When I moved back to my hometown of Billings in 2007, I had been away from Montana for 25 years. And it soon became clear that either I had changed, Montana had changed, or my memory of Montana was off the mark.
After so many years away, years in which I had lived in 12 different states, I had reduced Montana to a few descriptive phrases—useful for party conversation or on a first date. My favorite was “People in Montana don’t talk much,” which generally got a laugh and also put an end to the line of questioning. But upon my return, I realized that Montana is much more vast, and the people much more complicated, than I remembered.
About 10 years before that, just after I sold my first novel, my uncle suggested to me an idea for a book. He said, “Why don’t you travel to every county in Montana and write about it?”
I loved the idea, but when I shared it with the woman I was dating at the time, who had been a big shot editor in New York, she said, “No one would buy that.” She seemed very certain, and because she was the expert, I dismissed the idea. Kind of.
When I moved back to Billings, the idea kept elbowing its way back to the front of my brain, and it wouldn’t go away. It seemed clear that if I was going to continue to write books about this place, I needed to get to know it better, and why not do that in a productive way?
As it turned out, the timing was fortuitous. My third novel came out a few years later, and other than being named a finalist for the High Plains Book Award, it did not do well. I had always told myself that I would consider bad reviews a good learning experience … that I would use them to improve my writing. I didn’t anticipate how painful they can be when they’re coupled with financial struggles. I was living a double life, where friends and family assumed I had a successful career because I had four books published, but my bank account told a very different story.
On top of that, I could not generate any interest in the novels I was working on, and there were several of them. I sent out countless letters to agents, and it wasn’t as if they read the manuscripts and decided not to represent me. They didn’t even bother to respond.
My confidence was completely shaken. Not only did I question whether I would ever publish another book, but I started to wonder whether I’m one of these writers people refer to when they say, “Can you believe some of the crap that gets published these days?”
He didn’t hesitate for a moment. “Oh, I’d love to publish that.”
I was so excited that I didn’t think about the fact that I didn’t have the money to make the journey. Nor did I have any idea how to write a book of non-fiction, especially one this ambitious. It actually turned out to be a classic case of ignorance being quite blissful. Because I was open to just about anything.
Just as I started my trip, Allen suggested that I consider doing a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for my travel expenses. We could offer signed copies of the books as a reward for anyone who contributed, so it would essentially be like selling books in advance to help finance my travels. I had heard good things about Kickstarter, but I’d never heard of a writer using it, so I was skeptical. But I was also broke. So I decided to give it a try, and then went through the agonizing process of trying to decide what to set as my goal. Because if you don’t reach your goal with Kickstarter, you get nothing.
After much thought, I settled on $4,000. It wouldn’t be enough to cover the entire trip, but it would cover a good portion of it. To my shock, at the end of the allotted period, the tote board announced total contributions of more than $7,000. The generosity and trust that people showed through that campaign completely changed my outlook on the project. I suddenly felt as if I had a responsibility to the people who had shown such support, rather than venturing out with my own agenda. I had been gifted with a sort of honorary, temporary position as steward of our state’s story, and I took this very seriously.
For the next two years, I immersed myself in this book as I have never done with another. I read close to 100 books about the history of Montana or the West. I interviewed hundreds of people. And I got lost in the idea that all of this could somehow give me some insights into the spirit of Montana. I felt as if this was my last shot. And eventually, I came to believe that it almost didn’t matter. I came to realize that I needed to approach it that way whether it was true or not.
So now the book is done. “Fifty-Six Counties: A Montana Journey” will come out this week, and I have come out of this self-imposed hibernation with some surprising realizations.
One of the natural tendencies when you spend two years immersing yourself in such a solitary project is the mental and emotional roller coaster, where you vacillate, sometimes hour to hour, between thinking you’re creating something brilliant and then believing after reading through it one more time that you are completely wasting your time.
You would think that after waiting that long to finish something, the first feedback I got would hold great weight. And to some extent, that was true. I sent the finished product to three writers I have great respect for—Shann Ray, David Abrams, and Laura Pritchett—with the always unpleasant request that they provide a blurb if they liked the book enough. All three responded with very positive comments, and of course that meant a great deal to me. When the first one arrived in my inbox, I actually cried after reading it.
Book launch coming up
A book release party for “Fifty-Six Counties: A Montana Journey” is set for Monday, April 25, at Art House Cinema & Pub, 109 N. 30th St., from 6 to 9 p.m. To see a book-tour schedule, go to Rowland’s website.
But … I realized after a few days how temporary that satisfaction turned out to be. And it made me consider what is really important about writing a book. Especially a book like this one. And I don’t suppose it’s surprising that one thing that came to mind is the people. Because of this book, I will always have the memory of Jerry Sikorski taking me out into the fields of his farm in Fallon County and showing me how decades of his unique farming methods have created a soil so rich that it looks like chocolate cake, and emits an aroma that is much closer to plant than to dirt.
I will remember the breakfast I shared with Ralph and Myrna Paulus at their farm near Choteau, and learning the heartwarming fact that they get up every morning and read to each other. The delight of talking to Pat and Carol Williams about their years of public service, and the completely unexpected wisdom from a young woman from Glasgow named Tess Fahlgren about the definition of sustainability.
Piecing together the stories I heard along the way was one of the hardest but most fabulous experiences of my life. Looking for themes, patterns, explanations for how Montana has become the place that it is, and produced the kind of people it has, introduced me to a Montana I would have never met if I hadn’t traveled this path.
So as it turns out, even if this really does end up being the last book I ever write, and even if this book sells only a few copies to my friends and family, and even if the majority of those who read it hate it so much that they can’t look me in the face, I have come away from this particular book with a treasure chest of memories that have changed the way I look at Montana, at myself … at everything, really.
Which leads me to that old inevitable conclusion that, when it comes right down to it, what mattered most about this project is exactly what matters about everything else in life, which is the journey itself.