Kim Zupan discusses 'The Ploughmen.'
Q. Your résumé is very eclectic: aircraft maintenance specialist for the Air National Guard, smelter worker, professional bareback horse rider, ranch hand, commercial purse seiner fisherman, carpenter and cabinetmaker, and, of course, author. What path led you to such varied work?
A. My family was a big one—six kids—so there wasn’t a great deal of expendable income lying around. My earliest jobs were a way to finance college. In high school I worked on ranches in the Judith Basin in the summertime and, later, for what at the time were big bucks, at the Anaconda Company smelter, where they refined copper and zinc. Later I worked as a way to support my rodeo jones. I was a land surveyor and worked in a lumberyard. I unloaded boxcars full of empty milk jugs. After graduate school, a good friend and fellow writer got me a job as a carpenter. I knew nothing, had no tools, but found I liked the trade. The guy who owned the business had a doctorate in English literature. He was a one-man, blue-collar NEA; for years he carried a succession of poets and writers with questionable manual skills just to keep them from starving to death. He was a wonderful man.
Q. It was in Missoula that you discovered your two enduring passions: writing and riding bareback horses. How did those very different passions emerge? How do they influence each other? Do you still ride?
A. There was a time when nothing much mattered to me but riding bareback horses. I was in undergraduate school during most of that time, reading great books and working on stories with the Missoula sage Bill Kittredge. My rodeo partner was the now-famous cowboy-poet and great friend Paul Zarzyski, who was a graduate student working under Richard Hugo. For hours driving around the country we talked bucking horses and writing poems. Both passions encapsulate desire, elation, euphoria, very often defeat, and dejection in a small package. Eight seconds. Two hundred and fifty pages. It’s all in there.
I’ve been to two rodeos since I retired and only then because my youngest daughter wanted to go. It’s hard to watch, something akin to seeing an old girlfriend across the street. There’s that pang of longing and regret. And, too, I think, Yeah, I could still do that. I have dreams about it. The horse is in the chute and I can’t find my gear. But I don’t ride anymore. I think I’d probably fall off a saddle horse.
Q. Your Slovenian grandparents settled in Stockett, Montana. What brought them there? Why did your family stay?
A. Like so many central Europeans, my grandparents came to the United States for the ostensible better life. My grandfather came over first and began working in the mines. After several months he sent for my grandmother, who set off from a village near the Julian Alps. When she arrived in Cherbourg, France, my grandfather wrote to say he was moving from somewhere in Nevada to Butte, Montana, so she would have to wait. She went to work in a textile mill in Le Havre and sold the steamer ticket she had bought to board the Titanic. She would certainly have been in steerage and the current Zupan line would have been goggling on the bottom of the North Atlantic. We expended a lot of collective family luck with that turn of events.
They settled in Montana in what the locals call The Gulch, or the Tri-cities: Centerville, Stockett, Sand Coulee, about fifteen miles southeast of Great Falls, population now about eight hundred. Coal deposits there are about a foot under the dirt. My grandfather ultimately wound up owning several coal mines in the area and a silver ore mine in the Little Belt Mountains. My guess is he never found the big vein.
Q. The Ploughmen is your first novel, and you mentioned that it took nearly a decade to finish. What was your process? Why did you take so much time?
A. I’ve thought of myself as a writer, contrary to ostensible signs and logic, for the better part of forty years. Perhaps the exigencies of life have prevented me from more actively pursuing it at times, but it has always been who I am and what I do.
For years, until quite recently when I began teaching, all writing was done during a two- to three-month stretch in the winter. We would scrimp during the year. I’d take on side jobs, work weekends, to earn those precious days. I approached the writing months like a blue-collar job—arrive early, stay late, work hard. So The Ploughmen was written over eight or so years in three-month installments. I can tell you, it was difficult to put on the tool belt at the end of that time. After a few miserable weeks, I was broke to the plow and the process toward the next hiatus began again. I suppose, like a Galápagos finch with its blunted beak, I’ve evolved into a creature unique to the circumstances I’ve been given.
Our kids are all grown now and out of the house, but I’ve always felt bad that they missed out on so much. The money we squirreled away for those writing "sabbaticals" could have taken us all to Disneyland or some such place. But instead their old man was holed up in a dark room, grinding away at something that may or may not ever amount to a damn thing. But they never complained. They’ve all become fine people.
