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Peter Liney Dissects "The Detainee"—a Big Spring Books Selection

The DetaineeThe book I'm most excited about this spring, and therefore my selection for the Big Spring Books Editors' Picks, is The Detainee, the debut novel by British author Peter Liney. From the moment I read the book's description months ago, I was antsy to get my hands on this one. And once I read the first page, I didn't put it down until I'd turned the last --literally. It's the story of a 60-something man named "Big Guy" Clancy. He used to be a tough guy for the mob, but now he's just another aging prisoner on an island where society ships all of its garbage, including the elderly and the infirm. Kept in line by satellites armed to kill at any sign of attempted escape or violence, Clancy and his neighbors are in constant danger whenever the fog rolls in; that's when the satellites malfunction and island's other residents get their violent kicks.

The island felt so vivid to me, and Clancy was such an unusual choice for a hero. I asked Liney to tell us more about where the idea for the island came from, a little more about this old man through whose eyes we see the story unfold, as well as the socio-political concerns that provided the author's own underlying motivation to write this book. Here's what he had to say.

One day, while on a trip to New York City, I ran across a remarkable exhibition at the Public Library on garbage, more precisely, the massive landfill on Staten Island. Most of the people there weren’t terribly interested; they gave it a quick glance and hurried by in search of more exciting things. I stood there with a big smile on my face. I didn't actually shout "Eureka!", but the sentiment was written across my face for all to see.

I saw this huge island of garbage, where all those who society regards as disposable, who can no longer support themselves—the old, the sick, unwanted children, hardened young criminals who have no one willing to pay for their incarceration, etc. -- are shipped out and told they're taking part in the Island Rehabilitation Program, a new chance at life, when in fact they're to be prisoners, enduring the most squalid and terrifying existence, unable to escape because of the constant threat of immediate death.

Now I had my setting and situation; where was my hero? What manner of person could cope with all this and prevail? Clancy was a professional "big guy" with a lifetime of crime behind him. Just for him to be seen walking the streets was enough to enforce the rule of his master. But as I said, no one useful gets sent out to the Island. No matter how much he hates it, the truth is, Clancy is old: his muscles have started to sag and lose their strength, and as years have passed on the Island, he's become a grouchy and reclusive figure that most people wish to avoid.

Some of the ideas I used for The Detainee have been jangling around in my head for years -- like a set of keys in my pocket whose purpose I had long forgotten. Several of these ideas weren't so much ideas as they were concerns. With the advances in healthcare, greater life expectancy, and a falling birth-rate, populations of the developed nations are getting much older. And suddenly, there are more elderly people than young, causing a strain on social services and healthcare for the aging population.

Another thing that was troubling me was why was I living in one of the most monitored societies on Earth? A place where cameras are constantly spying on me. Big Brother, Big Sister, Big Momma—they're all out there the moment I open my front door. Where am I talking about? North Korea? Russia, perhaps? Somewhere under the rule of some crazed dictator? Actually, it's the United Kingdom. You can spend practically your whole day being spied upon by one camera or another. They tell us they're there to safeguard us. Which is food for thought. What if they aren't there to protect us? What if they are really there to protect a certain status quo in the government's power? Exactly how far would they be prepared to go to maintain this status quo? Possibly as far as the hellish world of The Detainee?

It sounds grim -- it is grim, I know -- but if I had to use only one word to describe the theme of The Detainee it would be hope. More than anything, I wanted to write a book about the fact that we humans thrive on hope; that like those seeds that lie in the desert, year after year, with nothing to sustain them, then with just a drop of rainwater they bloom into the most spectacular of flowers. Clancy's the same. He's living in a desert—a pitiless, God-forsaken, garbage-strewn wasteland; yet one day he happens upon someone who inspires him and gives him hope. He's ready to fight back.

2014 Newbery Honor Winner: Kevin Henkes on "The Year of Billy Miller"

YrBillyMiller300I'm fascinated by watching illustrators draw, and award-winning author/illustrator Kevin Henkes graciously agreed to have a chat about The Year of Billy Miller (one of our Best Children's Books of 2013) AND draw one his most beloved characters, Lilly (Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, among others) on camera when we met up at Book Expo America.  

