Deirdre McNamer: Novelist and Journalist

There is no more quintessential Montana writer than Deirdre McNamer, author of three critically acclaimed novels, and of the forthcoming Red Rover, to be published by Viking Press in July 2007.  A third generation Montanan on both sides, Deirdre is one of the few successful writers who has consistently lived and worked in her native state.  She celebrated small town Montana in her exquisite first novel, Rima in the Weeds, while its successor, One Sweet Quarrel, cleverly encompasses the drama behind the Dempsey-Gibbons fight that nearly broke the town of Shelby in 1923.  Though unnamed, Montana is evident in the pages of her tantalizingly provocative third novel, My Russian.  

When The New York Times OP-ED page editors sought a writer to report on the progress of the Montana Senate race this fall, they asked Richard Ford for his recommendation:  without hesitation Ford said, “Deirdre McNamer.”   A one-time Montana resident, Ford’s latest novel The Lay of the Land  was chosen by “The New York Times Book Review” as one of the ten best novels of 2006.   All four McNamer pieces appeared in the “Week in Review” section of the Sunday New York Times.

McNamer, the eldest of five children, was born in Cut Bank in 1950.   Her mother Patricia recalled the birth of her first born.  “She was a booming big “champ of the week baby” of ten and a half pounds.  As a child, Deirdre was gifted musically and determined she would be a concert pianist.  After high school she took off for the University of Washington where she realized that she wanted to be a writer and switched to journalism.”  

Patricia McNamer’s father had homesteaded in Moore, thirty miles west of Lewistown.   Her mother, a McMillan from Ontario, was born in a cabin out on the windswept prairie.  The family later moved to Miles City, “Evelyn Cameron country.”  A great uncle was one of the first doctors in the state; her maternal grandfather was a saddlemaker and accountant.   On Deirdre’s paternal side, family members were equally rooted in the state.  Her grandfather’s correspondence provided her with valuable research for her second novel.

What prompted McNamer to be a writer?  “From a very early age, I was a reader.  My parents read in the evenings; we children read for entertainment and for the dreaminess of it; our house was full of books.  We were the only children we knew who didn’t have a television.  My parents wouldn’t buy one until the day Kennedy was assassinated and it seemed obvious that we would be missing history-in-the-making if they didn’t.  Almost the minute we got it, we watched Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald right in front of our eyes.  

She continued, “The only thing I could do with any real facility, by the time I got out of college, was read and write.  So I became a journalist for a decade.  Then in my early thirties, I turned seriously to fiction.”

When I remarked on how accurately she captured the only child, Margaret, in her first novel, McNamer replied:  “Life as an only child was a delicious fantasy.  I imagined every day would stretch out calmly and quietly, and my mother would spend a lot of time fixing me cinnamon toast and giving me manicures.  In reality, there were five of us children in a six-year span, a small drama a minute, noise, accidents and, luckily in our case, quite a lot of fun.”

“My father owned an oil-field acidizing business when I and my four siblings were growing up.   We lived in Conrad until I was ten, then moved fifty miles north to Cut Bank.  My parents met in 1949 at a mutual friend’s in Great Falls and immediately had a big political argument.  He is a Republican; she a Democrat.  However, when they ran into each other again at the Augusta rodeo they felt more kindly disposed.

“We always had horses—pasturing them outside town at first, then on cattle ranches we had on the Milk River, and, later in eastern Oregon  My father competed in rodeos, and we kids competed in gymkhanas.  We skied a lot, even though we had to drive hours to be at Big Mountain when the lifts opened.  On Sundays, we’d ski until the lifts closed, eat dinner at Frenchie’s Chinese Restaurant in Whitefish, go to Mass in Columbia Falls, and drive maybe four hours through the snowy night until we were home.

Deirdre recalled the delights of the “big city.” Great Falls, where my maternal grandparents lived, seemed to me the height of urbanity.  Apartment buildings!  Escalators and elevators!  Dial telephones!   A hotel with a lounge called the Silk and Saddle!  Eddie’s Club, where the piano player let you lean on the piano sipping a Shirley Temple!  I was drawn to the urban, an idealized version of urbanity, and perhaps still am.  

“On the other hand, a child in a small Montana town in the fifties had, by contemporary standards, an enormous amount of freedom and unscheduled time, which encouraged extended episodes of imagination.  That freedom and time contributed to the happiness I felt as a young child.

“In 1960, when the government began to bury nuclear missiles under our wheat, a larger and more frightening world began to push through.  Fear seemed a much larger presence than it had been when I was younger.  The John Birch society, Joe McCarthy, that brand of terrified ant-communism, was no stranger to rural towns of the era.”  McNamer uses many of these childhood memories in her first novel.  

“I worked as a journalist — for the Associated Press and various newspapers, including the Missoulian — for about a decade.  It was very hard work, but I liked it a lot.  You get access to people’s stories.  You have to work to be precise and concise and ask the bold question.  Done well, it’s incredibly important work.  But I found that I kept wanting to tell stories that focused on human motivation and that gave me room to speculate and imagine and concoct.  That’s the realm of fiction, so that’s where I went.” 

