Interview: Pete Fromm
by John Walker
Pete Fromm’s latest novel, As Cool As I Am (2004), earned him an unprecedented fourth Pacific Northwest Booksellers Literary Award. Earlier winners were his novel How All This Started 2001), a story collection, Dry Rain (1997), and a memoir Indian Creek Chronicles (1993). Hailed as one of “America’s best-kept literary secrets,” he has published four other story collections, as well as more than a hundred stories in magazines. See his story “Concentrate” in Vol. 3 of Silk
Road. He lives with his family in Great Falls, Montana.
Silk Road sits down with award winning, northwest author Pete Fromm to talk about his work, the trials of being a writer, and lessons learned from teaching others the craft of storytelling.
Silk Road: [We are] one of almost countless college literary journals, a notoriously harsh environment for a fiction writer. We’re kind and loving, of course, but how have you handled the process of submission and rejection, particularly earlier in your career?
Pete Fromm: I guess I’ve handled it with a pretty much unconsidered self-confidence, the idea that some editors weren’t quite getting it. I’ve got well over a thousand rejections, to about 150 acceptances. So, those nerve endings are pretty well worn down. When I was sending out stories a lot, I always knew where I’d send it next, after it came back. It was more a mailroom process than a slit your wrist by the p.o. box kind of affair. And I always kept writing, never let myself sit and wait for the letter. That, I think, is huge.
SR: Montana Magazine published an essay called “Alone Again,” chronicling your solitary trip to the Bob Marshall Wilderness a few springs ago. The title is, of course, a nod to your memoir Indian Creek Chronicle: A Winter Alone in the Wilderness. Do you do this kind of stuff often? Is there another book-length non-fiction manuscript in the works?
PF: Wow. Nice research. Yes, I spent a couple of springs in the Bob Marshall, helping on a grayling introduction project. I try to get out like that as often as I can, but the opportunities to spend a month out alone are pretty uncommon. I’ve toyed around with another nonfiction book, a return to Indian Creek kind of thing, but, I don’t know. There’s a loss of privacy I’m not eager for, and, really, I find myself much less interesting than the people in my fiction.
SR: What do you mean, “Loss of privacy?” Is it something connected directly to writing non-fiction?
PF: Well, it’s a story of a guy alone. One character. Me. In order for it to be real, and interesting, I have to show what I’m thinking, what’s important to me, and that means mostly family. We’re a pretty private group. Our lives mean more to us than fodder for a story to entertain others. And, truthfully, I think fiction really is more interesting. I much prefer the form.
SR: You’ve published five story collections. Are you writing many short stories these days? Do you feel constricted by the smaller form now that you’ve written several novels?
PF: I still write stories, though not nearly so many. I still love stories. The book I’m working on now is really a series of stories, told chronologically, through a couple’s life together, from meeting to marriage, her developing MS, kids, life, death. I’ve never felt constricted by stories, just felt the incidents in those lives took less time to tell. Novels are more intimidating, starting out into the unknown, knowing only that you’re going to be there for a long time, years. But, once it gets working, it’s fun to spend so much time with the people, rather than having them dart so quickly out of your life the way they do with a short story.
SR: If you’re following the lives of your characters, it sounds like you’re not following an outline, or for that matter, any preconceived idea of what the novel will be. Is this a fair interpretation of your approach? Does it indicate, perhaps, something about what draws you to writing, that discovery of what lies around the next bend?
PF: Totally fair interpretation, on all counts. Starting out I have no idea where I’m going, and as things get humming along, I rarely get more than a vague idea. Pretty much sums up my life. But, yes, it is what draws me to writing. I get excited to get downstairs every morning to see what’s going to happen, to find out what these people are up to today.
SR: The book you’re working on that’s told in stories: did the characters guide you to the form in this instance? Is there a point when you as a writer say, “this is the form I’m working in,” and stick with it, even as the work wanders into unlit places?
PF: I suppose. I’d written a story ten years ago about a couple getting married beside a river in Wyoming, then setting off in a raft. Then, they were back, after all that time, five years into their marriage, and I knew she was going to be just finding out she had MS. Turns out she was finding out she was pregnant too, that her husband was in Mongolia guiding fisherman. They both became far more real to me than they had in the original story. And within a month I was starting into other stories about them. I’m not sure about the second part of your question, since my work is always wandering into unlit places. I was planning on working on stories for a while, then thought maybe these two would have a few stories about them, then, after they’d had four or five or six, I realized, shit, they’re going to show me their whole lives this way. Which excited me, because I really like these two. Despite all that happens to them, they’re pretty rock solid. It’s a love story. Not something I ever thought I’d be writing.
SR: Never distributed? Ouch. Was it another case of dulled nerves?
PF: It was kind of frustrating at the time. My editor switched divisions or something just before the galleys went out, so the galleys never went out. No reviews, no nothing. But, I’d kept writing, had other projects smoking along, projects I was quite a bit more in love with, and losing a young adult novel was the least painful way this could have happened.
SR: What’s next for you?
PF: It’s been several years since my last novel came out. I recently finished a novel, which is with my agent, and I have a short story collection about ready, the stories I’ve done since my last collection. And, while I’ve been waiting for that part of the game, there’s this new book, told in stories, about the couple and MS, which has been coming out faster than anything I’ve ever done. Must be the teaching. Finally getting smart.
SR: A lot of literary writers work in academia as writing teachers. Until recently, you wrote full time. Now that you teach in Pacific University’s Low-Residency MFA program, have you had to adjust the time you spend on your writing? How do you balance the two lives, or do they compliment each well enough that it doesn’t feel like a high-wire act? Does teaching aspiring writers make you look at your own work differently?
