How can one truly appreciate what it means to be Montanan? Fourth-generation Big Sky guy Russell Rowland tackles that question in his new novel, aptly titled “Cold Country.”
The engaging Bozeman-born author of numerous novels is also a literary coach and host of “Fifty-Six Counties,” a new literary chat fest on Yellowstone Public Radio named after his state tour book of the same name.
In his latest novel, Rowland takes the reader back to Paradise Valley circa 1968, where the ranching community is totally thrown from saddle when popular bachelor ranch owner Tom Butcher is found beaten to death by a baseball bat.
While the tight-knit locals immediately suspect newcomer Carl Logan, who had just relocated with his family and troubled son Roger, the author’s clever unfolding of the truth reveals just how many of Butcher’s buds who could have gone all MLB on their BFF.
But the way that Rowland came to psychoanalyze his own upbringing in fiction is every bit as fascinating as this new book itself.
Were you a reader as a kid?
You know, it’s funny; I didn’t really read all that much, even. There was a period – in fact, it was the period on which this book is based – when I did read a lot when I was living on this ranch and sort of not getting along with any of the kids. I actually did show up at school with loafers and looked around and like, holy shit, I’m not going to fit in here. And I used that framework and threw in the murder to kind of spice it up a bit.
I was one of those goody two-shoes who got straight A’s and was a singer. I was the oldest, so I was an overly responsible kid. I was a music major as an undergrad. I wrote music, played in clubs for a while. My band was called The Authorities. I played keyboards. But yeah, I didn’t really have the discipline or the passion for it that I do for writing, so I got discouraged easily.
Where did you graduate high school?
In Billings. We moved to Billings when I was 12. My mom’s family ranch was established in the late 1800s, so it’s been there forever. I got my B.A. at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash. where I graduated in music education. Those were my drinking years. My major was based on the fact that I got a scholarship, but I didn’t really want to teach music.
Did drinking awaken your inner scribe?
I didn’t read too much until my twenties, when I quit drinking. Post-grad, I was going through a divorce and had a bunch of financial problems, so that’s why I joined the Navy, to get all that taken care of. My dad was an alcoholic and he got sober when I was 23, so I knew enough about AA by then to realize that it was just a matter of time for me. I joined the Navy when I was in my late 20s, so I was already sober by then.
Where were you stationed?
I was stationed at the sub base in New London, Connecticut. I wasn’t actually on a sub; I was on the ship that provided supplies and did repairs for submarines. I was on a ship but these ships hardly ever go anywhere because they have to be there for the subs, so it was kind of ideal, being on a ship that didn’t go anywhere. Especially when I found out what the clientele in the Navy is like. So you could leave the ship at night, and I did that a lot.
Is that how you wound up in grad school at Boston University?
I only applied to two grad schools: Boston and Missoula. For some reason, I always wanted to live in Boston and I got accepted to both of them, so I decided to go to Boston just for a change. Plus, I was stationed in Connecticut in the Navy right before grad school, so I just went up the road a hundred miles or so.
Post-trauma, you earned you M.A. in literature. How come?
By that time, I had decided that I wanted to be a writer, and this is probably typical of a lot of writers but I gave myself one year to get published when I made the big decision. And my first novel (“In Open Spaces”) came out 15 years later, when I was living in San Francisco, so things didn’t go according to my plans. I think I had four novels finished before my first one was published, so I had the bug. It’s a disease, really.
How did you like San Francisco?
I loved San Francisco. I worked at an advertising agency.
Were you writing ads?
No, I was actually in the finance department! They wouldn’t even consider hiring me for copywriting, even though I had a masters in creative writing. It was really weird. Ad people are strange, man. I worked in the finance department and I was actually glad because it was kind of mindless work, so I could put my mental energy into my writing. I was there for 12 years and I think five was about enough, but eventually I figured out that I wasn’t a big city guy. I came back to Montana and I felt immediately at home and so much more relaxed.
How did you make a living post-ad agency?
