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Talking Up a Storm: Voices of the New West

Talking Up a Storm: Voices of the New West

by Gregory L. Morris

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In interviews with fifteen contemporary writers of the American West, Gregory L. Morris demonstrates what these widely divergent talents have in common: they all redefine what it is to be a western writer. No longer enthralled (though sometimes inspired) by the literary traditions of openness, place, and rugged individualism, each of the writers has remained


In interviews with fifteen contemporary writers of the American West, Gregory L. Morris demonstrates what these widely divergent talents have in common: they all redefine what it is to be a western writer. No longer enthralled (though sometimes inspired) by the literary traditions of openness, place, and rugged individualism, each of the writers has remained true to the demand for clarity, strength, and honesty, virtues sustained in their conversations.

Morris talks with Ralph Beer, Mary Clearman Blew, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, James Crumley, Ivan Doig, Gretel Ehrlich, Richard Ford, Molly Gloss, Ron Hansen, John Keeble, William Kittredge, David Long, Thomas McGuane, Amy Tan, and Douglas Unger. Their lives and fiction stretch from Montana to Texas, from ranches to universities, from sea level to mountain slopes.

Editorial Reviews


“Morris is a stirring interviewer, flattering and riling his subjects as necessary. . . . Each writer’s personality comes through loud and clear, whether he or she is considering the finer points of literature or telling funny stories.”—Booklist
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Between 1988 and 1992 Morris, associate professor of American literature at Pennsylvania State University, conducted interviews in person or by mail with 15 contemporary western writers of fiction. The majority of authors in these lively and engaging conversations pay tribute to older writers like A.B. Guthrie but concern themselves with the West as an area in transition rather than a land with a mythological past. The stories of Elizabeth Cook-Lynn (Then Badger Said This), a Native American from South Dakota, give a voice to the experience of her people; John Keeble (Broken Ground), who lives in Washington State, addresses the impact of corporate greed on the land. Many of the authors Morris interviewed are from Montana (Richard Ford, Mary Clearman Blew, William Kittredge, David Long) and represent a community of writers shaping a new vision of the West. Of interest to readers of serious fiction. Photos not seen by PW. (Nov.)

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Talking Up a Storm

Voices of the New West

By Gregory L. Morris


Copyright © 1994 University of Nebraska Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-9982-5


Ralph Beer

Ralph Beer, born in 1947, was raised on a ranch near Clancy, Montana — the same ranch homesteaded by his grandfather — and today still lives on and works that ranch. While a member of the graduate writing program at the University of Montana Beer edited the literary magazine Cutbank, and he has been a contributing editor of Harper's. Beer's novel The Blind Corral was awarded the 1986 Silver Spur Award as that year's best Western novel. Beer is also the author of several short stories and a frequent essayist on the West.

Beer himself is a large man with a bounteous mustache and a deep-voiced laugh and a real sense of the "physical" about him. He and his wife Margaret built the new log house in which they live; both the original bunkhouse and homestead cabin still exist, just a few hundred yards away from the new house. Before we conducted the interview (in June 1990), we walked the ranch and rested upon a large rock outcropping overlooking the Prickly Pear Valley; as we talked, Beer made no bones about feeling closed-in-upon by commuter subdivisions, about inhabiting the "last best place" in the valley.

GREGORY MORRIS: You are one of what seems to be a rare breed: a native Montanan — and a native Montanan writer — who has stayed in Montana to live and work. What has that been like, growing up in Montana, remaining in and seemingly putting down roots here?

RALPH BEER: I don't think my experience — of growing up in Montana and making the decision to come back to Montana (actually, I had other plans when I got out of the Army, I was headed for Canada and Alaska) -I don't think my experience on this place has been a typical Montana-ranchboy — growing-up-on-the-farm experience. It's been somewhat different in that this place has been the kind of place that never, ever really supported itself. We always had to bring money into the place to support it. And yet, until just two or three years ago, I never stopped hoping that someday it would get to that point, that we could acquire more land without getting heavily leveraged. In the last couple of years, I saw that this was not going to happen, that the ranch was never going to get to that point. I realized that if I wanted a better place, I would have to find a better place. At the same time, the way we did things up here and the influence of my dad and his dad, who subscribed to the hillbilly ethics of "Don't borrow any money!" and "Do it by hand!" have kept this ranch out of debt and led me to feel about this place in ways that are not typical emotional responses to places from people who grew up on them and who try to make a living on them. Because they often end up doing battle with those places, they also end up trying to take more out of the place than the place ought to give in order to make their interest payments.

