The main character in The Home Place, Alma Terrebonne, was named in honor of your great-grandmother Alma Fly Kifer. What would your great-grandmother think of her namesake?
Like you, Alma Terrebonne went to Bryn Mawr and Yale Law School. Do you worry that readers will think she’s an autobiographical character?
Willa Cather said that a novel is cremated youth, and a good portion of this novel is my cremated youth, but only in the sense that I drew on everything and everyone I know to create characters and places that I hope will ring true. To cite just a few inconsistencies between me and Alma Terrebonne, I don’t have any sisters and I’ve been married to the same man since I was 24.
Is it true you began writing The Home Place in Australia as a way to keep touch with home?
That’s how I remember it now, but I’m a storyteller, so I may be inventing. I clerked for the Federal Court of Australia after law school, and I recall a friend there saying that I should take Australian citizenship and stay. I love Australia, so my reaction surprised me. My first thought was, I could never be anything but American. My second thought was, why should that be so? I’m a citizen of the world. And then I started to write The Home Place.
The town of Billings is a vivid character in the book. Do you have a strong 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 cannot 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 can no more write about Montana without writing about the violence done to the land than I could write about Vicky Terrebonne, whose death begins The Home Place, without writing about the violence done to her. I feel the violence done to the people and the land here in a personal way, as part of the same evil. They are connected. We cannot heal one without healing the other.
In this video, you’ll meet some friends of mine who have been putting themselves on the line against a proposed coal railroad in eastern Montana for over thirty years.