Our ability to withstand the past week’s temperatures with humor and a minimum of whining (perhaps we replaced it with bragging) wins Minnesota high honors in the all-around toughness competition. Yet our literary legacy is not terribly heavy with bleak, man-against-nature tales, despite our weather extremes and once-deep wilderness. We make the best of things. Community, optimism, a sense of fun, and the changing seasons generally prevail in our writers’ imaginations.
Writing from the new American West, on the other hand, seems to give way to grimness far more often in its post-frontier storytelling. Mountains and the open range are lonely year round, and when spring comes, in the works of, say, Annie Proulx or Rick Bass, it’s just easier to find the bodies. Minnesota writer and Colorado native Charlie Quimby has a little bit of both places in him, and it shows in his first novel, “Monument Road” (Torrey House Press). Set in a brutal but beautiful and rapidly changing western landscape, the story follows Leonard Self, a widowed rancher on a mission to scatter his wife’s ashes from an overlook — and follow them to his own end.
“I conceived the book with a specific landscape in mind and a general scenario involving a person with a suicidal intent. From there, I began to populate the place with characters who might be that person and pushed their individual lives forward until I could see how they related each other. The story ultimately grew out of this imagined community,” says Quimby, who started writing the book after a New Year’s resolution in 2009. He’d recently retired from a career in corporate communications, and was devising a rich and busy retirement that included volunteering with homeless people in Minnesota and Colorado, but he’d long suppressed a desire to write a book.
“Most writers face the problem of earning a living that leaves them enough time and mental space to do their art. I took a path that allowed me to make a good living from writing but it consumed my creative juices,” he says. “When I finally turned to this book, my years weren’t really stacked against me. They’d given me work habits, skills, life experience and financial security — and perhaps spurred me with a growing sense of mortality. Young or old, though, the only way to have written a novel is to sit down and do it.”
Quimby also writes a well-known political blog, “Across the Great Divide,” which sometimes appears in MinnPost’s Blog Cabin; he’s gradually turned the focus away from politics and more toward storytelling. “I started out very optimistic and worked very hard at being open and had absolutely no effect,” he said in an interview. “I think the division is worse, though not necessarily permanent. Although I’m a progressive, I don’t believe one party or ideology has all the answers. We can all benefit from criticism, defending our ideas and honestly trying to appreciate the other side. I believe seeking empathy rather than victory opens up a whole set of possibilities that our current discourse has closed off. That’s why my blog evolved toward telling stories instead of expressing opinions, and why I moved to writing fiction. Both are about helping readers see another point of view without requiring them to surrender their own worldview at the door.”
Leonard’s point of view is focused on a receding past. His wife is gone, his community has changed, and the ranch never paid off, although a real-estate developer has come sniffing around. Starvation ranches have become celebrity ranches, and Leonard doesn’t see a place for himself anywhere anymore. “Leonard’s struggle is universal, but putting him in that sagebrush setting helped me tell his story in the context of the great Western myth. That self-reliance isn’t just admirable, it’s the way the world must operate,” said Quimby. “His extreme independence was thrust on him and it’s helped him survive in an unforgiving environment, but it’s also limited his perspective. He hasn’t been able to see how his decency has connected him to a community despite himself.”
A Minnesotan for four decades, Quimby admits that here is where he has “most of my friends and all of my shade trees.” He’s absorbed Minnesota’s stories, and storytelling tradition. But he has never let go of the West, and sees it as the place where “the country is working out what it’s going to be next.”
In fiction, he gets to be a part of that place again. “It’s hard not to feel connected to where you grew up. My affinity with the West has more to do with the thematic richness of the landscape and culture. Being here part time, I’m freer to invent there.”
- Jan. 14, 7 p.m. Minnesota Center for the Book Arts, Minneapolis.