You mentioned Canada, and your intention to head that way once you left the Army; and you did eventually make it up there, doing "a stint as a cowboy in British Columbia." Were you, like your novel's hero, Jackson Heckethorn, riding rodeo?

No, I wasn't rodeoing. I ran off — I fell in love and I ran off with a beautiful girl in 1971 before I was drafted. I ended up working for a horsebreaker up there named Kenneth Glaze; he was an old cowboy from Colorado, and he was the real deal. He had a little place tucked up in the bush up by Hixon, British Columbia. I rode horses for him, fenced for him, put up hay for him with the teams; there was no electricity, no refrigeration. I worked later on another ranch there that was a little more modern operation. These people ran a cow-calf operation in 80 or so square miles of bush. There was nothing out there, not even a road, so you'd get on a saddle horse and go find the cows. While I was up there, the lady and I built a log cabin, which was one of the high points of my life.

Then I was draftec. I came back to the States and did my hitch, with all of the intention in the world of going right back up there as soon as I got out of the Army. But when I got home, my granddad was sick, and I looked around and said, "Canada? This is where I ought to be."

Sounds similar to Jackson Heckethorn's situation in The Blind Corral.

Sure, though I think Jackson's decision is a lot tougher than mine.

What eventually convinced you that you could become a writer, having spent all your life as a Montana rancher?

I still don't think I'm convinced that I can be a writer. I think that I was very lucky, largely because of friendships with people like Neil McMahon, who writes under the name Daniel Rhodes; he was in the writing program in Missoula in 1977 and we were pals. He kept dragging me into bars where there were these other writers, and I liked them — they were funny and interesting and told good stories — writers like Bill Kittredge and Dick Hugo and Jim Crumley and Jim Welch, and lots of interesting graduate students who I thought were terrifically smart people. I surely wasn't convinced at that time — [977,1978,1979 — that I could join their ranks. I had no intention of even trying.

Finally, because I liked these people so much (and after my dad said he'd cover for me here at the ranch), I decided to go to Missoula and take some graduate courses. My buddy Neil and I bought a house together there, in 1978, and I took one of Bill Kittredge's graduate workshops. I wrote a story for that course that ended up being published in TriQuarterly, and that became the first six chapters of my novel. It was my very first story! Everybody was supportive and encouraging, and good enough to say, "No, no, Ralph, you don't want to do this. Take this out of here because ..." They were teaching me things, and it accumulated finally to the point where I could write another story and write another story and four or five years later take on writing a novel.

So you began as a short story writer?

Yes, just groping around. The simplest things would stop me, though. Point of view, for example, would stop me: "I've read hundreds of novels in the third person, but how can you possibly write that way? 'He did this, he did that, he picked up his shovel and went down to the creek.'" It sounded flat as hell when I tried to do it, so it took me a long time to learn how to manage those things. Voice -I found voice to be the key to the whole damned thing, because if you get the narrative voice right you're in business. If you had a story and a couple of characters who somehow came to life in your imagination, and you could find the voice, then away you went. If you didn't have those — next story! Which has always been the hardest thing for me, trying to find the story; I don't get very many good ideas for stories, although I do get a lot of bad ideas for stories. A story that has some kind of leaping-off point where the characters jump off the edge of the world at the beginning and come to some kind of recognition of emotional change at the end of the story? It's hard for me to discover those stories. They just do not come often. And without that idea, I'm better off fixing the baler than trying to write.

Do you feel you're at an early stage in your development as a writer?

I think, if I can get going again, if I can start writing hard again the way I wrote when I was working on my novel, that whatever I write next will be different from what I've written before. Because there's a two-year gap in there and I'm not the person I was when I wrote The Blind Corral - I'm much humbler, much wiser!

