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In Her Own Words * On Writing the Book * On Fields of Interest and Study * Photo Album

In Her Own Words:

A third-generation descendent of homesteaders and ranchers, I was born and raised on the prairie of southern Phillips County, Montana, at a time when windmills and generators provided sporadic electrical power, and crank telephones, hand pumps and outhouses were facts of life. The community of Regina had its own zip code, its own lifestyle, its own rules. As a youngster, I attended a one-room school through eighth grade, then was boarded out at age 13 to attend high school in Malta, the nearest small town. I married a local rancher when I was 18, and spent the next thirteen years as a ranch wife and mother in the same community. Situated in the bleak and beautiful Missouri River breaks, the cattle ranch is one of the most isolated in the state, nearly seventy miles from town.

In my writing, I return to the cactus and sagebrush flats, the rugged hills and coulees of the prairie where I spent the bulk of my life. The essays in Breaking Clean address our western mythology and the complex issues that face rural communities today, from the perspective of one woman who lived them--an insider's view of isolation and solitude, private ownership and public lands, corporate ranches and the husband/wife partnerships they replace. A decade after leaving Phillips County, I find that place defines my voice as a writer as surely as it once defined my life.

On Writing the Book:

I wrote the title essay, "Breaking Clean", in one evening as a classroom assignment when I was a second year journalism major at the University of Montana. It was for a literature class called Montana Writers, led by the passionate and energetic Professor William Bevis. As part of our mid-term project, he assigned us to "write your Montana experience" in four pages or less. As a 30-something ex-ranchwife, third generation Montanan, my story was more difficult to capture in four typewritten pages than those of my classmates, most of whom were under twenty and could not count the months of their "Montana experience" on their fingers. Still, I gave it a shot. Ever attentive to duty, I squeezed the first three decades of my life onto four pages--only by fudging the line spacing and margins did I make it fit--and in the process of compressing scenes, I accidentally wrote a segmented essay. I turned it in, and went on with my journalism studies. A couple of weeks later, I felt exposed and a bit reluctant when Prof. Bevis approached me in class and asked permission to read my essay aloud. He was kind and adamant, and finally I agreed. What happened next changed my life. He read "Breaking Clean" to an auditorium full of students who didn't know who I was, and for fifteen minutes I watched their rapt faces as they absorbed my story, my words. My life. I listened as his voice paused, then broke, at the ending line, and he turned his back on his class to compose himself. For the first time, I felt the power of the written word from the other side, from the writer's side. I spent the night awake, rethinking the epiphany and the uncertainty of that moment in Professor Bevis' class. The next day I added an English/Creative Writing major to my journalism major.

The next step is the writer's equivalent to being discovered in a malt shoppe. In 1992 I sold the Montana Writer's essay, which I had titled "Breaking Clean," to Northern Lights magazine for 10 cents per word. I used the money to buy a second-hand washing machine I could otherwise not afford. I thought it was a pretty great deal, but as a bonus, I received some wonderful mail when the essay was published. One letter came from West Hollywood, a literary lawyer who met me on a trip to Missoula that summer, and offered to take my three completed essays--all classroom assignments--to New York editors on speculation. I was a first year graduate student with little to lose and everything to gain, so I shrugged and said, why not? I never expected anything to come of it. But what came of is was a contract. I was the envy of my graduate school class. But I had two years of graduate school to complete, three kids to get launched, and a living to make. Now, finally, after ten years of doing what I had to do and writing on the sly, it's a book.

On Fields of Interest and Study:

All my fields are little weedy ones. I bake and decorate gourmet wedding cakes. I cook at the local homeless shelter for a few weeks during summer vacation--hey it's great. I was crowned Queen of Mac and Cheese by the fellas. I love cats and refuse to live without at least one. I began collecting turtles in 1992, having adopted the turtle as my writer's totem: slow but steady, baby. No, I do not mean real live turtles, but those of wood and clay. I study/read/am compelled by any good literary nonfiction, 19th Century women's writing, western literature, first person accounts, and most well-rendered travesties of nature and nurture.