“Daily, men descended into the earth, going where no man belonged, taking more than men deserved, their faces wracked with indifference, their hands dirtied with soot from the depths of the mountain.” ~ From AMERICAN COPPER
On Tin House, Dorothy Allison writes that, “Place is emotion. . . .Place is people.” Shann Ray is an author who masters this theme in much of his work. His debut novel, AMERICAN COPPER, is a story in which characters are tied greatly to the Montana frontier by industry, birth, or ghosts from their past.
In the very first line of AMERICAN COPPER (quoted above), we are carried into the heart of the landscape as well as the story of Evelynne Lowry and her father, Josef. Along with Evelynne and Josef, Ray introduces us to William Black Kettle (a Cheyenne), and Middie (a bull rider and fighter who longs for a sense of home), and he spotlights a difficult truth: all men hate; how they respond to this hate is what determines their end. Here is where Ray shines, as his writing pulls at the reader to find compassion for even the most violent of characters.
I have hosted Shann Ray before and am honored to have him visit again to talk about AMERICAN COPPER. I’m giving away a copy of his new novel as well, so drop your name in the comments by Tuesday, December 8th, for a chance to win.
Now, welcome Shann Ray.
CC: You live in Spokane, Washington but grew up in Montana, and much of your writing focuses on or is set in Big Sky Country. What is it about Montana’s landscape that inspired you to write this story about Evelynne Lowry and the men who surround her?
SR: So good to be with you here at your marvelous site again, Christi! I do love Spokane, and I’ve loved teaching leadership and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga University for the past 20 years, but my home of soul is Montana.
I wanted to write a love song to Montana, to those resplendent landscapes, to the rivers, the sky, the stars, and to the people. I hoped to honor the great women of my life, my mother, my grandmother, my wife and three daughters. I know some great women! These women have formed me, made me more compassionate, a deeper man, a better man, and hopefully a man they feel deeply loved by… a man who is a reflection of the fierce, courageous, and artistic ways of living they embody.
In Montana’s landscape, I do think of the land and sky as feminine, as a place of great beauty, as well as a kind of power that can never be controlled, and that calls to us in a beloved way to become more true to one another, and more willing to sacrifice on behalf of the beloved. I’ve lived throughout Montana, from the Northern Cheyenne reservation in the Tongue River country in southeast Montana, to the high plains north of Miles City, to the heart of the Beartooths and the Crazies, massive mountain ranges that touch the sky. I’ve spent time in the far wilderness of the high country, walked within the rivers fishing, and grown quiet in the darkness watching the stars. I’ve traveled the world, through Europe, Asia, and Central America. I’ve never found a place more beautiful than Montana. There is something elemental about being anchored in beauty, or Beauty.
My heritage is Czech and German and a mix of other tribes. My time on the Cheyenne rez was a time when my heart was changed for the better by so many Cheyenne friends. These things anchor us to one another, and though I doubt many things and doubt the existence of an afterlife, I hope in it as well, and I wonder, and this is something that continues to anchor me as a writer and more importantly as a husband, a father, and a son. Anchored in what the Czech presidents Masaryk and Havel might have called ultimate Being. Our own being, individually and collectively, anchored in ultimate Being through our experience of this in everyday life, especially in the context of the wilderness that exists around us, within us, and between us. That wilderness can be fraught with racism, genocide, and the farthest reaches of human evil.
Often, throughout human history, we descend into our own worst sense of humanity. And yet, we also rise. In this context ultimate violence can be transcended by ultimate forgiveness, by ultimate restoration, and ultimate atonement. American Copper, set in the beauty and violence of the Montana landscape, asks questions of those ultimate concerns, about desolation and hope, about despair and consolation, and finally about love.
CC: The characters in AMERICAN COPPER are rich in truths as they push their way through heartache or disappointment towards redemption–for some, in money; for others (though I suppose for them all, really) in love. And even in the most violent of men, like Josef & Middie, we find reasons for compassion. Writing stories, mining the history of our characters, is a process full of twists and turns, many that even the author can’t anticipate. As you wrote about Josef and Evelynne, or Middie and William Black Kettle, where there any surprises that unfolded onto the page?