I can feel it when I'm doing handwork down at the barn. There's nothing like handwork to let your imagination loose; I start digging a hole of some kind, and whatever those voices are going to be and whatever those situations and storylines are going to be, they're going to be different from what I imagined and visualized before.

You think there's that kind of imaginative release in work itself?

Absolutely, absolutely — at least for me, personally; I surely can't speak for anybody else. I know an awful lot of writers who go soft. Writing's hard on people, it takes all your energy; if you start at eight in the morning and work until one or two in the afternoon, it takes everything out of you. I just don't see how people do anything else when they're writing, and a lot of people don't and so they get soft. I stumbled onto this business of thinking while working years ago, splitting wood by hand. Since last September, my wife Margaret and I have cut and split and stacked 30 cord of wood, which is a lot of wood; and I've found that there's nothing like going out there and getting in the woodpile for about four hours and just splitting a block of wood and putting it in a pile, splitting a block of wood and putting it in a pile, to let my mind start to work cn altogether other levels because the work is so simple and dull. What tipped me off was I realized that when I was splitting wood I referred to myself in my mind as "you"; it was as if I was talking to me, but there were two of me — "I" was talking to "you." I got curious about that, it just kept happening and happening; it took me a long time even to discover it, I would guess. But I think that business of "I" addressing "You" has something to do with telling stories or wanting to write stories. Of course I had no social life at all when this started, so maybe I just needed to talk to the only "you" available.

In your case, those stories seemed connected to kinship and place, to the sort of familial and communal "membership" Wendell Berry describes in his fiction (and you quote Berry in an epigraph to The Blind Corral) Do you think such a membership exists, that sort of spiritual connection usually among male members of a family or a community?

I think if we're real lucky we'll grow up in a situation where one generation leaves some kind of place or at least a remembered experience to the next generation that involves love. It did here. I used to have a photograph, which I've lost, of my granddad standing on the front porch of his old log house over there, and on the back he'd written, in ballpoint pen: "Howard I. Beer and the ranch I love." He was an old man, seventy-five or so, and solitary and tough, and I thought: Yeah. He would never say that to me, but it's the absolute truth. My dad felt that way about this place and I feel that way about this place, and it's a feeling that has been handed from one to the other. And I think that much of that love hinged on working together and telling stories connected to where that work was done.

When I was a little kid, we'd go out and cut wood in the wintertime; we'd work hard, then come in, build a big fire in the stove, and my granddad would throw some deer steaks in a frying pan. It was always men. My dad's mother died in 1937, and my wife Margaret is the first woman to live on this place since 1937. So It's over fifty years since there's been a woman on this ranch. My folks had a house in town and a little place out in the Helena Valley, and my mom really didn't want to have anything to do with the ranch. She very seldom ever came up here, and if she did she'd just come up and look around; she didn't have any real connection to the place; we certainly didn't try to exclude her — she just wasn't very interested in the place. I grew up with that, and it didn't seem to bother anybody, it wasn't a cause of strife.

But my granddad and my dad and I would work together, cut wood, say, during the wintertime, and then come in and fire up the kitchen range and cook up some deer steaks and potatoes, and they would start telling stories: "Do you remember that stud that Clyde Burgess had?" "Yeah, I remember that stud!" Some kind of little story would develop that had some kind of a point to it — something to do with courage or facing things or dumb luck good or bad or the way things were. Like I was telling you yesterday, when my grandmother died, in the middle of winter, my dad had to walk home, get a team of horses and go down to the highway and pull the car home after the funeral — and then they milked the cows. Forty cows. By hand. Well, that's a little story I heard; maybe it's not a complete story, but those kinds of events and episodes in the lives of my kin used to leave me with a feeling about this place, which grew and deepened with time into love and a sense of kinship for this home place.

I once felt that this country was a lot bigger than it seems to me now, and was still populated with all those people who had at one time or another inhabited it, although some of those people had gone broke and left in the 1920s. In my imagination, as a little boy, they were all still here and somehow still alive; and a lot of those people end up in the things I write. Those stories gave me a sense of this being a wonderful place, a place that was alive and inhabited, even though it was only really inhabited most of the time by one old man and a handful of neighbors. That was the major impetus for me writing that novel: I wanted to go back and live in that wonderful place of imagination and memory again.