When I say that Henkes is an award-winning author, I don't mean it lightly--he's won the Caldecott Medal for Kitten's First Full Moon, a Caldecott Honor for Owen, a Newbery Honor for his middle grade novel, Olive's Ocean, and this year he took home two awards: a Newbery Honor for his latest book, The Year of Billy Miller and a Geisel Honor for Penny and Her Marble, the third book in his new beginning reader series.  Henkes is truly a jewel of the children's book world, and a delightful, down-to-earth guy who was really fun to meet and talk to.  We chatted about how he decides which format to write next, where the story for Billy Miller came from in his own life, and about the fact that he's never had a main character that was a dog.  You can watch him draw in the first video below, and the second is our conversation before and after.




She and We: Behind "On Such a Full Sea" with Author Chang-rae Lee

On Such a Full SeaChang-rae Lee is intrigued by his audience lately. The award-winning author of five novels has attended countless readings and book signings; he's familiar with who his readers are, and vice versa. Or so he thought. On the road promoting his latest book, On Such a Full Sea, he's seen a shift in who's showing up to the bookstores. His fans are skewing much younger than normal, and half of them, he says, are new to his work.

Promotion could be a reason, he proffers -- a review in a newspaper, a spot on NPR, or even a bookseller's recommendation. But of the many theories he has for the shift, he thinks it could simply be that the nature of the book -- a dark, yet hope-filled story about a young girl venturing forth alone into a dystopian America -- is appealing to young readers. In fact, though he is clear that he didn't write On Such a Full Sea specifically for his two teenage daughters (clarifying emphatically that it is "not YA"), he did intentionally try to keep it within their realm of possibility.

"My other books are very psychologically excruciating," he says with an easy-going laugh. "I mean they're really detailed, they go very deep into the consciousness of the characters. My daughters are teens, and I wanted them to be able to read the book, to engage with the character in quite a different way, identify with the character rather than have to 'understand the character.'"

A petite 16-year-old, skilled in her work and seemingly content in her life, Fan is motivated to leave her labor settlement, B-Mor, after her boyfriend suddenly disappears. The decision is unheard of; the wilds of the counties are daunting. And so we hear of her journey beyond the safety of the gates, coming to know her as compelling and complex, mature beyond her years yet innocent to the dangers of the world, an inspiration and a cautionary tale, an example from which to better understand ourselves.

Nevertheless, as orchestrated by the author, trying to actually understand Fan is not the point.

"I don't really go into all of Fan's thoughts, I'm not interested in that. What I am interested in is her as a kind of almost pre-modern elemental hero. You know, with modernism we get all of this psychology, right? I mean, that's what we understood after Flaubert and Joyce," Lee says, the Princeton professor in him shining through. "But I wanted to have a hero who was more, at least in the minds of the people viewing her, an iconic hero who would be and act more than say and lead."

This focus on a single (and singular) character wasn't the book Lee initially planned to write. For him, it was a story about the lives of factory workers in China's Pearl River Delta -- "their lives, their work, the geopolitical and socio-economic forces around them." But he soon realized that a key element was missing, though the reporting appealed to him.

"I think to write a novel you have to feel not just that you know the material, which I did, but also that there's still a mystery about it," he says. "And that can be a character, that can be a formal consideration, that can be a lot of things, but I just didn't quite have whatever it was."

Continue reading "She and We: Behind "On Such a Full Sea" with Author Chang-rae Lee" »

YA Wednesday: Andrew Smith on "Grasshopper Jungle"

Grasshopper200I loved Andrew Smith's 2013 book, Winger, and the same goes for his latest, Grasshopper Jungle, our Teen & Young Adult spotlight pick for February

This is not the sort of book you meander through--it is 432 pages of one of the wildest, most outlandishly original stories I've read in a very long time. The raw honesty of 16-year-old narrator Austin Szerba's f-bomb dropping, sex obsessed voice made anything--and everything--in this book seem possible.  

Smith was in Seattle recently, and we chatted about Grasshopper Jungle, his influences, some of this favorite books (including Breakfast of Champions), and his bout with invisibility that seems to be coming to an end.  It's all here in this exclusive video:


Amazon Asks: Daniel Suarez, Author of "Influx"

InfluxNot to be too cinematically cliché about it, but imagine a world... one in which your wish list of futuresque inventions actually existed. Imagine now that an organization has suppressed the items on your list, hidden them away so that nobody knows they're really possible. Worse yet, imagine you're the one who invented something world-changing.

