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"Snowbound," the latest novel from Richard S. Wheeler

On the blogroll at left is a new entry: A Curmudgeon’s Diary, by Montana author Richard S. Wheeler.

One would not have to expend much effort to make a case for Wheeler’s being our greatest living writer of Westerns. In a long career, he’s written around seventy novels, including the popular Skye’s West/Barnaby Skye series. He’s won a boatload of Spur Awards, which are handed out by the Western Writers of America. And I daresay he’s married to one of the finest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know, Montana State University Billings professor Sue Hart (herself an accomplished writer and the keeper of a vast repository of Western literary knowledge). While that last bit doesn’t necessarily make him a more celebrated writer, it certainly speaks well of his good sense, which is just as important.

You could lose the better part of a day reading through the archives of Wheeler’s blog, but it’s his most recent post, on a long-ago rant, that I want to highlight here. He relays a story from 20 years ago in which he inveighed against Bill Kittredge’s assertion that the genre Western should fade away. Wheeler has had a change of heart.

An excerpt:

In truth, I eventually came around to Professor Kittredge’s views about genre western fiction, and think that the world would be better off if it simply withered away. It had its day, and maybe even formed American manhood, but now it is a feeble part of contemporary publishing, and bought mostly by geezers and buck privates. It is afflicted with terminal sameness, each story derived from a hundred previous ones. The publishers offer no wiggle room to authors, who are doomed to write yet another tired story about cowboys, or Texas rangers, or outlaws, or the Indian wars. Worse, as weary westerns affect readers less and less, body counts rise, violence rises, and what was once a knightly literature sinks into irrelevance. The frontier is gone. Professor Kittredge was right: there is a golden regional literature of the West blooming, and worthy of our esteem, and the old horse opera only gets in the way.

I haven’t read a lot of genre Westerns (but, strangely, I love Western movies). Though my taste in literature definitely bends West, it’s in the direction of Steinbeck and Doig and Stegner and Proulx and Watson and countless others. The writing I admire most goes deep inside its settings and characters and explores the human condition (bad news: We’re all terminally human). In that sense and under those circumstances, I would contend that there is territory yet to explore. Of course, as Wheeler rightly points out, such writing veers outside the rigid strictures of genre Westerns and into a more literary realm. (A good example of this is my friend Carol Buchanan, whose Gold Under Ice was just released.)

*****

One more Wheeler post to highlight. This one hits a little closer to home.

The novel he’s writing about here is my forthcoming The Summer Son. He ended up writing a lovely blurb, for which I am unyieldingly grateful. But I was most interested in his thoughts about the study guide I included at the end of the book. (This ends up being a moot point, as Wheeler read the version of the book that was going to be released by my Missouri Breaks Press; AmazonEncore ended up moving in and acquiring the title.)

The reason I included a book club guide is that a fair number of book clubs here in Billings have taken on 600 Hours of Edward, and many of them have inquired about the existence of such a guide. I figured that including one with the book, along with a banner on the cover highlighting it, might prove a worthwhile marketing device. As I conceded to Wheeler in an e-mail, I’m probably the least-qualified person in the world to write a study guide about my own work. Part of the magic of the author-reader relationship lies in giving the reader the latitude and the responsibility for forming his/her own opinion of what the work means. I’m not entirely comfortable with guiding that conversation. When I chat with members of a book club, I’m apt to ask them as many questions as they ask me.

*****

Finally, a last note about The Summer Son, this one a blatant teaser: I know what the cover will look like. Soon, you will, too. But not today.

I spent Thursday and Friday (and a sliver of Saturday) in Helena, Montana, for the Helena Bookfest. Among the highlights:

* Hearing Alan Weltzien’s lecture on Thomas Savage, author of The Pass (1944). Despite having written 13 novels, Savage (who died in 2003) has largely been forgotten among readers of literature of the West. He gets scant mention in anthologies and never garnered the attention that his talent deserved. That said, some prominent folks are banging the drum for him, Weltzien said. Among them are Annie Proulx, Thomas McGuane (who considers Savage a top-tier talent, right below Willa Cather) and the Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley. Add to that group Weltzien himself, an English professor at Montana Western and the foremost Savage scholar. The next day, Weltzien, Montana State University Billings professor Sue Hart and Karl Olson of the Missoula Public Library held forth in a panel discussion on Savage and his wife, Elizabeth (with nine under-celebrated novels to her credit). It was a privilege to learn so much about this fine author, and I rushed out of that session and purchased The Pass (recently re-released by Riverbend Publishing and the Drumlummon Institute).

* Attending a panel discussion on Montana women in history. Mary Murphy, a professor at Montana State University, and Sarah Carter, editor of the recently released Montana Women Homesteaders, discussed the prominent role women played in shaping the settlement of this land. Of particular interest was Carter’s account of her research into single women (widowed or otherwise) who successfully homesteaded in this state in the early decades of the last century. She unearthed some amazing stories of persistence and strength. After that session, my mother — my companion for the weekend — rushed right out and bought her book.

* Finally meeting, face to face, the fabulous Carol Buchanan, author of God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana. She has become a good friend and trusted sounding board through the wonders of the Web, and I was pleased to finally put a voice to the face and the words. She’s as fine a person as I knew she would be.

* Last (in fact, it was first) but not least, meeting some of the folks at Riverbend Publishing, the publisher of my novel, 600 Hours of Edward. We’re just weeks away from launching it. It’s going to be fun.

More on that soon …

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