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Montana 1948 – Interview with Larry Watson

Larry, the setting of your US top 10 bestseller, Montana 1948, is set in a fictional town known as Bentrock in Montana. What influenced this? The town is certainly fictional, yes, but the people from that general region are not. I was raised in North Dakota which is only 10 miles away from Montana. Growing up, racism towards coloured people in North Dakota was common, and often brutal. When I made trips to Montana with my family, it appeared worse there. Montana is actually ranked inside America’s top 20 most racist states. My central plot is based on this, and set during a touchy period in history when racism against Native Americans was more than an issue in the West. I exposed racist attitudes and aspects of vicious racism in the novel, by the actions of Frank Hayden abusing his powers as a doctor by maltreating Native American women. I also depict accurate racial attitudes in Western American culture from the 1940s through another main character, Wes, brother of Frank. Readers gain the initial insight into Wes’ racism through David’s opening description of his father ‘he simply held them in low regard... he believed Indians, with only a few exceptions, were ignorant, lazy, superstitious and irresponsible’. This gave me the perfect framework to mix the complication of family loyalty with accurate historical allusion in forming the key event in what is a rather grim story. Explain how David’s ‘loss of innocence’ maximized your readers’ reactions? By having the novel told from the perspective of David Hayden, who is only a young boy, the ‘loss of innocence’ factor goes a long way towards moving the readers. The content in the novel is awfully heavy, and one would not suspect that a child should be anywhere near familiar with allegations such as rape and murder. However, young David unfortunately is. He is made aware to the fact that Frank, his uncle, is potentially a vindictive rapist, when he states ‘charming, affable Uncle Frank was gone for good’, and it should come as no surprise for the readers to feel regret, shock and empathy for the character at this point. This is because David had previously, throughout all of his upbringing, idolized Frank, and (having been made aware of this) the readers can now comprehend that David’s innocence has been truly lost and at a cruelly young age. The way in which you chose to characterize Frank Hayden, the antagonist, was somewhat atypical. Explain this. Frank Hayden is not a villain. Throughout the novel, he is only alleged to have committed the crimes of rape and murder; it’s really, purposely, open to the readers’ interpretation as to whether he really is the bad guy. The clearest indication of his guilt is simply that he ‘did not deny’ the allegations. He then commits suicide at the pivotal point of his brother’s interrogation of him, when Frank is being held captive in Wes’ house. I constructed the climax of the plot in this way to enhance the novel’s dramatic, suspenseful elements. If you pay particular attention to part one, you’ll remember that every exchange which takes place

between Frank and any other character is positive and there is never any evidence of a depraved, perverted side to him. This, you would call a writer’s tool – when the sudden and unexpected downfall of Frank takes place in the novel, the readers are left pondering the unanticipated and unforseen turn in the story. In most narratives you have a clear protagonist and a stereotypically immoral or malevolent type of character. My novel, however, is not like others. Frank Hayden’s ostensible immorality is never truly exemplified to readers and nobody will ever know whether he really did what he did, or was to blame for the dysfunctional occurrence in the straightforward Hayden family. Not even me. You gave the book a really dramatic, on-edge type of ending, which was vividly written. Explain the effect you wanted to achieve. The story of Montana in 1948 had at this point reached its duration, in my mind. I remember sitting in my study, I remember the pivotally well placed full stop which I thought would signal the end to my ghastly, confronting account of a boy’s unwanted experience, and his exposure to the cruelty and reality of having to sit on the fence of a family breakdown without any say or influence. I thought I’d end it at the point when Frank’s funeral takes place, and when the readers discover that the real reason Frank died is swept under the Haydens’ carpet and his death is dismissed as accidental. However it then occurred to me that I could fast-forward thirty odd years to situate a matured, grownup David Hayden at the dinner table with his girlfriend, and with his elderly parents. David’s girlfriend is inquisitive and remarks about the events of Montana in 1948. Wes is infuriated and shouts the defence of Montana for the blameless town that it is. He then exits. I wrote this passage very evocatively. You’ll notice, David only sits and listens, as this takes place and has no direct involvement in the discussion of his family’s dark past. This is done deliberately to symbolize that David, although he is now an adult, never grew up from that experience, and whenever the events of Montana in 1948 are referred to, he’ll always still, sadly, be David Hayden the boy. The last line of the novel is ‘I sat in the chair where my father had sat… For an instant I thought I felt the wood still vibrating from my father’s blow’. This was an intended metaphor, depicting not only the literal impact of Wes’ hit on the dining table, but the emotional obliteration which the events of Montana had on Wes – causing him eternal pain. Hopefully, this has a spellbinding effect on readers.