That's the sort of position into which author Daniel Suarez puts his genius scientist Jon Grady. Told that "Some technologies are too dangerous to be allowed to spread on their own," Grady is suddenly privy to the fact that advances in fusion, gravity, genetics -- countless examples of scientific progress -- have been made and kept secret. Given the choice to join or be jailed, our hero declines the invitation. Perfectly balancing science, fiction, and thriller, Influx is an intense and engaging sum of its parts.

If you're familiar with Suarez’s bio, you know it's an understatement to call his technological background impressive. We wanted to find out more about him beyond his expertise. Here he tells us about the book report a former lit teacher has reason to be angry about, one way Kurt Vonnegut was ahead of his time, which future inventions he’s most looking forward to, and more.

What's the elevator pitch for your book?

Daniel Suarez A brilliant young scientist develops a technology that can reflect gravity. It's a breakthrough that could transform society as we know it. But instead of receiving widespread acclaim, he's taken prisoner by a secretive organization that covers up his work. It turns out the human race is more technologically advanced than commonly believed. Disruptive innovations like fusion and artificial intelligence are being concealed to 'prevent social and economic upheaval.' But keeping a 21st century Einstein imprisoned is harder than it sounds...

What's on your nightstand/bedside table/Kindle?

Alain de Botton's The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work -- it's beautiful, insightful, and fascinating all at once.

Top 3-5 favorite books of all time?

This is almost impossible to answer because there are so many, but at this moment:

(and a thousand more...)

Important book you never read?

Wuthering Heights (what's the statute of limitations on falsely submitting a book report?)

Book that changed your life or book that made you want to become a writer?

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut. I read this while still in grammar school, and then reread it several times throughout high school and college. The premise: that technology would advance to the point where most humans no longer needed to work--and that this would rob life of its meaning. That was counter-intuitive to me at the time, and I was endlessly fascinated by such a thought-provoking fiction. Up until then I'd read plenty of science fiction but those stories were usually far into the future. This one stayed with me, and still does to this day. Incidentally, we're seeing shades of Player Piano becoming reality as robotics and automation expands in society. I'd say Vonnegut was on to something way back then...

What's your most memorable author moment?

The first time I saw a stranger reading one of my books in a public place.

Preferred reading format: print? digital?

I prefer print because books on shelves often spark conversations and their spines tell a story about who I am. However, I'll still buy digital versions if I'm traveling. Nothing beats the portability of digital.

What talent or superpower would you like to have (not including flight or invisibility)?

I would like to possess profound mastery of a musical instrument such as the piano or guitar. Music has so often transported me and inspired my writing. I can only wonder what it would be like to have the talent to create and play music for others. Alas, I don't seem to have the patience or the knack, and I suppose knowing this has spared others much suffering -- particularly my cats.

What are you obsessed with now?

I'm really digging "True Detective" on HBO. The writing is sharp and the cinematography evocative, the performances powerful. Did HBO make a deal with the devil somewhere along the way? They're just about the only reason I still have cable.

What are you stressed about now?

I'm stressed about this question... :)

What are you psyched about now?

Clearly I'm psyched about my new book, Influx. The launch of a new book is always exciting, and I often ponder the new people I'll meet as a result of my book entering the world. Books are like that; they go places that are hard to anticipate, and then some time in the future someone will contact me and say, 'Hey, I read your book, X, and I just wanted to reach out to you...' I have met innumerable fascinating people because of my writing -- and that, in turn, leads to ideas for new books.

What's your most prized/treasured possession?

My memories of loved ones. That might sound glib, but as the years go by, there are less and less physical possessions I treasure, and more people whose company I miss. I'm by no means old, but both time and distance work against us here.

What 3 pieces of technology can you not live without? 

  • The Wheel
  • Mastery of Fire
  • Wet Wipes

What 3 future inventions are you most looking forward to? 

  • Fusion
  • Warp drive
  • Perfect interpersonal communication (mind-meld).

That third invention will be necessary to keep humanity from wiping itself out with the other two inventions.

Author crush - who's your current author crush?

Recency is a big factor here, since I'm most enamored of things I've liked most recently. That would mean Alain de Botton (currently on my nightstand).