I inquired the genesis of her second novel:  “I knew about the Dempsey-Gibbons fight from my grandfather, who was one of the organizers.  He seemed proud of the fact that a town of one thousand had managed to stage a world heavyweight championship with Jack Dempsey defending his title.  It’s quite a story, and, with all due modesty, I think my book One Sweet Quarrel  would make an excellent movie.  Essentially a stunt, Shelby wanted to draw speculators to the new oil fields north of town, so some of the city fathers fired off a telegram to Dempsey’s manager, who demanded $300,000 and came very close to getting it.  The town built an arena that sat 40,000.  About 8,000 people came, and that included the gate-crashers, but the fight was held.  Gibbons went fifteen rounds, even won a couple of them.  The big city newpapers—their reporters there in force—ran the story on page one for weeks.  

“A short while after I began the book, my parents moved from one house to another and unearthed an old damp box of letters.  From my grandfather to his mother and sister, they included almost weekly accounts of how Shelby was preparing for the fight.  (Grandad made carbons of his own letters and straight-pinned their responses on those carbons.) Precisely the detail I needed, at precisely the time I needed it.”

McNamer discussed the advantages of being married to a fellow writer:   “I was a skinny edgy reporter working on the night cop beat for the Missoulian when Bryan Di Salvatore and I met in 1980, eight years before we got married.  We were at a party.  He was doing free-lance magazine work then, and pretty soon was hired by William Shawn at The New Yorker to write longer pieces.  I quit the newspaper in 1984, and turned to fiction and magazine work.  So we were both stepping out there as writers; we helped each other a lot.  Bryan might be the best critical reader on the planet.  I’ve shown him everything I’ve written, when I think it’s done. 

“Financially, it’s hardly ever an advantage to be married to a writer.  We both would have been smart to marry neurosurgeons or tax lawyers.” 

McNamer is proud of her sisters Kate and Megan, both writers.  Meg is an essayist who directs the Missoula Writing Collaborative.  Kate, an award-winning novelist, is the director of the creative-writing program at the University of Montana.  Her younger brother, Joe, monitors weather conditions for the airport in Spokane.  Her other brother, Burke, was a musician who died when he was thirty-two. 

On reading, plus other Montana writers:  Deirdre reads more fiction than nonfiction, and gravitates toward writers who grew up in regions apart from the centers of power.  These are Eudora Welty, Edna O’Brien, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, Louise Erdrich.   She enjoys “wildcats,” such as Joy Williams and Don DeLillo and Donna Tartt.  And those few, such as Tom McGuane, whose take on the west is so much funnier and tougher than those who sentimentalize “place.” 

 “I didn’t know Richard Hugo very well, but he was a grand, vibrant presence, even across a room.  His widow, Ripley, has become a good friend.  I knew Jim Welch, and spent many an evening at his and Lois’s home.  He was a big influence on my early efforts to write fiction— because of the sheer excellence of his own work and because he was so kind and encouraging to me.  Richard Ford has been a constant and gracious ally over the years.

 “I first met Judy Blunt in the mid-1980s when she arrived in Missoula with her three young children to attend college.  She enrolled in a journalism class I was teaching.  She was an ace.  In the years since, we’ve become friends and allies, and we’re now colleagues in the English Department.  She’s a wonderful person: strong, talented, savvy, kind.”  

Blunt, a master baker, designed and made Patricia McNamer’s 80th birthday cake, a veritable work of art and culinary inspiration: delicate edible flowers evoked a Monet canvas, while a mysterious whiff of cardamom teased the palate.

“My Russian was a departure for me in several ways:  it is set in the western part of Montana, rather than the east side of the mountains.  It is written in the first person, which I had not used in a novel before, and so it has a more personal, even confessional, tone.  The drama is an interior one, involving questions of aging, marriage and how to try to know yourself.”  The New York Times calling the book “a novel about a woman who finds a way to spy on her own life,” declared McNamer ‘a careful writer, a master of the small telling observation ...”.

On her latest book:  “Red Rover, is set in Montana — in a fictional little town up north, but also in Missoula and Butte, in the Sweetgrass Hills and even, one chapter, in Saipan during World War II.  It is the story of three Montana men who get swept up in the machinations of that war and its fateful aftermath.  One of them, Aidan Tierney, is sent as an undercover agent to Nazi-ridden Argentina, and returns to Montana, ill, shaken, and critical of the FBI’s role in the war.  On a cold December day in 1946, he is found fatally shot, an apparent suicide.  The FBI remains silent.  Only when his brother and best friend meet by chance, as very old men, does Aidan’s death become illuminated, atoned for, and fully put to rest.”  This eagerly anticipated novel will be on bookshelves this summer.

~ Valerie Hemingway is a freelance writer who lives in Bozeman.  She is the author of Running with the Bulls:  My Years with the Hemingways. Her portrait is by Lynn Donaldson.


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