Author discusses debut novel, ‘Painted Horses’

A Missoula carpenter will visit Livingston next week to read from his debut novel, “Painted Horses.”

Malcolm Brooks’ novel, set in 1950s Montana, follows Catherine Lemay, a young archaeologist, as she tries to survey a canyon before it is flooded to build a dam. Dam executives try to foil Lemay’s attempts, but she enlists a Crow guide to help her. Lemay also meets and falls in love with a veteran and former mustanger, John H., who lives as a fugitive in the canyon. Rick Bass and Jim Harrison, among others, provided blurbs for the book. 

The Enterprise recently interviewed Brooks about “Painted Horses” by phone. Brooks said he was working on building a deck, “covered in sawdust and sap.” Here are some excerpts from that conversation:

Livingston Enterprise: What’s your Livingston connection? How did Jim Harrison come to read your book?

Malcolm Brooks: By chance. My editor was his editor. I’ve never met him, never spoken to him … (Harrison’s editor) happened to be one of the editors my agent submitted the manuscript to.

LE: Why did you decide to tell the story from the perspective of a  woman? 

MB: That wasn’t my initial plan when I was first sort of cooking up the idea. But I knew that I wanted the story to be at least one half traditional love story. I knew who (Catherine’s) character was, I just didn’t realize so much of the book would be told so close to her point of view. Once I got to that point, it just dawned on me that because this story was about these two people and they were going to have this big epic love story it was really essential that I got both of their stories on equal footing. I couldn’t really tell her story from anyone else’s perspective. I thought if I can pull that off and write from a young woman’s point of view I will have really achieved something. I knew that was the biggest roll of the dice I was making. I knew that if I didn’t make that work, the whole thing was going to belly flop.

LE: What has the feedback been from female readers?

MB: Most of it has been really positive. The biggest compliment I got was from someone who said she had to stop and remind herself that this book was written by a man at times. I’m as proud of that as anything. There has been a really interesting but contrary reaction that you can find online. (A woman on Goodreads) pillories the whole notion that Catherine is a believable character, especially the way I depict her sexuality. But I’ve also gotten praise about that same thing.

LE: Why did you decide to write about archaeology as a major theme and plot driver in your book? 

MB: I was always really interested in archaeology. I knew that it was a very likely or a very natural lens to study the relationship between the present and the past. 

LE: Many books about the West and Montana in particular are greatly influenced by the romance of the old westerns and oftentimes trade in a similar type of romantic depiction of the landscape and people. “Painted Horses” seems to be both within that tradition and responding to it. Can you explain why you decided to write the book in this way?

MB: I think of my sensibility as unique in a way. I have one foot in the western romantic tradition and wanting to pay homage to that because I think myths tell their truths in their own way. But that comes also with the balancing point that the myth of the West doesn’t even get close to telling what the real history of it was. On the one hand I wanted to show the western American experience as a part of this gigantic continuum of human migration and the arc of the human psyche — always reaching for frontiers, always traveling west. That sort of mythic cycle is very old and very embedded in the human conscious ... Just because romanticized depictions of something exist, there still might be some truth or emotional currency to it, but the romance can’t gloss over the grit at the end of the day. One might just be a sort of emotional insulation against the other.

LE: The book has an interesting take on development in the West, which seemed to track with that Edward Abbey quote, “Growth for the sake of growth is cancerous madness.” Was that intentional?

MB: Partially, yes. On the one hand it is pretty helpful to know what humans had to face in the past and how they coped with whatever challenges they had as a way to understand why we behave the way we do now. But also I was interested in the sense that we really have gotten to the point in human history where we are capable of changing our own landscape and geography. We get so caught up with the notion of making life easier through a cosmetic or superficial way through technology that we sometimes fail to realize that we are killing our spiritual self in some ways. ... I’ll be the first one to admit that I wouldn’t want to live in any other era. Privilege and modern convenience are wonderful, but nothing comes without a price, and I think you always have to be aware of that price tag.

Brooks will read at Elk River Books, 120 N. Main Street, on Wednesday, Aug. 27, at 7 p.m.