While spending his life in a variety of occupations, working as a coal miner, lumber man, potter and filmmaker, Missoula's own Swain Wolfe found his calling as a writer. The fact that his latest book is a Montana-based romance doesn't hurt the impression that he is a horse whisperer come lately, although it's likely the author would dispute this characterization.
Regardless, the story behind Wolfe's success is a remarkable one. In what he calls a "fluke" in the publishing business, Harper Collins picked up his first book, The Woman Who Lives in the Earth, and contracted with him for the newest release, The Lake Dreams the Sky, as well as two more literary enterprises to come in the future.
The appearance of Wolfe's books on the national scene marks something of a unique phenomenon in today's publishing world. Profiled in Esquire and reviewed in The New York Times, this author is not a product of connections in the halls of even the smallest of the region's publishing houses, but rather a self-published writer who was snatched up as a result of seemingly random forces.
Diane Reverand, Wolfe's editor at Harper Collins, first came across The Woman Who Lives in the Earth while talking to booksellers, asking them what self-published books wouldn't stay on the shelves. At the same time that a bookseller out of Boulder, Colorado was handing over a copy of Wolfe's first enterprise to a Harper Collins representative, Barbara Theroux of Missoula's Fact and Fiction was sending copies to the publisher's main office as well.
Self-published in 1993, The Woman Who Lives in the Earth, was originally a film script. Since then, the little book has been translated into 15 different languages. But it was, as Wolfe puts it, an experiment in publishing. Wolfe says he was too naïve about the publishing business not to try and self-publish his first book. He didn't have much of a plan, he says, other than that he "gets involved in these things in the most rudimentary way."
"I feel my way through it," he says. "I don't have grand designs, I have a story, and it works itself out in the language-the language itself tells you where to go."
Wolfe also says that he had no "market focus" when writing either of his books. Yet there is something about Wolfe that makes me think he is shrewder than he tries to appear. He doesn't claim to be any expert on the publishing business, saying that "the odds aren't with [writing] being financially secure.
"The fact that Harper's picked me up," he says, "is just an outrageous fluke, the odds of that are so small."
According to the bookseller Theroux, however, it's pretty common for an independent bookseller to have an established relationship with a publishing company. "In the past," Theroux says, "that was the only way publishing companies got to know about new writers. They'll ask about what sells, what's hot. It's through us that they find out what the best-sellers are."
By the mid '90s, The Woman Who Lives in the Earth was gaining recognition beyond Montana's borders. In some ways it was a corollary to the mass-market paperbacks on the shelves at your local supermarket, but when Reverand got her hands on the book, she was very interested.
"I was really impressed by the author's book and voice," Reverand says. "I found myself wanting to share it with my children, and they were charmed by it as well."
Today, Theroux says, "independent book stores are playing a lesser and lesser role. The publishing companies are out to get the media hype, to sell to any outlet that will pay them money, it's all about money."
Theroux says that she recognizes the effect trends have on publishing. "Trends play an enormous role," she says, "though you wouldn't get any publisher to tell you that. Just look at all the O.J. books, they couldn't keep them coming fast enough.
"Harper's is pretty aggressive," she adds. "They're looking for regional best-sellers, in an area that would have national appeal."
As the owner of an independent bookshop, Theroux has to know something about the not-so-invisible hand of capitalism that effects business, from Beanie Babies to books. Caught in the crunch between discount outlets like Costco, mega-stores like Barnes and Noble and the publishing companies' demands for higher and higher profits, Theroux acknowledges that she has to keep a constant eye on her customers' needs and the trends in the market.
That sort of acumen led Theroux to fight to have Nicholas Evans, the author of The Horse Whisperer, read from his new novel The Loop in her store last week. While talking about the survival of independent book stores, she says that owners have to be so many different things now, "especially a business person."
Fluke or not, both Wolfe's books fit into a very sellable niche. It's a fact that's hard to ignore.
The first novel seems to have come out at the same time as other literary works that recast myth and folklore in a contemporary light, such as Women Who Run with the Wolves, and the second, The Lake Dreams the Sky, following on the heels of the smashing success of such New West melodramas as the The Horse Whisperer.
A very different project than Wolfe's first experiment, The Lake Dreams the Sky is set in the '40s, in a lakeside Montana town sure to strike a familiar chord with anyone who has visited Flathead Lake. Yet Reverand, who was involved in the writing process of The Lake Dreams the Sky through all of its six drafts, says "there is a very real progression between the two books, a connection."
Having read the new novel, I would call it a love story, as the jacket subtitles it. The story details the arrival of an artistic jack-of-all-trades at a small lakeside town, and the passionate affair that soon ensues with a local waitress. The scandalized town condemns the couple, and the conflict finally explodes with an event that threatens to separate the two by framing the hero for a crime against man and nature that he didn't commit.
