In the next blog, I will start at the beginning and discuss the long road I took to becoming a writer, but I think this questionnaire, which I filled out for Penguin, is a good way to introduce my work. The cat in the photo is a stray who lived through a Montana winter eating voles and mice and freezing the tips of his ears off. Now that he found a soft mark in me and has wormed his way into a warm home, he won’t let me out of his sight. As far as he is concerned, any future books will be written with his help! We call him Rhett because if you look closely, you’ll see he wears a little moustache.
A Conversation with Keith McCafferty
1. This is your first novel. In what ways did your editorial work for Field & Stream help prepare you to write it?
As a reporter, columnist and essayist, I learned long ago to be professional — meet deadlines, write to point and write to length. As a novelist these traits are double-edged. If my editor suggests that the book will benefit from minor restructuring, a change in tone regarding a character, and cutting 9,000 words to bring the manuscript in at a reasonable length, my background gives me the discipline to do the revisions and bring them in on time. On the other hand, I’m an instinctual writer who tends to explore. I have a general outline in mind, write the first sentence, the first sentence leads to the second and so on; I never had the patience to outline in minute detail, nor the discipline to follow the outline if I did. In magazine work, that’s okay. Whenever I wrote myself into a corner, I just backed up and wrote myself out of it. But it’s one thing to find yourself in a blind alley in a 2,500 word essay; it’s quite another to get lost in a book of 100,000 words. E.L. Doctorow famously said that writing a novel is like driving at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. I agree, but the danger, at least for me, is that I’ll exhaust the reader’s patience enroute. So one thing I’ve had to learn is that it’s not enough to begin with a vague idea. I need to have a sense of the novel and a little more structure than I’m used to before proceeding. I still allow myself the license to follow where the characters take me, but they are telling their story within a framework. If I do my job the reader can’t see the reins on the horse, but having them in hand is the difference between storytelling and just a lot of talking.
2. How much of the plot of The Royal Wulff Murders is based in fact. What’s happening with whirling disease in Montana right now?
When I moved to Montana, the upper Madison River was one of the world’s greatest trout streams, so good that my friend built his house there just for the fishing. No sooner had the walls gone up than whirling disease struck and the roof collapsed on the fishery, the trout population plunging from 3,300 per mile in the late 1980s to 300 per mile only a few years later, a decline of 90 percent. Land values stagnated. I remember thinking then that this could be an interesting plot line in a novel, for trout fishing in Montana is a $500 million industry, and by some estimates as much as half of that was generated in the Madison Valley. By the time I got around to writing the book, the rainbow trout population had rebounded to about 60 percent of its former population and I wondered if I still had a story, for some people were quick to say that the native trout were building a resistance to the disease. However, some experts on whirling disease believe that the trout population has been artificially boosted by the introduction of trout from nearby Willow Creek and Willow Creek Reservoir. The Willow Creek fish, unlike the Madison strain of trout, do show some — I stress the word “some” — resistance to whirling disease. But to say the fishery is recovered is wishful thinking and largely propagated by those who have a financial stake in the river. If you are a trout shop proprietor or a guide on the Madison, do you really want to tell your paying clients that the river you’re going to float is an anemic version of its muscular past? Anyone familiar with the Madison in its glory years knows that the river is far from recovered and that whirling disease, which affects 150 streams and rivers in Montana alone, is a huge problem throughout the West. Next to habitat loss, introduction of non-native invasive species including the spores that cause whirling disease, didymo algae (called rock snot), Zebra mussels, New Zealand mud snails and many others pose the greatest threat to our rivers and fish.
3. You must be an avid fly-fisher. How much of the novel comes out of your own experience?
I was the same little boy Sean Stranahan was, endlessly fascinated with nature, and a dedicated fisherman from a very early age. Each birthday, my parents asked me what I’d like to do, and all I ever wanted to do was go to Clendenning Lake and catch bluegills. Watching that bobber dance on the surface as the fish nibbles the worm — there’s more suspense in those few moments before the bobber goes under than in any movie I’ve seen or book I’ve read. I began fly fishing on Michigan’s trout streams when I was four or five, and by eight I was tying flies for an entire campground of fisherman at Burton Landing on the AuSable River, along the first fly fishing only stretch of trout stream in the country. We fished at night for brown trout. The big ones were ate creatures like voles and mice, so I’d spin fur to imitate them; one camper had caught a trout with feathers in its stomach and he wanted me to tie a fly for him that looked like a nestling grouse. To this day I don’t have the patience to tie a standard fly pattern; I’m always turning something new out of the vise. In the book, I felt it was important to convey the passion so many have for fly fishing, as well as to use the correct terminology. I had to compromise some so I wouldn’t alienate readers unfamiliar with the technical jargon and fishing shorthand, while at the same convincing accomplished anglers to nod their head, yes, this guy knows what he’s talking about. In a similar vein, I felt strongly that the fly depicted on the book cover had to be accurate. Although it is a highly stylized version of a Royal Wulff, the colors and proportions are correct, as is the knot with which it is tied to the leader. If the fly on the cover was wrong, I’d lose credibility in a trout fisherman’s eyes before he got as far as the dedication.