Pen Envy - Book you wish you'd written?

George Orwell's 1984. The relevance of this book to our times is astounding, and unfortunately, I think it's only going to become more prescient.

What's the last dream you remember?

It involved an ambulatory butter squash being chased by a wood chipper...

What's favorite method of procrastination? Temptation? Vice?

The Internet. What makes it so insidious is that it's also the perfect research tool for authors. So I'll start a book project by doing focused research, and the next time I look up, it's February...

What do you collect?

I seldom throw away tech gadgets -- phones and laptops in particular. I've got a mini museum of every device I've ever used, and it's interesting to see their evolution. For instance, going through the layers of laptops, one can see that for the longest time I was striving to obtain the largest screen -- so the machines kept getting wider and deeper. Then at some point I valued portability more, and they started getting smaller. Also, somewhere along the way phones got as fragile as Tiffany glass--quite a few broken. But I've got an old Mitsubishi phone the size and shape of a brick that you could drive nails with. If I could find the charger, I bet it would still work.

Best piece of fan mail you ever got?

A reader once wrote me to say that my books had gotten him through the darkest period of his life, when he didn't have a friend, and couldn't see any reason for continuing. And eventually he worked through his problems and just wanted to thank me for being there for him. I keep a print out of his email on my office wall. Strangely, whenever I feel my writing is pointless, he now gives *me* encouragement.

Favorite line in a book?

"Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs their eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens." -- The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

What's next for you?

Of course, another book. I'm always writing or doing research because there is nothing like the feeling of finishing a book--and then soon enough you want to start all over again.

How Do I Love Thee? 150 Ways...




















When we think of February, love frequently comes to mind--and let's face it, for better or worse this four letter word is probably one of the most enchanting, infuriating, and exciting subjects to read about.  From stories of an idyllic marriage gone terribly wrong to mortals falling for immortal lovers, or the flush of crazy, passionate, first love, romance has always captivated readers and writers alike.  Where would Shakespeare be without Romeo and Juliet?  Or Hollywood without its larger-than-life affairs of the heart, often adapted from beloved novels?

Whether you like classic romance or stories of love gone wrong, we decided this month was the perfect time to look at some of our favorite novels of amour.  To that end, we chose 150 love stories in a dozen flavors—our own box of chocolates for the mind and heart, if you will.  The Beatles say, “all you need is love.” But maybe all you need is a good love story. 

Check out our hand-picked treats in:


How I Wrote It: Drew Chapman, on "The Ascendant"

AcendantDrew Chapman cut his teeth as a television screenwriter, and that style of writing--character driver, fast paced, tightly plotted, and cinematic--comes through on every page of his debut novel, The Ascendant. Featuring a braniac bond trader with a bad attitude and an unlikely crew of cyber warriors, The Ascendant is a story for an Edward Snowden/WikiLeaks/NSA-fearing generation.

After years of writing for the screen, and being confined by the strictures of the medium, Chapman decided to explore the freedom of writing a novel. Initially, he planned to self-publish the book, but first showed it to a few publishers. Simon & Schuster snatched it up, and Chapman is now writing the second book in a planned trilogy. (TV rights have been sold to Fox, with Chapman attached to write and produce.)

Watch Chapman discuss how he created his likeable, renegade hero, and how recent cyber events have shown him that the fictional scenarios he'd crafted aren't so far-fetched after all.

YA Wednesday How I Wrote It: Laurie Halse Anderson

Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak has become rite of passage reading for young women and I think her newest book, The Impossible Knife of Memory, is destined for the same. This time Anderson tackles the difficult subject of mental illness--in this case PTSD--in a modern family, and also the lighter (though sometimes difficult) experience of falling in love.  Though she is busy touring for The Impossible Knife of Memory,  Anderson took time out for some "how I wrote it" questions and I hope you enjoy reading about her life and work as much as I have.  I'm also insanely jealous of her book cottage.

Laurie-Halse-Anderson_Author-Photo_Photo-credit-Joyce-Tenneson ImpossibleKnife160











Who I wrote this book for: The early drafts of this book were written for me. They helped me worked through old feelings of confusion and sadness left over from when I was a teenager and my father was struggling with PTSD. When I started revising, I turned the focus away from me and started thinking about my readers, especially those whom love someone whom is struggling with mental illness.

