Montanans are a fiercely loyal bunch who speak unashamedly of the place burning in their blood. It’s the Last Best Place, God’s Country, the Promised Land. Almost all the Montana writers I’ve read fuel this defiant allegiance to place that I think is common among Westerners. Ivan Doig’s House of Sky, William Kittredge’s Hole in the Sky, James Welch’s Fools Crow, Rick Bass’ The Book of Yaak all impacted me profoundly when I read them from a distance – as an undergraduate in Tennessee and as a graduate student in Nebraska – because they sharpened my sense of exile. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t keep the faith with this place and hunker down, all the costs be damned, like these other writers? I found it liberating to read Mary Clearman Blew’s All but the Waltz and Kim Barnes’ In the Wilderness because they shared some of the ambivalence I felt as a young man born of the landscape of northwestern Montana but also alien to its culture. The heart of Down from the Mountaintop is making peace with that ambivalence – not only learning to love another place, but to feel that it was OK not to belong solely to Montana, that expanding my sense of place was not a betrayal. There is a binary mindset typical of Montana that one sometimes sees in other regions, an insider/outsider mentality that I even now find hard to shake, as much as I still love the place, because I know I’ve become an outsider in many ways.
Who are your inspirations among nature writers and writers of place?
In addition to the Montana writers I’ve mentioned, I have been most profoundly influenced by Ted Kooser. He became my mentor during a creative nonfiction seminar at the University of Nebraska. I took the course for fun while finishing a dissertation on American literature, but Ted taught me the importance of audience, how to make an essay a good house guest for the reader. Willa Cather taught me how to see rural places and my own family history as worthy subjects of literature. Louise Erdrich and James Welch are powerful models of how to evoke a particular place as a touchstone for a larger cultural or spiritual context. I also admire the simple power of David Masumoto’s writing, the vividness of Scott Russell Sanders’ essays, the frenetic brilliance of Annie Dillard. Nature writers sometimes take themselves too seriously, which is why I appreciate John Price’s ability to engage larger questions about place through humor.