Author Archives: Chris

About Chris

Chris La Tray is a writer, a walker, and a photographer. He is an enrolled member of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians and lives in Missoula, MT.

Fall, Glorious Fall

We have had, presumably, a magnificent fall this year. The problem is that most of it was hidden by smoke from all the forest fires in the area that closed out the summer. It sucks to have it so warm, but with air that scorches the lungs and makes the eyes water. With the drop in temperature and some rain (after something like 50 straight days without it), however, it’s finally cleared up. This is what fall in Montana is supposed to look like; Julia and I headed south of here a few miles to get some angling in on the Bitterroot River in the midst of a gorgeous Thursday.

It’s been just a little over a year since we took up the sport with any kind of seriousness, and had a great time doing it whenever we could all summer. We didn’t catch many fish (oh, the thrill when it does happen!), but that doesn’t really matter. I love to get outside and hike, but fishing is something else. It’s a great way to get right down close to the world around you, and I can’t get enough of that.

That spec in the sky in the preceding image? That’s a LARGE bald eagle, catching the thermals and floating up and up into the sky. There was also a martin I watched running on the opposite bank of the river, where Julia was. I pointed it out to her. Shortly after, it literally ran right over the top of her feet and continued on its way. Just yesterday we also saw several ducks, some deer, and a big pheasant.

There is a beaver dam near another of our favorite spots, and we’ve seen the beaver several times. One night as darkness fell I could hear it upriver a short distance, its teeth gnawing at a fallen tree. Julia was nearby, wading in the water, casting and casting. Fish were rising, taking bugs off the surface of the river, sometimes with loud splashes. An osprey flew overhead with a piercing cry. I couldn’t have been more content.

Much as I like the cold, though, I realized that mid-October may be just a tinge late in the year to be chest deep in a Montana river wearing just shorts, a t-shirt, and sandals. I could only endure it for 10-15 minutes at a time, then I’d have to retreat to thigh depth. Time for some waders, I guess, because I’m damn sure not ready to call it a year yet.

 

The Wisdom of Lansdale

Writer Joe R. Lansdale is pretty active on Facebook. He was posting some writing-related updates today via his Facebook page that I thought were excellent. Here’s the first one:

Although I have written under some awful circumstances, I think most writers write well when they are doing well. A good solid job that provided time to write is a blessing. I worked as a janitor for years, and it was a job I didn’t take home with me. It was solid but non-demanding work once you understood it, and it allowed me to put beans on the table while I wrote. Finally the money I was making from writing was as good as the money I was making from being a janitor, and when I quit being a janitor it didn’t take long before I was making much more writing full time. I kept my janitor notebooks for years though, fearing I might have to go back to work cleaning toilets and buffing floors.

I like hearing about the paths different writers take to reach success. Unfortunately, I think some use it as an excuse to try and show how quirky or eclectic they are. That’s fine, everyone is entitled to identify themselves however they want. But guys like Lansdale, or James Lee Burke, or Larry Brown . . . these guys often walked in the shoes they put their characters in. Same with Louise Erdrich; maybe Louise in particular. I often wish I had the kind of day job where, if I wasn’t there doing it, or if I went on vacation, didn’t leave me with a pile of accumulated backlog to handle when I return. Taking time off can be the most stressful part of it, frankly.

Anyway, more from Lansdale, concerning the kind of writing one chooses to do. This bit really hits close to home, considering my own reflections from a couple days ago:

There’s another side to this. Writers who put down profound work because they can’t do it or don’t want to do it. Do what you like, and do it as well as you can. Most profound stories didn’t start out to be profound. They started out to be told. I AM LEGEND was written because Richard Matheson wanted to write it, and may have had bills to pay…Bet he did. But it is also profound in a sneak up on you kind of way. I think when we hesitate to write something we want to, and we’re looking over our shoulder thinking what the critics will say, we’re being insecure about our work, not about depths or shallownees. I’m not suggesting anyone write shit, but just write the story they want to tell. You never know where it will lead. Fuck genre. Fuck Universities. Write.

And, finally,

One point I was trying to make is I don’t believe any of us know what an audience wants, and the best kind of writing is the kind where you create your own audience. If we knew what everyone wanted to read we would all hit it out of the park everytime. A good work may only be read by a few people, or it can be a runaway sensation. A bad work can do the same thing; bad in the sense that it may lack many literary values, but somehow speaks to people. So, in the end, all we have is writing for ourselves.

What great stuff, especially coming from a guy who is a phenomenal writer, and has made his territory the fringes of what is considered by the corduroy crowd as “important” writing. I’ve read a number of his short stories, one or two essays, and have his The Complete Drive-In, though I haven’t read it. I’ve also been meaning to grab his latest, Edge of Dark Water, which from what I’ve heard is fantastic. I’ll be moving all that up the TBR pile, you can count on it. . . .

 

Urban Wildlife; or, Why We Can’t Have Nice Things (Reason #30.06)

We live on kind of the South/Central edge of town, I’d say, about as far south as you can dig a basement without being one of those swanky South Hills residents, but in town nonetheless. And these brazen bastards, who have been leaving their leavings all over the yard all year, aren’t even bothering to wait until nightfall anymore.

The real reason we can’t keep feed in the bird feeders

The reason we can’t keep a decent garden

I won’t describe the profanity-laced tirade Julia was unleashing in this fella’s general direction while we were watching him out our window when I took these around midday. We need to prepare for them better next year, if only to not have her dragging me all over the yard, jabbing a finger at bitten-off tulips and plants, and spitting, “Deer.” Another one. “Deer!” And another. “Fucking deer!”

