Even if you haven’t read Smith Henderson’s first novel Fourth of July Creek, you may still be familiar with some of his writing. Henderson, a Montana native who works for the ad agency Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, Oregon, was one of the writers on the famous Clint Eastwood Chrysler Super Bowl ad, “Halftime in America.”
“If you ever want your work thoroughly scrutinized,” he says wryly, “write a Super Bowl commercial.”
Henderson, who appears Sunday at Miami Book Fair International, has written pretty much anything you can think of. Short stories. Correspondence for a university chancellor. Corporate communications for Apple. News at the Missoula Independent. “A writer’s a writer,” he says. “You’re using the same muscles in a different way.”
Fourth of July Creek — which took about 10 years to complete, mostly because he was working on other projects — makes you glad he’s flexed these particular long-form narrative muscles. Set in 1980s Montana, this wrenching novel pits a good-hearted but troubled social worker, Pete Snow, against Jeremiah Pearl, a deeply paranoid survivalist who’s hiding out in the mountains with his family. Their paths cross when one of Pearl’s sons, Benjamin, appears in town and stumbles onto the social service radar.
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Pete’s teenage daughter, Rachel, is also a narrator, estranged from both of her self-absorbed parents and heading for a world of trouble she can’t even begin to imagine. But Henderson can.
“I worry about Rachel,” he admits.
How did the novel come together?
The book was originally two books, one about Jeremiah Pearl and one about Pete. I don’t know why it took me two years to realize those characters should interact, that that could have some conflict. I was about 100 pages in on both books. It wasn’t so bad to start over. ... You learn not to be afraid of doing all that spade work in the first place. You recognize you’ve gotten to a good place.
Was that the biggest challenge in writing the book, blending the two narratives?
No, I think it’s always a struggle to get on a daily routine, to get yourself into the head space. There are so many discouragements. No one’s asking you to write a novel. We could all stop writing novels, and there would be plenty to read! When you’re at that point you start with the recognition that it takes a tremendous amount of will power to give yourself the freedom to go in every day. I think that’s one of the first and biggest hurdles.
Why did you set the story in the 1980s?
There were a couple of reasons. It was a time of big change in America. We don’t look back on the Reagan election in literature as closely as we should. I wanted to signal that. This social worker has entered into a new era of how people think about government and freedom and their country. The other thing was narratively I needed Pete in an isolated situation. As a social worker that really wouldn’t be the case today. Back then there weren’t as many resources.
How did you come up with the idea of Rachel’s narration being in question-and-answer format?
The question and answer style is actually something I’ll do to generate material. I’ll write myself a question and answer it just to get rolling. Ninety-nine percent of the time I go back and rewrite it in regular prose. But in this case something happened. When I changed it to prose, I realized I was missing the questions and answers. So I left it in. What I think it does for me is place the anxiety Pete or any parent would feel about a missing child into the reader’s head in the form of “Where is she? Is she all right? Where is she? Is she all right?” I think it does a lot to help the story.
There’s a certain archetype of the westerner a lot of us imagine when we read about Montana. How do you view the western mentality?
I was born in Montana, and I think that’s one of the reasons I felt comfortable exploring ideas of freedom and community and tensions between individual freedom and responsibility to each other. It’s a place that believes in independence of expression that’s interesting. Sometimes it means a state will vote for medical marijuana or against gay marriage because voters feel it’s an imposition on their freedom. Those things are paradoxical and don’t make sense, but they come from this constant engagement with the landscape. I was talking to someone recently about that guy in Vegas [Cliven Bundy, who clashed with the government over his right to graze cattle on public land] and his standoff with the government. One thing people don’t realize is guys like that interact with the federal government more than many of us in cities do. A bunch of those lands are federally administered. Those things can become flash points when you have a remote, tyrannical federal government telling you where you can graze. Many of us not from the west think that’s crazy behavior, threatening a federal government with arms.
I think the western mentality is this sort of individualistic self-determined belief that you have to make your own way. We know the world is more complicated than that, but there’s something in the western character that wants to hang on to it.
Smith Henderson appears at noon Sunday in Room 8301 at Miami Dade College.