I plopped into the middle of the field in front of my house in Montana, my new bone-white Macbook settled into my lap like a baby, and stared at the things around me. The grass, late-summer brown swallowing the green. The sharp outlines of hills and mountains smoothened into their most beautiful state by a haze only the departing sun can create. My grey house, the evergreens guarding the front yard. I wanted to put these things into my ‘book,’ (that failed story about the girl whose parents die, and who, I suppose, lived in the same house I did). I was sitting in the field with my fingertips perched over my keyboard in order to weave Montana into my words, but it was not working. I couldn’t do it, and I didn’t know why. I sighed, closed the laptop, and went indoors.
That was three years ago. Maybe two. (I’m a failure at even the simplest math problems.) When I first sent one of my professors the first two chapters of Blackbird, she had this comment to make about Polly, my female lead character (Wardie is the lead male): [Polly] is also very much a character of her place. She belongs in Montana.
Whoa. I was excited and surprised, because I had not consciously tried to stick Montana into my characters’ identity: I use a fictional Montana community for the story’s setting, and somehow that setting sneaks into Polly’s flesh and makes itself known as a part of her. After doing a celebratory dance–even a small thing like that feels triumphant to me with this manuscript–I sat down, worried. What if I can’t continue that throughout the entire manuscript?
A few weeks ago, I finished reading a book called The Snow Child, by Alaskan author Eowyn Ivey. The book immersed me in rural Alaska of the 1920s, into a brutally beautiful wilderness that at first weakens the aging protagonists, who are newcomers from the east looking to escape old sorrows and find luck in homesteading, and then finds its way into their bones and strengthens their minds, bodies, and hearts. I did research on the author after I finished the book (which I highly recommend, by the way) and found that she loves Alaska deeply–but she attended college in Washington state when she was my age, and though I do not know her personally, I started to wonder: did that separation help her with writing so wonderfully about her home state later on in her life, even though she wrote The Snow Child with Alaska’s beauty surrounding her?
After I finished The Snow Child, I read the third James Herriot memoir, All Things Wise and Wonderful. I love these books because of their delightful verbs and poignant blend of humor and sadness, and this particular story reinforced my thought about Eowyn Ivey’s writing, because in it Herriot has to leave his town in Yorkshire (in England), his veterinary practice, and his pregnant wife in order to serve in the Royal Air Force during World War II. In the book, he often reflects on how everything in his surroundings makes him miss his hometown and the surrounding hills and dales. Even though he never had to leave England to fight, that longing for home may have inspired his writing when, later in life, he wrote his memoirs.
And then, after I finished that book, I started Wallace Stegner’s collection of essays, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs. Stegner writes about the American West, and not in a romanticized way. He spent his most formative years in Saskatchewan and Utah, and they shaped the way he thought about life. Stegner confirmed my suspicions about Eowyn Ivey and James Herriot in the book’s first essay, “Finding the Place: A Migrant Childhood,” in which he says that his father’s yanking the family away from their beloved Saskatchewan plains when Stegner was a child fiercely influenced his writing later in life: “Every story that crowded to the typewriter evoked the smells and colors and horizons and air and people of the region where I had most lived…I grew up Western, and the very first time I moved out of the West I realized what it meant to me” (page 19).
Okay, so I didn’t move out of the West. I live in California right now, and that’s considered West. But my family moved away from Montana a year after that sitting-in-the-field moment, and I have now realized that even though I miss Montana every winter with California’s dearth of snow, its summers’ overbearing sun, and its green-leafed fall, leaving was priceless to me in one way: it gave me the perspective I needed in order to do Montana justice in writing. I resonate with Wallace Stegner’s words because I understand them well. Here in southern California, among the swarming people, the green-tinted smog that smothers the mountains, and the eternal background music of sirens and gang members’ thumping radios, I am allowed to close my eyes and drift back home. I am allowed to remember the dangers and the beauties, the smells and the sounds, the feelings and the mysteries of Montana. I do not have to worry about it making its presence known throughout the rest of my manuscript, and I am thankful to James Herriot, Eowyn Ivey, and Wallace Stegner for bringing me to that realization. Montana finds its way into And the Blackbirds Mock without my even trying because I have known how it feels to lose that treasured place.