Cover design by Leeann Falciani

 

NOVELS  BY

SWAIN WOLFE

 

THE PARROT TRAINER

 

Swain Wolfe has created nothing less than a new genre ... and a rousing read.

       --Alex Shoumatoff, author of Legends of the American Desert: Sojourns in the Greater Southwest.

 

 Y a fascinating, splendid novel He knows how to tell an engrossing tale.      

       --Douglas Preston, author of Cities of Gold, and The Codex.

 

The Parrot Trainer won two Southwest Book of the Year awards in 2003

 

LAKE DREAMS: A LOVE STORY

In The Woman Who Lives In the Earth, Swain Wolfe introduced himself as a writer of great imagination and sensitivity. Now...he proves himself to be a storyteller of awesome proportions...

        --James Welch, author of Fools Crow, and The Heart Song of Charging Elk.

 

 An exploration of an almost primal erotic attachment . . . The beauty of Swain Wolfe= s prose illuminates both the Montana lake that provides his novel= s setting and the shifting interior landscapes that arouse his characters= passion.

New York Times Book Review

 

THE WOMAN WHO LIVES IN THE EARTH

Beautiful and profound, both fantastical and utterly real.

       --William Kittredge, author of Hole In The Sky, and The Nature of Generosity.

 

Enchantingly told and beautifully realized Y his prose resonating with a deft and heartfelt honesty that owes as much to poetry as to the straightforward storytelling style of, say, a Hemingway.

       --Charles de Lint, author of Widdershins, and Make a Joyful Noise.

 

Signed Copies of Swain's books can be ordered from:

Fact & Fiction Books


Biographical Notes on Swain Wolfe

 

Events

 

Links

 

Return to top

Swain Wolfe's most recent book
The Boy Who Invented Skiing: a memoir

Wolfe is a gifted storyteller whose natural curiosity and fascination with the world around him come through on every page, and they're entirely contagious.

                --The Washington Post

 . . . is more than a compelling tale; it's a primer in how the imagination finds its shape and strength in the forge of raw experience. This is one of those rare books that make you want to call up your friends and read passages to them.                          --Rick DeMarinis, author of  The Year of the Zink Penny.

Those who like memoirs by really talented writers who have lived very lively lives are going to enjoy Swain Wolfe's recollections of how the West used to be.                  --Tony Hillerman, author of  The Skeleton Man.

Swain Wolfe is as much a poet as narrator and memoirist...With great skill and gentle charm, the author offers the stories of his life, taking readers along on his amazing journeys.                                                                                                                         --Cathie Beck review for The Rocky Mountain News

Below the surface of the tale, as in all Wolfe's work, is a subtle strain of what one reviewer dubbed "cowboy metaphysics" -- i.e. a deep appreciation for the poetry and mystery in the land below our feet.

                 --Terri Windling review for Endicott Redux

 

Photo by Mark Bryant

__________________________________________________________

Interview with Swain Wolfe

       So how did you invent skiing?

SW: I’d heard of skis, but I’d never seen them. When I was nine or ten, I came upon a pair of ancient, hand carved, cross-country skis in our barn loft. They were several feet taller than I was. They were pretty simple. Just long boards that turned up at one end and each ski had a leather straps to put your boot through. In my case, galoshes. I took the skis into the pasture, worked the toes of my galoshes into the straps, and tried to move. I didn’t get far.

Obviously, I needed a push. I needed sticks. The ground was covered in deep snow, so no sticks presented themselves. I found two brooms worn to the nubbin in the grain room of the milk barn. They worked fine, except they iced up after a while, so I was pushing myself along with poles attached to clumps of ice. It was slow going.

I crossed the ice over the Taylor River and climbed up the side of a steep mountain in an elk trail . The snow was so deep that I couldn’t see above the trail. I climbed quite a ways up the mountain, made stairs in the snow to get on top, put the skis on and pointed myself down hill. After several attempts, I could shoot down the mountain through the trees—if I aimed well—and out into a meadow, without damaging myself. Most of the time, I came apart all over the mountain side and I’d have to dig snow out of my pants and the galoshes, located the skis and brooms and climb back up the mountain. Crashing became a common theme in my life.

I invented down-hill racing on cross-country skis in galoshes with brooms for poles

       This is very much a mother/son story. In fact, the book starts with your mother’s eagerness to believe that the devil was her father when she was a child on the homestead near the "badlands" of Eastern Montana. Why did you start your memoir with this story?

