by David Abrams
Malcolm Brooks spends most of the year working as a carpenter in Missoula, Montana, and writing fiction in his spare time; but when winter snows arrive, Brooks sets aside his hammer, nails and saw and returns full force to the computer to work on his novels, exchanging house construction for sentence structure. He’s written several books over the years—everything from a pulpy western to a ribald Thomas McGuane pastiche—but it wasn’t until he started Painted Horses eight years ago that the 44-year-old finally clicked with his material. Set in the mid-1950s, Painted Horses is the story of Catherine Lemay, a young archeologist hired by The Smithsonian to conduct a River Basin Survey of a Montana canyon threatened by a proposed hydroelectric dam. Soon after she arrives in Big Sky country to look for prehistoric sites that might be important enough to stop the dam project, she meets an enigmatic cowboy named John H (we never learn his full name). John, one of the last members of the U.S. Army’s mounted cavalry, has been hiding out in the canyon and looking for a herd of wild horses, symbolic of the vanishing Old West.
Painted Horses, a #1 Indie Next pick, has critics comparing it to the works of Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, Wallace Stegner, and Michael Ondaatje—all names which tickle Brooks’s fancy since he says they’re his literary heroes. I sat down with Brooks on the eve of the book’s publication as he took a break at one of his job sites where he was landscaping a client’s back yard in Missoula.
David Abrams: Painted Horses took you five years to write. What kind of a book do you think it would be if it didn’t have that long of a time to marinate?
Malcolm Brooks: You know, even if I’d had unlimited time to work on it, I think it still would have wound up being pretty similar to what it is. I’m a control freak over my own process. I write in a really linear way and the concept of Painted Horses was very much in place before I started writing. I knew pretty much what it was going to do—even though the structure of the book is circular rather than linear because it keeps falling back on itself and has these rings, these flashbacks and sections of a play-within-a-play sort of thing. I wrote the novel in exactly the series of segments that you see now. I started with Catherine and got her up to the point where, soon after her arrival in Montana, she has a flat tire and meets John H. I knew the next thing that was going to happen, now that they’ve had a serious encounter with each other, was going to be this first departure with a flashback to John H’s boyhood. And when I came out of that, I just picked up right where I left off with Catherine. That’s how I wrote it, straight through in a line like that.
DA: So Painted Horses took just the right amount of time it needed for you to write it?
MB: I think so. I’m still not totally sure how I managed to write it in five years. Considering the workload I had doing construction jobs as well as all the stuff in my personal life—which has been a rollercoaster like you wouldn’t believe—when I think of all that, how I managed to get a nearly 400-page manuscript completed is something of a miracle, in all honesty. I look back on it and just shake my head.
DA: You mentioned to me earlier that you weren’t aware of the River Basin Surveys until the book was already drafted?
MB: Essentially, yeah.
DA: That’s astonishing to me because it seems like the whole book is centered around that. What was the novel like without that?
MB: Well, I knew that there was an official policy in place to do archeological surveys, but I could never nail down the actual mechanism or agency governing the surveys. Much of my initial research happened in 2004 and 2005, before the web was totally in flower. A few years later, a general Google search would more readily turn up references to River Basin Surveys, but for quite a while I wrote without fully understanding the historical basis of my book’s basic plot. Eventually, not unlike archaeology, the dots did connect.
DA: Tell me a little bit about the process of compiling all the research into the structure of a novel.
MB: There were so many different dimensions of it that I was trying to wrap my head around. I got to the point where I was like, “I can’t totally, holographically know this thing before I start writing—I just have to start writing and make some momentum with the process, and trust that the questions I have about it will eventually will fall into place.” And that’s what happened. For the longest time, I thought, “If I can just get Catherine on the ground in this canyon, all I really want is a hook to hang all this other stuff on anyway.” When I got to the end of writing the whole thing, I realized the missing link in the whole chain was the legitimate reason for any of this to have happened in the first place. When I talked to my editor at Grove, Amy Hundley, that’s exactly what she pointed out. At that point, there was only this vague suggestion in the book that there were these federally-mandated surveys with a general protocol for these projects. I knew that to be true; what I didn’t know was that there was actually this division of The Smithsonian called River Basin Surveys.
