Like Alma Terrebonne in The Home Place, Anthony has returned — somewhat unwillingly — to Montana. Does that reflect in any way your own personal experience?
I wasn’t as reluctantly called home as my characters, but I definitely felt the pull of family and place in spite of the obvious inconveniences – more obvious to some people than others – of living in a sparsely populated rural state. Americans used to be a highly mobile population, but recent studies say that we’re moving less. Some people see it as an economic trend, but I think roots have a way of reasserting themselves among rootless people. I think I’m writing in a space of what America is becoming – and something we’ve forgotten we were: people with powerful ties to family and land.
When you began working on the novel, the character that became Anthony was a woman. What happened in your writing process that convinced you the character had to be male?
For the urgent forces that work on Anthony to ring true, it turned out that he had to be a man. Women get more slack in agricultural communities – ranching especially – because there are more outs. She can get a job in town or move away and no one really blames her. The legacy’s not on her, although it can be if she chooses to claim it. But for a man, especially an only son, it’s all or nothing. Either he takes over and becomes his father or he lets everyone down. I tried to write Anthony as Abigail and it didn’t work, which made me think more deeply about the cultural restrictions placed on some men in what we think of as a modern society and what happens when they resist.
What was behind your decision to make Anthony an actor?
Using Hamlet and placing Anthony in the theatric world were connected decisions. He understands that he’s playing a diminished role that echoes a great dramatic work, and he can laugh at it. Plays have shaped how he sees the world and navigates his personal crises and in the end plays become his answer. It couldn’t be any other way.
Several characters from The Home Place are supporting players in The Weight of an Infinite Sky. What motivated you to bring them back?
This book went through so many drafts. I know the backstory of every character and the backstories of a few who got cut. This was always Anthony’s story – even when Anthony was Abigail – but along the way the other characters morphed around his narrative. That some are familiar is maybe a function of Montana being a small town with long roads. Of course he’d know these people. Of course he’d be related to some of them.
The town of Billings returns as a character in The Weight of an Infinite Sky. What’s your connection to the city itself?
I am a fifth generation Billings resident. My great-great-grandfather, Leroy Crow, owned a livery stable here around the turn of the twentieth century, and his wife, Harriet, was a Christian Science healer who saved many people from a tuberculosis epidemic, according to local legend. I can hardly stumble around a corner in this town without some family memory biting my ankle. It’s easy to be a writer in a place where there are more stories than could ever be told. Billings inspires me, but not in a way that would get me recruited to write the tourism brochure. I’ve got a century’s worth of bad, crazy dirt on this place. That’s why I write fiction.
Billings is known as a “reservation edge town”? Is it difficult for a white author to tell the story of the ongoing conflict between the Native Americans in Montana and the white population?
Many of the hardest, truest stories here are not mine, not ours as white Montanans. I have been honored to learn many stories that I can never retell. So as Emily Dickinson exhorted, I have the impossible challenge “To tell all the truth but tell it slant”. There are true stories to tell, from my ancestors’ perspective, from my perspective, living with the shadow of an unacknowledged genocide that in many ways continues today. What we know and see will only ever be one small part of the stories that must be told, and we can’t speak for others, but we must speak all the same. I hope that my storytelling will be taken in a good way, as an effort to round out and corroborate other stories.
Why do you believe it would be “almost impossible to write about Montana without writing about what’s going on in this land that was homesteaded by my ancestors”?
Hundred car coal trains run by my office many times a day. Global corporations are strip mining land that was homesteaded by my ancestors. This happens in so many places across the US that it’s become a cliché, but it’s still heartbreaking when it’s your heritage swallowed up. Human beings connect to land. It is our nature. I feel violence done to people and land here in a personal way, as part of the same evil. They’re connected. We can’t heal one without healing the other.
In this video, you’ll meet some friends of mine who put themselves on the line against a proposed coal railroad in eastern Montana for over thirty years – and with a little legal help from me, recently won.