Badass bitches 

Missoula's Richard Fifield brings to life his small-town upbringing in The Flood Girls

Richard Fifield is full of shit, as any fiction writer should be. He'll say he lives in a trailer but what he means is he lives in an oasis, which just happens to be in a trailer court. The privacy fence that surrounds his house-on-wheels is bedecked and bejeweled, flashes of colored glass winking out of those planks of wood like the sassy, bleach-blonde gay boy they protect. Step through the gate and you're in a gardened wonderland, replete with pretty birdhouses and woodland fairies. Sure, it's a trailer house. But it's Richard Fifield's trailer house.

"I'm much better turned to 11," he says as he sits across from me drinking a triple Americano, but that's not true either. He's hoping coffee will turn his pumpkin back into a diamond-encrusted coach. He's coming off a whirlwind few days at the Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend, a book club convention in Nacogdoches, Texas. He was an invited guest, one of the authors the Pulpwood Queens hosted in chick lit heaven. Things like this happen to him now. So as luck would have it, exhaustion garners me a meeting with the real thing: your average small-town boy. Only deeper. And more vivid.

Fifield grew up in Troy, Montana, population 957.

"I think, like everyone, I wanted to get the hell out of my small town," he says. "But now ... I wouldn't change where or how I grew up for anything ... It taught me to be strong and it taught me how to be authentic and it taught me that, you know, I could persevere through anything." It's easy to see how Fifield's life informs his work. It seems every good and difficult thing he experienced in Troy helped him create Quinn, Montana, population 956, the town in which his debut novel, The Flood Girls, takes place.

Set in 1991, The Flood Girls centers around Rachel Flood, a newly sober alcoholic in her 20s returning to her hometown to make amends, and her soon-to-be best friend, 13-year-old Jake Bailey, an effeminate, fashion-obsessed boy with an outdoor walk-in closet and a collection of rosaries to rival Madonna's. Being a gay boy in a small town is a singular experience, but being a gay boy in a small town in the 1990s was something altogether different.

"In 1991, it was a much more dangerous time and place to be a peacock," Fifield says.

Though he says he relates much more with Rachelbeing a recovering alcoholic himself—Fifield's experiences of being different in a place that demands conformity certainly informed the fabric of young Jake's character.

"I figured out really early on to surround myself with the biggest, baddest girls I could find," he says. "They would protect me and I would entertain them and shower them with compliments and shoplift them treasures."

Enter, the Flood Girls, Quinn's women's softball team, chock-full of badass bitches who can't win a game to save their lives, but whose love, protection and attention just might save Jake's. As the official scorekeeper for this ragtag group of women, Jake finds an acceptance he hadn't previously experienced.

"[It's] about him finding his logical family, not his biological family," Fifield says.

Being the scorekeeper for his older sisters' softball team provided him a gang of girls he's still friends with today.

click to enlarge Richard Fifield’s novel, The Flood Girls, is a redemption story set in a small town and featuring a women’s ragtag softball team. The Missoula writer based the book on his experience growing up in Troy, Mont. - PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan
  • Richard Fifield’s novel, The Flood Girls, is a redemption story set in a small town and featuring a women’s ragtag softball team. The Missoula writer based the book on his experience growing up in Troy, Mont.

"It was just so awesome to see women working together and being together and not falling apart," he says. "And these women loved each other. And they just took a beating on the field ... I did use the spirit of them."

That spirit is seen in the characters Fifield renders with crystalline vision, each unusual woman made real. Great attention is paid to the peripheral characters: dueling Mabels (Red Mabel, the crazy but consummate protector, and Black Mabel, the drug dealing thief who likes to drive drunk) or the ultra-religious Sinclair sisters, who out of modesty refuse to change out of their long jean skirts for games and will not dive for balls, just to name a few.

Luckily for Fifield, that love and acceptance also came from the women in his biological family. He came out to his mother, Loretta Jones, to whom the book is dedicated, in 1993, when he was 18 years old. He says she was devastated at first.

"There'd be no weddings, there'd be no grandchildren, I would have AIDS, I would be a drag queen," he says. "And, bless her heart, she joined PFLAG and became a super supporter. But she had to mourn the ideal that she had for her child."

You can see the imprint of Fifield's experiences on each page of The Flood Girls. His main characters—Jake, Rachel and Rachel's mother, Laverna—all represent variations of that mourning and acceptance and of those fundamental and damaging beliefs wounded people often have.

"I really wanted to write about three people who felt they didn't deserve love," Fifield says. And that he does. But the best part of Fifield's first novel is the ways he proves each of these characters so worthy of great love.

Troy's prodigal son spent time in the big city, going as far as New York in an attempt to find his way. But as a child, he says, "Missoula was my New York," a dynamic he executes with clarity when Rachel takes Jake on a life-changing pilgrimage to the Garden City.

"It's just that idea that somebody out there is going to [understand] you," Fifield says. "If you're brave enough to go far enough outside of your experience and brave enough to say yes to things and to explore and throw yourself into the universe, that someone's going to catch you."

With overwhelming local support—one Missoula book club went so far as to replicate a parade float described in the book—and the coveted last blurb from his hero, Jackie Collins, it's safe to say the bravery with which Fifield wrote The Flood Girls proved that theory true. "I finally feel like my life is worthy of being heard," he says. "It's only taken 40 years."

Considering those 40 years, it's no surprise Fifield's first novel is a reverent tribute to small towns and women's softball teams and badass bitches and trailer parks.

"It is a beautiful trailer house," Fifield says when I point out the disparity between his description and mine. "But I know my roots and I'm not going to stray from them."

Richard Fifield signs his book The Flood Girls at Barnes & Noble Sat., Feb. 13, from 2 to 5 PM. Partial book proceeds go to the ZACC. Reading and book signing at Fact & Fiction Fri., March 4, at 5:30 PM.

  • Email
  • Favorite
  • Print

More by Gaaby Patterson

Today | Thu | Fri | Sat | Sun | Mon | Tue
Brewery Jam Session

Brewery Jam Session @ Imagine Nation Brewing Co.

Wednesdays, 6-8 p.m.

All of today's events | Staff Picks

© 2017 Missoula News/Independent Publishing | Powered by Foundation