Where does Missoula-based women’s fiction author Casey Dawes get her inspiring blend of now and wow? The answer is surprisingly simple: she’s living it.
Montana Press caught up with Dawes and her tech-expert husband Ken on the road in the Forest River R Pod RV they’ve called home for the past six years. Though both originally hail from the New Jersey area, Casey’s literary breakthrough came when her post-graduate job quest landed her in the Rocky Mountain Front village of Browning, teaching drama at a Blackfeet middle school. Dawes' own dramas have inspired 22 novels and short story collections so far from the Missoula-based Mountain Vines Publishing company she owns, including her latest entry in her Rocky Mountain Front series, Starting for Home.
In her latest book, protagonist Gerri Keffer takes a job as a production supervisor in the oil fields of Wyoming where she relieves her emotional stress by rock climbing with her good-looking Montana co-worker, Kaiden Beck.
Seat belt strapped in? Here’s a wild ride with Casey Dawes.
MP: Are you still in Massachusetts?
Dawes: Yes, we still are.
MP: And surviving?
Dawes: Yes. The worst part was being in Pennsylvania when [Hurricane] Ida roared through. The worst that happened was, we were in an area with a tornado warning and we live in a tiny RPod RV, so we took us and our protesting cat down to the [campground] shower area and sat it out there.
MP: Hurricanes aside, let’s talk about how you got where you are.
Dawes: How many hours do you have?
MP: After reading Starting for Home, it’s clear that you have a lot to work with.
Dawes: I also have a very curious mind and Google is my friend.
MP: Let’s start at home: where do you live now?
Dawes: We live in our RV actually, but we were in Missoula for the last eight to ten years, something like that. And the previous time I was in Montana, I lived one year in Billings and then three in East Glacier Park, so that’s where my love of that area comes from, the Front actually. It was interesting because when we were there over the summer, we were in Missoula and I went to Great Falls, and as soon as I came over those mountains and onto the Front, it was magical. It was like coming home.
MP: Were you a writer as a kid?
Dawes: Yes. I actually came in third with a short story when I was ten in the Boston Globe or something like that. I was living in Massachusetts at the time. My dad was an electrical engineer working for RCA, and like I subsequently did, he didn’t always get along with his bosses. We went up to Massachusetts, I think to escape one boss, and also there was family stuff going on; he didn’t want his sister knowing where he lived and it was oh gosh, such a mess. So we were there for six years and then he decided it was time to go back to New Jersey, so back we went.
MP: So even as a child you learned that life is all about movement.
Dawes: Well, my grandfather on my mother’s side had a very itchy foot and he would leave a note for his wife and say he was off. He was a waiter, they were first-generation, and so he would go on a cruise ship, and he would say, “Bye! See ya!”
MP: Did your own itchy foot put you on the road to Montana?
Dawes: Yes: my itchy foot! So, when I was in Jersey, I graduated from Montclair State and went and got a masters in theater at Ann Arbor in Michigan, and the only place I could find a job was in Billings, at the Eastern Montana College then.
MP: Did you have stage aspirations?
Dawes: Oh, I wanted to be a star on Broadway like a lot of kids,until I discovered a few things later when I eventually went to New York City and went, “Oh, I don’t like being rejected!” (laughs) It’s a rather insane industry; I still have friends in it. But what I finally figured out was that I want to be the person putting the words in the actor’s mouth, not speaking them.
MP: How did you take to teaching theater?
Dawes: I loved teaching; I don’t like the bureaucracy. And what really got to me was, I was in my 20s, living in East Glacier Park, population 279, teaching in Browning, and I was feeling cabin fever. So I moved to New York City.
MP: That’s a 360! What was that like?
Dawes: I exchanged one cage for another, essentially. Just a noisier one. It was about a year and a half in New York City and then I moved to Milford, Pennsylvania, where I spent a chunk of time. And then from there to California, and we lost everything in California in the Bush recession. So we went, “OK. So where can we go that we can afford?” and we went to Montana, but we can’t really afford to be there either, our rent just is astronomical. Hence the RV.
MP: Your husband Ken is a web developer. Did that help with physically going virtual?
Dawes: Well, after I left and went to New York, I ended up doing temp work like every actor in the world, and at that point, the late 1970s and early 80s, tech was just getting off the ground. Because my father was an electrical engineer, I had that kind of mind and I moved from being a temp to working for ITT, and then bounced around various industries. I became really good as a consultant in Db2, which is IBM’s database on the mainframe, and traveled worldwide, I wrote books about it. I was a techie; they used to fly me places to fix things.
MP: So you and Ken met in tech?
Dawes: Yes. The cute story that goes with that is, when I was a Girl Scout in Massachusetts, I went to Girl Scout camp in New Hampshire on a lake called Lake Blaisdell. Turns out, my husband’s family had a family camp on that same lake, and he and his cousins used to go spy on the Girl Scouts about the time I was there. We met 30 years later in California.
MP: You write about your teaching experience at the Blackfeet junior high. What shifted you from teaching?