SW: When my mother was four, her grandmother tried to keep her from running off into the prairie to look for rattlesnakes. Grandmother told her that anyone who liked snakes was evil and must be the devil’s daughter. The tactic backfired. Mother liked the idea that her father was the devil. She also developed a deep distrust for her grandmother and proper authority in general. She believed that people who wanted power were mentally defective.

My mother shaped me in many ways. Writing this memoir made me much more aware of how connected we were, but we didn’t always get along. She was angry about her life, because her abilities were not recognized. She was a couple of generations too early for that. There were long periods when we hardly spoke. Fortunately we made up well before she died. When she was in her eighties, we would sit up all night, drinking brandy, and telling stories until dawn. Those were great times. I loved her very much.

       The reviews of your three novels all praise you for your storytelling skill. How do you think you leaned to tell a tale?

SW: When I was coming of age and as a young man, I was surrounded by men who told stories. I worked with loggers, cowboys, and miners, among others. They told stories, and I listened. I was shy and awkward, because I’d grown up fairly isolated and wasn't great at social interaction. I'm still not. But I may have learned something about what makes a story work. I certainly had a life of adventures, so I had stories to tell. Dangerous, stupid work leads to discovering who you are. Until automation replaced most of human labor, men and women had stories to tell about how to survive bad situations. The most interesting story tellers today tend to be cops, lawyers, and waitresses. Everyday they’re tested by the attitudes and behavior of the people they have to deal with. They become acute observers. Office jobs tend to produce gossip, which is something like post-it notes about who did what to whom.

When I write, I’ve noticed I have to free my characters of certain constraints like parents, school, office jobs, and extremely neurotic behavior. Our lives happen away from repetition. I don’t tell stories about drunks, crazy people, or druggies, because they don't hold my attention. To often they do the same things over and over without solving the problem or discovering anything of interest about themselves or the world.

       And what did the loggers, cowboys and miners talk about?

SW: Loggers talked about women, drinking, and fighting mostly. Some talked about having their own outfit some day. They all wanted independence. The younger ones didn’t have dreams, but they had a tremendous need to prove they were tough. That usually ends in a brawl. Loggers didn’t have much time to talk on the job, so talking was done in the cab of a truck on a bad road or in a bar. It was always noisy. Loggers shouted a lot. Around loggers I learned less about telling stories than about how and why people project attitudes. Loggers tended to be on the spiky side, like their boots.

The cowboys told stories about horses and girls. The horse stories were interesting. Not so much the girl stories. They knew more about horses. There was a lot of dead space between talking, which was comforting. You didn’t have to fill the air with words. They seemed to know that somehow things would work out. The older ones were usually curious about the history of various ranches in the area, who owned what and how they came by them. They talked about having their own place someday. Being your own boss was cowboy heaven.

Miners talked about everything: their adventures, their women, wives, and ex-wives; teased and tortured each other; told terrible ethnic jokes, and made up all kinds of stories about what happened underground. You never knew what to believe, because they were more interested in entertaining each other than telling the truth. They were fatalist, which seemed to free them up.

Loggers, cowboys, and miners were stuck in time. Not much changed for several decades, then machines did away with most of them. After the second war, the people who became townies were full of dreams and possibilities. Most of their stories weren’t stories so much as plans for the future. It sounded good at the time.

       You said you grew up isolated. Where were you?

SW: I got loose early. I ran away a lot at three and four when we lived at the tuberculosis sanatorium in Woodman, Colorado. I explored the hills and mesas, then the steam tunnels that connected all the buildings. I could usually get away, because my parents were busy running the sanatorium.

After my mother and father divorced she married a rancher. We were dirt poor, but I had a horse named Joe and thousands of acres to roam in. Joe and I knew every place on that ranch. There was a stream, Rarick Creek, which started on the ranch and flowed into the Taylor River. Rarick Creek became my heaven. I knew every bend, each grove of trees, every pool, the way the bank broke away under the grass in places, particular stones, colors, masses of roots, and the way the light looked on the various pools at different times of the day. I was that creek. I didn’t have to deal with people telling me what to be and what not to be.

       In contrast to your nature wanderings, the ranch life you describe seemed so hardscrabble and desperate. How did that affect your family’s life?

