Between the number of writers, nonprofits and acres of open space in Montana, a collaboration like this one seems natural.
The new anthology "A Million Acres: Montana Writers Reflect on Land and Space," celebrates a milestone for the Montana Land Reliance, a conservation nonprofit that in 2017 passed one million acres of land that it has shepherded into permanent protection.
The hardcover volume includes memoir, essay and fiction writing by 20 writers, selected and edited by Keir Graff, a novelist and Missoula native.
The contributing authors include Rick Bass, Maile Meloy, Joe Wilkins, Carrie La Seur, Jim Robbins, Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, Christine Carbo, Maxim Loskutoff, Janet Skeslien, James Grady, Jamie Harrison, and more, including Gwen Florio, who is executive editor of the Missoulian. The writing is accompanied by color photographs of the open landscape by Alexis Bonogofsky.
Graff answered questions about the book with the Missoulian via email.
Q: Conversations about conservation normally occur in the realm of news articles, public meetings and sometimes heated discussions. Literary writing will have a different window into the landscape. What did you want to add to the topic through this collection?
A: There are obviously many voices in the conservation debate, and many different and valid points of view. One of the things the Montana Land Reliance has done so well, I think, is to find a common-sense, opt-in approach that works for many different stakeholders. In celebrating their achievement (protecting over one million acres through conservation easements), I wanted to create a collection that reflected MLR’s inclusive sensibility.
More to the point of your question, I think short stories and essays allow us time and space to cool the heat of arguments about conservation and focus on universal feelings and experiences. All Montanans feel they have a stake in the land, and all of them love it, even if they have different opinions about how to protect it. Storytelling is the most persuasive form of argument there is because it reminds us of others’ humanity. And when you see someone as fully human, it’s difficult to dismiss them out of hand.
Q: Montana has a few writers to choose from. How did you recruit writers, and how did you go about selecting fiction that suited the collection? What are some examples that give us a different view into the subject than nonfiction?
A: The incredible abundance of writing talent in Montana — the Missoula Valley alone could have supplied enough writers for the anthology — is both a blessing and a curse to an anthology editor. A blessing because there are unquestionably enough excellent writers to fill a book, and a curse because I couldn’t include all of them without having a 10,000-page book. So I did have to make difficult choices. (Although it must also be said that not all writers who are invited to contribute to an anthology will say yes.)
After contemplating an exhaustive list, I reached out to some writers I’ve worked with who I knew would deliver, some writers I haven’t worked with but whose work I respected, and several writers I’d only recently discovered through their latest publications.
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I selected writers first and then asked them what they could offer that would be suitable for the book, and I included fiction as an option because that’s really my strength as a writer and editor — I also thought it would make for a more interesting read, like a coffee-table-quality literary journal.
In the end, I only selected a handful of short stories that I love for the different voices they bring. Looking back now, though, it strikes me that some of these pieces really could have been written either way: I can easily imagine Christine Carbo’s short story as an essay, and Joe Wilkins’s memoir is as beautifully written as any fiction.
The death of a loved one is a recurring theme, and I suppose there’s more drama to it in Harrison, Heidle, and La Seur’s fiction than in Bonogofsky and Wilkins’s essays — but taken together, they’re more like different lenses than anything else.
Q: Talking about the landscape without showing it might have been a missed opportunity. When did photography enter the project, and how did Alexis Bonogofsky get involved?
A: Alexis' involvement was discussed during the very first call, when the folks at MLR were sharing their vision for the book. She has extensively photographed land protected by MLR easements, so they knew her work, they knew her, and they quite rightly wanted her on board. Her involvement as a writer came later but is just as essential. She is a multitalented treasure for the Treasure State!
Side note: MLR did a smaller-format book in 1988 called Montana Spaces, with black-and-white photos by John Smart. So there’s precedent. That one was edited by Bill Kittredge and published by Nick Lyons Books.
Q: It’s also a very big state. How did you go about representing the diversity, regarding people, literature and landscape, in the collection?
A: No single book can speak for everyone in a state, but I hoped to create something that would speak to everyone, and pursued as many different voices in as many different places as I could. I pinned a map to the wall over my computer — it’s still there — and flagged each contributor’s location as they came on board, hoping my flags would cover as much of the map as possible.
I also did my best to balance not only the places the writers came from, but the writers’ backgrounds and perspectives. I included fourth-generation Montana residents as well as expats and those who have more recently made it a home. The 20 pieces address everything from the restorative power of nature to threats to the land; from Montana’s complicated history to a Native American perspective on conservation; from global warming’s effect on animals to a stark reminder that we are animals, too. And much, much more.
Q: Where do the proceeds from the book go?
A: The book is a joint publishing venture between Riverbend Publishing in Helena and the Montana Land Reliance, so all the proceeds (barring Amazon sales) will stay in state, and a significant portion of the proceeds will directly support the ongoing work of MLR.