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With 'Cold Country' A New Writing Star Is Born
March 24, 2020
With 'Cold Country' A New Writing Star Is Born
Behind the pages: Charlie Denison interviews Montana writer Russell Rowland about a novel set in Paradise Valley
As I reflect on Montana author Russell Rowland’s latest novel, Cold Country, it’s hard to imagine explaining it better than Montana 1948 author Larry Watson. On the cover of Rowland’s new mystery, Watson writes, “what makes the book exceptional is Rowland’s way of finding extraordinary drama in ordinary lives.”
I kept this in mind as I dove deep into Rowland’s latest, which takes place in Paradise Valley, Montana winter 1968. Paradise Valley, a real place, has the Yellowstone River running through it and extends south of Livingston with the Absaroka mountains on the east side and the Gallatin on the other.
Rowland's characters are rich in personality and conflict. They are human, and their struggles are relatable, even timeless—and a lot of this is portrayed through the eyes of a child.
“Much of this book is loosely based on a period where my dad took a job working on a ranch in the Big Horn Valley,” said Rowland. “I moved it [to Paradise Valley] because some of the characters would be familiar to the people in that area. So Roger is basically me, Carl is my dad, etc. We moved there in '67.”
Cold Country has a remarkable ability to get the reader to care and to empathize with this unlikely cast of men, women and children who struggle to stay united as an unsolved murder threatens to bring out the worst in their small ranching community.
Below is a conversation I had with Rowland recently, focusing on his motivations, inspirations, his writing process and more.
CHARLIE DENISON: What enticed you to go the direction of a murder/mystery novel? Did you know that's what it was going to be when you started writing it? What was the initial idea and how did it ultimately become "Cold Country"?
RUSSELL ROWLAND: Ah yes, the mystery! This book was not intended to be a mystery, and I honestly don’t think of it that way. But I understand why they classified it as a mystery, and it probably hasn’t hurt sales. But the intent of this book was to explore how a small ranching community is impacted by a tragedy like a murder, and how the tension is especially compounded by having a new family in the community. We moved to a ranch when I was ten, and it was an extremely close-knit community, so although they were friendly, there was always an air of distrust toward us, and I wanted to explore that in a novel. I threw the murder in to intensify that dynamic.
DENISON: Who are some authors you admire, this genre and beyond?
ROWLAND: My favorite authors cover a wide variety of styles. I don’t read mysteries, which is kind of funny, I suppose. But my favorites are James Joyce, Faulkner, Wallace Stegner, Willa Cather, and in terms of contemporary authors, I think Louise Erdrich is the best living writer. I consider The Last Report of the Miracles at Little No Horse to be a perfect book.
DENISON: Little Roger Logan is based on you, but all the other characters around him really came to life, as well. What other characters did you find yourself identifying with the most? And how did your perspective of these characters change when picturing them from the eyes of a young boy?
ROWLAND: I’m glad you brought this up, because I was inspired to explore this story from a child’s perspective by one of my favorite novels, A Death in the Family, by James Agee. That book starts with a young father being killed in an auto accident, and much of the story is told through the eyes of his young son, trying to make sense not only of the death, but of the way everyone is responding to it. So what I was really hoping to convey with Roger’s point of view is how much the behavior of adults impacts the children in a community. As far as identifying with the other characters, Carl is based on my dad, and he’s probably the most like me, actually: someone who struggles with his decisions, and with guilt.
"What I was really hoping to convey with Roger’s point of view is how much the behavior of adults impacts the children in a community. As far as identifying with the other characters, Carl is based on my dad, and he’s probably the most like me, actually: someone who struggles with his decisions, and with guilt. " —Russell Rowland
DENISON: Which characters surprised you the most? And what kind of freedom did you give them to make their own decisions? Would you say some of your characters had free will?
ROWLAND: That’s a great question. And yes, my characters always have free will when I’m writing a novel. That’s one of the greatest joys of writing fiction…the story never goes where you think it will, and the characters DO surprise you. I loved Babe Ruth as a character because she was so unpredictable. And of course you eventually find out why, but it was such a great way of giving the story a little jolt here and there to have a character like that. Tom Butcher was also one of my favorite characters to write, because he’s seemingly so confident that you can see him doing just about anything and getting away with it.
DENISON: Did you know who killed Tom Butcher all along? Or were you trying to figure it out for a while yourself?
ROWLAND: I did not know. And in fact this book had several endings as it went through the various edits. I started this book about 25 years ago, so it’s been through more drafts than I could possibly count. I’m not sure how many different people ended up being the murderer, but it was at least three.
DENISON: What did you learn from writing this novel? What did it teach you about the rural west in the 1960s?
ROWLAND: Another great question. I had some pretty strong feelings about the people who lived in that community where we moved when I was ten years old, and this book helped me develop a little more empathy for them, which is generally what any novel ends up doing for me. Trying to imagine what it must be like to live in a community where every move you make is so closely scrutinized, and where you can be so completely isolated from everyone else if you piss off the wrong people, was interesting to explore. I love small towns, but I honestly don’t think I could live in one.
