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Michael Punke

Michael Punke, author of "The Revenant."

You can guess from the name that this festival always intended to move past the classic work of its namesake author.

For its first two years, In the Footsteps of Norman Maclean Festival, held here in Missoula or up in Seeley Lake, where the late author's family keeps a cabin, explored his life and work: the novella, "A River Runs Through It," and his short stories.

"We knew we wanted to go beyond that," said Jenny Rohrer, of Alpine Artisans, an arts nonprofit working in the Seeley-Swan and Blackfoot valleys. With the theme, "Writing the West: A Way Forward," they're examining large figures in Western literature today and how they approach the region and their craft.

The headlining guests are Michael Punke, whose historical novel "The Revenant" was adapted into the Leonardo DiCaprio film, and Debra Magpie Earling, the award-winning author of "Perma Red," alongside well-established writers like Rick Bass, Judy Blunt, Annick Smith, Richard Manning and Peter Stark.

Last year, due to the Rice Ridge fire just outside Seeley Lake, the festival events were moved to First Presbyterian Church, where Maclean's father was a reverend. Despite the weather, they sold out their events at the Wilma and Roxy Theater. It worked out to roughly 1,500 people, Rohrer said, with tourists coming from other states and countries, drawn by Maclean's reputation.

This year, the festival opens with Seeley events on Friday — tours of Maclean's favorite fishing holes and his neighborhood. On Saturday and Sunday, it all moves to Missoula for author-centric talks and presentations.

Punke is the keynote speaker this year. He's most famous for that historical novel, "The Revenant," a Western revenge tale based on the story of 19th century trapper Hugh Glass, who was left for dead in the wilderness after being mauled by a bear, yet survived to track down his assaulters.

It became a big seller after it was adapted into a 2016 Academy Award-winning movie directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Getting his novel onto the screen took years. Once it did, it was naturally an author's dream, but Punke wasn't allowed to talk about it. In 2010, the Missoula resident was appointed to be a U.S. trade ambassador to the World Trade Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. Government rules barred him from promoting personal projects like his book, so he couldn't do interviews about the sudden success.

He also wrote two nonfiction books. "Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mine Disaster," and "Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West."

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With that breadth of subject matter, Rohrer said they "felt that his work encompassed what we wanted to look at" this year.

He'll give a keynote on Saturday and participate in a talk, "Exploring the West," with Missoula-based writer Stark ("Astoria"). Then on Sunday, he and "Revenant" screenwriter Mark Smith will discuss the adaptation. Rohrer said Smith wrote more than 10 versions of the script before Iñárritu signed on, with yet more revisions to follow. Afterward, they'll sit in for a screening at MCT Center for the Performing Arts. (If the bear mauling didn't tip you off, the movie is R rated.)

Work by Earling, the head of the University of Montana's Creative Writing Program, is the subject of two events. She'll give a Saturday morning presentation on "The Lost Journals of Sacajawea," in which the writer, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, collaborated with Peter Koch, a Missoula native who makes custom books.

In 2005, Koch was showing photographs at the Missoula Art Museum and saw some of Earling's poetry in a neighboring exhibition. The collaboration grew from there, with Earling writing the text based on Sacajawea, who guided Lewis and Clark on their expedition and about whom little is known. Koch found historical photographs and worked to make a customized, limited-edition book. Only 75 copies were printed, one of which is in the Mansfield Library's special collections. At the festival, Earling will read her text while the photographs are projected on screen.

Last year, the festival had presentations about the effort to adapt "A River Runs Through It" into a film. This year, the same concept will apply to both "The Revenant" and Earling's novel, "Perma Red," her 1992 debut that won an American Book Award. The story, about a free-spirited Salish woman, has thematic ties to the movement to raise awareness of missing and murdered indigenous women.

For the past several years, an independent team of producers, primarily Native and female, have been working to adapt the novel into a season-length limited television series, ideally for a major streaming service.

The members of the "Perma Red" team appearing on Sunday are adviser Johnny Arlee (Salish elder), co-producer Ivan MacDonald (Blackfeet), and screenwriter Wenonah Wilms (Chippewa).

"They've been involved in a multi-year endeavor to make sure that the script and the way they're telling is really culturally accurate ... and the voice really comes from people in the tribe and maintains cultural sensitivity, and at the same time make a commercial production and sell it to Netflix or some other cable entity," Rohrer said.

Other events include a gala dinner on Saturday. Besides the food, writer and filmmaker Annick Smith will address the question, "Is This Still the Last Best Place?" — a reference to the classic anthology she and William Kittredge compiled.

History buffs should take note of a Friday celebration to mark the reprinting of "40 Years a Forester: 1903-1943" by Elers Koch, former supervisor of the Lolo and Bitterroot national forests and chief of the Lolo forest.

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