4. What made you choose the Royal Wulff for the fly pattern at the center of the book’s mystery?
The Royal Wulff is America’s best-known dry fly pattern. Its stately elegance makes a splash of vivid color in practically every fisherman’s fly box I’v e seen. I had the great privilege of tying flies with its originator, Lee Wulff, at a convention for the Federation of Fly Fishermen back in the early 80’s. But that is not why I chose this pattern for the name of the book. In fact, I did not choose the fly at all. It chose me. Before putting the first word on paper, I had a vision of a dead fisherman in the Madison River with a trout fly stuck in his lip. In my vision that fly was a Royal Wulff and I wrote the prologue without knowing where the plot would take me, only that I thought it would be interesting and worth my time to find out.
5. Discussing how technological advances have affected fly-fishing, you write that “Stranahan knew that success rested upon touch more than it did on technology, and that technique took a backseat to concentration and desire” [p. 57]. Could you talk more about why touch, concentration, and desire are more important than technology in fly-fishing. Do you think those qualities are also more important in detective work? Has our culture generally devalued intuition in favor of technological superiority?
When I started fly fishing, the tools of the trade bordered on crude. Split bamboo rods had given way to fiberglass, which cast waves in your floating fly line, which after an hour or so became a waterlogged line, and most fly patterns looked nothing like the aquatic insects they were supposed to represent. The reason we caught fish was because presentation of the fly — struggling across the surface, rising in the water column, floating naturally without hindrance — has always been more important than exact imitation in coaxing a trout into opening its mouth. Today’s angler is so overwhelmed with technology that presentation takes a backseat in importance. But the best gear in the world wont catch trout unless your fly is in front of the fish. Desire cannot be underestimated. Fish the wrong fly hard enough and sooner or later it becomes the right fly.
Similarly, there have been huge strides in technology with regard to police work, especially forensics. But most crimes are still solved by getting people to talk. In the second book, Harold Little Feather compares Sheriff Martha Ettinger’s working method to a dog worrying a deer bone, gnawing with its head to the ground. She’s a good investigator not because she has access to technological wizardry, but because she cares and she is determined to close a case.
Americans are a hard working people. But we also have become a lazy people, especially with regard to sport and leisure. Today, many anglers use trout guides like Sam Meslik as a crutch. Instead of taking the time to learn how to read water, decide what trout are eating, select the fly and carefully wade into the proper position to cast, they are content to stand in the front of a drift boat and cast where the guide’s finger points. The pioneering spirit and pride in self reliance that Martha Ettinger and many Montanans bring to the table seems to be casualty of modern life, where instant gratification is the prevailing appetite. I would much rather fail on my own as an angler than succeed on someone else’s merits.
6. Which is more compelling for you as a writer, story or character? Or are they inseparable?
I think the trend in suspense is a heart pounding story that leaves little space for fleshing out character. Chase your hero up a tree, shake a stick at him for a few hundred pages and let him climb down in time to whack the bad guy and kiss the girl. As a reader or moviegoer, I can enjoy this kind of story if it’s well done, but as a writer, I find it hard to put words on paper unless I have characters that I care about. That said, nobody wants to wade through a novel that is constantly interrupted by backstory. The challenge is to tell the story through the characters without putting on the brakes, so that character development is enmeshed in the fabric of the narrative rather than being something apart. I also believe you should write to your strengths, and inventing highly idiosyncratic characters is for me the easiest part of novel writing — my wife would say it’s because I’m a natural born tall tale teller, to put a charitable spin on a four letter word that ends in “r.” Perhaps inventing is too strong a word, because most of the cast strolled onto the page of their own accord. I didn’t even know if the sheriff would be male of female when I started the second chapter. Martha Ettinger happened, that’s the best way to put it. Similarly, Rainbow Sam started throwing his rough bulk and weight of personality around unbidden by me, and Vareda Beaudreux sashayed and sang her way into the book with very little prompting. They all just are. I wanted to surround myself with characters that amused me, that were people who would be interesting to hang around with, and if they are memorable, part of the credit goes to the state. In Montana, story telling is a part of the culture and you don’t have to look any farther than your friends and neighbors to find page worthy characters.
