Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Solace of Remote Places

I've always loved living in remote places. This is an essay I wrote about one such place I lived around 25 years ago, with my then-wife Gena.


The country house advertised in the newspaper turned out to be an old hired hand’s shack, a small gray stucco affair shaped like a barn. Weeds choked the yard and swallows’ nests lined the eaves, but the place had a big kitchen and a closet we could turn into a pantry. It offered free natural gas, fresh spring water, space for a garden, and a view of the Bear Paw Mountains crowning the southern horizon.
We moved in one dark night to the eerie cries of the cat living in the basement.
Though the place was more “country” than we’d expected, my wife and I were giddy with the prospect of starting a life together beyond the confines of the city. A few months earlier we were unmarried and trapped in the heart of Tucson, Arizona—poor graduate students teaching freshman composition for poverty pay and pounding out our master’s theses in a tiny, dark apartment with only an asthmatic swamp cooler to quell the desert heat.
Tired of the city, of the smell of scorched asphalt and of the perpetual batch of ungraded essays piled on the kitchen table, we plotted our escape on a big map taped to the wall. We were looking for the calmest, remotest place we could find. In August, we polished our theses, completed a six-week tour of summer school duty, loaded my pickup, Gena’s car, and a small U-Haul trailer, and climbed the map to the Hi-Line in Montana, where cool autumn breezes wafted over the stubble fields with the smell of wheat chaff.
Montana’s Hi-Line is the area lying north of the Missouri River and just this side of Canada—“the middle of nowhere” to most travelers passing through on their way to Glacier National Park. It hugs Highway 2 as well as the Burlington Northern tracks. High, rolling wheat country broken by small mountain ranges, it lacks the glamour and drama of the Rockies, which is why the Saabs and Four-Runners haven’t overrun the dirty, battered ranch trucks, and the Spandex and Birkenstock crowd hasn’t moved in with its gourmet coffee shops and New Age bookstores.
Which is why we settled here and I got a job teaching at the community college on the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation.
Not long after we’d moved in, a shaggy, burr-laden collie appeared in the yard, drinking from the leaky water hydrant. We figured he was a drop-off or had strayed from a nearby ranch, though no one claimed him and in time the crooked white stripe down his forehead became a permanent fixture under my pickup in the yard. Ol’ Shep we called him, and he led the way on every hike, a proud scout introducing us greenhorns to his native coulees and ravines that creased the prairie and to the creek curling through the distant breaks.
That first year it snowed before Halloween. One morning at dawn I sat by an upstairs window with a mug of coffee and the humming space heart, watching the cattle in the pasture gathered and waiting for the farmer, Hanson, to bring hay. Above them, the snow-covered mountains pinkened with first light.
The reservation lies in the heart of those mountains, and when I drove into them later that morning, plowing through drifts, the snow was deeper, the air bluer, the quiet even more dense. Wood smoke plumed from the clapboard shacks and webbed in the valleys between pine-covered ridges.
It was the smoke of pine and aspen gleaned from the drainages surrounding Mount Baldy. In the brush along the creek, an old man dusted snow from a sweat lodge and tended the fire where several stones heated. I remembered those seasonless Tucson years I woke mornings to the roar of traffic and the smell of car exhaust, and walked to school, sweating and tight with city nerves.
All winter, Chinooks blew the snow off between storms, but that spring the mountains around Upper Bear Paw Lake were dusted with what the Indians call the Going-Home Snow. I stood hip-deep in the black, numbing water, casting nymphs to cutthroat trout while noisy squadrons of Canada geese practiced liftoffs and landings nearby, and Chippewa-Crees preparing for their annual sun dance sang in the picnic shelter across the lake.
In May, our neighbor rototilled a garden for us, and our landlord worked in several tractor loads of manure from his feedlot. Gena and I planted Early Girl tomatoes and nearly everything else we thought would have a chance in these climes. We spent our mornings sipping coffee and pulling mallow before the sun became unbearable and the wind picked up. Mid-summer, the Early Girls resembled shrubs, the sunflowers grew heads the size of dinner plates, and the pumpkins climbed the barbed wire fence to hide in the pasture.
Wild berries were abundant in the country we hiked each day, so in July we scoured the ravines and coulees for juneberries and raspberries. When the chokecherries came ripe in September and we’d finished canning and freezing our garden harvest, we hiked in the mountains bright with turning aspens, filling milk cartons with the bitter chokecherries and with rosehips we dried for tea.
The ridges Ol’ Shep and I hiked above Miner’s Gulch were thick with mule deer, and we came upon elk scat in the tufts of sage above the timberline. Along the creek closer to home the chokecherries were even more plentiful than in the mountains. Gena and I filled several buckets and steamed up the kitchen making syrup and jelly. I brewed chokecherry wine, as well, and we used it to wash down venison and grouse on cold winter nights when the raw wind howled off the Bear Paws and across the stubble fields.
Midway through our third year on the Hi-Line now, we occasionally long for the bookstores and restaurants of a city, but we’re not going anywhere. Here, the deer outnumber the people and the water’s sweet. The pantry’s stocked and the freezer’s full. The land teems with new, little discoveries we need only hike the nearest draw to make.
A few days ago, for instance, I came upon the fox that lives in the coulee, sound asleep in the sun atop a haystack. Without discussing it at length or even thinking about it much, we’ve decided to stay.