SR: The surprises of life and art, both for shadow and light, and for that elusive middle or balanced ground of well being, give me joy as a writer, and help me seek to open the characters more so that we can meet them on more intimate levels. There are so many twists and turns, I agree! Add to that how many revisions each set piece of a novel goes through (for me it is hundreds, and I love this slow meticulous and detailed process of patience with prose, narrative arc, character development, and the rise of the novel’s interior movements toward cohesion among chaos). Then add in the ways my writing mentors and friends’ reads of the early novel help it come to a more full place.
As for specific surprises, it was not until late in the work that I felt Josef’s character moving more toward naturalism and a vast understanding of Nature alongside his capitalistic and charactistic darknesses. I also did not see Evelynne fighting him so fiercely until her strength of soul became more apparent to me. With William Black Kettle his joy for Evelynne, so effusive and generous, surprised me. And with Zion, I thought he might be less afraid of women, but at each turn, his fear cast him into an abyss from which he found it hard to recover, though I see him as one of the most courageous of all for his martyrdom in the end with the Blackfeet man.
Mentors, revision rounds, and more and more reading all develop surprises in me that are triggered each character. All this helps me try to generate a multi-layered foundation of compassion for each of them. Human complexity has such refreshing beauty. Even our evil, though it is deplorable and it harms us so very much, can with grace become a conduit toward the most profound truths of love and humanity. We see it all over the world: The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, the restorative justice practices in Colombia, the reconciliation ceremonies led by the Cheyenne over the Sand Creek Massacre, and the Nez Perce over the Big Hole Massacre. Love is quieter, but I believe, more powerful in the end.
CC: One of my favorite essays of late is Brian Doyle’s “Sensualiterature” on Creative Nonfiction, where he talks about the way writing lights up our senses: “the curl and furl of paper, the worn and friendly feeling of pocket-notebooks” and “the dark moist smell of ink and the rough grain of dense paper.” What is it about literature, the reading or writing of it, that pulls at you?
SR: Brian is brilliant! How true, and how good it is to hold a book in your hand that you know will change your life forever. With certain authors for me this is a certainty: C.D. Wright, Michael Ondaatje, bell hooks, James Welch, Toni Morrison, Leslie Marmon Silko, these and many, many more. I carry those books like precious stones in my hand. I harbor them in my coat pockets, and find places of solitude so I can disappear into those books, I savor and cherish them, and read them again, and I plan dinners where we can all talk about them and how they transform us.
Yes to the curl and furl, yes to the warm and friendly! I carry small sheaves of paper with me wherever I go, sometimes pressed into a book, sometimes folded into a pocket, and I write poems or prose passages on them and collect them and try to revise them a thousand times to see what shape they might take.
The whole process is like body-floating in the Yellowstone River in southwest Montana outside Livingston, no life jacket, no innertube, no boat, just your body floating the river a mile at a time, completely absorbed, in love with the body of the world.
CC: I love hearing what other authors are reading these days. Are there any books you would suggest (or insist) we pick up sooner than later?
SR: Oh my goodness, these recent ones have just about taken the top of my head off: Lila by Marilynne Robinson, Coming Through Slaughter and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid both by Michael Ondaatje, Deepstep Come Shining by C.D. Wright, The Ploughmenby Kim Zupan, and Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine.
CC: Now that you’ve transitioned from your more recent book of short stories to this novel, what bit of wisdom can you pass on to other writers who are moving from the short form to long?
SR: Stay the course. The long form is also intricate and precise in it’s way. There is a temptation to let things get looser, to not pay as much attention to the prose or the depth of the tapestry you are creating, but stay the course and tighten it down to its most refined and beautiful form. Each of the books listed above have done just that, and my heart feels better for it. Thanks Christi, for how you inspire us to read and to live, in deeper ways.
Poet and prose writer SHANN RAY’S debut novel AMERICAN COPPER is published by Unbridled Books and renowned editor Greg Michalson, formerly of the Missouri Review. Shann’s collection of stories American Masculine won the American Book Award and two High Plains Book Awards, for Best Story Collection and Best First Book. American Masculine was selected for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference prestigious Katherine Bakeless Nason Literary Publication Prize and appears with Graywolf Press. A licensed clinical psychologist specializing in the psychology of men, he lives with his wife and three daughters in Spokane, Washington where he teaches leadership and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga University.
Visit Shann Ray’s website to read more about his books. And, don’t forget to drop your name in the comments for a chance to win a copy of AMERICAN COPPER. Deadline to enter is Tuesday, December 8th, high noon.