I’m very excited to have Kim Zupan on the blog today. His debut novel, The Ploughmen, came out last month, and he was kind enough to answer a few of my questions!
Your new book, The Ploughman, features a very unlikely friendship between two very different men. Will you tell us more about John Gload and Valentine Millimaki and what you think makes them so compelling?
What I hope makes them compelling—and what I believe drives the novel—is that their relationship, their friendship, is built upon the frailest foundation—an act of kindness, a morsel of respect for another human being. In the most difficult times, under the most trying circumstances, one embraces warmth wherever it is to be found. In the case of Gload, like a vicious dog who’s been addressed with a kind word, he’s at first perplexed by Millimaki and then compelled, finally, to loyalty and love. Millimaki finds solace in a voice from the dark of a cell as his life begins to waver and darken. The relationship is unlikely, of course, but makes sense in that two souls, adrift in a dark vacuum, will move inevitably toward one another.
Why did you decide to set the book in the 80s? What kind of research did you do for the novel?
The book is based very loosely on events that occurred during that time. There was an old killer loose in the west during the 60s, 70s and 80s and a friend of mine had been a sheriff’s deputy who was to sit with him. The book didn’t require much in the way of research. There was no GPS then or cell phones, no digital cameras and I had to be careful some of these things, so ubiquitous and taken for granted today, did not show up in The Ploughmen. Further, I made a couple of trips to the old Montana State prison at Deer Lodge, which is now a kind of museum and I spent some time driving around in the country north of Great Falls by way of getting a better feel for that place. An abandon farm house with a forgotten orchard that I stopped to photograph became in the book John Gload’s home and sanctuary. I still have that picture in a drawer around here somewhere.
What is your writing process like?
It’s a fairly unscientific and disheveled affair. I’m an impatient rewriter, so I go very slowly with the first and second drafts, trying to get down what I delude myself is a “finished” product. Subsequent drafts see me, more often than not, de-fleshing the prose and making sure the story is flowing and that things are sufficiently explained. At this point I may tack 3X5 cards on a cork board with names and scenes, just to insure that the jumbled mess inside my head makes sense to someone besides me. My wife is an excellent editor and fine writer and I’ve come to trust her completely in matters of rewriting—well, and pretty much everything else, for that matter.
You were a professional carpenter for 25 years, and now you teach carpentry, but have you always wanted to be a writer?
Not only have I wanted to be a writer for as long as I can recall, I’ve always considered myself one. Carpentry or commercial fishing or ranch work or time I spent stacking copper and zinc ingots for the Anaconda Company—these were things I did to support or pay for time at the desk writing. I began doing carpentry after graduate school to keep the wolves at bay and eventually to support a family. It is a noble, complex, and challenging trade and I found I was fairly good at it, but I never, when I looked in the mirror, saw a carpenter. I think I would have despaired if I had. I saw a writer—unknown, little published, working away largely in the vacuum of my concocted world—but a writer nonetheless. I was a writer who did carpentry, not a carpenter who wrote. The distinction for me was essential for my mental health.
Your work has been compared to Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor, but who, or what, would you say has influenced your writing the most?
All writers—I mean every single one—borrow or learn from those who have gone before. Hemingway, whether he’d admit it or not, borrowed from Sherwood Anderson. And McCarthy owes much to Faulkner who owes Melville who owes Hawthorne. And on and on. Yet each is original, distinguishable. To be compared to Faulkner or O’Connor is beyond flattering, to be sure. When I was much younger, early teens, I read a great deal of Poe, and I think some of him caught up in the folds of my brain. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Graham Greene, Walker Percy, James Welch—all influences in some way or other.
If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
This is a terrific question and set me to thinking for a very long time. Ulysses comes to mind immediately as a book I’d like to experience for the first time. Moby Dick is another. Ultimately, however, I think I’d have to choose Cormac McCarthy’s The Orchard Keeper, a book recommended to me nearly 40 years ago by the fine Montana writer Ralph Beer. This book, along with McCarthy’s subsequent four or five, went largely unnoticed except by the cognoscenti, but it validated something I was trying to do with language, and with mood. It seemed to tell me that I was headed in the right direction—not necessarily in terms of publication but in terms of the lens I was using to view the world.
What do you like to see in a good story? Is there anything that would make you put a book down, unfinished?
I’ve been thinking about the last several books that I admired and, strangely, one of the common themes is suffering. More accurately, what I admire are characters who suffer and persevere. I’m not much interested in happy, well-adjusted characters because they show me little about the human condition. Don’t get me wrong, I like happy, well-adjusted people—heck, I think I am one. But in literature, such people are difficult to employ to illustrate growth or redemption. They’re already there, for chrissake. A good story, too, must have some kind of action, by which I mean forward movement in the ripening of characters. I don’t mean exploding cars, automatic weapons, lurching undead—cheap tropes that we should all rightly be sick of. Just, at least, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other. Long interior monologues on life’s meaning don’t do it for me and I will put such a book down and not look back. Rich, risky language with poetry in its veins is a must also and if words fall flat on my ear like sodden leaves, the book that contains them will be relegated to the dusty pile on my bedside table, never to be looked at again.
Your love of Montana is evident in your writing. If someone were to visit you there for the first time, where would you take them?
This is somewhat like asking me to choose my favorite child. I suppose one should see Glacier Park, the Beartooth Highway—the places one sees in travel brochures. I’m a bit more drawn to the less eye-popping landscapes of the central mountains —old and worn and blunt, yet still very wild. Sluice Boxes State Park in the Little Belt Mountains, Lost Lake near the Highwoods. Finally, though, if, as you note someone is visiting me, I would take them to a much-loved stretch of the Blackfoot River, a place that is essential in our family history, where we’ve camped with the kids for years and where my wife and I fish. In a state that offers hundreds of miles of blue-ribbon fishing streams, the Blackfoot is somewhat lackluster, but the trade-off here is that, in a long day of walking and wading and casting, we’ll rarely see another human being. I would serve up by way of sustenance to my visitor lukewarm Coronas and burned kosher dogs and chili warmed in the can—the food of gods.
What’s next for you?
I’ll be traveling with the book this fall, in-state and around the northwest and will resume my teaching duties at the beginning of the next semester, near the end of January. I’m very anxious to get back to work on the new book, but I’m too superstitious to say much about it.
About THE PLOUGHMEN:
teeped in a lonesome Montana landscape as unyielding and raw as it is beautiful, Kim Zupan’s The Ploughmen is a new classic in the literature of the American West.
At the center of this searing, fever dream of a novel are two men—a killer awaiting trial, and a troubled young deputy—sitting across from each other in the dark, talking through the bars of a county jail cell: John Gload, so brutally adept at his craft that only now, at the age of 77, has he faced the prospect of long-term incarceration and Valentine Millimaki, low man in the Copper County sheriff’s department, who draws the overnight shift after Gload’s arrest. With a disintegrating marriage further collapsing under the strain of his night duty, Millimaki finds himself seeking counsel from a man whose troubled past shares something essential with his own. Their uneasy friendship takes a startling turn with a brazen act of violence that yokes together two haunted souls by the secrets they share, and by the rugged country that keeps them.