PF: I have, luckily, all day to write. But, yes, the teaching digs into that. About a week a month gets taken up by responding to student work. Even then, though, if what I’m working on calls, I work on it first thing, 4-7a.m. say, then, after getting the boys fed, off to school, come back to work on the students’ stuff. It’s not so much of a high-wire act. There’ve been times, after going through a group of packets, that I’ll look at my own work, and catch myself doing exactly what I’ve been telling someone else not to do. Maybe it sharpens my eye.
SR: Legend has it you’re a completely self-taught writer. Can you shed some light on this? Describe your experiences learning how to write alone.
PF: Yeah, legend. I’ve found most legends about writers are made up by the writer’s themselves. I did learn alone, but, in truth, I think this is pretty much how most writers have to learn. They can get a few short cuts, a few pointers, in MFA programs or conferences, even writing groups maybe, but really it boils down to reading the work of others, and taking it apart, tinkering with it, seeing how they work, how they pulled off what worked, how they messed up what didn’t. Then you steal what you like, avoid the stuff you don’t, and go and tell your own story.
SR: Writers are dreamers-they wouldn’t be writers if the weren’t. What’s the ultimate dream, personal or literary, for Pete Fromm?
PF: My ultimate dream? That one’s pretty much my own. Sorry.
SR: Darn. How about sharing a shining moment in your writing career?
PF: A shining moment in my career? My what? When asked a similar question, I said, “Career? I don’t have a career, I have a bad habit.” I suppose the shining moments are all about watching a character take off, watching them really come to life, start to do the unexpected, say things I never could have predicted. This morning, I started a new story in the new book, one of the last stories, I think, and I knew that the two of them were going to be in bed, talking about having a second child, but how the whole discussion is tinged with fear by her progressing MS. It started, unexpectedly, with a line of dialogue. “We always said there’d be two, at least.” And though I’m the boss, the guy in charge, the whole god complex, as soon as the words were out in the darkness between them, I realized I wasn’t sure who had said them, him, or her. God, I love that. It’s all about the writing. The rest of it is just business.
SR: Is it different sending out book length manuscripts? Is there a deeper connection to work that’s been with you longer?
PF: Not really. I mean, the stakes are higher, you have a few years of work riding on the rejection, not a month or two, and you’re hoping to make actual money for that time. You know, ten, fifteen cents an hour once you break it all down. But, no, it’s not like giving away your children. No matter what some overwrought writers might tell you, it is, really, only a job.
SR: Your fiction’s set mostly in the West-tall trees, broad vistas, big rivers, small towns. Did the Indian Creek experience influence you toward those places?
PF: Of course. But so did running rivers for six years in the Tetons and down in Big Bend, Texas. So did just mucking about in the west for the last thirty years, taking months long hitchhiking trips from Montana to Texas in the winters, tooling about the boonies, avoiding interstates, chain restaurants, box stores. It’s kind of all about keeping eyes and ears open, no matter where you are. I’ve just happened to be in the west, mostly outside.
SR: Your novels How All This Started and As Cool As I Am began as stories in your collection, Night Swimming. What led these stories into the larger form? Can you describe some of the advantages and pitfalls to expanding compact short stories into novels? Besides the obvious elements of time frame and pacing and plot, what changes?
PF: The characters led to the stories expanding. They wouldn’t leave me alone. Just hung out down here in my basement, waiting to see what would happen to the rest of their lives. The advantage to working this way is that you already know the characters, can jump straight into their lives. Other than that, I pretty much tend to forget about what’s happened in the story, don’t strain to keep that scene or action in the novel, just let the people go and follow along. The other day my son asked me about the ending of the short story How All This Started, which his English teacher had just read to his class. I had no recollection whatsoever of how the story ended. I explained that the novel overran the story, that I knew how the novel ended, but he just rolled his eyes, couldn’t wait to go tell the English teacher, “Never mind, my dad, complete flake, you know?”
SR: You wrote a novel, Monkey Tag, that was published by Scholastic and marketed as an adolescent/young adult novel. Was Monkey Tag conceived as a novel for younger readers, or was this a function of the publishing house? Have you done different things as a result of this novel, such as speak in schools or visit classrooms? I’d think that the questions you’d get from, say, sixth graders, would be entirely different from adults, particularly if the adults want to be writers.
PF: Monkey Tag was one of the first things I ever wrote, the first thing to go at all long. It wasn’t conceived of as a young adult book, I think that’s just more an indication of my maturity at the time, maybe still today. Definitely of the maturity of the writing. The novel was never distributed, so, no, it never caused any change at all. I do speak to a lot of school kids, teaching writing in my boys’ classes every week, and, yes, the questions are different, but not as different as you might hope. They still want to know how much money you make, how to get published, what fame is like.
SR: So, reading the work of others. Who did you read early that taught you, in bits and pieces, how to write? What was it about those writers’ works that you were able to draw from?
PF: Jaysus. That’s a handful. Early guys? After Indian Creek I used to spend a lot of time out in the mountains, particularly in the fall, and I remember curling around campfires reading a lot of Steinbeck, Hemingway, Twain. Kind of the usual suspects. Hemingway told me to keep it simple. “Nick liked to open cans.” I still remember that sentence. Steinbeck to have something to say. I still remember the horror I felt over the shotgun blast in In Dubious Battle, or how I laughed all by myself in the hills, over Cannery Row, how real he made that motley crew. Twain to not be afraid to let the characters tell the stories themselves, that they’re far, far more important than the writer. Huck. Hello? I also remember, as a river ranger, loving his Life on the Mississippi which showed me not to be afraid to write about things I know very well, and not be afraid to show that I love these things.
Visit Pete Fromm’s website at http://www.petefromm.com/