Dawes: It was the small town. I eventually went back to teaching for eight of the ten years I was in Missoula. I was a substitute teacher, which I really enjoyed except for the pay – because again, I’m better off being autonomous. Which is why I self-publish rather than going through all the angst trying to get into a small press or indy or whatever. It was always my downfall working for corporations. I was better as a consultant because I was autonomous; I’m better NOT being in school situations under administration because I have too many opinions, too many ideas and I bucked every system there is. But I loved it. I loved the kids. I was heartbroken by some of them and the circumstances in which some of them lived.
MP: Those passions come across strongly in your fiction.
Dawes: I think the basic thing is that life’s complex; it’s not completely black and white. Things happen that are not good for either side, and to really make it better, we need to be able to talk to each other and explore feelings and what people think and possibilities, and maybe looking outside the proverbial box to say, “OK, how do we make this work?” And let’s be real, white middle class Americans are not going to go work in a field.
MP: You also skillfully manage to weave romance into life’s dichotomies.
Dawes: One of my California Coast series (California Sunrise) was based actually on a real person. This guy had been a field worker in Salinas and I have a friend who was in the Farmworkers Union and worked with Cesar Chavez and she introduced me to him by email and he’d written a book. He became a pediatric doctor from the fields; he fought his way and he became my romance hero. And when he told his wife that someone had made him a romance hero, his wife apparently cracked up!
MP: Your Rocky Mountain Front series somehow manages to weave together breathtaking scenery with very believable romantic dialogue. What’s the secret formula?
Dawes: I love the Front. The Front is part of me, I’m part of it. I don’t know how to describe it other than that. Once you’re living in East Glacier, you are right next to the Front. Working on the Rez and driving to Browning every day and driving home and seeing those mountains rise out of the plains and all of the different characteristics as the seasons change. When I was there, I became close to a lot of the kids and also talked to a lot of their parents who respected me. And I still have friends up there. I have an affinity still with the Blackfeet.
MP: OK, time from the Gerri Keffer and Kaiden Beck reveal: Are you a rock climber?
Dawes: No, nor will I ever be one. I look at it and go, “Wow, that would be so cool!” and then I think about the maneuver of having to put your foot over your head and I go no, I’m not doing that. We were just north of St. George, Utah and there’s a big rock-climbing canyon there and I was kind of messing around with an idea for this next book, and this woman, very tall, very slim with joints that could go any direction was climbing up this sheer rock face, and it was just amazing to watch. So I was like, “Oh, that would be cool!”
MP: The beauty of rock climbing in Starting for Home is that it provides the perfect metaphor for Gerri and Kaiden trying to find true love and purpose in their lives.
Dawes: Well, it was also a chance to provide conflict between their two personalities. She tends to be reckless and he’s like, “OK, we do step one, step two, step three.” He’s a millennial thinker.
MP: Did the plot go where you thought it would?
Dawes: No, it never does. I start out knowing exactly where it’s going and then somewhere in the middle the characters say, “Are you kidding?” and I go off and wind up changing major plot points. I just finished plotting out the final series book and even from what I envisioned way back in the beginning how the scenario would turn out, it’s not happening that way; it’s happening a different way. And I’m sure it will change again.
MP: Gerri certainly confronts a mountain of frustration with her oil industry administrative duties. How was it wading so deeply into the oil extraction industry?
Dawes: I’m an environmentalist. Yet at the same time, I think environmentalists are terribly shortsighted when they go, “Well, these people can just find another job in the renewable energy industry” because it doesn’t work like that; they’re two different kinds of jobs with two different skill sets and payment levels. You can support a family on oil jobs; you can’t do it on renewable jobs. So I don’t think people are seeing the whole picture.
MP: You have so many titles out. How’d you do it?
Dawes: 2019 is when I started publishing myself . It’s one of the things that has saved us in this little tiny trailer. I get into my story, I’ll have music going with headphones on and my husband gets into his techie stuff and focuses and shuts out the world, so we’re here physically in the same spot but we’re not. In fact, when my husband kind of moved in and we had a small office we were sharing, my son, who was about 18 at the time, walks over and looks at us and said, “Oh my God, there are two of them.”
MP: When will we see the final Rocky Mountain Front book?
Dawes: It’s coming out in April 2022. It will be Casandra Sanders' story, who has appeared throughout all of these books. She’s an attorney, and once people read them, they grow to hate her, so that will be the biggest challenge. It’s her story of doing everything she can to get money, power and respect, not realizing that that’s not what she really needs to be happy in life. Sanders is a county in Montana, so that’s where that came from.
MP: Will you be coming back to Montana in the near future?
Dawes: Don’t know. Right now we’re nomads and intend to stay that way. We go to Montana every year because that’s our home and we have to see doctors, lawyers, whatever, and also, I need my Montana touch; I need to at least drive by Glacier. It’s part of me since I first got there.
Learn more about Casey Dawes at www.caseydawes.com.