 [Update: Gena and I remained on the Hi-Line for two more years. Then we moved to Minnesota where we lived a similar life on our own farm for seven more years, raising Shep’s and Miss Stella’s two pups, Buck and Thor, and a passel of chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys. We moved to Colorado in 2002 and were divorced in 2007. We remain friends. Recently, I moved back to Minnesota with my rescue dog and best friend, Sydney.]


Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Curtain Call: Fill a Stein and Grab a Bloody Haunch, and the Viking Cafe in Fergus Falls, Minnesota!

[Over the past couple of years, I've had tons of letters about this essay I wrote about fiction-writing. Even had a couple of college English professors write and tell me they sent it out to their students when they seem to need a fire under their asses!

The pic above is of the Viking Cafe here in the little western Minnesota town I've moved back to. I've been writing here and I'll probably do a lot more of it. This world-weary wayfarer has visited many an eatery across this great country, but the Viking is still my favorite of them all! And somehow I thought it was fitting to put the pic up here with this Viking-like yarn...]
A Fiction-Writing Primer
by Peter Brandvold
That, in a heraldic nutshell, is my approach to writing.

Simple as a Zen painting and elemental as a pissed-off bobcat.

In other words, when I pour that first cup of morning mud thick enough to float a lumber drey, wrestle onto the floor amongst my snarling curs, and pick up my Macbook Pro which I prop atop my knees while said curs cozy up against my ribs and growl themselves into rabbit-rending dreams--yes, I write on the floor, close to the beasts and cold, hard earth!--I do not pad meekly but bull headlong into that netherworld of my own fevered conjurings of wild-assed adventure.

I throw my head back and bellow as loudly as I can--albeit to myself, so as not to arouse the carrion-eaters--“FILL A STEIN, MERRY LISTENERS! PULL UP A COLD ROCK BY MY HOT FIRE, GRAB A BLOODY HAUNCH OF ROASTING VENISON, AND PRICK UP YOUR EARS FOR THE STORY I’M ABOUT TO SING!”

Unless you’re trying to be Agatha Christie, that’s really the only way to do it.

Why whimper? Whimpering writers cause whimpering readers.
Admittedly, as on most subjects, I have narrow views on writing and literature. I think a story, whether it be short or long, should be a little wild and scary, sort of like the tattooed, Harley-riding jake your parents live in dread of your sister marrying. It should blow some cigarette smoke in our faces, flex its ghastly biceps, make us gasp in shock and giggle in delighted horror at the cheerio it just spun in our driveways.

Not that good fiction--I ain’t so looney as to say I write anything close tolit-ra-chah--shouldn’t also be thoughtful and reflect on our place in the cold, lonely universe in which there may or may not be a god and a reason for our being here enduring all the bullshit.

But it should also entertain the bejesus out of us. Cause our hearts to race. Interrupt our sleep with bizarrely vivid dreams. It should cause us to daydream if for just a few minutes each week in our office cubicles of telling the boss to stick it in her ear, we’re joining a carnival.

As a writer of relatively “traditional”--I really hate that word, because I don’t see myself as traditional at all--westerns, I write to entertain. But I got into this racket after beating a circuitous path through several improbable canyons.

I grew up wanting to be the Hemingway of North Dakota. Or at least the John Updike of the Great Plains. I loved poetry, Tolstoy, and Guy de Maupaussant. I was an English major at the University of North Dakota and finagled a MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona with a passel of what one would call “literary” short stories.

They weren’t half bad, either. One was published in a university quarterly and even anthologized later, and though it first appeared nearly twenty-five years ago now, I’ve recently received letters about it.

