- Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I think those of us who want to be writers started as avid readers. I was fascinated by snakes growing up in the Appalachian hills, and it occurred to me at a very early age that adults didn’t know much about them, that they were prejudiced because of their ignorance. My grandmother was steeped in superstitions. She would place towels under the doors in her house so my snakes couldn’t slither in and would say things like, “For pity’s sakes, child, I see’d that milk snake suck the breath from a baby.” I realized that the only way I could learn was to teach myself how to read, which I did with my mother’s help at about four years old. That was beginning of the journey. Later, I was enthralled by a volume of The Complete Sherlock Homes, which was so heavy it put a dent in my chest, and later still by Jim Corbett’s tales of man-eating tigers in India. I knew then that I not only wanted to lead a life of adventure, but to write about it, and by my teens I knew exactly what kind of a writer I wanted to be, and exactly whose job I wanted. My hero was Al McClane, the fishing editor of Field & Stream magazine, who was deliciously rumored to be a cold war spy. He had a beautiful daughter about my age, and my goal in life was to impress him, to marry his daughter and ultimately to take his place as the fishing editor. I did none of these things but I came close in the professional sense; I wrote more than a thousand articles for the magazine and was even a finalist for two National Magazine Awards for my work. The road from magazine writing to being a novelist was long, but I was on my way.
- What do you enjoy most about writing in a contemporary Western setting, as opposed to a “classic” one?
The one-word answer is the characters. One of the first things that struck me upon moving to Montana, some thirty-odd years ago now, was its diversity and the openness and collective humor of the people. In the East, it seemed, people tended more to stay within their socio-econominc/philosophicale/religious/political and age classes. But in the changing West, people from all walks of life walked together, talked together, hunted and fished together, shot pool over the long winters together. As the big old-family landholding broke apart and were sold in twenty acre allotments for second homes, as the economy changed from timber, mining and agriculture to tourism and fishing, with some counties such as my fictional Hyalite County running on money generated by trout slime, people of all different stripes were thrown together. You might have a state senator living in a riverside log mansion living next door to barista renting a rundown cabin, next to a medical marijuana grower, next to a fishing guide, next to a movie star. And they all know each other and are in a sense equal inhabitants of the land.
This West contrasts with the Old West of Zane Grey and Louis Lamoure, two great writers writing a West that maybe never was. It also contrasts with current literature of the Rockies, which champions iconic loner lawmen in enormous empty counties — the admirable fiction of Craig Johnson and C.J. Box. Now their novels are relevant in the sense that their setting do still exist, especially in Wyoming, but the clock is ticking down on the wide open West and it is in a process of flux. My protagonist, Sean Stranahan, is a transplanted Easterner because I wanted him to observe this dynamic, and to see the country with fresh eyes that aren’t always comparing his vision with a disappearing ideal.
- Crazy Mountain Kiss is the fourth book in the Stranahan series. How would you say that Sean has changed and grown the most since the first book?
When this series started, Sean Stranahan was a lost man recovering from divorce and searching for place to call home. He moved west because his father had always wanted to take him west to fish and had died before they could make that trip, and he didn’t much care what happened to him just as long as something happened. Which did, with a knock at the door, as soon as he put his shingle up — Blue Ribbon Watercolors, and, in discreet script he hoped nobody would notice, Private Investigations). As the sheriff, Martha Ettinger, put it, he was one of those people who would step into shit even if there was only one horse in the pasture. He was also notably sane, the center of a cast of eccentrics.
Maybe too sane. He changed or, rather, Montana changed him, for the better I hope, and he found that in blue ribbon rivers and his relationships he had found not only a home, but a reason to live. Like Martha, he is a lonely heart not without lovers, and they circle each other, one’s shadow always upon the other no matter whose arms they are in– what could have been, what should have been, if the stars had only known better. They danced in the dark in The Gray Ghost Murders, danced apart in Dead Man’s Fancy. In Crazy Mountain Kiss . . . but no, I won’t give it away.
One has to be careful when pairing characters up in plot driven novels. It’s not so much that married people are boring, but that the other half is hanging around and has to be dealt with. If he or she is not a part of the story, they slow it down. It’s the same reason you don’t want your main character to have a dog, because you’re always dealing with the dog. I broke that rule, because there isn’t a man in Montana, a single man anyway, who doesn’t have a dog. If you don’t have a dog, who’s there to talk to? And now I’m paying the price, constantly inserting little reminders into parenthesis — (WHERE’S THE DAMNED DOG???).
I have a few readers who complain that Sean doesn’t fish as much as he used to. But then these are not fly fishing novels so much as novels that have a little fly fishing in them — NPR’s Cherie Newman says I’ve invented a genre, fly fishing noir — and sometimes Sean just has more important things to do than wave a rod. But don’t worry. He will always return to the river, for it is his reflection in the face of water that reminds him of who he was, who he is, and in its distortion, who he will be. Hopefully, some day, with Martha.
