Interview with Caroline Patterson

caroline patterson headshot

I’m thrilled to interview fellow Montanan Caroline Patterson! She is the author of the story collection Ballet at the Moose Lodge and the editor of the anthology Montana Women Writers: A Geography of the Heart. We talk about Montana Noir, sense of place in story, and the way she weaves the personal, historical, and political in her work. I hope that you will enjoy reading the interview!

In Montana Noir, the backdrop of “Constellations” is the state legislature. Can you tell us a bit more about your story? How did you choose Helena? Did you know the setting right away, or were you tempted to write about another place?

My story, “Constellations” has been a story that arose out of my actual experience as a page at the 1972 Constitutional Convention in Montana. Though much of the story is fictionalized, some of the roots of the story grew out of that early experience. I did stay in the rather spooky YWCA, I was on my own for the first time, and some of the scenes from the convention were as I remembered them. The rest is fictionalized. That said, I struggled with this story for years–trying to understand its shape, its content. I did know the setting immediately–but I didn’t always understand how to balance it with this coming of age story.

Is a sense of place important in your writing? As a reader, is it important to you?

Place is vital to my writing as well as my reading. I believe so much of our character–our beliefs, our language, our actions, even our conflicts–are shaped by the places that we live in. I am a four-generation Missoulian and I live in a house built by my great-grandparents. I have left and come back here several times,.but the character of this place, the stories of my family, and my stories are deeply entwined here. I believe it is a language you speak even when you don’t know you are speaking it.

Montana noir

Though “Constellations” is set in the 1970’s, the heart of the story – taking care of the land – is still a battle we are fighting today. Can we win this battle?

What helped me shape this story was the concept that the constitutional delegates struggled with throughout the convention: legalizing our right to have a “clean and healthful environment.” Yes, we are still fighting this battle. Right now the United States is the only country who has not signed the International Climate Change Treaty. This is appalling. We have a president who is actively dismantling many of the environmental laws protecting clean air, clean water, restricting coal mining degration that past administrations have put in place to safeguard our earth. We have to keep fighting this battle, because the prospect of losing it means our own destruction.

You did a brilliant job of weaving together the personal, the political, and the historical. Which thread came first? 

Thank you! As I mentioned, this story a number of years and many drafts before I was satisfied with it. The personal history probably came first, as I was trying to capture the feeling of being at the Convention as well as writing a story about a young girl caught up in the spirit of the 1970s. I was never very happy with that draft…it always read as as too timid a story. I felt like it needed a bigger context…and while I sensed the context, it took me a long to to recognize the material in my hands. The Constitutional Convention was a remarkable time in Montana history–right after the 1960s, right after the strikes in Butte, when Montana citizens revolted against the Anaconda Copper Company (which had just pulled up stakes in Butte) and citizens voted to write a new constitution. But they wanted one written by the people, not politicans. To run as a delegate, you couldn’t be a “professional” politican. Imagine having an election like this today! During this time, many unconventional people entered Montana politiics. The convention was an important gateway for women in politics in Montana, which is an important part of this story.

I loved the political background of the Convention and I had a hard time dialing it back. Also, I knew that there had to be more drama, not just lecturing about the convention. I watched documentaries and actually checked out the day-to-day minutes of the convention and found remarkable material–and that is when I decided on the “clean and healthful environment” material. That really struck a chord with me that resonated through all the material: personal, political and historical. Once I had that: I felt like the story could begin to work on all levels. But finding that took about 10 years!

What was your favorite part of the story to write?

The parts where the character is walking around Helena at night–trying to imagine what she will do, who she will be in the context of these lit-up Victorian homes. I writing about the magnificent old houses in Helena as well as who the journeys this character imagines she will take.

Could you tell us about your work as the executive director of the Missoula Writing Collaborative?

I work to put our writers in 28 schools in western Montana, from two-room schools in Ovando and Potomac to multi-classroom schools in the greater Missoula area school on the Flathead Reservation of the Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Our eleven writers teach students 12-week creative writing residencies as way of help them to learn to write, think critically, and experience the joy of creation. Our writers produce student poetry anthologies for each school as well as student readings, in which all students participate. I organize residencies, write grants, conduct fundraisers, and work with teachers, writers, principals, funders, and our advisory board.
montana women writers

You are the editor of Montana Women’s Writers: A Geography of the Heart. What were the challenges and rewards of putting together this anthology?

I had the great good fortune of working with Sue Hart, a professor at Montana State University-Billings. She helped familiarize me with so many historic women writers, while I was much more familiar with the contemporary writing scene. I wanted to organize this geographially, because it was so important to me to read writers from the same area–Mary Ronan and Debra Earling–side by side to see how the piece sparked one another. I like the idea of taking thinking out of the chronological past, and organizing them by place, because writers in this state are so informed by the geography: whether we’re overwhelmed by it, inspired by it, isolated by it. The great reward to getting to know Sue, getting to know many of these historic women writers whose work was so important to me–May Vontver, Grace Stone Coates, Mildred Schemm. The readings with the contemporary poets, essayists, and fiction writers were fun and inspiring as we went town to town. It truly was a dream anthology. It’s probably time to do another.

What books are on your nightstand?

Alice Munro: Collected Stories. Rachel Cusk: Outline & Transit.

What’s next?

I’ve finished a story about a woman from the 1920s who performed horse tricks with the circus. I am also gearing up to finish the last half of a novel in progress.

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