by Russell Rowland
Published by HarperCollins
370 pages, 2002
Russell Rowland's road to publication was as bumpy, rutted and steep as the dirt roads crisscrossing the Montana ranchlands he describes in his novel In Open Spaces. His is the kind of story that young dewy-eyed writers still on the first mile of their career highway will tape to the wall above their desk and look to for inspiration when the going gets tough.
Rowland, a fourth-generation Montanan whose family has worked the land until their knuckles bleed, spent several years writing a novel based loosely on his grandparents' experiences in the early 20th century. Then came several more years of rejection, multiple agents, hope, dashed hope and, finally, acceptance at a major publishing company.
That's when things got really hard. Rowland went through a few more years of alternating bouts of optimism and cynicism as a parade of editors worked on his manuscript. Through it all, the author maintained a cautious optimism. "Putting your work out into the world, whether it's a small journal or submitting to every magazine known to man, is part of the whole process," he says. "It's painful and frustrating and maddening and scary. And it's worth it."
Then, after 11 years, in June 2002, it finally happened: Rowland could walk into a bookstore and see his shiny novel propped up on the new-release table. Soon after its publication in trade paperback by HarperCollins, In Open Spaces hit the San Francisco Chronicle bestseller list, got a starred review in Publishers Weekly and was named The Best of the West by the Salt Lake City Tribune.
In Open Spaces follows the Arbuckle clan through drought, fire, death, sibling rivalry, disease, and blizzards -- all seen through the eyes of the book's narrator, Blake, one of four brothers who are inextricably tied to the land as much as they are to each other. The New York Times called it "a homage to big skies, stingy soil and the art of the articulate silence practiced by its human inhabitants."
The biography on Rowland's Web site says he's worked as a lounge lizard, shoe salesman, surveyor, bookkeeper, editor and a hired hack for a fortune-cookie company, but "novelist" is the word he's most wanted to put in front of his name. Since the publication of In Open Spaces, he's written a sequel, The Watershed Years, hired a new agent and now beams with a fresh outlook on the future. If he was still back on his family's ranch, he'd probably nod and say, "Yep, the harvest is looking good."
David Abrams: In Open Spaces is the quintessential Montana ranching novel, capturing the way of life you still find in small Western communities. Tell me a little bit about your connection to the state.
Russell Rowland: My Dad was going to school in Bozeman when I was born, so we left when I was 2. I was in either Montana or Wyoming [Sheridan and Thermopolis] up until I was 18 and went to college [Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma]. Then I was back in Billings for about five years after college. I finally left Montana for good in 1985.
Did you ever live the rural life like you describe in the book?
Yeah, actually we did. When I was 10, my Dad took a job as a ranch manager and we lived on a ranch that was just outside of Sheridan. We were there for two years. A really miserable two years. My mother had grown up on a ranch and hated it. So she wasn't happy about this job my Dad took. It turned out that he'd always had this dream of being a cowboy... but then he found out it wasn't all it's cracked up to be, so he wasn't very happy either.
How did you get interested in your family history? When you were growing up, did you hear a lot of stories from your relatives?
We used to go to the ranch quite a lot and I worked on the ranch when I was 16. I took a mail truck to get to the ranch that summer...
Just like in the opening of the book.
Yeah, I actually used that scene. I rode this mail truck the whole night to get to the ranch. The first leg of the trip, I was sitting between two guys I didn't know, so I couldn't go to sleep because I didn't want to lean against either of them. Then, for the last half of the trip, I was with this woman who wouldn't shut up. She kept me awake the whole time, so I was completely exhausted by the time we got to the ranch. As we were pulling in, my uncle came out to meet the mail truck and said, "We've got to go fight a fire."
We fought this fire up in the buttes for what was probably only a few hours, but it seemed like forever. We did it just like I described in the book -- put out the flames with wet gunnysacks. That was my dramatic introduction to that summer on the ranch. I don't think I'd even had a job up until that point. I was thrown right into that hard, bone-grinding manual labor. We worked 14-hour days six days a week. It was backbreaking, but I loved it.
Did this build a work ethic in you that continued throughout your life?
It really did. I was too young to appreciate it then, but looking back on it later, I realize I learned a lot about what it means to do something you love and get an obvious satisfaction of having immediate results of what you're accomplishing as it happens -- stacking hay, working with livestock.
What about writing? Does that bring you the same kind of immediate satisfaction?
It's actually one of the few things I've experienced that's similar to that ranch work. It's challenging in the same way that working outside is -- you've got so little control over the outcome and the elements. The forces are outside your control. In one case, it's the weather; in the other, it's publishers.
Let's go back to the chronology of your life. After college, you moved back to Billings and from there it seems like you led a rather nomadic life.