I say they weren’t half-bad, but I don’t think I could revisit even the best of them now without falling asleep. And that’s how I feel about most of the mainstream literature, and even most of the genre fiction, sorry to say, that is published today. It puts me to sleep. And that’s a bad, bad thing.
Because writing--even literary writing--should entertain or at least send some blood to our organs.

As a wide-eyed young English major fresh off the lonely prairie and wanting to read and write adventurous things, tales that made me feel eager and vibrant, I found myself nodding off over most of the novels I was assigned in college.

There were many that I liked, even some that inspired me. Moby Dick and the old Icelandic sagas, for instance. (The first was a wonderful if sometimes slow-moving and overly detailed story of one man’s war against the universe; the latter yarns were, as Michael Dirda described them in his Barnes and review of one of my old favorites, The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson, “spaghetti westerns with swords--only more thrilling.”)

But so many more I slogged through, blubbering. You can take Faulkner and George Eliot, and throw them in the same river.

After reading reams of those colorless and only marginally meaningful stories in the “small” magazines, I was deluded into thinking that that was the kind of stuff I needed to write to be taken seriously. That good writing had to be slowly plotted, overly ponderous, filled with self-conscious devices, and downright boring.

I was among those who sneered at anything that smacked of unheeled entertainment. Even at those I’d grown up reading, those wonderful storytellers who’d first inspired me to spin my own yarns all those years ago on the prairie. Writers like Alexandre Dumas, Rafael Sabatini (Captain Blood!), Ray Bradbury (The Illustrated Man!), Jack Williamson, Leigh Brackett, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Max Brand, C.L. Moore, Robert E. Howard, H. Ryder Haggard, and countless others of the pulp variety.

Good, old-fashioned entertainment.

But wait a damn minute--isn’t that the stuff that inspired us to sing around our cave-mouth campfires all those eons ago in the first place?
Entertainment? The stuff that made us laugh, cry, scream, dribble down our legs? That set the boys wrestling, the damsels dancing, and the dogs howling?

Now, I’m not saying it all has to be pulp. Or that when I sit down on the floor with my savage woolies to write my own brand of western entertainment that I don’t try to include more than just thundering .45’s, bulging corsets, and fisticuffs.

Not at all.

I think a story should entertain first and foremost. But it should also cause us to reflect, however briefly and genuinely, without being maudlin, on what it’s like to be humans in a world that is largely unknown and unknowable to us, and filled with tragedy and suffering.

If we genre writers draw our characters well, make them more than just types, but give them flesh and blood and their own unique way of speaking and living and loving, and give a little voice now and then to our own cares, our own angst, then readers will naturally find the depth that is there in the yarn between the shootouts and mattress dances, the depth that reflects the writer and the larger world that we and our tales grow out of.

Writers who do that, specifically western writers who do that--are my favorites of the genre.

H.A. DeRosso does that. (Just read his novel .44 and his novella “The Bounty Hunter,” and tell me he doesn’t. Often, T.V. Olson does it, too.Others include Dean Owen, Merle Constiner, Donald Hamilton, Giles Lutz, and Giles Tippette. My good friend Kit Prate does that as well. See her wild and sexy Hot Night in Purgatory (as by Steve Travis) as well asJason Kilkenny’s Gun. You’ll never find more harrowing violence or deeper, more compelling western characters.

Jack Vance and C.L. Moore do that in western’s brother genre, science fiction.

What about Louis L’Amour?

Don’t care for the jake. He started out as a fair to middlin’ pulp writer and then, taking himself too seriously, became a pompous blowhard. Oh, he was all right when I was fresh from swaddling clothes and before I discovered better, more compelling western scribes like those I listed above, and Mickey Spillane.

But to me he’s the western equivalent of Agathie Christie. His heroes are wooden and sexless. His women are even more wooden and sexless. His plots are as bland as Bonanza, and they rely too heavily on coincidence and the infallibility and moral impeccability of his heroes.
And the biggest sin of all--they’re bloodless!

I like sex and violence in my yarns. Lots of it. Interspersed with the tender moments, mind you. But I like the stuff that makes my eyes pop and my loins happy. I’ll take a hearty dose in every chapter, please!
If I want to be put to sleep, I’ll take a pill.

That’s just who I am.

I’m sorry if I’ve offended you, caused you to shake your heads and stitch your brows in reproof. Or even to slam my books closed with the ear-splitting blam! of a .44 triggered in the tight confines of a whore’s crib.

No, I’m not.

Evoking a visceral response is what I set out to do. And I suggest that if you’re trying to write, you do the same thing.
Kick off your slippers and go barefoot. Add a little firewater to your mud.
Crowd in amongst the beasts and shout at the tops of your wicked lungs: