A sense of pace 

Departures and arrivals with Flashback author Jenny Siler

Missoula writer Jenny Siler doesn’t fit the Missoula writer mold, even though she probably should. She grew up in Missoula, daughter of a writer and an English professor, and bookish personages on the order of Jim Crumley and Bill Kittredge were accustomed childhood presences. Siler likely could have gone the legacy route, welcomed into the University’s MFA program and congratulated into matriculation as a local literary princess in waiting. There was just one problem.

“I wasn’t happy here as a teenager,” the 33-year-old Siler says now. “Missoula was not the place for me at the time. And so I went away and it was a great thing, it really helped me, and essentially probably saved my life to get out of here.”

It’s difficult to imagine Siler’s youthful discomfort as she sits on the sofa of her University-area home, recollecting it—her parents home a stone’s throw away; her husband of three years, Keith, headed off into the snow for an appointment; 7-month-old daughter Vivica chewing a cookie in her lap—but apparently Siler had to escape to come home. She doesn’t volunteer details of whatever disappointment it was that drove her away, but it’s easy to think that the exile might have had something to do with defying expectations. Especially since that’s what her career and her books—including especially her fourth, Flashback, out this month—continue to do.

Siler left Missoula at age 15 to attend a boarding school in Massachusetts, and during those three years, she says, she walked the straight and narrow. Upon graduation she deferred her acceptance to Columbia University and spent a year traveling abroad. When she did enroll at Columbia, she lasted only a year before dropping out and returning to the traveling life for another half-decade, city-hopping around the country, landing in Alaska and later in Key West, taking writerly and not-so-writerly odd-jobs—cab driver, waitress, maid—along the way. When she began to run out of steam (and to develop concerns over the sustainability of her drifting), she returned to Missoula with the idea of going back to school.

“But it was like this,” she says, referring to the horizontal sheets of snow outside her window, “and I couldn’t take it. Winter in Montana, being completely poverty-stricken. So I moved out to Seattle and I was there until I sold my first book, and then I came back here.”

But before that first book, Easy Money, came the tough one. It carried the working title A Broken String of Pearls, it’s still in her closet somewhere, and it’s saddled with an origin story, oft-told, that suggests Siler was just about desperate for something to do with her time. It is also, she says, the book that convinced her she could write one at all.

“I was at a party with a friend of mine who had just gotten her MFA in creative writing, from here actually. And we were drinking and we said, ‘you know, we should write a romance novel, because we could just write it so easily and then we’d be rich, and then we could write our real stuff.’ So we made up sort of a plot, you know, she’d be a beautiful orphan and he’d be a painter with a dead wife, and it’d be on the coast of Maine and there’d be ghosts, sort of Victorian. We decided in our drunken state she was going to write one chapter and then I was going to write one and then eventually we’d be living in a penthouse in New York.”

The MFA friend sobered up, but Siler woke the next morning and started typing. A few months later she had a 300-page manuscript. It wasn’t much of a book, by Siler’s account, and the romance-novel industry didn’t turn out to be quite the easy pickings she’d imagined, but she learned along the way that she liked to write, and that she could finish.

“When I had considered writing in the past, it was this really serious thing, and you wrote something really meaningful and every sentence really mattered. And writing this romance novel was the best, most freeing, most wonderful experience of my life. Because I wrote a novel that I didn’t take seriously at all. It was the best experience. I would tell anybody who’s going to write a book to write a book you don’t care about first.”

The hurdle of her own expectations behind her, Siler went back to work.

“I decided that I wanted to write a book that I could be proud of that would still be marketable, and still sell, and so I decided to write a sort of crime thriller, and that was my first book.”

Siler’s first three novels—Easy Money, Iced, and Shot—fell, in her own estimation, in the category of regional crime fiction.

“They were set in the American West. They were very American landscape-oriented novels. They were about fringe characters who got caught up in things that usually happened to have a political overtone to them.”

The novels garnered her good sales, mostly good reviews, and increasingly good buzz over the presence of her raw female protagonists in a still largely male-dominated genre, in part because Siler’s de facto feminism—at least as expressed through her characters—is not of the frilly sort.

“There are occasionally love story sub-plots,” she admits, “but they never work out, they’re very sort of cynical. I’m sort of writing male thrillers as a woman.”

But the question of regionalism, it turns out, was stickier for Missoula writers than questions of gender. The one truly negative review of Siler’s career, she says, was published in October 2002 in these very pages, in consideration of Shot. Reviewer Steve Hawley was so offended by the book’s ubiquity of brand names that he suggested perhaps Siler was name-dropping for hire.

Siler felt misunderstood.

“I felt like it was such a complete misread of the book. Because it was. And the things that he accused me of, commercialism and selling out and product placement, were really bizarre, because all those things were put in there as sort of ironic statements against those things, if that makes any sense. The book was about the destruction of the West by places like Wal-Mart. It was set in this bleak Western suburbia. And so to suggest that I was actually getting kickbacks from Wal-Mart…anyway, that was my problem.”

Perhaps part of the problem is that what Siler writes isn’t what many Montanans are so proudly accustomed to claiming as regional writing, and as landscape.

Flashback will likely break such people’s brains. It’s an international thriller in which any hope for a sensual meditation on the West’s beloved (and deluded) sense of rooted place is jettisoned on page 5. That’s when we learn that our girl Eve holds no memory beyond the moment, a year prior, when she was found shot in the head in a ditch in France.

The ensuing narrative skips over what seems like half the globe, and though Siler’s sketching of settings is deft (she says she’s at least passed through each locale), in no reasonable sense can place be said to be a character in Flashback.

Eve, though, is an appealingly and mysteriously tough cookie, and as a thriller, Flashback is remarkably agile in tumbling through a plot that hinges on Eve trying to find herself while a shadowy cast of strangers and strangely familiars tries to find her first (and murders a chapel full of nuns in the attempt).

It’s also notable that in writing an international thriller, and her first book since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Siler has not only taken the considerable risk (of professional embarrassment, if nothing else) of narrating in the voice of an amnesiac. She has also forgone the misuse of rogue Arab bad guys endemic to the genre, and, these days, to the culture. Siler’s bad guys work for something official, even if it’s never clear exactly what. They’re part of the system, not the insurgency.

“In thriller and mystery writing,” Siler says, “there’s a real sense of the difference between good and evil. The nature of evil that I want to explore is the thing that separates us from other people, that makes us think as Americans that we’re different from other people, sort of a lack of understanding of why people do desperate and horrible things. There are plugged-in people who are responsible for much more of the evildoing in this world than those 19 guys on those planes. In the past I’ve really tried to walk this line. For instance, my first novel was about Vietnam, and I sort of tried to do it without—I don’t want to say without offending anybody—but I really wanted to show the ambiguity and the idea that nobody was really right or wrong in terms of people in this country who fought in the war or didn’t fight in the war. And part of that comes out of my own family. There are people who were on both sides of that conflict, either protested the war or fought the war, and they’re all people that I admire greatly and love, so I think a lot of that book tried to not pass judgment on anybody.”

With Flashback, she says, “I really wanted to talk about what I see as a kind of collective amnesia. A collective amnesia among people my age, and among people in this country in general, in terms of not putting any of what’s happened to us in historical context. And not looking to ourselves for fault. So I guess the amnesia was sort of very heavy-handed symbolism on my part.”

Not that she thinks anyone will take any of that as a theme, or that they should.

Henry Holt sure didn’t. The company is marketing Flashback as a fledgling franchise, “the first in a planned three-book series featuring Eve, a brilliant new heroine.”

Siler grimaces a little at the hype, and she’s hesitant to confirm the promise of a series (“That’s the official line,” is all she’ll say), which would further confine her—beyond gender, genre and geography—to the expectations of publisher and audience. She could also be happier about the press-release blurb in which Booklist concluded that “this high-energy thriller is sure to please fans of the TV series Alias.”

“I didn’t see any of my characters as these sort of Charlie’s Angels, Alias, post-feminist women at all,” Siler says. “I think it’s a sort of misguided attempt to reach the young female demographic.” In other words, just more pigeonholing, another expectation the writer would prefer to defy.

“I think that sort of was a problem for me over the course of my first three books, because people didn’t know quite where to put me, and I didn’t know quite where to put myself. I just wanted to write these books that I liked. But I wasn’t really as clever as I thought I was in the beginning when I set out to write marketable books.”

For example: “I had a man come up to me in Tucson and say, ‘I refuse to read women, but I read your books,’” Siler recalls. And it’s clear in the telling that at least that encounter, however odd, was just unexpected enough to prove gratifying.
Contact the writer: btyer@missoulanews.com

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