When I came back to Billings, I quit drinking. I was 25 at the time. I got married and my wife and I started a shoe store. We ran that business for about a year before it went under. We decided to move to Arizona and were there for about a year as our marriage broke up. Then I joined the Navy and was in for four years, stationed in Connecticut and pushing paper in a personnel office. It was right about this time that I decided to be a writer. I started reading a lot -- I really hadn't read much at all before I got sober. I gradually fell in love with words and writing and started pounding out these little short stories. Actually, part of the reason I joined the Navy was because I thought it would give me some time to develop my writing without having to worry about job security.
I took some writing classes while I was stationed there in New London, Connecticut, and put together just enough material to get accepted to graduate school at Boston University. I got out of the Navy and went back to school. When I was in grad school, I submitted a story to The Atlantic Monthly, and got a very nice letter back from the fiction editor. I wrote back to him, asking about doing an internship, and that's how I ended up reading the slush pile. I started writing In Open Spaces while I was there. I showed it to [C. Michael] Curtis who was kind enough to read every single thing I wrote while I was there. He was always great about giving me feedback. I showed him the first chapter and he called me into his office one day and said, "I'd like to help you get this published." It blew me away because I was just hoping he'd give me a little advice about it. So, of course, I assumed, "I've got it made now."
I finished the book and gave it to him. But he couldn't get it published after sending it around to several publishers. He was real old-school about sending it out to only one person at a time. Because it was unsolicited, a lot of these publishers didn't get back to me for up to six months.
That's surprising. I would think that with his name attached to it, the novel would just kick down the doors.
You would think so, but nope. Publishers were telling me the book was too loosely structured and didn't really have a narrative line. Basically, I was hearing the complaint that it had no plot. Of course, it was a lot longer at that point -- about 100 pages longer than the version you see now.
So, over the period of a couple of years, I was submitting it with his help. I finally got too discouraged with that whole process and got tired of asking him for help. So, I gave up on In Open Spaces. I put it away and started on another book. I literally put In Open Spaces in a drawer for about six years without looking at it. I ended up writing three more novels over the next few years. I submitted those books to the same places which had send back encouraging notes with In Open Spaces, but I never got anywhere with those books either.
How much did In Open Spaces change over the years with all the various drafts you put it through?
The story always stayed the same. It was mostly polishing and trimming. Right after I finished grad school, I went back to the ranch in Montana and did one rewrite there so I could get more of a sense of place. I probably rewrote it five or six times over the course of the years.
Speaking of "years," getting this book published was something like that long, hard, exhausting calf birth scene midway through the novel, wasn't it? Tell me a little bit of the struggles you went through to get In Open Spaces on the bookstore shelves.
Well, to give you a little background: I went through four different editors because they kept leaving the company...
That must have been emotionally turbulent for you.
Oh, it was awful. William Morrow originally bought the book and they got bought out by HarperCollins six months after I sold it. So, for about six months I didn't hear whether they were going to publish it or not. My editor had been one of the people who'd gotten laid off. We'd already gone through and done all the editing and so I was on pins and needles wondering if it was even going to get published. They finally assigned it to a new editor. He left about six months after that and they assigned me to another one and she never even read it before she left. So, all in all, there were three-and-a-half years of delays. It was brutal. I started getting pretty cynical about the whole process.
But as hard as it was, it all worked out for the best. The editor I finally ended up with is somebody that I like a lot. I still consider myself lucky to have been published by one of the major publishers. I really can't complain.
I guess you could say my publishing experience mirrored my characters' hardships on the ranch. It took a lot of perseverance, but loving what I was doing eventually won out.
After In Open Spaces was delayed at the publishers for the third time, you tried an unorthodox marketing campaign to show HarperCollins that there was interest out there for your book. Tell me what happened.
I e-mailed a couple hundred people asking them to pre-order the book on Amazon.com, and I also asked them to forward it to anyone else they thought might be interested. I explained exactly what I was doing: that my book wasn't going to be coming out for another year and a half, but that I just wanted to let my publisher know there were people out there who were planning to read this thing. The next day, the book shot up to number 249 on Amazon. It's funny to look back now and remember that I was thinking that thousands of people were ordering the book, when it was probably more like a couple hundred. I told my publicist about it, and she was impressed. But the best part was the boost it gave my attitude. It didn't change the pub date, but it felt good.
While writing the book, did you look over any old family letters or other ancestral material?
I did, yes. There was an attic full of letters I found at the ranch. I used those and also went around and interviewed a bunch of the old-timers who were still there: contemporaries of my grandparents, who were dead by this point. I got tons of great stories from their friends and neighbors and I ended up using a lot of the stuff I heard from them.
How much of In Open Spaces is fiction? It's called a novel, but it sounds like it's a novelized account of your family.
Yeah, I used a lot of actual events from my experiences during the summers I worked on the ranch. Early in the book, there's a scene where Blake is chasing a sheep that escapes from the flock. He can't get it to turn around and finally he gives up and returns, disgusted. But then he's embarrassed because the sheep follows him back. That happened to me.
Are your other three unpublished novels anything like In Open Spaces?
No, actually they're not. They were all different. Mostly contemporary stories.