7. How important is a sense of place for your writing, not just for setting but for your own creative process?
In The Royal Wulff Murders, Montana is a character as much as any human. It is a landscape that is a presence, that opens the mind and pulls at the heart, it is a sky so big a human feels small, but it also is a land in transition, as its ranching/mining history grudgingly gives ground to out-of-state ownership, land subdivision and tourism. The sparse population means that men and women of all walks of life walk together and many find common ground in the outdoors. This is the only place I know of where you find yourself standing in line at a ski swap with a bunch of powder hounds, not a few of whom sport world-class dreadlocks, to discover that the major topic of conversation is elk hunting. In Montana, people still take road trips just to enjoy the wonder of the landscape they live in, and perhaps have beer or two in some of the funkiest bars in the country. Like mermaid in glass aquarium funky, or a ceiling hung with the dropped antlers of single bull elk through its life span of 20 years. You couldn’t make it up.
I am inspired by nature and my work habits reflect that. Often, I drive to the Madison River where this novel was set, plug my adapter into the cigarette lighter of the old Explorer and write from the passenger seat, rising trout a short cast away. I also write on a bench under a covered bridge over a stream that’s about a mile out of town. This past summer, I undertook the job, or rather should say had the privilege of raising four Brewer’s blackbirds that for the first weeks of life needed feeding every twenty minutes. I ended up writing under a sun umbrella in my backyard to be near the cage. Later, when the birds were flying free, they would come to the table to take mealworms from my fingers; the little runt I called Blackie liked to perch on my computer while I worked. They have now flown south with a flock of other blackbirds and so, in winter, I have to content myself with working indoors, my link to nature the feral cat we adopted, sleeping on my lap.
8. Most American murder mysteries, both novels and movies, make killing someone seem like the easiest thing in the world to do. Why did you go out of your way, in the speech McGill delivers to Stranahan on p. 238, to show just how psychologically damaging killing someone can be? McGill says that even if it’s legitimate self defense, “you’ll still have to live with what you did. It will change you. It’ll distance you from your wife, your kids, your good mother” [p. 238].
I am, thankfully, no expert on murder. But I used to be a nightside reporter for the Bakersfield Californian, which means I was the crime reporter, and I attended scenes of violence seemingly every night I worked. Violence has very real physical and mental consequences. You don’t lose a bar fight and walk away with a black eye. You lose teeth and get your jaw wired shut and you may suffer mental lapses the rest of your life. And you certainly don’t send a bullet into someone and watch the blood bubble out of his mouth without it deeply and permanently affecting you. I have watched people die. It is not something to quip about or turn a heel on and I want my books to reflect that reality.
9. The novel leaves the relationship between Stranahan and Vareda, and between Martha and Harold Little Feather, up in the air. Will you pick up those threads in your next novel? Is this the beginning of a series?
My contract with Penguin is for two books and most of the major characters make a return in the sequel, which is scheduled to be published in hardcover by Viking next February, coinciding with the release of “The Royal Wulff Murders” in softcover. I plan to write at least several more, so god and publisher willing, there should be plenty of time to develop relationships as the series progresses.
10. What writers have most influenced your work? What other Montana writers would you recommend?
My earliest influences were Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle — I still have my boyhood copy of “The Complete Sherlock Holmes” — Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and Jim Corbett, who became famous for hunting man-eating tigers in his native India and who, more than anyone else, pushed for conservation and habitat protection for these great cats. In the mystery slash suspense genre I have always gravitated to the stylists, starting with the incomparable Raymond Chandler. Modern day practitioners I greatly admire include James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly and Alan Furst, who writes so evocatively of wartime Europe. Montana is a magnet for good writers, among them A. B. Guthrie, Wallace Stegner, Richard Hugo, Jim Harrison, Tom McGuane and William Kittredge, who encouraged me to keep writing. C.J. Box writes a fine mystery series set in neighboring Wyoming. As the landscape is similar, I claim him for us as well.