After 40 years in journalism, Christene Meyers decided to start making things up.
The result is her first novel, “Lilian’s Last Dance,” which she introduced to readers here last week as part of Big Read events. Writing the book was, she said in an interview later, the hardest thing she has ever done.
Meyers’ fluid writing style is well known to longtime Billings residents. A native of Columbus, she got her first byline in a children’s magazine when she was 14 or 15 years old. In high school, she contributed to a Billings Gazette column that featured voices of area teenagers.
That eventually led to a full-time job at the Gazette, where she started as a night police reporter.
“I think I did all the major beats they had at the time,” she said.
She gradually worked her way up to movie reviews, then she was for many years the arts and travel writer for the Gazette before retiring in 2004. She interviewed hundreds of actors, musicians and writers, and was active in many ways in the Billings arts community.
For a fourth-generation Montanan from Columbus, the career choice was not as unusual as it might sound. Her parents gave their children music and dance lessons, plus boxing lessons for the boys so they could handle any kidding they got at school about it all.
Her mother was an opera fan and musician, and Meyers said she began singing at age 2 or 3, belting out songs like “The Good Ship Lollipop” and “Oh, You Beautiful Doll.” At last week’s reading, she sat down at a piano to play a medley of original songs for a musical version of “Lilian’s Last Dance,” with Marian Booth Green providing the vocals.
In later years, that love of culture translated into an inextinguishable urge to travel, a habit that paid off when it came time to take up fiction. The novel covers settings ranging from France to New York to California, with stops at most points in between, including a reference to Corsicana, Texas, a few miles from where this reporter’s ancestors grew up, and, of course, Montana.
“Our research was meticulous,” she said.
Meyers says she visited all those spots with her late husband, William Jones, who had been a retired film critic for the Arizona Republic before his death of cancer in 2005.
“He went to that great theater in the sky,” she said. But right up until days before he died, sitting with an IV at a computer, he urged Meyers to finish the novel. They had put in too much work to give it up, he told her.
He is listed as co-author of the novel, and Meyers said it was a true collaboration. They worked out the characters and plot together, she said, and there really is no way to tell now who gets credit for what parts.
Actually, the book’s roots go back even further. She drew inspiration in part from a great aunt and from her grandmother, who refused to marry her grandfather until he came up with $1,500—a huge sum in those days—and a grand piano.
Meyer said she and her first husband, Bruce Meyers, a poet and professor at Montana State University Billings until his death in 1992, began kicking around the idea of writing a musical about a Western woman sharpshooter, sort of “Annie Get Your Gun” but with a main character who was more worldly, more international and sexier than Annie Oakley.
She and Jones took extensive notes on the novel, but she abandoned it for a time after her husband’s death. She took the book back up after a box of notes and floppy discs literally fell off a shelf and hit her current partner, photographer Bruce William Keller, in the head.
The finished novel is set around the turn of the last century, extending into World War I. It’s about an ambitious film buff in the silent era, Walter Brown, who travels America showing short films and putting on vaudeville acts, trying to stay a step ahead of goons working for inventor Thomas Edison, who was attempting to squeeze out competitors in the motion picture business.
Walter meets the lovely title character, a French woman named Lilian Dumont, and recruits her from Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show as an actress and sharpshooter. With the rest of Walter’s crew, they travel America and Europe, entertaining crowds with shooting and films, and gradually moving toward more ambitious work.
Along the way they encounter bank robbers, gunfighters, journalists, lawmen, a Peruvian artist and dozens of other characters, including 22 cameo appearances by famous personages of the time: Gertrude Stein, Bat Masterson, Lillian Gish and Buffalo Bill himself, among others. They bump into a range of disasters, including time on the front lines in World War I.
It’s a picaresque tale for most of the way, and the rambling may weary some readers, but eventually a love triangle develops—really more of a quadrangle, but one of the characters is motivated more by revenge than by affection.
From there the story gradually builds toward a rollicking climax, which won’t be revealed here except to note that guns blaze.
Meyer’s reading last week appeared to delight dozens of listeners, and it may be that the book works better as a series of anecdotes than as a tightly plotted novel. One technical difficulty is that the book is written in first person, from Walter’s point of view, which means that we miss many of the most intimate scenes that might have made Lilian a more richly developed character.
Last week’s reading was the 14th on her book tour, and one of many irons she still has in the fire. She also teaches writing classes that focus on memoir writing but encompass a range of student interests. She will hold her “Broads, Booze and Buckaroos” workshop on Saturday at Moss Mansion, on June 6 in Harlowton and on June 13 in Cody, Wyo. Each class runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and they cost $40, including lunch. To register, call 294-2390 or email Corby@skinnerbenoit.com.
She invites students to bring photos of ancestors and conducts exercises to get them to trust one another.
Besides the book tour and classes, she also is taking courses at Sarah Lawrence in poetry and play writing. She writes a blog at www.whereiscookie.com. She is working on the musical, and she splits her time between California and a place she bought near Nye. She still travels and goes to the theater regularly.
It’s just, she said, that she has a lot she wants to do before “I’m in my urn.”
She even still does a little freelancing, she said, but is finding that she has to cut back.
“I’m learning one small thing in my 60s,” she said, “that I can’t do everything.”
For information on purchasing “Lilian’s Last Dance,” go to www.lilianslastdance.com.
David Crisp has worked for newspapers since 1979. He has been editor and publisher of the Billings Outpost since 1997. The Outpost is published every Thursday and is available for free all over Billings and in nearby communities.