NewWest Your novel, The Willow Field, takes your main character, Rossie Benasco, from depression era Nevada to a horse ranch in Montana in the 1990s. Along the way we have these very vivid, authoritative descriptions of what it’s like to drive horses through the desert, how to sip martinis in a posh Canadian hotel, how to skin a deer and run a trap line. As a matter of craft, how did you approach your research? Did the story come first? How much of it came out of your own experiences?
William Kittredge Most of the work with horses — herding them across the desert — was semi-commonplace in my childhood even if dragging them out of quicksand wasn’t. See my essay “Running Horses” in the issue of High Desert Journal (fine new magazine from Bend) which came out last spring. I’ve sipped martinis in that same bar in the Banff Springs Hotel and watched my father skin more than one opening day buck. The trap line material comes from overhearing a lot of Montana talk and reading over the years. But, always, the story — the inclinations of the characters — came first. What did they want to do? Often they knew without them (or me) knowing exactly why. I just had to trust that it would lead to something and most times it did. Not much formal research for events in the west — but 1930’s jazz in Chicago? — quite a bit, and a lot of talk with Annick who grew up in Chicago even though I’ve been to Cubs games with her father and stayed a few nights in the Drake Hotel — even watched Dick Nixon get out of a limo one evening outside the Hilton in the winter of 1969. He raised the old V for victory sign over his pointy head.
NW Most people know you through your essays and short stories. Was it difficult to make the transition to the novel? What was it that felt familiar? What was difficult?
WK The major transition involved turning the story over to the characters. Shucking my own didactic impulses — which had ruined my earlier attempts a novels. I knew what I wanted the story to mean, and made my characters act out that meaning, thus turning them into my puppets — i.e. dead folk. Which I could get away with in stories and certainly with essays but not with extended narratives. The story belonged to the characters, not me. They got to do what they wanted to do. One day in Chicago they were bored and went to a movie, Metropolis, which I had just seen on some classics channel. Who knew where that would go? I expected Rossie to continue being amiably educated and instead he hated it, and that led to the slaughterhouse (a real life scene all meat eaters like me should check out just once).
NW There are a few places in the novel when you mention actual historical figures — the Maclean brothers, Teddy Blue Abbott, etc. Were any of your principal characters inspired by real people? How do you build your characters?
WK The characters were “inspired” by elements from real life — for instance there’s a man in that “Running Horses” essay named Tarz Dodson (real fellow) who triggered (as Hugo would say about towns) Tarz Witzell — at least when combined with some elements of a pal who sometimes features one of those drooping mustaches (Tarz Dodson didn’t). Rossie is named for a man named Rossie Dollarhide, who was Champion of the World Bulldogger in 1953. He’s been dead since the 1960’s when a horse fell with him during the shooting of a western movie outside Flagstaff — drove a rib through his lungs — he was playing Indian, upper body painted and all that. By that time he was crippled and wearing a brace like the one Oscar (my father’s name) Dodson wears. His father was Ross Dollarhide, cow boss for the MC, our old ranch, and king of buckaroo mountain in that part of the west — he’s the tall man in the photo on the cover of the old edition of Owning it All. So, those people were vastly recombined but real to me. Bernard and Lemma are pretty much pure invention. Eliza bears some obvious relationship to Annick, who grew up in a politically semi-radical Chicago environment. Her father was a photographer, close friend of Studs Turk le and Nelson Algren.
NW There are a disproportionately large number of talented writers in the West, a number of whom have come through your workshops at the University of Montana. What is it about the West that seems to sponsor good writing?
WK Good writing about the West seems to be everywhere these days. For one thing, models and teaching (information) are available in ways they didn’t used to be only a few decades ago. That, combined, with the truly idiosyncratic people who historically came west, looking for a place that would tolerate them, people who took chances, has made for good stories well told. Sad thing, the West is becoming homogenized. I’ve been in Missoula since 1969 and find it less crazily interesting than it was when I came. But that’s of course not all bad — the culture is for sure warmer, open in ways it wasn’t, not so ruthlessly one-dimensional and cruel. And, maybe I’m just getting old. Anyway I can’t help but think that storytellers around here are living in the tail end of a heyday that’s not going to last forever — except I go up to the Awful Burger Bar in Potomac and there it is, that old world intact. What to think???
NW What’s coming up next for you? Do you have another book in the wings?
WK Couple of novel ideas. One short and contemporary. The other long and maybe too close to The Willow Field. We’ll see if one of them goes.