Stanley Gordon West spent 12 years writing Blind Your Ponies before self-publishing the novel a decade ago. When medium-sized publishing company Algonquin picked it up for print last year, West had already sold 40,000 copies via word-of-mouth—making the book an unusual success story in the flooded self-publishing market.
West, 78, grew up in Minnesota, but he spent 40-some years in Montana since 1964, living on a ranch near Livingston. He's authored six other novels, including Amos, which was made into a TV movie and Until They Bring the Streetcars Back, about St. Paul in the 1950s. Blind Your Ponies, however, has garnered the most praise. The story of two broken people and a small-town basketball team just won 2011's One Book Montana—a program that promotes selected titles for statewide reading—and it's received rave reviews across Montana, the Dakotas, and beyond.
In the wake of the buzz, we talk with West about his influences—from Crow Indian legends to Steinbeck—and how he keeps Montana on his mind.
Indy: You self-published Blind Your Ponies in 2001. What was your strategy for getting it into readers' hands?
West: I actually drove around with a bunch of books in my car trunk. I realized that my job was just to get the book to people and bookstores who might read it, and they would give it to their family and friends. And people were really loving it. There's a little store on the main street of Ennis and it's got everything: souvenirs, all kinds of stuff, but it has just one row of books. I was down there for one of their summer gatherings of painters and writers and the owner of this little store came up to me and he said [he'd] sold 300 or 400 copies of it. It's been kind of like a grass fire.
Indy: The Crow Indian legend behind the title, Blind Your Ponies, is startling. (After losing their loved ones to smallpox, the Crow warriors blindfolded their horses out of grief and rode off a cliff.) How did you first hear about it?
West: I was in Billings and found this story somewhere where the tourists were; a brochure or something. It told briefly of the Crow Indians who had gone over suicide cliffs. I was haunted by it. I guess I tucked it away somewhere in my mind. When I was writing the novel, why, it just naturally came into the story. I was going to have the cover say "Blindfold Your Ponies" so that people didn't get the idea that it sounds like you're poking the eye out of a pony. But to counteract that, I told the story of the Indians in the first 10 pages so that it eliminated that misunderstanding.
Indy: What experiences planted the seed for this novel?
West: I was living in Bozeman and I was single. Somebody told me, "Well, if you want to meet a really nice gal you oughta take the country western dancing class up at [Montana State University]." So I went up there and I met a gal. The first time I was going to take her out she told me where she lived, and it was Willow Creek, Mont., about 40 miles west of Bozeman. She had a boy who played on the basketball team there and so I started going to basketball games with her. The team hadn't won a game in five years and when they lost, you know, it would be like 95–12 or 87–15. Yet these kids—and there was only about six of them to make up the team—played like it was life or death. That's how I got to Willow Creek and where the story came from.
Indy: I love how the basketball story parallels the lives of the main characters, Sam and Diana.
West: It's really a love story and not a sports story. What does Sam do when he comes home to a dark empty house after he's seen his wife's face splattered on the wall of a Burger King? He's tempted to, like the Indians, blind his pony and jump. Sam and Diana are both struggling...And, of course, they're not going to jump off a cliff, but they're gonna give up on love. It's the ragtag, bowlegged basketball team that shows them to love again.
Indy: What inspired you to start writing?
West: East of Eden by Steinbeck was a book that in a way got me started. I wasn't a real reader at that time, back in my 30s. I went to the film East of Eden, with James Dean. When I came out of that movie I remember thinking, "Someday I'm going to write a novel and the main character's name is going to be Cal." I forgot about it until just about five years ago, and some little electrical charge in the file of my brain brought it to mind. I had just written a novel with a main character named Cal. Boy. It was like a lightning bolt after 30 or 40 years—not only inspiring, but scary.
Indy: Did you start writing in Livingston?
West: Yes. Livingston at that time was a small Hollywood. There was a whole pile of movie stars and directors and screenwriters and novelists. Some of them are still around there. I thought, "Jeez, I oughta take a crack at this." For me to say that with my background and experience was crazy. I was getting close to 50 by then. I dusted off an old typewriter and started writing. And that's where Amos came from, which was made into a TV movie with Kirk Douglas. It was based on a place right in Livingston called the Poor Farm.
Indy: What did you think of that adaptation?
West: It kind of missed the point of the book. But I was flabbergasted that it happened. I was naïve to think I could sit down and write a novel—and it ended up being made into a movie. I was the most surprised and dumbfounded of anybody.
Indy: What's next?
West: I'm working on a novel set in Montana back in the early days before it's even a state. It's a story of a guy in Ohio who, ever since he was a little boy, dreamed about going west and building a ranch. The book follows three generations of that family.
I have to laugh at myself: I had decided to make sure the next [book] I did would keep me immersed in researching and traveling in Montana. I think about Montana every day. And when I write, I can visualize being back there.