"I get annoyed with writers who complain about how hard all of this is. I’ve worked at too many lousy jobs to ever complain about writing."
"I rarely have moments where I think, ‘Ooh, I need to write about that.’ It’s more of a constant mantra, or maybe an itch. It’s like having a rash that’s incurable."
"Maybe baseball is the novel of the sports world...the story unfolds slowly, and if you leave and come back to it later, you might find that the plot has taken off in an entirely different direction."
"...while In Open Spaces was about surviving difficult times, and how that kind of effort brings out the best in some people and the worst in others, The Watershed Years is about how abundance affects those same people." Read an excerpt on VerbSap.
"It also helps to have a community of writers to talk to... Doing this is a vacuum can make you pretty crazy."
Interview: Russell Rowland
In Open Spaces (HarperCollins, 2002) is a novel suffused with a sense of place - the prairies of eastern Montana - and carved in prose as Spartan and fine as the laconic families who work the land Author Russell Rowland describes as “brutal and unforgiving.”
Based loosely on the lives of Rowland’s grandparents, In Open Spaces chronicles the lives of the Arbuckle family, battered from without by nature and from within by envy and greed. It centers on the four Arbuckle brothers, opening with the mysterious death of George, narrated by the artless Blake and driven to its most painful heights by the scheming Jack and feckless Bob.
It was a book that was a long-time in coming. After several years of submitting it and being turned down, Rowland put the manuscript in a drawer for six years and wrote three other as yet unpublished novels. Six months after William Morrow accepted it, the publisher was bought out by HarperCollins. With staff turnover high at the new company, Rowland’s book went through four editors in three-and-a-half years before seeing the light of day. When it hit bookstores it was some 100 pages shorter than in its original incarnation and had gone through at least five rewrites.
Three weeks after debuting in June 2002, In Open Spaces made The Chronicle Best Seller list for the Bay Area. It was named one of The Best of the West 2002 by The Salt Lake City Tribune and earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly.
Rowland’s own story is equally as winding and compelling. Born in Bozeman, he earned a bachelor’s degree in Music Education and spent the next couple of decades, in his words, “wandering through jobs” across the country. He worked as a lounge lizard, a shoe salesman, a surveyor, and a bookkeeper before writing called him. After a stint in the Navy, he completed a masters in Creative Writing at Boston University, where he grew to admire the stark work of Raymond Carver - VerbSap loves Raymond Carver - and talked himself into a job reading the slush pile at The Atlantic Monthly. It was there that he started writing the book that would become In Open Spaces.
VerbSap: Russell, In Open Spaces paints a vivid picture of ranch life. Did you draw on your own experiences? How did growing up in Montana shape your writing?
Rowland: Well, I’m entirely prejudiced, of course, but Montana is an amazing place, which is why I’m moving back in the spring. I’ve been fortunate to live in a lot of other great places since I left Montana, but it has stayed with me in ways that most other places don’t. So In Open Spaces really was intended as a tribute to the generation of people who shaped Montana.
My grandparents were there for the birth of the state, which is barely more than 100 years old, and the depression, which lasted close to twenty years in Montana. And yet, like most of the people I knew from their area, they were two of the warmest, most curious people you could imagine.
Carter County didn’t have telephones until the forties, and it was so dry that the ranches needed to be huge to support the livestock. So everyone lived several miles apart, which made it an isolating, solitary life. But it also created a real strong sense of community…a reliance on each other.
I worked on that ranch as a teenager, so I got a feel for how hard it was, not only in terms of the labor, but also in terms of how little contact you have with other people. These people endured so much more than I ever will in my lifetime, and they did it without the benefit of therapy or the kind of support groups that a lot of people utilize now. If anyone had asked them how they felt about something, they would have looked at them like they were speaking a foreign language. So they did it very quietly, and yet they came out fine.
I find that fascinating, and I wanted to try and explore how they did it. So the book ended up being a compilation of my own experiences working there, stories I’ve heard through the years, interviews with people from their generation, and stuff I made up.
VerbSap: Yankees All Star Yogi Berra once said: “How the hell are you gonna think and hit at the same time?" When you write, is it like hitting the sweet spot or is it a hard slog? Do you find that you have to meticulously map out your stories?
Rowland: That’s a great quote, and it definitely applies to the way I write. I am not an outliner, and there are advantages and disadvantages to that. The biggest advantage is that my writing is guided by the characters. You hear this from writers all the time, and there’s a reason for that, I think. That’s where the ‘not thinking’ comes in. I’m most productive when I’m letting the story tell itself.
The disadvantage is that I hardly ever know what I’m writing about, in terms of theme, until after I’m done. So it requires a lot of revision. But I’m actually fond of revising, so I really like going back and tinkering with the story to give it more focus, and strengthening the themes.
I get annoyed with writers who complain about how hard all of this is. I’ve worked at too many lousy jobs to ever complain about writing.
VerbSap: We recently interviewed Author Julie Otsuka who sticks to a rigid writing schedule and likes to write with a particular Waterman pen. What are your personal writing rituals? Is there anything in particular that inspires you?
