A reader's guide to the 2017 Montana Book Festival 

Hear it here first

Jane Smiley's Pulitzer-winning A Thousand Acres was written more than 25 years ago and takes place in Iowa, yet it feels perfectly relevant to this year's Montana Book Festival. That's because it's a book about family farms in America, and the pain bound up in generations of a family that's born to love each other, but fails to meet each other's expectations. Sound familiar? It's a classic theme of many great Montana stories, and it's also about family secrets, which means it will be relevant in any time or place.

This year's Montana Book Festival carries on in a long tradition of stories anyone can relate to. As in the past, the five-day event (Sept. 27–Oct. 1) includes author panels, readings and advice about publishing. The headliners are Smiley and Donald Ray Pollock, an Ohio writer who spent a good portion of his life as a blue-collar worker before he picked up a pen. The festival also celebrates some of Missoula's writerly roots, including the 30th anniversary of The Last Best Place anthology, the encyclopedic compendium of Montana literature compiled by editors Annick Smith and William Kittredge.

This year, festival director Karla Theilen is carrying forward several traditions established by festivals past, including popular events like Pie & Whiskey and an erotic fan-fiction reading. The gala readings with Smiley and Pollock will take place at the Holiday Inn Parkside, which is where the festival has traditionally been held, but most of this year's events will be held downtown, in book shops, distilleries and bars, and at the Missoula Art Museum. And while it's always tempting to crowd the best-publicized events, including the gala, don't forget that sometimes the best events are the ones you don't see coming.

click to enlarge i38cover.jpg

Thielen says people always ask her about the festival's big names, "and I get that," she says, "because those are the people we've had a lot of exposure to. It's like hearing a song you know on the radio, and it feels good because you know it. But a lot of the emerging writers and regional writers that are coming in for this festival are worth paying attention to. Everyone has a story about seeing a band before they were big, and that's their badge story. And I want people to see this as an opportunity to see this rich pool of up-and-coming talent that's right here."

Most of the festival events are free, and you can check out the full schedule of activities at montanabookfestival.org. But to help you out, here's our CliffsNotes of highlights and hidden treasures.

—Erika Fredrickson

'Your pleasure in what you do'—a Q&A with Jane Smiley

by Sarah Aswell

For four decades, Jane Smiley has been busy writing books. A dizzyingly prolific author who is acrobatic when it comes to genre and form, she won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for her best-selling King Lear homage, A Thousand Acres, and has written books of just about every description, including literary novels, historical novels, murder mysteries, young adult fiction and biographies.

Smiley grew up in Missouri and later spent many years living and working in Iowa, first at the famed Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa and then as a professor at Iowa State. After 10 books and several husbands, she moved west, where she currently teaches creative writing at the University of California-Riverside.

Most recently, Smiley published The Last Hundred Years trilogy, a series that follows the Langdon family through multiple generations, starting on a farm in Denby, Iowa.

You're not limited by genre or form as much as many other authors. How do you shift gears between books, and why do you do it?

Jane Smiley: I owe my ability to shift gears between books to William Shakespeare. We had to read a play a year in school, and each play was always a different thing. It could be Twelfth Night or it could be Hamlet, and it seemed normal to me that a person would want to do that. But I'm also quite a curious person. I'm curious about different subjects and different forms.

The other thing is I had a really good beginning in publishing. I got to publish three novels that were no big deal. They got published, they got small advances, and I got a little pat on the head. It made me want to play around with forms and materials. The first novel was a pretty straightforward family novel. The second novel was a little bit more autobiographical. And the third novel was a murder mystery. By the time I had done those three, I kept thinking, why not? I'll just keep trying things out. The problem if you become a big star from the first novel is that people expect you to do the same thing over and over again.

You are very prolific. What are your writing habits and routines?

JS: For someone who has three children and two stepchildren and a lot of dogs and some horses and likes to cook and also teaches, I'm prolific for that kind of person. But you grow up and you read Anthony Trollope, who had a full-time job and went fox hunting four days a week, you think, I guess I'm not that prolific.

When I was first starting out, I lived in Ames and taught at Iowa State. And Iowa State has a very good child-development school, and it also has very good daycare. It was an ideal place to write novels. I had a reasonable schedule from my teaching, and the daycare was right across the street from the supermarket, and housing was affordable. You could have a house, a job, and good daycare, and pick up food for dinner. It made writing easy.

There were two things I really loved about Iowa State: I had some friends who were writers and we were totally out of the center of things—we weren't in New York, we weren't in L.A.so we didn't have a sense of peer pressure. The other thing was that there were stimulating things going on on campus all the time. I found being there inspiring.

click to enlarge Montana Book Festival headliner Jane Smiley: “I just love landscape. That’s why I live in the country. I always go for a lot of walks when I’m invited some place. I always look out the window in airplanes.” - PHOTO COURTESY YOUTUBE.COM
  • photo courtesy Youtube.com
  • Montana Book Festival headliner Jane Smiley: “I just love landscape. That’s why I live in the country. I always go for a lot of walks when I’m invited some place. I always look out the window in airplanes.”

What's an important lesson about writing that you've learned from a fellow writer?

When I was in graduate school, the only lesson I learned from a teacher, I learned from a writer named Leonard Michaels. I was married to a guy for a while who lived in Missoula once, named John Winston, and my name was Jane Winston. After John and I were divorced, Leonard Michaels asked, what's your maiden name? And I said Smiley. And he said: Go back to that.

I have to say, Jane Winstons don't get mocked as much as Jane Smileys do in junior high, but those days are gone.

My friends in graduate school were all very receptive to one another's writing, and we enjoyed each other. We paid more attention to one another's writing than our teachers, and that's one lesson I learned. Your fellow students are your peers and they will be your readers. Those are the ones you should attempt to get to understand your work.

What are you working on right now?

It's a nonfiction project called Five Mothers. It's about my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mother, me and my daughter.

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