Like I said, it was really hard to find reference to it in larger, more comprehensive records of New World archeology. The thing that tipped me off to it was this rinky-dink little historical society pamphlet from 1962 in which they were trying to get volunteers in Wyoming to go work on some of these water reclamation archeological surveys, and they mention River Basin Surveys in conjunction with Bighorn Canyon. I thought, “Okay, that has to be a real thing,” so I started to Google around for that, and found these old, in-house records and publications and was able to get some of those through used bookstores.
DA: How did you stumble upon this rinky-dink little newsletter?
MB: I must have Googled something like “bighorn canyon yellowtail dam archaeology” and found it that way. The mythical canyon in Painted Horses is based on the real-life Bighorn Canyon and the Yellowtail Dam controversy that involved the Crow tribe.
DA: Was there an actual archeological find?
MB: Nothing like what I describe, but there was archeology done in there. The surveys went on for about a ten-year period. I have it all extremely condensed and highly fictionalized.
DA: So what was it that spurred your initial impetus to start writing this particular book?
MB: The whole springboard for it was the ad hoc Italian cavalry in World War Two. When I was about 20 or so, I was working for my dad’s small construction outfit in Northern California. We did some remodel work on a place and the owner was this retired war vet who just hung out on the job all day long. For whatever reason, we started talking and he found out I was interested in horses and eventually he said, “You know, I was part of the U.S. Army’s last mounted cavalry campaign during World War Two in Italy.” Even as a kid, I was going, “Wow!” I just sort of tucked that away in the back of my head and then years and years later, I said, “I’m just gonna go for it and come up with something that has to do with that. I’m gonna write an epic and it’s gonna be an epic I’m proud of”—I didn’t want it to be cheesy, you know. You can have the best of both worlds—you write these big sweeping things that also have this beautiful, lyrical language. It can be artfully done, but you can also hit people in the heart.
DA: You’d been writing since high school, right?
MB: Yeah, I started to write a novel in high school. When I was 19, I finished a book-length manuscript, but it’s not a very good one. I immediately wrote another novel that was significantly better and I wrote it really quickly, in about three or four months, and it was sort of a coming-of-age story. It wound up at the Jean Naggar Literary Agency back in New York and they had it for eight or nine months while they chewed on whether to sign me or not. Ultimately, they passed on it, but during that process I met an agent named Frances Kuffel who was from Montana and had gone through the MFA program in Missoula. I had this mythical sense of the state from the time I was a little kid and it was solidified when I read Lonesome Dove in eighth grade. And then I read A River Runs Through It and Legends of the Fall and I thought, “That’s where I want to go.” So, I had a number of phone conversations with Frances Kuffel while my novel was under consideration at the agency where she worked and ultimately she provided some of the necessary boost that made me come to Missoula a couple of years later. That was the net gain for the attempt at that second novel, I guess.
DA: Whatever happened to that manuscript?
MB: It’s in a box (laughs). By the time the Jean Naggar agency got back to me eight or nine months later, I was already working on another novel and had completely lost interest in that first manuscript.
DA: And what about that next novel—which, by my count, would be your third novel?
MB: I got about 100 pages in before I scrapped it. Then I wrote fifty pages of another book and scrapped it, too. After that, I started writing short stories and started actually selling articles to outdoors magazines. Right around that same time, I started to write this Tom McGuane imitation of something like The Bushwhacked Piano and Ninety-Two in the Shade because I’d discovered McGuane and thought, “Oh, this cannot be transcended, it’s so perfectly done and hilarious and ironic.” I wrote a complete draft of this black-humor cowboy novel. Now, when I go back and read it, parts of it are really hilarious, but I’m very, very thankful nobody picked it up.
DA: Did you send it out to anyone?
MB: Oh yeah, I tried a few places. At that point, I was 30 and had gotten married, had a child, then got divorced in a two-year period.
DA: Did becoming a parent change you as a writer?
MB: It made me realize I was getting older and had actual responsibilities. I knew I had to go big or go home. I started to think about what I actually had a sensibility for, which—lo and behold—turned out to be big, atmospheric epics like Painted Horses. So I gave myself permission to write that kind of a novel and not be an ironist like McGuane. I started to realize his novels mostly appealed to wanna-be renegade young men. Once I grew up a little more and had some miles under my belt, I swerved from McGuane into Jim Harrison. I remember reading Legends of the Fall and being floored by how he wrote a whole epic in just 90 pages. Then I read All the Pretty Horses in the early 1990s and that had a huge influence on me, too.