That sense of place is certainly central to your work. You said yesterday that if there's anything that connects you with a tradition, or even creates a tradition, among Western writers, it's that sense of place. And for you, that's a very personal, very intimate relation to place.

My granddad was an expert horseman, he was a horseman's horseman. He was also the ringleader among all these homesteaders who lived around here. A lot of people have the idea of homesteaders as being these "honyockers or grow broke" type people who may have been up there on the plains north of Great Falls, on 160 acres, turning over sod. But in this particular country, farming was just a joke. On a lot of these places they had to haul in their drinking water in barrels because there was no water, and not much hope of water. So these guys would try to turn a dollar any way they could. They'd go get a bunch of horses that weren't branded, second — and third — and fourth-generation colts — the original horses had belonged to some homesteader who had gone broke and they'd turned them out and they'd bred and bred and bred — and they'd go out and catch a bunch of those big three — or four-year-old colts and bring them in, try to break them and turn a dollar.

Out there on the porch there's the hood off my granddad's whiskey still; he made a lot of money making and selling whiskey, he made enough money that while most everyone else was going broke and leaving the country, he managed to raise five kids on this place. But it took a lot of guts to do it. My dad, when he was six years old, one day opened the gate for a big black Cadillac car that drove in with six men in it looking for my grandfather, and they were all wearing suits and topcoats; but they didn't get him with any whiskey. It took a lot of courage to do what he did. This country right in here, this pocket of, say, a IOO-mile radius, was full of people like him, people who were tough and who didn't have very far to fall, because they were so close to the bottom already.

So they did these things that in my imagination, as a child and as a young man, seemed pretty interesting and wild and adventuresome. A lot of the stories that I heard were told by one or more of the original participants; my dad and my granddad would sit over in my granddad's cabin and tell these stories back and forth, but it'd be like father telling son and son telling back to the father these stories that had been told many, many times. So, for me, those stories were valid, and if they were amplified in any way it was probably in my imagination and in my memory. In my novel, there's a story about a guy who's a drunk named Bill Hirsch, and Bill Hirsch gets drunk one night and falls asleep in a snowdrift and freezes his feet: that was written just as exactly faithful to the story as I heard it as a boy as I could make it; I didn't amplify it at all, I hope. It happened, and yes, he filed his own toes off and kept those toes around his cabin in a mustard jar full of alcohol.

But I think we're going to have to find new stories to tell ourselves, because the old stories don't have much weight anymore. The old stories keep getting people into trouble around here, in fact; the old stories of going off to wilderness and living in wilderness, in isolation, seeing civilization as corrupt and the wilderness as pure, keep getting people killed in Montana. Three or four years ago, these bad hillbillies snatched a woman, a world — class athlete, and ended up killing a man; they got into all kinds of trouble, they made some bad mistakes, yet I think one of the reasons they did those things is that they simply weren't able to adapt their lives to the rapidly changing scene down in the Gallatin Valley country. The older man had grown up in those mountains, and the next thing he knew there was a big ski resort and all kinds of development, lots of rich people and a golf course — an Arnold Palmer golf course, for Christ's sake! Being overrun by money and moneyed people tends to make some folks mean, especially if they cling to that old mythology: We'll move West, we'll go to higher country, we'll run off to territory — and there's no more territory to run off to, really. If you want to run off to territory now, you'd better think about going to Nebraska!

Since we're talking about stories, let's talk a bit about your story "The Harder They Come." In that story you examine what happens when a choice is made between land and community. Gregor Maclvers is the isolated rancher — divorced, solitary, insular — who in his isolation and withdrawal opts for "land over community," a choice that "isolated him from good," and which eventually kills him. How do you reconcile that need to distance oneself from what's going on in the West-"the people problem," as you call it in The Blind Corral — with the need for community?


Excerpted from Talking Up a Storm by Gregory L. Morris. Copyright © 1994 University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Gregory L. Morris is an associate professor of American literature at The Pennsylvania State University–Erie, The Behrend College.

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