Q. How did the idea for The Ploughmen originate? What was the first strand of this story?
A. One of my very good friends, who recently retired as a special agent for the ATF, had been a sheriff’s deputy in Great Falls early in his career. He liked to talk about his work. It was great stuff. Typically alcohol was a component of the conversations. One of his jobs was to search for lost people with his dog, and he’d once guarded an old lifer criminal awaiting trial. I listened. The material rattled around in my head for years and then came out as The Ploughmen.
Q. You set the book in a state rich with a long literary tradition—many other iconic stories of the American West are born of Montana. But why Montana for you? As a native Montanan, what role does setting play in the story?
A. I’d like to think—and without getting into a protracted discussion about regionalism—that many iconic stories, not just of the West but of America, were born in Montana. The Big Sky and Winter in the Blood are two that come immediately to mind. The landscape can act, for some, as a mere backdrop upon which characters move, but for me it becomes—in that it can move the story forward, affect other characters, affect the outcome of events—another character in itself. There are other places as beautiful as Montana, no doubt, but this place affects me on a visceral level. Let’s face it—most people feel the same way about their home. (That’s something I’ve always admired about Texans—they think Texas is the greatest place on the planet. It may be the second greatest. In any case, I admire their fervor.) I love this place. There are times still when it will take my breath away.
Q. Death plays a crucial role in the novel. The troubled young deputy (and one of the protagonists) Valentine Millimaki faces death head-on as a child when he suffers the loss of his mother. He also has the curious habit of photographing the dead when bodies are found in the harsh Montana wilderness. John Gload (the other protagonist) is a hardened killer who is whiling his last years in prison for his crimes. What are your thoughts on death, and how did it become a character in the novel?
A. Death certainly is a character in the novel, as it must be, it seems to me, in any work of fiction. Love, work, death—the big three. Death is the single common denominator we all have. It shouldn’t direct our lives, but it’s waiting, hovering over all of us, no matter what our age. The other two, love and work, may come and go, but death remains. How can it not be part of any work? If you’re not somehow dealing with it, you’re not really in the game.
Q. While the central characters of the novel are men, Gload and Millimaki’s relationships to the women in their lives are fundamental to their characters. What is the role of women in the novel? How do women influence the story? Can you talk about how the female characters interact with the landscape in relation to how the male characters interact with the landscape?
A. Of course Millimaki is profoundly affected by the death of his mother and later by his wife’s abandonment. Given that he is a different creature, Gload may not require love as Millimaki does, but he fosters it nonetheless in his way with Francie. Further, the absence of the women in their lives cements the bond these men form.
With Millimaki’s wife, I thought of the stories of homestead women being driven crazy by their solitude in the endlessness of the prairie. (The Crazy Mountains in south-central Montana are said to be named for a woman who went insane and wandered off into the wilderness.) With her husband increasingly absent because of his work, Glenda begins to feel the landscape swallowing her up. As a native species, Millimaki thrives in it; his wife, alone, teeters toward madness.
Q. Why did these two unlikely characters form such a strong bond? Would you call them friends?
A. Adversity and common experience tend to throw people together, like wartime friendships, in which two very different people who would otherwise never had known each other or become close, end up forming lifelong bonds.
I’m not sure Millimaki ever truly acknowledges his affection for Gload until the novel’s end. But like a vicious dog, Gload is, early on, disposed to care for Millimaki after the deputy offers a kind word, a modicum of respect.
Q. What is the significance of the book’s title?
A. What forms the connection initially between Gload and Millimaki, is that both of them had been farmers. The book is not a pastoral by any means but neither is the title ironic. Sitting on the plow was for both men restorative and therapeutic. Farming recalls for each of them a time of innocence. The title may rightly conjure a bucolic image, but at the same time it refers to two men for whom violence and death are quotidian aspects of their chosen professions.
Q. What is the one thing you would like the reader to take away after reading The Ploughmen?
A. Under the bloody surface, The Ploughmen is a story about the redemptive nature of love, and I hope it would illustrate the power of a simple gentle gesture, a kind word.