DA: But there was still a lag of time between that realization and the start of writing Painted Horses. What were you doing during that period?
MB: Researching it and trying to cope with being a single parent of a really young child. Then I found myself in another really fast relationship and marriage, predicated partially on the pressure of having a kid and feeling like I needed to step up and do this responsible, adult thing. I was so unsure about what my life was going to look like at that point and, frankly, I was really scared shitless. I knew I had to stay here in Missoula (due to child-custody issues) and I knew I had to start making some money. So I thought, maybe I’ll go into the graduate journalism program here (at the University of Montana) and try journalism as a day-job career. One year into that program, I utterly hated it. The only benefit I got out of it was that I ended up taking two classes from David James Duncan (The River Why), who was a visiting lecturer and I wound up having a personal rapport with him.
DA: All this time you were writing and you had this dream of getting a book published, did you ever feel impatient, like the clock was ticking?
MB: I’ve always had this hyperawareness of mortality. I grew up in oddball religious circumstances that were very formative for that.
DA: How did those “oddball religious circumstances” impact you as a writer?
MB: My parents went from being long-haired, pseudo-counter-culture people to where my dad’s hair was cut into a high-and-tight and he was a 28-year-old deacon. My father had been raised in the New Jersey foster care system and the primary foster parent he had at a formative time was a preacher. So my dad always had a real sense for Christianity—that was his default setting. Once they had kids, my parents just went way into religion. It wasn’t mainline Christianity, it was a Baptist sect that was kind of cult-y, out of a Southern Baptist tradition—the crazy ones that were off burning Beatles records because of some off-hand comment John Lennon made.
My parents eventually joined this pretty intense Baptist church. The nadir—or apogee, depending on how you want to look at it—came when someone had predicted the Second Coming of Christ, based on mathematics and Biblical prophecy. The church we were going to had totally fallen for this. It was going to be at X Time on X Day in 1980. I remember we stood around in the back yard at the appointed time and held hands in a circle and waited for the Second Coming.
DA: Were you snickering or rolling your eyes at the whole thing?
MB: At the time, no—I bought into it. I was nine years old and I’d been completely immersed in this whole subculture from the time I was three years old. I didn’t know any different. To me, that was reality. We were totally sheltered. Part of the reason why I’m such a sponge for pop culture today is because we were totally kept from it. We lived in this little sensory-deprivation chamber.
DA: Can you pinpoint when you broke free of all that?
MB: I think the moment that the Second Coming didn’t happen was the first chink in the armor. I wasn’t quite sure how to process it. A year after that, my parents packed up and moved across the country from New Jersey to Southern California and in retrospect, I think that was a wake-up call for them, too—that maybe they were immersed in something to a degree that they didn’t need to be. One thing I got from my parents was this notion that if you don’t do something today, you might not have tomorrow to get it done.
DA: What’s your writing process like?
MB: I’m an early-morning writer. Plus, I’ve always had down time with carpentry work. In December, January and February, there’s hardly anything to do and I would make major hay with my writing. I’d have the house all to myself during the day and I’d sit there and tell myself, “This is it. You’ve gotta get it done.”
DA: What does it feel like to have Painted Horses out in the world at last?
MB: It’s very surreal. It feels like a life of extremes for me. It’s a total trip. But yet, after flying around the country and being feted at parties on both coasts and having meetings with publishers and booksellers, I’ll fly back home to Montana and put my tool belt back on.
David Abrams is the author of Fobbit (Grove/Atlantic, 2012), a comedy about the Iraq War. His short stories have appeared in Fire and Forget (Da Capo Press, 2013) and Home of the Brave: Somewhere in the Sand (Press 53). Other stories, essays and reviews have been published in Esquire, Narrative, Salon, Salamander, Connecticut Review, The Greensboro Review, Consequence, and many other publications. He earned a BA in English from the University of Oregon and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. He retired from active-duty after serving in the U.S. Army for 20 years, a career that took him to Alaska, Texas, Georgia, the Pentagon, and Iraq. He now lives in Butte, Montana with his wife. His blog, The Quivering Pen, can be found at: www.davidabramsbooks.blogspot.com. Visit his website at: www.davidabramsbooks.com.
Click here to read Lisa Peet’s feature piece on Painted Horses.