How this book is different from my previous books: While it takes on a dark topic like my other books, this one is balanced by a love story and by friendship. I really enjoyed writing a story that had so much hope and laughter in it.

Space: I’ve written everywhere from a closet to the front seat of the car. Then I married a carpenter. He built me a writing cottage in the woods near our house. It has a ten-foot tall magic window that he found in a salvage yard and a wood stove that keeps me warm in the winter. I only do creative things in the cottage: writing, reading, drawing, etc. All business work, like email or paying bills, is done in the house. While I’m traveling this spring, rumor has it that he’s building me a wall of bookcases, too!

Here’s a video about the building of the cottage:


Tools: I love a thin-line gel pen (black ink) and heavy paper when I’m pondering a new book idea but, I’ll use anything when an idea hits, including an eyebrow pencil and grocery store receipts. Once I can hear the voice of my main character, I move to my laptop because I can type much faster than I can write. I try to spend a couple of hours a day working on the laptop while walking slowly on a treadmill. I recently started using dictation software because of carpal tunnel and tendinitis. I’m not sure if I like it yet, but it sure is easier on my arms.

Soundtrack: I like a huge range of music, from classic rock to country to alternative, some rap, and classical. Each book winds up with an eclectic playlist. Songs with lyrics can sometimes interfere with the flow of words in my head. When that happens, I put on ambient sounds, like recordings of waves or the music of Sigur Rós. Sometimes I play the music quietly, sometimes I crank it until the windows shake to bring up my energy level. It’s amazing how creative you can be after you dance until the sweat runs down your face.

Temptation: When I’m writing I avoid the Internet until the day’s work is done. If I’m feeling anxious about my Work In Progress, I avoid reading any and all reviews of my already-published books, even if they’re sent to me by kindly bloggers who liked them. I have an uncanny ability to distort positive reviews and make them into scathing denouncements of my writing and then I become a self-loathing wretch. It’s hard to write when I hate myself, so avoiding reviews is a healthy thing.

Surprises: I didn’t expect to enjoy writing the love story aspect of the book so much. Once Hayley and Finn started sparring, I had a blast figuring out how to move their relationship forward (and backward!).  I was surprised at how much sympathy I had for Hayley’s father, too. That’s why I put in the short chapters told from his point-of-view. Once you know what he survived, it’s impossible to hate him. ---Laurie Halse Anderson

YA Wednesday: Ransom Riggs and the Photos That Creeped Him Out

HollowCity_p323_500HHere are a few things I know about Ransom Riggs: he's tall (it's one of the first things you notice). He's very polite. He intended to have a career as a filmmaker. He became a bestselling author.  I met Riggs over lunch about a year ago, when I was still waiting for something--anything--to read from Hollow City.  We talked books, celebrated the great camaraderie of YA authors, and ate pasta. And, like a magician guarding his tricks, he told me nothing about the next novel...

Riggs' first book, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is quirky, eerie, and enchanting. Vintage photographs wrap around the story of 16-year-old Jacob, who discovers he shares his grandfather's unusual talent and later--thanks to a trick of time--his grandfather's childhood friends.  Like so many other great young adult books, Miss Peregrine's draws in readers of all ages, and the sequel, Hollow City will do the same.  In fact, we put it on both our overall Top 10 Best Books of the Month AND made it our YA spotlight pick for January.

Hollow City picks up where the first book left off, and the peculiar inhabitants of Miss Peregrine's leave the island in Wales, eventually finding themselves in war-torn 1940's London.  The characters' bonds are strengthened, and Jacob, in particular, grows more complex as he learns to trust himself, takes comfort in belonging to this unusual group of people, and falls in love--something Riggs does with a light touch.  One of the most fascinating things about Hollow City, for me, is Riggs' ability to pull off the dynamic between a new series of vintage photos and the storyline when so much about the characters and plot direction was already set.  The evolution of the sequel is what I most wanted to know about--which came first, the photos or the story, or something in between.  So I asked the question. And here's what he said:


My “peculiar children” novels are illustrated with vintage found photography, which I find in flea markets and antiques shops and in the collections of photo-hound friends of mine, many of whom have spent years nosing around for old pictures and turning up astounding finds. I originally started collecting photos just for the fun of it. I brought a handful of my favorites to Jason Rekulak, an editor at Quirk Books, and together we hatched the idea for a novel illustrated with old imagery. It then fell to me to develop the characters and plot, to actually write the thing, but all I had were a stack of brittle, yellow snapshots that creeped me out so much I kept them in a drawer most of the time, so they couldn’t stare at me. 

