Young Montana carpenter Taz is blindsided when his wife Marnie dies after giving birth to their first child, leaving the task of raising baby Midge to her gobsmacked but resourceful father and his handful of clueless working joes. Once his bestie Rudy fills the obvious need with a babysitter named Elmo (a college student so nicknamed because her hair matches that of said Muppet), the young father’s despair slowly morphs into building a new life and family around Midge, with the voice of Marnie lending advice and counsel.
As with his previous novels (“If Not for This,” “As Cool as I Am,” “How All This Started”), author Pete Fromm, the five-time winner of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Award, uses a stereotypical plot structure to explore a timeless topic: our seemingly limitless inability to communicate with each other, regardless of circumstances.
“That’s a big thing for me,” Pete says by phone from his home in Missoula. “There is so much failure to communicate in communications, and I think it’s not often taken advantage of or shown. It’s a mistake if you don’t show that struggle, I think.”
Given his distinct narrative voice and ability to tap into our deepest emotions in six words or less, one might assume Fromm was a born writer. Quite to the contrary, however. Until he was well into his twenties, writing was a job he mostly didn’t know how to do.
After graduating high school in Milwaukee, Fromm moved to Missoula to attend UM, where he fairly randomly majored in wildlife biology. A restless student, he dropped out after two years to take a job babysitting salmon eggs for Idaho Fish & Game, spending the winter in a wall tent in the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. After that, he hit the road, hitchhiking and visiting New Zealand before returning to UM to complete his degree. By the end of his junior year, he was just three credits shy of graduating when fate threw Pete a hand: an “Introduction to Creative Writing” night class taught by Bill Kittridge that was the only course of any kind that fit his three-and-beat-feet mission.
“We had one assignment for the semester: write a six-page short story, you can only have two people, the setting cannot change, and by the end of it, they have to resolve the difference between themselves. So I went home and wrote this story,” he recalls. “What I was really good at in school was daydreaming, so I could enter into the story, but what I found was that by having a pencil in my hand and having to be more specific and more focused than you are when you daydream, it just made everything come alive.”
That door opened wider the morning after his classmates got a look at his first-ever story.
“In class the next day, everybody just started arguing about the characters; ‘Why did that one guy let that guy do that to him? He’s such an asshole!’ and ‘The other guy’s the jerk!’ And the teacher (Kittridge) just looked around and said, ‘Who wrote this?’ and I wasn’t sure I should even answer. And he just said, ‘You could do this for a living if you really want to,’” he recalls. “I didn’t think that was very likely, so I became a park ranger. I had never met a writer, I read books but I never really thought about who wrote them. And that one class made me think, well, that’s pretty fun. So I had winters off and I would just write during the winter and never really showed anybody. I did that for years and it became more and more of an obsession. It’s really fun becoming somebody else.”
After graduating from UM in 1981 with a degree in (yes) wildlife biology, Pete quietly honed his new craft for most of a decade, working as a park ranger and raising two sons in Great Falls, where his wife Rose worked for a quarter of a century. With the publication of his first book in 2008, he quit his ranger position and moved his family to Missoula, where he joined the faculty of Pacific University’s low-residence MFA program.
To date, he has produced more than 11 books, including a PNB award-winning memoir (“Indian Creek Chronicles”) and short story collection (“Dry Rain”).
How did he dream up the idea for “A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do?” Flash back six years ago to a meeting between student and teacher, which, roles reversed, felt a lot like his own Kittridge surprise party. Here’s the story:
“In the low-residency MFA program, we had this one student who was a fireman in Alaska, grew up in East LA as this uber-macho kind of Chicano guy but really a good writer; sensitive but wasn’t allowed to show it very much in his life. And I just was walking up the hallway and he was walking the other direction – a big bodybuilder guy, really ripped – and he just reaches out and slaps a *Glimmer Train (literary) magazine into my chest and says, ‘Read this story marked in here and tell me if I’m a pussy for cryin’.’”
