MTPR

Crime, Love, And Consequences: 'Montana Noir' Delivers

Jan 17, 2018

"There are a lot of different kinds of outsiders in Montana. There are a lot of white outsiders who are setting themselves apart, whether by living in compounds, or living off the land, or just living an alternative lifestyle. Montana is certainly a lot more multicultural than it was when I was growing up. . .The choice of having Sid come from Mumbai in particular. . . I mean this is ultimately a story about climate change, about the environment. Maybe it was just  too neat and dramatic of a pairing, but given that he finds himself in the dry, arid, continually burning place, I was just casting about trying to find something that felt like the opposite of that and thinking about the floods that the people of Mumbai had faced, it just kind of sprang unbidden." -- Keir Graff

Montana Noir
Credit Akashic Books

The following are highlights from a conversation with Keir Graff and James Grady about the Montana Noir anthology. The were featured authors at the 2017  Montana Book FestivalTo hear the full conversation, click the audio link above or subscribe to our podcast.

Sarah Aronson: What about Montana makes it a natural context for noir?

Keir Graff:  . . . Montana’s a place where there’s a lot of economic hardship and when you have people who are desperate anywhere, bad things happen. I left Montana originally looking for opportunity. I meet people all the time who say, “Why would you possibly leave a place as beautiful as Montana?” and my somewhat glib reply is always, “ You can’t eat the scenery.” And yet Montana is filled with people who have come here for the scenery and then find themselves struggling to make a life, and desperate people make desperate choices sometimes.

James Grady:  I think it’s also really key that Montana is actually the birthplace of noir fiction. Dashiell Hammett wrote the first noir novel based on Butte, MT in the early days of the war of the Copper Kings. It’s called Red Harvest. Probably for legal reasons he changed the name of the town to Personville but it’s Butte. It is still in print almost 100 years later. It is the standard by which most noir fiction is judged and it is Montana’s.

James, on your Wikipedia bio page it claims that you’re a “bookish cinephile who also enjoys the study of tai chi, swimming, and listening to prog rock.” I want to know are these last three hobbies reprieve from, or inspiration for your espionage writing?

James: I think they’re kind of a merger! You know the public schools in Shelby, MT were good when I was there, but my true education was at The Roxy movie theater which my dad managed, at the Toole County library where my mother was an assistant librarian, and on good days when I could drive out to the rim of town getting KOMA, Oklahoma City 50,000 watts of rock n’ roll. That was where I grew up and all those influences they keep propelling my life and the rest keep me vertical.

Who’s in charge of the radio dial on your travels?

Laughing

James: That’s an excellent question. We alternate.

Sarah: Seriously?

James: Oh it was. . . we negotiated. We got XM and Kier’s iPod. We negotiate that.

Keir: Jim’s been pretty good about asking to hear some of my selections.

James: Thank you.

Keir: And tolerating them with good humor.

James: Thank you more.

What do you know about your own relationship to the dark side of being human?

James: I kept thinking I was growing up in a “father knows best” world until I got to be about 11-years-old and realized there was a brothel on the edge of Shelby, MT. . . and then when I went back to Washington D.C. after working for Senator Metcalf, which was an amazing opportunity, I became an investigative reporter for syndicated columnist Jack Anderson. My job was to look into organized crime, espionage, any kind of corruption I could find. After about four years  you find yourself really steeped in a different perspective on walking down the street than anyone else. My wife still says, “No, don’t look at those guys and wonder if they’ve got a gun.”

Keir: I should have really answered that question before Jim, because it’s hard to top that. While he was pounding the pavement for Jack Anderson, I was the editorials editor for the Hellgate Lance newspaper—not quite as tough a beat. Growing up in Missoula when I did in the seventies and eighties, it was a very free range kind of childhood . . . We went everywhere unsupervised and being kids and being inquisitive we found ourselves in a lot of situations that I would shudder to imagine my kids confronting and yet those helped me shape my worldview and teach me what was outside the front and back yard of my home. We used to swim in the Clark Fork River and we’d wander through hobo camps. With friends, we used to poke in and around alleys and abandoned buildings and Missoula has always had a certain—whether it’s the bikers coming up to Luke’s Bar and the Top Hat, or the kind of sidewalk and alley culture—there’s always been some kind of hard cases around the corners of Missoula and from an early age I had a sense that there were people who were experiencing something a hell of a lot rougher than what I was.

Break

What’s your relationship to "The Big Empty"?

James: That’s where I was born and raised.

How does it sit. . .in your soul?