Rowland: I’ve been either very lucky or cursed with an obsession with writing. I don’t have to set up any schedule or work at the discipline part. I’m more likely to need a reminder that I haven’t left the house for three days, or spoken for hours at a time.
As far as my routine, I write the first draft of my novels my laptop, in bed. But I always write the second draft longhand. It makes me slow down and think more about what I’m doing. Plus I think it feels more like writing somehow. All the crossing out and drawing arrows from this passage to where you want to insert it. Cutting and pasting used to be a very literal activity, you know?
I guess I have to say no to whether there’s anything in particular that inspires me. It really feels more like a sickness than anything. I rarely have moments where I think, ‘Ooh, I need to write about that.’ It’s more of a constant mantra, or maybe an itch. It’s like having a rash that’s incurable.
VerbSap: Speaking of Yogi Berra, baseball seems to feature prominently in your writing. Do you play? In her poem Baseball And Writing, Marianne Moore says “writing is exciting and baseball is like writing. You can never tell with either how it will go or what you will do.” Do you also see a connection between the two?
Rowland: I do love baseball and I was a pitcher as a kid. I’m a sports junkie, actually, but baseball is my favorite.
I never really thought about the parallels between writing and baseball, though. It really is apt. More than any other sport, baseball leaves room for the unexpected, I think. A single play can completely change the course of a game, or a series. Like Derek Jeter throwing Jeremy Giambi out at the plate in the ALS series a couple of years ago.
Maybe baseball is the novel of the sports world. It’s something that requires a longer time commitment, and the story unfolds slowly, and if you leave and come back to it later, you might find that the plot has taken off in an entirely different direction. These shifts happen in other sports, too, of course, but I think in baseball the shifts are a lot more understated, which is my style.
VerbSap: You also seem to have a strong sense for the bond between fathers and sons? Has being a father influenced your writing?
Rowland: That’s a great question. I suppose a lot of the subjects writers obsess about are areas of their life that have been problematic or lacking somehow. My experience as a father was more like being an uncle because I was divorced when my son was a year old, and my wife remarried soon after that. And even though my parents are still together, my own father was very emotionally absent until he quit drinking when I was in my early twenties. So I guess I’m probably exploring what might have been by writing so much about it. A lot of what it means to be a father is very vaguely defined from my experience, so I’m sure I’m trying to sort that out.
VerbSap: You’ve written a sequel to In Open Spaces called The Watershed Years. You've been kind enough to provide VerbSap with an excerpt, but can you tell us a bit about the book overall? Any idea when we’ll be able to read it?
Rowland: The Watershed Years picks up soon after In Open Spaces ends, which is just after World War II ended. So while In Open Spaces was about surviving difficult times, and how that kind of effort brings out the best in some people and the worst in others, The Watershed Years is about how abundance affects those same people. Greed. Loyalty. Sibling rivalry. That kind of thing. It’s making the rounds of publishers as we speak, so I hope to have news soon.
I also recently finished another novel called The Difference Between Us, which is about a murder in a small ranching community in the 60s. A new family has just moved to the area, and the father had a disagreement with the victim the day before he was murdered, so the community casts a suspicious eye their way. But as the book progresses, you learn that there are several people who had reasons to kill this guy.
VerbSap: Could you please tell the story about how you rather unconventionally let HarperCollins know there was interest out there for In Open Spaces. I just love it.
Rowland: Well, one of the times that I found out that publication was being delayed, I decided to recruit all my friends who were asking me when they were going to get a chance to read the book. It was listed on Amazon by this time, so I sent out an e-mail to everyone I knew and asked them to pre-order the book if they thought there was any chance they would buy it when it came out. I explained that they could always cancel the order. The next day, In Open Spaces topped out at number 249 on the Amazon sales rankings. I’m not sure whether it made much of an impression on the publisher, but it made me feel better for a while.
VerbSap: Russell, you’ve been through the publishing mill and you’ve taught fiction writing at Boston University, St. Mary’s College and online with Gotham Writing Workshops. What advice would you give writers just starting out?
Rowland: I’m never sure how to answer that question. It seems to me that everyone who makes it in this business follows a completely different path. Some people focus on writing something that will sell. Some people focus on becoming better writers. Some people focus on making the connections that will get them into print.
My main interest has always been improving as a writer, and I decided early on that if I focused on that, all of the other stuff would take care of itself. It seems naïve, even saying it out loud. But I’m pretty stubborn, so I’ll probably stick with that theory.
It also helps to have a community of writers to talk to, so that you know you’re not the only one who’s frustrated, or blocked, or wondering why you haven’t heard back from all the submissions you sent out. Doing this is a vacuum can make you pretty crazy.
There are a lot of resources out there to make connections, especially with the internet. I hang out at a website called Readerville, which is a great place for that very thing. Readerville offers discussion threads about every aspect of publishing. I also met my bride-to-be there, so that was a very cool bonus.
Mr. Rowland's novel The Watershed Years is represented by Simon Lipskar, with the literary agency Writer's House.
Photo of Mr. Rowland Curtesy of Lisa Neighbors.