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Bright Lights, No City : Montana's the Literary Capital of the Country and Its Authors Have a Best Seller to Prove It

March 19, 1989|CHRISTY PORTER | Porter is a free-lance writer in Spokane, Wash.

Probably the best known and most colorful is novelist and screenwriter Thomas McGuane. McGuane is the author of "The Bushwhacked Piano," "Ninety-two in the Shade," and "Nobody's Angel" to name but a few. His movies include "Rancho Deluxe" and "The Missouri Breaks." He left a highly publicized, rowdy life in Key West in 1976 to live permanently at his Raw Deal Ranch in McLeod, Mont.

Some of the flashy life style remains--McGuane recently chartered a plane to Missoula to give a reading--but his place as both a Montana writer and a serious horseman are secure. "I've come to appreciate him as someone who gets all the details right," Ralph Beer said. "Here you have someone foreign to the West, but he has made it his own with hard work."

McGuane's fictional town of Deadrock has been compared by critics to William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.

McGuane, who will be 50 this year, raises cutting horses at the Raw Deal, and a new novel, "Keep the Change," will be published this fall.

The arrival of McGuane 12 years ago, and the subsequent arrival of painter Russell Chatham, created a "hip" atmosphere in Paradise Valley. It is now populated by writers like Tim Cahill and William Hjortsberg, and actors Dennis Quaid, Jeff Bridges and Peter Fonda can be considered at least part-time residents of Paradise Valley. Chatham, who has finally reached long-awaited success as a landscape painter, recently started his own publishing venture, Clark City Press, to publish lavishly produced books by Montana writers like McGuane.

But the literary luminaries are not confined to the Livingston area. Less than an hour's drive west on I-90, for a while paralleling the rugged Yellowstone River, is the quiet mecca of literati, Bozeman. Here some of the Western myths that fuel the American imagination still exist. Men with coyote-skin caps sit at bars and shout for whiskey, and women dine on mesquite-grilled moose steaks. But "the New Bozemians" are writing to change the myths--or at least to even the score.

Once, and to some degree still, considered a cow town by those in Missoula, Bozeman can claim writers as elegant but diverse as David Quammen and Lynda Sexson, poet Greg Keeler and science fiction best-seller Kathy Tyres.

The house Quammen shares with his biologist-illustrator wife, Kris, is just blocks from Bozeman's Main Street. After wading through knee-deep snow to reach the door, a recent visitor counted enough skis in the foyer to outfit the Yellowstone Ski Patrol. Quammen, 41, known for both his fiction and natural science essays, moved to Montana after completing a Rhodes Scholarship in Oxford, England.

"I was sick of ivy-covered academia, but basically I was looking for trout," he remembers. Having never set foot on Montana soil, Quammen first arrived in Missoula by Volkswagen bus, fly fishing gear in hand.

That was 1973, and the author has lived in the state ever since, producing three novels, a collection of novellas and two volumes of essays. He was the recipient of the 1987 National Magazine Award for Essays and Criticism for his monthly column, Natural Acts, in Outside magazine.

"I've lived in half the towns in the state," he says. "Montana is a beautiful place to live, and ski, and fish, but I don't think people come to Montana to be better writers." Unlike Missoula, where the writers have the camaraderie of a writing program, the Bozeman authors seem to go their own way. "There's no male-bonding pod over here--there is no pod of writers at all," Quammen comments .

He laughs and adds, "Generally, if you said, 'Would you rather go to a spaghetti supper with a group of writers or a group of biologists?' I'd take the biologists every time."

Poet, professor, singer-songwriter and environmentalist Greg Keeler also calls Bozeman home, and for a reason common to many. "I came here to fish," he says. An offer of a teaching job at Montana State did figure into it, he admits, but the fish were the thing. His latest collection of poems, "American Falls," is alive with Montana's natural beauty and swarming with fish.

Keeler affirms his neighbor, Quammen's, sentiment. "Bozeman is a good place to write because each writer can establish their own attitude. For some of the people who studied under Hugo in Missoula, that was harder to do." It was like being pulled along in the draft behind "a big semi," Keeler said. "He was larger than life."

If establishing a distinct literary identity in a rural state peppered with authors is difficult at times for men, the problem is doubled for women. "The male-female ratio in Montana is 4-to-1," says novelist Sara Vogan, for years a Missoula resident, but now living in San Francisco.

"The male-bonding thing was very important there--at least in Missoula, in the literary circle and in the town. There was such a niche there where women were placed, it was hard to transcend that." Vogan left Missoula nearly 10 years ago, and there is evidence that the times may be changing.

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