Missoula writer Dee McNamer explores new tones, themes in 'My Russian'

"My Russian" is Missoula writer Dee McNamer's third novel, but it's a book of firsts for her - and for her readers.

"I wanted to do some technical things I hadn't done before," she said in an interview. "And I didn't want to write another atmospheric, out-on-the-plains book. I didn't even want to mention Montana. I wanted to show I could do it."

McNamer, who grew up in Cut Bank and came to Missoula for college, set her 1991 novel "Rima in the Weeds" in an imaginary town on the Montana Hi-Line. Her 1994 novel, "One Sweet Quarrel," revolves around the Dempsey-Gibbons World Heavyweight Boxing Championship held in Shelby in 1923.

The new book is set in a Northwest town of 60,000 or so ringed with tawny mountains, one with an "L" on it, and one with an "M." Its main character, Francesca Woodbridge, lives in a substantial house in an old, respectable part of town with her lawyer husband, Ren, and their teen-age son.

McNamer gives readers two mysteries to pull them along.

Francesca is unhappy, and she sets up a new identity for herself, then assumes it experimentally in her own town while her family thinks she is on vacation in Greece. If she sets her plan in motion, her family could be convinced she died, and she could go on as someone else. Will she follow through?

Before the book opens, Ren has been shot by an unnamed intruder who left him partly disabled. Who was it? As the book unfolds, the reader suspects just about everybody at least once.

"I got really interested in tension," McNamer said. "What you really want to have a reader be is so absorbed that they want to go on. They can't leave it."

McNamer created Francesca as someone the reader would wonder about. Writing for the first time in first person - the character's own voice - McNamer aimed to make Francesca sardonic, anguished, funny, scary, unacceptable and not too likable, but impossible to ignore for her sharp observations of the world. McNamer wants the reader to wonder: Is Francesca lying? Is she nuts?

"I really thought, 'I want to set somebody's hair on fire,' " McNamer said. "I wanted readers not to be consoled, but to be made really nervous and really invested. I wanted it to be a book where you would finish and think, 'I have company in my edgiest states.' "

That worked on McNamer, too, who worked hard to keep the story's balance through the writing.

"I felt like I was running along a fence top," she said. "On one side is the conventional narrative, and on the other side is the absurd."

McNamer started work on the book in 1993. She collected 80 to 90 pages of notes to herself. She re-read the "Odyssey," the Greek epic poem believed to have been written by Homer before 700 B.C. Its central character, Odysseus, returns from adventures abroad and lives in disguise on his home island of Ithaca while he tries to decide if he should return to his former life.

"That gave me ideas to think about," McNamer said.

McNamer writes fiction today, but she was a journalist first. She earned a journalism degree at the University of Montana in 1973 and worked five years as an Associated Press reporter and editor in Helena and six years as a Missoulian reporter.

"You have to be really precise in journalism," McNamer said. "I don't regret for a bit that that was my first writing training. It's a very amiable mix."

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Journalism trained her to look for the telling detail of character, she said - for instance, in "My Russian," the comb marks in the hair of the desk clerk in a cut-rate motel, a man who's a recovering alcoholic trying hard to keep himself together.

"If you find the right thing, you don't have to have a whole paragraph of description," she said. "People just read the one detail - the comb lines - and say, 'Oh, yeah, that.' "

McNamer returned to school and earned a master's degree in creative writing in 1987 at UM. There, she developed the central character for her first novel.

After she started "My Russian" six years ago, she taught writing at five different places in 2 1/2 years, always returning to home base Missoula. Durin

g the same period, her husband, writer Bryan Di Salvatore, had a falling out with the New Yorker magazine, a source of bread and butter for the couple.

"That was a desert land for us," she said.

Last spring, McNamer landed a permanent teaching job on the English department faculty at UM. And the New Yorker has a new editor. Having a day job makes a difference, McNamer said.

"We tried to put a lot of things together in the last 10 years," she said. "Now, I can write what I want. I can have a book that fails."

In just the past decade, the publishing world has changed considerably for writers, she said. Publishing houses no longer buy a writer's career; they buy just one product, the book. The standards for success are different.

"You get the feeling that if it becomes an 'Oprah' book, you're set for life," McNamer said. "Or if there's a screenplay."

Information about books is available to readers in new ways on the Internet. McNamer was disappointed by an early poor review of "My Russian" from Kirkus, which was then posted on the Amazon and Barnes & Noble Web sites.

"So the first review you get is out there like a giant bulletin board," McNamer said. "It's saturation."

Since then, industry standards Library Journal and Publishers Weekly have published rave reviews, and McNamer is waiting for the New York Times review.

This summer, after a book tour to several Western cities, McNamer plans to write some short stories and maybe return to some magazine journalism before starting a new novel.

"I just want to write something that isn't 300 pages," she said, "and takes five years."

Monday - 6/7/99

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