The Nature of Success 

Montana author Pete Fromm discusses the business of fiction

Pete Fromm, author of five collections of short stories as well as the award-winning non-fiction Indian Creek Chronicles, has published his first novel, How All This Started. It is a powerful story about baseball, family, an exceptional sibling relationship, manic depression, adolescence and Texas. Catching up with Pete Fromm seemed easy enough. After all, when I called, the outdoor writer was neither hunting, fishing nor writing—he was home watching his two kids. Round One went to Nolan and Aiden who were in the tub battling superheroes, but the second time I called, Tarzan was on TV and all seemed quiet. And either being a true raconteur, or a man desperate for adult conversation, Fromm talked extensively about writing, publishing and things in general.
“My first exposure to your writing was in Indian Creek Chronicles, and it seems as though you date your emergence as a writer and an outdoorsman from that experience. The book jacket bio of your book The Tall Uncut reads, “He [Fromm] has been a professional outdoorsman since the winter of 1978, when he guarded two million salmon eggs for the State of Idaho and began writing.” Because living in a canvas wall tent in the Bitterroot Selway wilderness all winter is an unusual crucible in which to become a writer, I wondered: Would you have begun writing without this experience?” Yes, I would have begun writing without Indian Creek. During my last semester in college when I was getting my Wildlife degree … I needed three credits and I stumbled across Intro to Creative Writing, and I figured, what are they going to do? Give me a C-minus for having a dumb idea? So the first night of class this instructor shows up and just blows off the class pretty much. He’d obviously been in a bar. Well, we had one assignment that quarter and it was write a six-page short story, which he’d read out loud for the class to critique. And after every single story, nobody said a word, nobody answered his questions. When they got to my story everybody in the class started arguing about the two characters as if they were real people … and the teacher said: “Who did this?” And I didn’t admit it but I was the only one who was that red, and he said “I don’t know what your plans are, but you could do this for a living.” And I took one look at him and became a park ranger. … Because I had winters off I started messing around with it during the off season, and did that for about five years before submitting anything. My first book was The Tall Uncut, and that’s why I say that I would have started writing without Indian Creek.
It seems as though you have mastered the sporting short story format, and since that was your entry point into writing, I’ve got to ask, how do you begin writing a short story? Do you begin writing about a character, the setting, a theme, or is it the ending? Usually it is a phrase or image, something that strikes me. In the short story “How All This Started” [which was later expanded into the novel], there’s the scene where the main characters shoot up a bunch of swallows. Well, I worked as a river ranger down in Big Bend National Park in Texas and one day, the Fish and Wildlife truck pulls up and the federal warden jumps out and explains that the peregrine nestings are failing and they think that DDT is washing in from the Mexican side and so they want to test the prey species, which are swallows and swifts and doves. So he gives me a bagful of shotgun shells, a police riot gun and a cooler with dry ice in it, and says, “Go bang away, and bring me back the bodies.” It was really weird, you know. I’ve got my uniform on that says “Serve and Protect,” which should read something like “If It Flies It Dies.” [Laughs.] It was a blast, you know, trying to hit those swallows. And because that was such a weird thing to do as a park ranger, the idea of shooting swallows was a story idea for about ten years.

So when I started the story that became How All This Started, the only thing I knew was that the swallow was going to get his during that story. So I pictured there would be some guys out dove hunting, and when there weren’t any doves coming to the pond, one guy would jump up and say, “Forget this. Let’s go find something to shoot.” And as I sat down to write the first sentence, I thought let’s twist this and instead of a guy jump up and say this, what if it were a girl, because everybody expects guys to do stupid stuff with guns, so that will be inherently more interesting. ... I thought that this girl, Abilene was going to be this exuberant wild girl, but not nuts wild. But as the story progressed I learned more about her and she went way beyond wild and she became nuts and that’s pretty typical for a story—you know six pages into it I know it’s not a Gray’s Sporting Journal story anymore.

And then for the novel, I couldn’t get rid of her I was so intrigued with her, that like a year or so later I wrote another story that started much earlier before the swallows and I couldn’t get it to end and when I had reached like 60 or 70 pages I finally realized that I had finally committed a novel.
So the novel was almost accidental in a way. Yeah, well there has been a lot of pressure from the publishers. You know, short stories are not big sellers, so you can hear them groan when you call them up and say, ‘I’ve got a collection.’ And so there has been big pressure to write Indian Creek again. They say, “Write non-fiction about Montana, and we’ll throw bags of money at you,” and I think there’s a lot of non-fiction about Montana that looks like it was done on that schedule. …

The guy who did the paperback of Indian Creek said, “I’ll pay you enough to write nothing for two years, if you’ll send me a proposal saying simply I’ll write non-fiction set in Montana.” So my agent’s going berserk saying that’s $200,000 and I’m saying, “Wow, you don’t know how much I make a year—that would keep me going for twenty years.” …

Then [the first guy] calls one day and says, “I want you to write a book about raising your son out in the wild—you know teaching him to fish and hunt—well no, not hunting, hunting isn’t cool—but you can fish and you know, it would be just like Indian Creek with child!” And I say, “You know I live in a city of 50,000. There are elm trees on my street. And he says, “Just concentrate on when you’re outside.” Unbelievable! And he finally says, “Eo you guys have a dog?” And I say no. And he says, “Well, I’m not telling you to get one but that is classic stuff.” And I called my agent and told her never let that guy call me again; he is a moron. When you have a book that is a success, the pressure to just do it over is just incredible.
Now I know how all those bad Hollywood sequels get made. Exactly! …

So you defied conventional wisdom by writing a novel set in Texas, about a manic-depressive baseball-playing girl and her brother. [Laughs.] And that has confounded the hell out of the marketing people who say here is a guy who is hot in the Northwest, and now he’s writing a novel about Texas? What the hell is that? Texas isn’t hot.

You know I never planned to make a lot of money doing this so it would be ridiculous to succumb to those pressures. Then it would be just like having any other job—where I’m not writing what I want to write but at least I’m making money.

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