- There’s a thread in Crazy Mountain Kiss that involves a different kind of “Mile High Club.” What gave you the idea for that?
Several years ago I helped host a dinner party in Key West (my part was to cook antelope steaks I’d brought from Montana) and was having a drink with the tarpon fishing guide Simon Becker, who told the story of the infamous Key West mile high club, called “Fly Key West,” a service which offered “quickie” flights for couples who paid up to $350 to be flown around the island while they cavorted in a Piper Cub. The service included souvenir sheets and the option of having their couplings recorded on a voyeur cam (“By Request Only”), the business coming to an abrupt end in 2001 when a couple in their sixties, posing as lovers, high-jacked the plane to fly them to Cuba. A struggle ensued with the pilot, who crashed the plane in the Florida Straits; the plane sank, the pilot alone survived to tell the story.
Only in Key West, I thought at the time, but then thought, “Why not Montana?” Certainly there had to be sex clubs in Montana, though as a happily married man I had to look them up. I looked them up — there were plenty. Trade the plane for a forest cabin, up the elevation and viola — “The Mile and Half High Club.” It gave me the opportunity to write some quirky but sympathetic characters and is true to the nature of the area, which has never been at a loss for avenues of sexual escape. The police in Bozeman, my home town, recorded the names of some 600 local and transient prostitutes during just one calendar year in the 1880s, this in a town that started that decade with roughly a thousand people. Most were men, obviously, and evidently starved ones at that!
- You’ve undoubtedly influenced other writes with your work, particularly Western writers. What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
To do the work. East, West, South, it doesn’t matter where you’re from. This is easy to say, but ninety percent of success is showing up, as Woody Allen and lot of other people have said before. Just write the novels. Muddle your way through that 250 pages in the middle where most of the competition jumps ship, and then rewrite it until it’s as good as you’re going to get it. If I have learned anything traveling around the country and meeting other authors, it’s that those who have success, by which I mean they are working authors who make a living putting words together, it’s that they have achieved their status somewhere between books ten and twenty. So it’s never too early to start. Don’t set out to write the great American novel, and then rewrite it half your life; write a lot of books until they start sticking to the wall.
I do think younger writers have lost sight of this a little bit. I have been a panelist and presenter at many writing seminars and conferences, and it seems that the emphasis is more on the publishing end of the business than the writing aspect of it. But to get house published, as opposed to self-publishing, the work has to stand first. Tara Singh, a very wise editor I worked with at Viking/Penguin, said that writers are always telling her how many Twitter followers they have, as if that should be what convinces her to accept their book. It isn’t.
And it’s okay to start small. You can learn more as newspaper reporter in three months than you might as a masters candidate in an MFA program. Write in different mediums — newspaper, magazine, poetry, blog, whatever. They feed off each other to make you a better writer. I know I’m a better novelist for being a magazine writer (I know how to meet deadlines, for example), and being a novelist has made me a more fluid and better magazine writer.
Last, give yourself room to surprise yourself. I was a quote “literary writer” in the magazine world, someone who wrote thoughtfully and elegantly about his family. I thought that was my strength. But essays are driven by the declarative sentence, whereas novels are driven by character and dialogue almost entirely. Humor, character and dialogue came naturally to me; they were my real strengths and I’d never have guessed it. It only took me thirty years to find that out.
- What comes next for you?
In the immediate future, I’m traveling to Cuba to fish. One of the great perks of keeping my hand in the magazine world is travel. I could do more if I had the time. Writing novels is a be-careful-what-you-wish-for profession. Crazy Mountain Kiss, my fourth novel in the Sean Stranahan series comes out in early June and I am contracted for two more, which basically means I work too much and fish too little. I do still enjoy the characters. I wrote my first novel, “The Royal Wulff Murders,” partly to amuse myself, and aimed to surround myself with characters I’d like to hang out with. I’m thankful that I will have more time to do just that. I’ve also been working on a novel about children growing up in Appalachia, though that one’s sleeping the subconscious for the time being.
This is strange business. When I was a crime/nightside reporter, I had my finger on the pulse of the city, knew everyone, could tell you all the back stories. A story for a newspaper took two hours. Then I became a magazine writer, taking a big step away from interactions with my fellow human beings. And a story took two days or two weeks. Still, not long enough to become obsessed. Then I became a novelist, that most isolating of all the writing professions, where you sit with a cat on your lap (or I do), summoning lies from the ether, and having a full year to go mad about something that in a sense isn’t even real. I’m not altogether sure that’s healthy, but I wouldn’t change my fortune for a round-tip ticket to the best trout stream in New Zealand.
–Thanks to Kristin Centorcelli and Publisher’s Weekly for allowing me some space in their excellent publication. I’m honored. Keith McCafferty