While the novel does have regionally distinct elements-its Montana landscape, the Native American characters who live on the fringe of the town and with whom the waitress has been raised, the outsiders' attempt to raise old lumber logs from the bottom of the lake-it also seems to fit quite snugly into the emerging genre of romantic novels written by men.
Like Bridges of Madison County and The Horse Whisperer, the novel is informed by its relation to its landscape, whether it be bridges, ranches or lakes, and seems to appeal to a similar audience.
Wolfe says that such similarities would never occurred to him. "The glue that holds this story together is a very different thing," he says, adding that he doesn't "see [his novel] as a genre thing. That would be too narrow."
Reverand agrees. "It's such a different book than either of them in my mind," she says. "We bill authors through what they are doing, not what the rest of the world is doing."
Reverand does allow that "it's the publisher's job to make the book work," but denies that trends such as those demonstrated by the popularity of novels such as Bridges and The Horse Whisperer have anything to do with whether books are accepted. "Trends do not play a role at all from my point of view," she says.
"It's an encounter with what's on the page, nothing to do with anything else. Each work has to be complete in and of itself, have a unity, an emotional power and a darn good story.
"What makes a person sit down and read a book, that's what I have to consider. What themes, what characters, what language stays with me."
A very positive, though short, note in the August 23 New York Times Book Review doesn't make any comparisons to such works either. "The beauty of Swain Wolfe's prose," Paula Friedman writes, "illuminates both the Montana lake that provides the novel's setting and the shifting interior landscapes that arouse his character's passions."
In reference to the snappy phrase, "the thinking person's love story," splashed all over the publicity information about the novel, Reverand says "[The marketing people] are just trying to get reviewers to pay attention to the book."
Like both Wolfe and Theroux, when asked about the novel's being a love story, her response is that there is so much more going on in the book than simply romance. Theroux goes so far to offer that having "A love story" printed on the bookjacket might deter people from buying it.
In his late 50s, Swain Wolfe is charming, his sturdy frame and large palms the only apparent throw-back from the rugged lifestyles of his past. Wolfe comes across as honest, generous and open when discussing his own work.
In conversation, Wolfe, a very intelligent man, an entrepreneur many times over, seems most concerned about the language of story telling. As with most authors, words form his building blocks, like coal or lumber or clay, laying the foundation for something else.
Yet that something else remains elusive, both in the book and in conversation.
Still, when Wolfe turns his energy to talking about the new novel, he makes the story seem genuine in a way the book doesn't quite pull off. The stories in it are clearly based in events close to his heart. It is apparent that parts of the book, as with any decent work of literature, are born of true connections, impulses, people and experiences that the author has known in his life.
In both his first novel as well as The Lake Dreams the Sky, Wolfe says he was trying to get at "the nuance of the various ways you use language in terms of sound, image, story and rhythm," as well as the ways in which "to say something you can't describe directly in words."
At first, when asked to talk about what he sees in The Lake Dreams the Sky in addition to the love story, he declines to articulate anything beyond simply saying, "We believe that since we write a story with words, we can talk about a story with words, but we can't."
Such statements reflect both an aesthetic caginess and a genuine impulse, one imagines, to let the book speak for itself.
Pushed further, Wolfe discusses the novel's historic cultural context, referring to the social and racial restrictions of the '40s, as well as the issues regarding the Native American characters. He says that such contexts interest him; "Where culture was," he says, "where it moved out of, where it moved into, and its relationship to other cultures."
While The Lake Dreams the Sky does have these elements of culture and language woven into the plot, they are not always revealed with ease.
The two Native American brothers, one who hates whites and one who doesn't, seem contrived. An elder living near the lake offers native wisdom in a stilted question and answer session with the hero and his waitress girlfriend. Likewise, the language of the novel frequently draws attention, as though it needed just one more revision. In one scene, a character chomps crunchy lettuce, when she should simply be allowed to eat her salad-and, often, the same thing could be said of Wolfe's style.
Still, the novel has moments when the prose does achieve its potential, when images and language find quiet resonance. Such moments make you hungry for more, make you wonder what Wolfe could do with language and story were he able to sustain that caliber of prose throughout an entire novel.
For those engaged in selling this novel-or the two more books Wolfe has been contracted to write-that may not be the relevant question.
Given the climate in the world of books and publishing, maybe it isn't just the booksellers who have to be shrewd business people. If writers want to be successful, maybe writing from the business point of view is the wave of the future.
Maybe, like his character who tries to pull logs up from the depths of the lake, Wolfe wasn't naïve at all in embarking on his latest career-change. Rather, he was prepared to risk the odds on his experiment in publishing, to see just how far he'd go.
According to Reverand, he's just beginning. "What impressed me from the first time I encountered Swain's work was the totally original voice," she says, "the very rare way of looking at the world that has vast appeal, and will have. His audience will continue to grow and grow."
Former documentary filmmaker Swain Wolfe calls his success as an author the result of a "fluke" in publishing. Photo by Mark Bryant