I Was Told There’d Be No Math

Saturday concluded another year of attending panels and soirees at the Montana Festival of the Book. This is something I look forward to every year, and it never disappoints. The title of this particular post is a one-liner the excellent author Jess Walter dropped in response to a question about the “what is the ‘x'” in fiction (I don’t remember the specifics, but  you had to be there — it was hilarious). It was one of the best panels I attended, and also featured my friend David Abrams, as mighty a champion of books as there is (who also dropped a line, something like, “There’s nothing funnier than fellatio on a coke bottle” in the same panel), who has recently released his debut novel, Fobbit.

My goal here isn’t to review the event, or even talk about the many excellent people I spoke with. That would probably be boring to everyone but me (though I should shout out a big, “Thanks, Mom!” for being a great companion for much of it, for the however many-eth year in a row). Instead, I want to talk about a strange, and disturbing, phenomena, totally in my own head, that I encounter whenever I attend a similar event here in my home town. It’s a confidence thing, really, but I suspect I’m probably not the only writer who struggles with it.

See, the writing folks in and around Missoula really aren’t “my people.” I don’t mean that disparagingly at all. The town is crawling with writers, and the University of Montana has a fantastic writing department that draws, and has produced, scores of excellent and renowned authors. I’m pleased with that. I’m happy that a small city in a barely-populated state has such a thriving arts community. And the reason I go to these events is  not only an effort to support that community, but also to spend time with folks who share similar interests. It doesn’t come easy, because when it comes to small talk and butting in on ongoing conversations, I’m not too skilled. But, as the legendary James Lee Burke said when asked about how to start a new project, “You walk up to the door, and you kick it down and jump through it!”

I shouldn’t have even been here this week. I should have been in Cleveland, OH, where Bouchercon 2012 was being held. Especially considering I’d been invited to a special event as a forthcoming Dead Man author. The stuff I’ve written, and the places it’s been published, are all known to many of the folks who were there tweeting pictures from the heart of the mayhem. I suspect there were easily a score or more of folks in attendance who would know me, at least by name and reputation, small as it is, because we’ve interacted, or been published in the same places, sometimes in the same issues. A handful of those folks I’ve even met face to face. Basically, I am known more as a writer outside of Missoula than I am in it.

But I chose Missoula, and the event pushed many of my buttons of insecurity. The social aspects of it did, at least. After the events of Friday, on reflection I was torn by equal parts exhilaration and discouragement. At the evening event I mentioned, at one point I was standing in line to fill my fist with another beer, and I could hear snatches of conversation with things like, “– was here for my MFA — ” and “– yeah, that was during my dissertation — ” etc. All the feelings of “not belonging” were preparing to bum rush me. MFA? Hell, my training consists of a couple workshops and 40 years of reading, only recently with any level of critical eye. When folks would ask if I write, and I would answer, talking of the stories I’d published, and that I’d signed my first significant book contract a couple weeks ago, I almost felt embarrassed because none of that work is particularly “literary.” My work isn’t appearing in some [insert foreign city or college] Press/Review/whatever publication. And no one there had ever heard of any of it.

For example, I went to a panel where Gregory Martin, a smart, well-spoken, excellent writer, was talking about his new memoir, Stories for Boys:

In this memoir of fathers and sons, Gregory Martin struggles to reconcile the father he thought he knew with a man who has just survived a suicide attempt; a man who had been having anonymous affairs with men throughout his thirty-nine years of marriage; and who now must begin his life as a gay man. At a tipping point in our national conversation about gender and sexuality, rights and acceptance, Stories for Boys is about a father and a son finding a way to build a new relationship with one another after years of suppression and denial are given air and light.

It was a powerful discussion, and clearly tells a story of deep meaning and emotion. And I thought to myself, I’m sitting here trying to think my way through a story about a guy who can’t die and travels around fighting evil with a woodcutter’s axe. I also thought, That’s why he’s up there, and I’m still out here in the audience, feeling sorry for myself.

Looking at the crowds of people chatting away, and milling about all the tables laden with all kinds of books, except the kind I write, I didn’t feel like there was anyone there who would have any interest at all in the writing I’ve done, or that I’m doing. It was disheartening, and I kind of moped out of the building.

Funny what a good night’s sleep will do for you.

Saturday morning I was back at the Fest, feeling renewed, my spirits higher. Conversations continued. New acquaintances were made, and reflections broadened. I realized that passing judgments on the people in attendance was hardly fair. After all, am I the only one equally thrilled to pick up the new David Quammen, or chat up Pam Houston because I love her work, even as I get an equal kick out of reading the new Christa Faust? If I should be ashamed of anything related to my petulant attitude, it should be at the sheer arrogance in imagining only I could be the one with such broad tastes.

Sure, I have a goal of placing something in The Whitefish Review. Or High Desert Journal. To do so will require a different kind of writing, in content, but it still has to kick all kinds of ass. It has to take the reader somewhere, with relatable characters, and hit all the points discussed in the panels I attended. Which are the very things that will make my Dead Man novel succeed to the degree I  hope it will.

I’ve spent the year reading tons of fiction I’d never had read five or ten years ago, and I’m better for it. It’s taught me just how much higher I need to raise my game in order to get it where I want it to be. Regardless of what the stories are about, they need to captivate. They don’t have to be for everyone either, but, if I like them and they turn out the way I hope for them to, they will definitely be for plenty of people.

What more can a writer ask for? See ya next year, Missoula. . . .

Bookfest haul, including a couple titles I’d picked up in anticipation of the event