"Trying to imagine what it must be like to live in a community where every move you make is so closely scrutinized, and where you can be so completely isolated from everyone else if you piss off the wrong people, was interesting to explore. I love small towns, but I honestly don’t think I could live in one." —Rowland
DENISON: How nostalgic was it for you to write this?
ROWLAND: There were a lot of great things about living in that place, but it was mostly painful, so this brought up a lot more uncomfortable memories than good ones. My parents were especially unhappy during those two years, so it wasn’t a good time for our family.
DENISON: What are some ways life was better then and some ways life is better now?
ROWLAND: Ah, another great question. I suppose it was simpler then in a lot of ways. We had the chance to find a lot more creative ways to entertain ourselves. We barely had TV reception on that ranch, so my siblings and I spent a lot of time outdoors, or finding creative ways to keep each other busy indoors. My brother and sister and I actually wrote a lot of plays during those two years, so maybe that’s where I was first motivated to become a writer. But as far as the adults go, I don’t know if it’s changed all that much. It’s still very hard being an outsider in small communities.
DENISON: You're a busy man. How did you make time to write this novel? And how did you approach the writing? How much did it consume your thought process, especially when you got toward the exciting conclusion?
ROWLAND: Well as I mentioned above, this book has been in the works for 25 years, so it was a long process. My first drafts generally come pretty quickly because I get so wrapped up in the story that I have to get it done. And I usually write my second draft longhand so that I’m forced to slow down and think about what I’m doing more. But the hardest part of this book was trying to figure out a narrative that fit the story. For a long time, the first third of the book was just as it is, with several third person perspectives. But I needed to figure out how to backtrack to tell the backstory, and for the longest time, that second section was written from a first person perspective. And it just wasn’t working, but I couldn’t figure out how to fix it.
Thankfully, when Dzanc Books agreed to publish the book, my editor Michelle Dotter suggested I convert the whole book to an omniscient point of view, and it really clicked. The ending was interesting because it used to be a lot more over the top, and when I got to the final draft, I realized that it was too melodramatic, so I dialed it back quite a bit, and I like it much better this way.
DENISON: Did you find you needed to be in a particular mindset when returning to the page?
ROWLAND: That has never been an issue for me. I’ve been blessed (or maybe cursed) with a complete obsession with writing, so – when I sit down to write – I’m ready to go. It really doesn’t matter where I am or what’s going on in my life.
DENISON: Which scene was your favorite to write?
ROWLAND: I really love the scene where Roger escapes into the mountains on his palomino and ends up coming across the mysterious man. That scene was fun to try and imagine. I also like the scene where Tom armwrestles about twenty guys in a row. That one was just plain fun.
DENISON: Which one was the hardest? The scene where Junior Kirby apologizes to his wife Angie was a hard one. I didn’t want it to be too sappy, but I wanted it to be realistic, and that’s a very hard balance to negotiate. What was the best part of writing "Cold Country" and how does it compare to other books you've written? I think bringing the child’s perspective into this story was my favorite part. It’s really challenging to remember what that’s like, dealing with real emotions as a child, and also trying to remember how children talk to each other. Probably the most challenging part of this book compared to my others is that it is the most autobiographical in terms of emotional connection to the story. Very few of the events in this book are actually from my life, but the feelings very much are.
DENISON: Have you been pleased with the reception of "Cold Country"?
ROWLAND: Absolutely. The Wall Street Journal review took me completely by surprise. In fact, my publisher didn’t even know about it, so the way I heard about it was when a friend of mine posted a congratulatory note on Facebook. That has led to a surge in sales that I didn’t see coming. Nor did my publisher. They ran out of books just before the holidays.
DENISON: What are some of your favorite responses? Well the thing that I am always most pleased to hear from readers is that I’ve captured the dynamics of Montana well.
ROWLAND: That’s really my biggest goal in all my books, is exploring what it means to be from this magical place: the joys and the challenges both. I think Montana has such a dramatic impact on the people who live here that it’s been very important for me to get that right. When someone tells me I’ve nailed it, that’s a great feeling.
DENISON: I hear there is talk of "Cold Country" becoming a film? Can you share any details here or is it premature?
ROWLAND: I’m very excited about this prospect, and it’s also a byproduct of that Wall Street Journal review. A guy named Paul Schnee, who has been casting director for a lot of films I really love, read the book and contacted me about the film rights.
He is working with a director I really admire, Deb Granik, who directed Winter’s Bone, with Jennifer Lawrence, and another fabulous film called Leave No Trace, with Ben Foster. She and her writing partner Anne Rossellini have agreed to come on board as Executive Producers, and I’m hoping she’ll agree to direct it as well, but we’ll see. As most people know, selling the rights is just the first step and it’s pretty rare for anything to get any further than that, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Russell Rowland is host of a radio program, "56 Counties," which airs on Yellowstone Public Radio the first Monday of each month. The show's title is based on his book about Montana of the same name. Both Fifty-Six Counties and Cold Country is available at bookstores around the state, on Amazon and at russellrowland.com. It was released in November of 2018 through Dzanc Books. MoJo's preference: Buy it from your local independent bookstore. They need your patronage now more than ever.