The books came together slowly and messily. People often ask me whether, when I’m writing, the photos I have dictate the story I tell, or vice versa, but it’s not that simple. The answer is, both. The photos will often push me in certain directions, plot-wise--I might think, hey, I have a lot of great shots of kids in a forest; I should write some scenes in a forest so I can use these. So the story will take a certain turn, nudged along by my collection. But then I’ll come up with some bizarre idea about what should happen to my characters while they’re in the forest --they meet a witch wearing a fur coat made of living, talking minks!--but I don’t have any images to support it, so I have to go out hunting for a new photo of a woman in a fur coat. But the picture I find is of a woman who doesn’t look particularly witchy, so the character becomes benevolent rather than a villain. In that way, there’s a constant, organic push and pull between the photos and the story while I’m writing. It’s a peculiar process, but hey, they’re peculiar books. --Ransom Riggs

HollowCity_p283_400H HollowCity_p315_400H

Badluck Way: Wolves and Wide Open Spaces

BadluckJacket“Mine might have been a simple, pretty story, if not for the wolves. In late July, they emerged from the foothills....”

Born in Seattle, Bryce Andrews went to Montana's Sun Ranch, at the edge of Yellowstone, looking for wild country, hard work, and the space to figure out what's next. He found the first two, quickly mastering the difficult and occasionally monotonous work of a ranch hand. Things got interesting, however, when a pack of wolves harrows the herd, picking off heads of cattle, and Andrews is compelled to explore the intersection of his conservation-minded ideals and the economic realities of those who make their living from--and inhabit--the land.

Andrews's memoir, Badluck Way, is a timely, artistic accomplishment. His considered-yet-unforced prose evinces the vastness of this piece of the American West, as well as the pace of a rancher's daily existence, where time seems to settle across the open landscape. He aims high for the traditon of writers such as Stegner and Kittredge, and if he doesn't quite achieve those heights with this book, he may very well with another down the line. And it comes at a time when the debate over delisting wolves as an endangered species (and the ensuing "population management") has stirred the interests and emotons of conservationists and land use advocates alike. Andrews understands the tension and its complexity.

Andrews answers our questions about his experience on the ranch and the new book, an Amazon Editors' pick for January in Biographies & Memoirs.

What was the moment when you decided that you wanted to write this book? Was it a larger (or more difficult) project than you imagined?

I started Badluck Way while wintering alone in a small log house on the Sun Ranch. Back then I didn’t think of it as a book. Pushed indoors by the deep, unyielding cold and long nights, I wrote to make sense of my first year as a ranch hand—particularly the difficult bit with the wolves.

Getting the book done and published took six additional years. Yes, it was absolutely a larger and more difficult project than I expected.

One of the central conflicts in the book revolves around the reintroduction of wolves and the toll they take on the ranch and livestock. How would you justify the intentional presence of predators to a cattleman, whose animals and income are at stake? Or would you at all?

I wouldn’t try to talk a traditional rancher into loving wolves. Life’s too short to spend time barking up that tree. No matter how you slice it, ranchers have been forced to shoulder an inequitable share of the burden of reintroduction, while reaping very few benefits. For that reason, I’d also balk at trying to sell him or her on the essential role that wolves play in a wild ecosystem.

Instead, I’d try to show him how much wolves and other wild creatures mean to millions of people living within and beyond the high and rugged valleys of Southwest Montana. These people—some of them, at least—are the ones who buy his or her beef in supermarkets. Just as importantly, they are the ones who fund and direct the work of conservation groups across the West.

I’d hope that even the most stubborn rancher could dredge up some respect for people who oppose irresponsible development and the wholesale depletion of the West’s resources. Such people—I’d say to our dubious rancher—care as deeply for wolves, bears, and other wild creatures as you do for your herds. And here’s the most important part: these recreationists, hunters, and environmentalists are a rancher’s most stalwart allies in preserving the open landscapes essential to wild animals and livestock.