James:  It’s there! I am completely conscious every day of that vast, prairie, big sky, wind-howling emptiness and how it’s really not empty. It’s full of hopes and dreams.

Break

We learn that Sid is Siddharth Ghosh, an immigrant from Mumbai, India and I’m thinking now about NW Montana being a hotbed for neo-Nazi and white supremacist activity. How do we define insiders and outsiders and how did you know you wanted to write from this point of view?

Keir: There are a lot of different kinds of outsiders in Montana. There are a lot of white outsiders who are setting themselves apart, whether by living in compounds or living off the land or just living an alternative lifestyle. Montana is certainly a lot more multicultural than it was when I was growing up, wonderfully. Missoula, having the university here, certainly has always drawn a lot of people from all over the world. Growing up a couple blocks from campus, I was fortunate enough to grow up with a wealth of cultural opportunities and meeting people who broadened my horizons because the kids in my school classes were homogenous, for sure. But through the university and through some of the cultural events, I was exposed to a larger world out there. The choice of having Sid come from Mumbai in particular. . . I mean this is ultimately a story about climate change, about the environment. Maybe it was just  too neat and dramatic of a pairing, but given that he finds himself in the dry, arid, continually burning place, I was just casting about trying to find something that felt like the opposite of that and thinking about the floods that the people of Mumbai had faced, it just kind of sprang unbidden.

About the Book:

Akashic Books continues its award-winning series of original noir anthologies, launched in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir. Each book comprises all new stories, each one set in a distinct location within the geographic area of the book. Grady and Graff, both Montana natives, masterfully curate this collection of hard-edged Western tales.

Brand-new stories by: David Abrams, Caroline Patterson, Eric Heidle, Thomas McGuane, Janet Skeslien Charles, Sidner Larson, Yvonne Seng, James Grady, Jamie Ford, Carrie La Seur, Walter Kirn, Gwen Florio, Debra Magpie Earling, and Keir Graff.

From the introduction by James Grady and Keir Graff:

"This anthology is a road trip through the dreams and disasters of the true Montana, stories written by authors with Montana in their blood, tales that circle you around the state through its cities and small towns. These are twenty-first century authors writing timeless sagas of choice, crime, and consequences…You’ll meet students and strippers, cops and cons, druggies and dreamers, cold-eyed killers and caught-in-their-gunsights screwed-up souls.

But mostly, through all our fiction here, you’ll meet quiet heroes and see the noir side of life that makes our Montana as real as it is mythic. No doubt the state’s beauty will still make the very idea of Montana Noir seem incongruous to some. Noir is black-and-white. Streets and alleys. Flashing neon lighting a rain-streaked window. But while noir was definitely an urban invention, it knows no boundaries. Noir is struggle. It’s doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. It’s being trapped. It’s hubris. It’s being defeated yet going on. Sometimes it’s being defeated and not going on.

That’s life everywhere. This is our Montana."

About the Authors:

Keir Graff
Credit Zachary James Johnston

Keir Graff was born and raised in Missoula, where he attended Hellgate High School and, briefly, the University of Montana. In addition to co-editing Montana Noir, he is the author of four novels for adults (most recently The Price of Liberty), two novels for middle-graders (The Matchstick Castle was published earlier this year), and short stories published in periodicals ranging from the Missoula Independent to the Chicago Reader. He has two more books due out next year: The Phantom Tower (for kids) and The Swing of Things (co-written under a fake name and most definitely NOT for kids). A finalist for the Society of Midland Authors literary awards, Graff nowlives in Chicago, where he is the executive editor of Booklist and the co-host of the popular Publishing Cocktails events. He returns to Montana every chance he gets.

James Grady
Credit Josh Wolff

Shelby native, University of Montana Distinguished Alumni winner and now D.C. resident James Grady sold his first novel from Missoula and that book became the iconic Robert Redford movie Three Days Of The Condor.  Grady -- who'd been a staffer for Montana's Constitutional Convention – then spent a year working on the D.C. crew of Montana's Senator Lee Metcalf during Watergate, followed by four years as a muckraker for Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporting columnist Jack Anderson.  Besides Condor, Grady has published more than a dozen novels and three times that many short stories, as well as writing for HBO and CBS television.  His awards include France's Grand Prix du Roman Noir, Italy's Raymond Chandler Medal, Japan's Baku-Misu award for literature, plus numerous American awards for his short stories.  Last year, The Washington Post compared Grady's fiction prose to George Orwell and Bob Dylan.