We moved back to Billings in 2007 and by that time, I had found a gig with this online writing class out of New York called Gotham. I taught for them for almost 10 years, doing these workshops, and a lot of the people that I had in those classes ended up hiring me to help them with their book privately, so I got a lot of clients through those classes.
Anybody we’d know?
There was one person in particular who has done really well named Nancy Bilyeau (“Dreamland,” “The Crown,” “The Blue”), who had a series. She was kind of my star, but I had quite a few who got published. That was really satisfying, and of course I ended up learning a lot from them, too.
Your writing, both fiction and nonfiction, feels smooth and almost effortless.
Yeah, well, I was a huge fan of Raymond Carver when I first started writing, so I was drawn to that minimalist style, but I also took this class in grad school from a nonfiction guy named Mark Kramer, and that guy was absolutely brutal when it came to editing. We would get our stories back and they’d be completely covered in red, so he taught me a lot about the art of saying a lot in as few words as possible.
Were you writing fiction and nonfiction at that time?
No, I never saw myself as a nonfiction writer; it was strictly novels. In fact, “Cold Country” was one of them. That book has been in the works for a long time, 20 years or so.
Where did the plot of “Cold Country” come from?
Well, my dad took a job managing a ranch between here and Sheridan. The owner of the ranch was named Peter Kiewitt, who had a huge construction company; they built the BART (San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit) among other things, and he was this super-wealthy guy who lived in Omaha. So my dad was kind of left on his own to manage this ranch, because Kiewitt was always in Omaha.
My dad was the Peter Kenwood character, and the ranch was actually exactly as it was in the book; there were a lot of hands who worked on that place who were expecting to get the manager job, so when my dad showed up, they were like, ‘Who the fuck are you?’ So there was a lot of lack of cooperation there and we were treated pretty coldly by the locals. They weren’t mean; they just didn’t include us in stuff.
The on-page community you create is almost this amorphous thinking machine.
Right. Exactly. That’s what I wanted to capture, how that happens. It explains a lot of our political climate right now. Everyone follows the herd, and the people who are the loudest and most successful usually set the tone for that.
You broke through that non-fiction barrier with the wonderfully adventurous “Fifty-Six Counties,” in which you actually visit every Montana county.
That was so much fun. I split out the travel over about six months, doing four different loops through the state. I stayed with friends when I could. And I didn’t really know what it was going to look like either. I was fortunate to have a publisher that agreed to publish it before I had even started it, so I just planned my trips and once I gathered my research together, each chapter was based on a certain country.
I ended breaking out the chapters based on the industries – ranching and farming, the railroad, mining – and I just put the counties in each chapter that seemed like they belonged. It ended up having much more of a narrative that way.
Any negative feedback from your treatment?
A lot of people are unhappy with the way I portrayed their county, and I knew that was going to happen so it hasn’t bothered me. It’s just my opinion.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a memoir. The basic premise of it is, I wanted to explore how growing up as a man in the West affects your personality.
We get so many mixed messages here about what it means to be a man and be tough and handle your problems by yourself. There’s a huge suicide rate here, especially among men. And along with my drinking problem and being divorced twice, I had a lot of anger issues when I was young, so I’m trying to direct a lot of that stuff, too. Just the basic inability to open up about things that we kind of struggle with out here in the West.
I’m also working on a new novel in which I’m trying to keep the character count down to just a few people, because a lot of my books have had so many characters. This one’s been a lot of fun. It’s about a woman who lives up in the Bakken where the oil boom is happening, an older woman who lives on her family farm and all of a sudden, she has all this money coming in from mineral rights, so she’s suddenly a person of interest to other people there. And she ends up hiring this young native kid to work for her on the farm, and at some point, she confides in him that she killed a guy, one of her boyfriends, and that he’s buried out on the farm.
And we’ll continue to enjoy your journey on YPR’s “Fifty-Six Counties,” right?
I’m having so much fun with that. It’s been going really well. There are just so many interesting people in Montana and I’ve been trying to look for maybe a little bit more obscure stories rather than the predictable ones. I’ve had some good guests.