Even during your one year at Sun Ranch, you could see development encroaching at the borders and even inside the land. How should preservation and development be balanced, if at all? What is the future of wild lands, and why should we care?

I’m certain of very few things these days, but ranching on the ragged edge of man’s range has taught me this: though a farmer or rancher may make poor choices in his or her stewardship of the land, the consequences of such decisions pale in comparison to the threat of development.

For far too long, our recipe for occupying the West has read as follows: Find a wide-skied paradise and fall in love with it. Chop that beautiful, intact, arid landscape into twenty-acre parcels. Fence these, then pimple the hills and benches with modular homes, trailers, and cookie-cutter starter mansions. Pull wire, lay pipe and cut roads as necessary, until the wild expanses we love are trussed up in a net of utilities. When all is said and done, stand on the front porch after twilight, grouse about the yard lights of the neighbors, and remember better days.

This much seems clear to me: Wolves and cattle can, and do, coexist in many our last remote and wild landscapes. It’s not a bloodless peace, and it likely never will be, but it works. The ranchers press on, the wolves keep breeding, and every new spring offers us a chance to avoid the pitfalls of the past. The fragmentation of a landscape, by development or any other means, brings this process of experimentation to a screeching, final halt.

Places like Montana’s Upper Madison are few and far between. Agriculture, when practiced responsibly, can exist in such valleys without destroying the surrounding wilderness. The same cannot be said of dense human inhabitation. So long as the land stays open and sparsely peopled, we reserve the right to pursue a brighter future.

Levi’s or Wranglers? Explain.

Wranglers are good for work, especially work on horseback, because of the placement of the seams and the tough weave of the denim. Wranglers last twice as long as other jeans. Unfortunately, a solid half of that lifespan is required to break them in and dull their weird, ultramarine hue.

In short: Wranglers for work, Levi’s for everything else.


What other gear is essential?

FencingPliersFor the most part, a ranch hand requires a small and relatively simple toolkit. Pliers and a wire stretcher are essential, as are a good shovel and a rock bar. My chainsaw sees considerable use, too. A horse is necessary—a good, calm horse with sound conformation and hooves that offer little trouble. The horse’s color doesn’t matter, but I’ve had good luck with bays. Saddle and rope are essential, too, though the rope comes into play less often than one might imagine. At least once or twice a year, a simple, durable rifle proves indispensible.  

There are other, larger things, too—backhoes, tractors, trucks, ATV’s, trailers and the like—but they generally belong to the ranch, rather than to the ranch hand.

What are the books (or writers) that made you want to become a writer yourself?

From its outset, my desire to write has been nurtured by great teachers, particularly Don Snow of Whitman College and Phil Condon of the University of Montana.

That said, I admire many writers. Here are some, but not all of them, in no particular order. Aldo Leopold, Mark Twain, Gary Snyder, Terry Tempest Williams, Paul Theroux, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Paul Shepard, Richard Hugo, Bruce Chatwin, Loren Eiseley, and Maurice Sendak.

What do you hope readers take away from the book?

I hope that they take from the book something similar to what I took from the Sun Ranch—a deep appreciation for the work of ranching and an equivalent sympathy for wild animals like the wolf.

What was your scariest wilderness experience?

While crossing alone through a deep and claustrophobic bog, my horse plunged headlong into a sinkhole full of mud, deadfall and standing water. One moment I was riding without a care in the world, and then we were in the mire. The horse thrashed madly to get free, threatening to crush me or lay himself open in the process.

The worst of it was getting out. I had to go ahead of the horse, leaping from one little patch of solid ground to the next, and then tugging at the reins to bring him along. The horse was terrified, and therefore dangerous. As he jumped wide-eyed from hummock to hummock, hurdling downed trees and landing close behind me, we played a high-stakes game of follow the leader.

At best, I stayed half a step in front of him. Once, when I hesitated for a beat too long before bounding out of the way, his hooves clipped down along my heel, missing flesh by fractions of an inch and slicing a wide half-circle of rubber from the back of my boot.

What advice would you give to an aspiring ranch hand?

Work hard. Preserve a gentleness of spirit. Cultivate the quality of gumption. Notice when the light falls beautifully across the land.


 photos courtesy Bryce Andrews

Omnivoracious™ Contributors

April 2014

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