“So I read this story and it was about a couple; she’s pregnant, and in the last few months it gets a little risky and they monitor her, not a lot of concern, but then she dies. And the last scene in the story is this guy stepping out of the hospital holding this baby. The story was really good, that was a perfect place to end it, but as soon as I read the last page, I said man, that is the beginning of a whole other story with this baby coming. And the next day, I started writing, no relation to anything in the story, but pretty much with him walking through the door with this baby in a baby seat, and it went from there to how does this guy handle this?”
“Much later – after a few years because I’m kinda slow on the uptake – I realized it’s kinda hard to miss the dead wife if you never got a chance to know her. So I backed up and started this story so readers would get to know Marnie, and then the shock and death would hit them more like it would hit Taz, rather than starting with her already dead.”
As random as the story idea was, Fromm constructed his main character from his own experience with a different kind of building.
“I have been a carpenter; I renovated our house in Great Falls, and then when we moved to Missoula, I had to renovate a 100-year-old house that had been a rental for 50 years, so I had to take it down and rewire and put the walls back together again and I’ve made furniture. So I knew what he was doing and was able to write about it,” Fromm explains. “But for the sake of the book, having Taz and Marn building this life together, that served to strengthen that, expecting the baby, trying to get the house ready. So when she dies, Taz and this house works as a metaphor, something that he’s got to keep on working on without her. Then, once Elmo gets in the scene, eventually it’s something that he finds himself moving forward working on this place with her. So it’s a great metaphor.”
Fromm was similarly familiar with the hard work/hard play crowd represented by Rudy. What surprised him was that this rough character would ultimately prove key to his plot.
“Rudy’s not a real person that I know, but I’ve known a crowd like that. I worked with a park ranger for a decade, and he’s a Rudy. There are so many guys like that who just made so much money to get by and didn’t really have any ambition to make much more than that. They just liked to fish and drink and fuck off; it was more important to them than getting ahead in the world. So the more I worked on this, I really grew to like Rudy,” he says.
“The first few years working on it, the book was just sort of unrelentingly grim. Which makes sense; the guy’s got to survive this grief. But it got kind of one-note, and that just wasn’t going to work; you’ve got to have more than one emotion. And Rudy was in it. In fact, I wrote on the front of the draft, ‘You’ve got to make it believable that Elmo could ever be interested in Taz, because he’s just a sad sack.’ And it took longer than it probably should have taken for me to realize oh, I’ve got Rudy right here. He was the first thing that allowed me to breathe some fresh air into it. Taz couldn’t continue in that fog any longer than he did. It was a relief for me to see Rudy start to come to life.”
Once Rudy was in place, Fromm felt increasingly confident that he would be just the character to introduce Elmo without hijacking the story to rom-com land.
“Elmo was Rudy’s great gift,” Fromm says. “I’ve known a lot of people like her – I may be married to one – who were just these Western people who just kind of get the idea that something has to be done and no one else in going to do it, so they jump in. Elmo was going to help with the baby, and then she realized that maybe the bigger rescue mission there was Taz, and she was in it enough by then that she decided to go for it. I didn’t want this a happy-ever-after because they’re biting off a big chunk, she is in particular, and I wanted to suggest that this is a work in progress.”
What’s next for the author/biologist? How does cattle mutilation sound?
“I’m working on a novel that’s set near Great Falls where, back in the seventies, there were these cattle mutilations where ranchers would just go out and find a dead cow lying in the field and no way to tell how it was killed. Frequently, it would be shot, the tongue might be removed, the genitals, an ear, and a lot of time they were drained of all their blood. They never found footprints; predators wouldn’t touch them. There was a big rash of them and they’re still unexplained. UFOs? Helicopters? Sasquatch? It’s not exactly about those, but there were a couple retired sheriffs when I was living there that got me interested in that.”
And with a new idea and daydream, Fromm starts his next book.