Is there any chance we'll ever see those, or are they what you'd call "early attempts to be filed away in a drawer until after my death"?
The most recent of those novels, Dig, has come back to life thanks to my new agent, Simon Lipskar. I submitted Dig after I finished In Open Spaces. I think I sent it to my editor (the final one who was with me during publication) right around the time that In Open Spaces came out. He had some real reservations about it and he asked if I'd be willing to do a rewrite on it without any promises of publication. So, I spent about four months doing a major rewrite on it. It's about a guy who's in the final stages of chronic alcoholism. It was a book I really needed to write for my own self-exploration. Since I wrote it in the first person, I knew I would have to tone down the negativity of what that mindset is really like or it would be too dark. But when I was sending it out, every publisher said the same thing: This narrator is not sympathetic.
Here's the interesting thing: when I sent that back to my HarperCollins editor, I also sent him the first 20 pages of a sequel to In Open Spaces I'd tentatively started. When he got back to me, he said, "You know, I really don't like this other book enough to buy it, but I'd love to buy the sequel." At first, I balked. I mean, do I write what I want, or do I try to establish myself? Do I go elsewhere with the dark book and risk the chance of alienating what little audience I've generated? I decided to try the sequel and see what happened. As it so happens, I loved going back and revisiting that time and those Arbuckle characters. I found I really wasn't done saying what I wanted to say about that subject. So ... sometimes I think we don't even know ourselves what it is that we need to write next. It's important to listen to other people's input, but in the end, it's up to us to figure out what works.
Let's talk a little more about In Open Spaces. One reviewer has said that "the Arbuckles are not the Waltons." However, I get the feeling that they are like them, at least in the sense that both clans adhere to a certain relationship dynamic. They may not be devoted to each other, but I think they're all devoted to the notion of family. How did this come into play in your writing of the novel -- especially in terms of the societal norms of the American West?
This was one of the things that drove me to write the story. When I was at graduate school and going through my divorce and attending support groups and therapy sessions to get through everything, I started thinking, "My grandparents went through so much more bullshit than I ever dreamed of. How the hell did they do it?" They didn't even have a telephone until the 1940s, for instance. They didn't have any support groups -- they didn't even have that kind of language. It never occurred to them to talk about their feelings or discuss what they were going through. The reliance on the family was just so much more intense in those days and so much more necessary for survival. It was all they had. The work was really what kept them going. They didn't have any options. If they got up in the morning and felt like shit, they couldn't call in sick. They couldn't say, "I don't really feel like doing anything today because I'm depressed." There was stock out there that needed to be fed. If they took a day off, it meant that the animals went without food. I think there's a lot to be said about having to get up and plod through the day no matter what was going on with you. I'm a great believer in doing what's in front of you ... and I think that's really what it came down to in that country and in that time. They did the work not because anybody told them that's what it would take to get through the day but because they didn't have any other options.
What about today? Do you think that the notion of family is starting to disintegrate in the West?
Yeah. It was really surprising to me when I went back to the ranch that summer after graduate school to do the rewrite. I just assumed that it hadn't changed much down there. But they didn't have any dances anymore or card parties, community baseball games or community activities -- they did none of that stuff. It was all replaced by VCRs. It was depressing.
What was your family's reaction to the book?
There's been some fallout from the family for using the Arbuckle name. Even though I changed all the first names of everybody, there are some characters in there who are obviously based on real people. I sent out e-mails to people to let them know that is fictional and none of the people are based on anybody ... but (laughs) there are some obvious ones. So I think the sequel is actually going to be the prequel with characters who aren't alive anymore.
What are your writing habits like? Do you stick with a schedule or do you write whenever the Muse strikes you?
I have to stick with a strict schedule because I work full-time at an advertising agency. I completely set aside my weekends to write. I'm also able to do some writing at nights during the week. My job's not very stressful, so I'm lucky that way, too, I guess.
Do you do all your writing at the keyboard, or do you sometimes write longhand?
I always write my second drafts longhand, because I find it makes me slow down and think about what I'm doing. There's also something about writing -- putting the words on paper until you get a cramp in your hand -- that seems to be more elemental somehow. The computer feels less personal.
Who are some of the writers who've influenced you?
I think Wallace Stegner's just amazing in the way he writes about the relationship between people and the land; his sense of humanity is incredible. I also love Faulkner because he broke so many rules. I was hugely influenced by Raymond Carver's spare style when I was in grad school.
I've heard you say Shane is one of your favorite movies. What is it about the iconic character which appeals to you?
I think the reason I love Shane so much is that it reflects a lot of my childhood. When I was 10 and we moved to the ranch at a time when I felt very much an outsider. We went to a one-room school, and even though the kids liked me and my sister well enough, the community had the habit of excluding outsiders until they'd been around for several years. So I remember wishing I could make more of a connection with my father during that time. But like the father in Shane, my Dad was much too caught up in his own problems to notice. I learned a lot about how men in the West deal with life from watching Shane. | September 2003
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.