. They drove her from her cabin, the flames killing her infant child, and she found herself living in the wilds, with no friends, and many enemies in powerful places. She found ways to fight back, much to the consternation of greedy mining magnates who wanted that mine.

Her name was March McPhee, and the novel came to be called That McPhee Woman. I doubted it would sell. Publishers of westerns are as skeptical now as they always were of stories that featured heroines. And the story was ten thousand words too short for what most publishers wanted. And so it languished. My agent couldn't move it.

Then, last summer, an amazing thing happened. When word reached New York of my collapse, hospitalization, and long convalescence, my editor at Forge suddenly bought the story, paying full price, accelerating payments, asking only that I throw in a couple of short stories to round out the length. It was an act of great tenderness by an old friend and editor, and a company that had published me for decades.

I gather it will be sold in the crime or mystery category, which pleases me because the chances of a good sale are greater there than in the western field, which still mostly rejects heroines. I have been so heartened by that gesture that it helps me live, day by day, with illness and in August the loss of my wife, Sue. There always was something about book publishing that transcended profit and loss, and included the warmth of friends and colleagues. Even so, I feel that I have walked into a new world.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

My Portrait

I've been staring at a certain wall in my living room wishing I had a good portrait to hang there. The wall is a focal point in the room, and ideal for a fine oil portrait of my mother or dad, or one of my grandparents. But I did not come from the sort of family that would commission portraits of ourselves.

We don't see many portraits in homes these days. Portraiture is the hardest, most demanding art form, and a good portraitist is rare and costly. A good portraitist captures not only the physical person, but also catches the inner person, the attitude, the approach to life, and conveys all that to the viewer.

A few years ago a friend, Ben Bruce, did do a portrait of me; a very good one, drawn from a photograph he took when I was conversing at a picnic table with Margot Kidder. He caught me well, with my usual fedora on my head, my gaze intent. His painting was interpretive, and not intended to be a photographic image of me. In the background are buffalo, grazing in a field.

I didn't know where to hang that portrait of myself; it seemed pretentious to hang it in my living room. But there was a natural spot for it in my study, where I write my novels, and there it hangs, sometimes gathering the attention of visitors. At first I felt a little awkward about having an oil painting of myself staring out at visitors, but now I am fine with it. And I use it occasionally as a signature of myself on the Internet.

I've slowly come to realize I am one of few people who have received a portrait. Mine was not commissioned, but was a gift from Ben, who enjoys capturing the essence of his friends on canvas.