russellRussell Rowland’s first novel, In Open Spaces, introduced readers to the fictional Arbuckle clan (very loosely inspired by the decidedly non-fictional Arbuckle clan) of southeastern Montana. The book, which earned critical raves and climbed onto the San Francisco Chronicle’s bestseller list, spans three decades of a family’s love, infighting and tragedies, from the early 20th century through World War II. His second novel, The Watershed Years, picked up after the war, in a time of bounty for the Arbuckles, even as some old rifts are opened anew. Through both books, Rowland’s muscular, well-calibrated prose shines through. If you’re a student of perfectly set sentences and wonderfully told stories, read Rowland’s work.

On a personal note, I’ll forever be indebted to him for reading my work and offering encouragement and direction that I badly needed — something that he continues to do to this day. I thank him for that, and for this:

Q: In conversation and in your recent Red Room piece, you’ve essentially said that a good many publishing success stories are backed up by a pile of rejection. What’s your advice to someone who keeps hitting that wall?

There’s really only one answer to that question, and it’s the same for everyone … keep writing. You can network and kiss ass all you want, and it may eventually pay off, but it won’t matter if what you have to show for your efforts is crap. And of course, it’s different for different writers. Some writers don’t care about putting crap out there, so they just focus on making the right connections and marketing. That’s never been my thing.

Q: Your novels, In Open Spaces and The Watershed Years, draw heavily on the influence of a ranch that remains in your family. What’s your best advice about taking from family stories to create fiction?

openspacesThis has become a touchy subject, more each year. If I had it to do again, I would not have used the family name in my novels. Although I made it clear that these books were fictional in my introductory comments, and with every opportunity I had to talk to anyone in the family, most of the people who have been offended haven’t talked to me about it. They’ve told someone else. And I’m not calloused enough to feel okay about that.

Q: Where and when did it all click for you, that writing fiction was what you wanted to pursue?

I was a late bloomer by some standards. I started reading like a maniac when I quit drinking in my twenties, and when I discovered Raymond Carver, and his slice-of-life stories, it seemed like something I might actually be able to do. So like a lot of people in the eighties, I started cranking out Carver stories. I had no idea how hard it is to write like that. And of course, it wasn’t really my voice. So I was in my thirties before I ‘discovered’ my own style.

Q: Walk us through your writing process. Do you have a dedicated portion of your day to work at it? Who is your sounding board? How do you know when something is ready to start shopping?

watershed2I’m one of the lucky few who don’t need to have a routine to get motivated. Writing is a complete obsession for me. So I have no routine. I write when I can squeeze it into my day. Lately that’s been a lot less than I like. But I’m working on things I really love, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I used to show my stuff to a lot more people before I submitted it than I do now, and I recently realized that I need to remedy that. I don’t think my second novel is nearly as good as my first, and I think that’s why. I relied way too much on my own judgment on that book.

Q: You and Lynn Stegner are shepherding an anthology on the changing identity of the West. When is it coming out? Where did the idea come from?

The anthology is scheduled for next spring, and it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been involved with. The idea started to germinate when Lynn and I were on a panel together two years ago at the Montana Festival of the Book. A lot of the questions we fielded that day were about the ‘Western identity,’ and it got me to thinking about what the hell that means. About a year later, I went to another festival in Wyoming, and that same theme kept coming up in different panels, in various contexts. I finally thought I’d ask around and see if any of the writers I knew were interested in writing about this topic if I put together a collection. The response was pretty overwhelming. Everyone thought it was a great idea, and when I approached Lynn about it, I was thrilled that she agreed to collaborate. Thanks in large part to her, the roster has grown to include Larry McMurtry, Louise Erdrich, Jim Harrison, William Kittredge, Gretel Ehrlich, Tobias Wolff … about sixty writers in all. And the essays I’m getting cover a wide range of approaches to this topic. I think it’s going to be a very interesting collection.

Q: As someone who helps young, up-and-coming writers hone their talent, what advice do you have for those who are starting out? What mistakes, in general, are they making that they need to throw off?

Well, again, I think ‘keep writing’ is the best advice. As far as mistakes, I think a lot of people focus on getting an agent, and they’re thrilled if anyone agrees to represent them. But finding the right agent is a lot more important than just finding one. Also, trying to figure out what’s going to sell can be soul-crushing to a writer. Writers need to write what they’re passionate about or they’re going to be complete phonies. And learn to rewrite, no matter how you have to go about it. Rewriting is at least 75 percent of what I do, and I’ve learned to love it.

Q: What’s on your nightstand? What do you read for pleasure?

I’m reading Tears in the Darkness by Michael and Elizabeth Norton. I started it because my friend Ben Steele is the focal point of the story. But I’ve been blown away by the research they did to tell the story of the Bataan Death March from every perspective … Japanese, Philippino, all of it. It’s a brilliant piece of writing. I am planning to read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as soon as I finish this.

Q: What are you currently working on?

I just finished the prequel to my first novel, but I’m not happy with it. So I’m setting it aside while I focus on the anthology. I’ll pick it up in a few months and start revising it.

*****

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