SW: My mother and step father were violent, particularly toward each other. Their fights were caused by lack of money and personal demons, jealousy mostly. They were so terrified of losing each other that their fear turned to hate. They both became suicidally depressed. Being around that kind of depression was a lot worse than beatings. You knew somebody was going to die, but you didn’t know who or when. My parents’ fights and moods made hiding out in the barn at twenty-below seem like a luxury.

       In your memoir, you describe how wrenching it was to move from a 5,000-acre ranch to Missoula when you were in seventh grade and the identity crisis that followed. What happened?

SW: When I lived on the ranch I spent every moment I could exploring the mountains, the river, and Rarick Creek. In nature, you’re just there, you become the place. I went to school, of course, but that was a managed environment, like prison, and at the end of the day I escaped back to the ranch. When the family exploded, I ended up in Missoula in a tiny, rotting shack on South Ave. with my mother and sisters. No Joe, no Rarick Creek, no wilderness.

In town, other people become your mirror. They define you. That yanks you around if you’re not used to it. My mother couldn’t afford to buy me shoes so I wore my old cowboy boots to school. I was an alien. A naked alien in cowboy boots: the Wyoming Cowboy from Colorado. It’s humorous now, but then it was pure pain.

       You say that you found yourself in work after you dropped out of high school. What sorts of jobs did you do?

SW: I had a lot of jobs. I left them for every reason you can think of, but I never got fired for being lazy. Some jobs were seasonal, some bosses were too stupid or mean and I’d quit. Got fired for being an SOB, died of boredom, pointed out the obvious once too often, the contract ended, the boat sank, the trees started talking to me, and once I had a vision at the end of a shift1300 ft underground that changed everything.

I was a hooker, a choke setter, and sawyer for Cameron’s gypo logging outfit; worked the log pond at Hamilton’s mill in Missoula, pulled the four’s in Delaney’s mill and ran the planer; built a steam house out of railroad ties for the plywood plant in Polson; was a crew chief on the Bellmoore Trail Fire for The Bureau of Indian Affairs; made molds and laid up fiberglass for Anderson’s Gull Boat in Missoula; logged Flathead lake with Petie Baker; pulled calves; broke horses; drove cattle; cut, raked, and stacked hay with a team of horses; plowed, planted, and harvested wheat, oats, and barley; rebuilt bull rake and tractor engines; ground bone meal for Schumacher’s slaughter house; built prefab houses; was a ticket agent for Global Travel, and for about seven days when I was sixteen, I was Missoula’s youngest bar tender. I got fired for reading on the job.

My first job in the Butte mines was to "go down to the 32 and put the bulkhead on the Moose." I didn’t know what any of that meant. Next they put me in the "cold hole" that was just off the air shaft. It was nearly dark and 20 below zero and the place was filled with stalactites and stalagmites of ice. It was a gulag, the most miserable job I’ve had. I did all sorts of day labor jobs, then they put me on the grizzlies blowing up big chunks of rock. I worked in the mines just long enough to I discovered my natural talents lie in digging and blasting.

       Of all your jobs, working underground in Butte copper mines had the greatest influence on you. Why?

SW: Underground everything is compressed. Air, rock, water, and men. In the Badger I worked between the 1300 ft and 3200 ft levels. The farther down, the greater the compression and the heat. The mine was a lattice work of drifts and shafts filled with cages, skips, track, trains, loaders, pumps, and cables. Veins of copper, zinc, magnesium, silver, and traces of gold ran up and down through hard and soft, punky granite. And men told stories. There were roaring trains, long silences, and gut shaking blasts. Once you’re underground for a while, it changes you. When you're above ground you begin to wonder what's under the surface. It becomes a way of thinking.

The mines were a little like the natural world. You learned what was expected of you and you lived in that expectation–like living in a cloister or a temple. I did think of miners as monks with head lamps.

       You have a wonderful story about the Junior League screening foreign films for the miners and their wives on Sunday afternoons. Tell us about it and how seeing those films affected you.

SW: The Junior League, which was made up of the wives of the men who ran Butte and most of Montana, decided it would be a good idea to bring a little culture to the town, as if we didn’t already have enough culture of our own. They put on a foreign film festival. I think it was a weekly event and it took place in one of Butte’s huge, defunct movie palaces. Many of us went, prodded along by our wives, dressed in our Sunday best–as culture was the new religion--and line up in the lobby for punch and tiny sandwiches and stared across the room at the wives of wealth men. The wealthy men were not in attendance. The League showed movies by Antonioni, Fellini, and Brunel. We liked Fellini, because he could tell a story.

