While I was living in Montana, I read about a riot that had taken place at the state prison in the 1950s. While that riot bears little resemblance to the one that shapes so much of Black River, I found myself wondering how a single event like that might reverberate through time and space, affecting not only an individual like Wes Carver, but also his relationships with his family, friends, community, and even God. It really took off from there.
Why did you choose to set Black River in a fictional town?
The town of Black River is inspired in part by several real places, but it isn’t simply a real town with a different name, and you won’t find anywhere exactly like it in Montana. Creating a fictional community left me free to shape the town and its history in whatever ways would best help me tell the story of Wes Carver and the other characters in Black River. For example, there is a real Old Montana Prison, and the prison in Black River has a few things in common with it; however, the real riot that took place there in the 1950s shares only one or two details with the fictional 1992 riot that appears in the novel. As a writer, I found it very rewarding—and challenging—to create a fictional community with its own unique landscape and history while still providing my readers with a sense of authenticity.
The yard at the Old Montana Prison.
What kind of research did you do for the novel?
Well, I certainly did a lot of reading, both online and off. The University of Oregon library had a particularly useful book that was largely comprised of interviews with corrections officers who had been held hostage in prison riots; I checked it out repeatedly while I was writing the first draft of Black River in graduate school. I spent some time browsing online forums for corrections officers, which gave me a good sense of the kinds of issues officers in different kinds of facilities and communities dealt with on a daily basis, and the broad range of feelings they had about their work. I also made several visits to the Old Montana Prison in Deer Lodge. Like the Old Prison in the novel, it’s now a museum, and it’s a really fascinating place that hasn’t been changed much since it was used to house inmates. You can see more about the Old Montana Prison here.
Is it true that you learned to play the fiddle while writing Black River?
Yes! I played the viola for a few years as a kid, but I wasn’t particularly good at it. While writing the first draft of Black River, I spent a lot of time reading about and listening to old-time and bluegrass music, but I still found it challenging to write about the music in the novel, so I bought a fiddle and began taking lessons. I found that I really enjoyed playing folk music and that learning by ear suited me much better than reading sheet music had. I’m nowhere near as talented as my characters, but as Wes says in the novel, “It’s front-porch music. You don’t got to be a prodigy to enjoy it.” You can read more about the music of Black River here.
With my fiddle on the banks of the Flathead River.
Wes Carver is a 60-year-old man. You’re a woman, and you wrote Black River in your late twenties. Was it challenging to write about a protagonist who is so different from you?
Not really. One of the things I love most as both a writer and a reader is the opportunity to imagine what it’s like to be someone else. I think that with a combination of research and empathy, it’s possible to effectively write about characters who are quite different than oneself. It’s also worth noting that in order to write Black River, I didn’t have to know what it was like to be all 60-year-old men, I only had to know what it was like to be this 60-year-old man. In other words, I don’t definitively know what it’s like to be male, or sixty, but I do know what it’s like to be Wes Carver.
What is your writing routine like?
I try to work on whatever my current project is every day. Sometimes that means writing, sometimes it means revising, and sometimes it means doing research. I make a lot of notes before I begin the first draft of a novel; I have to have a pretty good sense of the story and the characters before I can start writing in earnest. I like to write late at night when possible, because there’s something about the dark and quiet that makes it easier for me to focus on the fictional world I’m creating. I usually write first drafts on my laptop, but I like to print out each draft when it’s complete and use a pen to make notes for revision.