One night, the films, the miners’ stories, and the underground all came together in a burst of images as I set off a large blast in the grizzlies on the 1300. I decided I was going to make movies.

       You never finished high school or college, and essentially educated yourself. How did you do that?

SW: I got in the habit of reading in the barn and the outhouse when my parents were fighting. That was the corner stone of my education. In Missoula, I discovered a magazine store called Rudy’s News. It was run by Art Evans. He had a nook in the back stocked with New Directions paperbacks by Becket, Burroughs, Bukowski, Pound, T.S. Elliot, William Carlos Williams, Baudelaire, Kenneth Patchen, EE Cummings, Rimbaud and so on. It was my reading room. Art introduced me to the hidden men in town: Al Partol, the anthropologist who spent his life with the Salish Indians, but never wrote up his notes–he was strictly oral; E. B. Pfeiffer, the biologist, whose discovery of plutonium from Nevada in Minnesota school children led to the first nuclear test ban treaty; the Englishman, Chas Bull, who questioned everything, including his own existence; Henry Ephron, who tried to teach me Latin, and who had deciphered the Phystos Disk, the Enkomni Tablets, and Linear B concurrently with Chadwick; and countless others who challenged and shouted down the bullies.

I ran around with a kid named Kurt Fiedler, whose dad, Leslie, taught literature at the local college. One evening Leslie brought out his collection of 78s and played Robert Johnson’s, Crossroads for me. I was mesmerized. The greatest literary critic of his day sat there and smiled at the storm he’d just unleashed in my brain. As educations go it wasn’t bad, but I didn’t do it myself.

       Your memoir is filled with stories of a variety of outsiders. Did you naturally gravitate to those people or did the West foster and protect them?

SW: I definitely gravitated, but the West provided a sanctuary for them. For one thing they could afford to live out here. The West was settled by people who were either aggressive and greedy or by people who didn’t want anything to do with other people. The in-betweeners were called farmers.

I befriended a man in Roundup, Montana named Lee Steen. He made human and animal figures out of tree limbs and stumps. He gave them what they were lacking: eyes, ears, an arm, a head, hats, noses, and lips, then he painted them up and gave them a story. He had thousands of these creatures. He insisted it wasn’t art. He called them his guys. He had over a hundred thousand dollars in fifty dollar bills stashed in a dresser drawer, and a desiccated monkey in a mason jar. His skin was dark and shiny with black pores. The last time I saw him he had boards on the bed to keep the dogs off and he slept in an overstuffed chair in front of a potbellied coal stove. He was burning his guys for fire wood. Lee was one of the kindest, sweetest men I ever met. And if you believe in art--he was probably Montana's greatest artist.

       Tony Hillerman said your memoir recalls a West that used to be. What has changed, and what do you think has been lost?

SW:  Money happened. The work horses are gone and  ranches are being absorbed by corporations who hire managers. When the priced is right, they divide the land into ranchettes or tract housing. Ranches that cost $5 to $10 an acre in the late forties, start at $10,000 an acre today. A lot in town that went for $500 is up to $100,000. Land on the edge of towns that once grew hay and oats and horses and cattle is covered in track housing and big box stores. 

And the pace of life changed. Like the rest of the country, we’ve run out of time. Too many people I know are strung out working two jobs and living pay check to pay check. They don't even have the security of being slaves. Certainly the exuberance is gone, along with the happy illusion that next year will be pretty much like last year.

The other great loss is in the look and feel of the place. Most blocks in Manhattan have more character and exhibit a better sense of their history than almost any western town. The West lives under the tyranny of  a corporate landscape that stifles hope and imagination. That sounds harsh and extreme, but a lot of people feel it's true.

The West exists only as an abstraction in the minds of many environmentalist, architects, and social planners. Were they to read about the creek and the mountains of my boyhood, they would say I experienced "a sense of place." What pathetic, life sucking garble.

 I lived in a place. I became Rarick Creek, explored the mountains on a horse named Joe, and shot off the Comstock on a pair of skis at half the speed of light and crashed into a five strand barbed wire fence.

Return to top

This web site was built by Steve S. Saroff  and Steven Chord.