A Kind of Unifying Western Spirit: An Interview with Chad Dundas

By   ∙  

I MET CHAD DUNDAS when we both worked for the Missoulian newspaper in Montana — Chad as a sportswriter in his hometown, me as a relative newbie to Montana, trying to wrap my head around the bigness of everything.

Everything included Montana’s legendary literary tradition — James Lee Burke, Norman Maclean, Maile Meloy, James Welch, and on and on. I was convinced that by moving there, I’d become a writer by osmosis. Chad took a more practical course, leaving the newspaper for an MFA. 

He came back to journalism, as did I after a hiatus to focus on fiction (so many of us come back to our gateway drug), this time covering sports for national outlets. We’d run into each other around Missoula; pose the standard question: “What are you working on?” We didn’t mean journalism, but the real work. “A novel. You?” “A novel.”

Chad’s debut novel, Champion of the World, about the world of 1920s professional wrestling, belied those low-key conversations. It was a big, bruising delight, much like the MMA fighters he writes about in the day job. Until I read his second, The Blaze — and talked with him for this interview — I had no idea about his longtime love of crime fiction. It shines through in his new novel.

¤


GWEN FLORIO: The Blaze, a literary suspense novel, is at first glance, a departure from your debut novel, Champion of the World, a sprawling look at the world of wrestling in the 1920s. Why the switch? And, I must admit, I’m also curious as to your publisher’s feelings about the change.

CHAD DUNDAS: Nobody was more surprised than I was that my first book was historical fiction. I grew up loving mysteries and thrillers and landed with my first agent after publishing a short story in a hardboiled crime fiction journal called Thuglit. So, Champion of the World was sort of a special case. It was a unique obsession of mine. I just couldn’t get the story out of my head until finally I had to write the damn thing so I could stop thinking about it. Plus, a part of me always considered Champion of the World a crime novel. Every character in that book has a little bit of larceny in them. So, to me, there’s a direct through-line from Champion of the World to The Blaze, even if it’s not apparent on the surface.

But I always knew that once Champion of the World was done, my next project would be a more conventional contemporary mystery or thriller. That’s the kind of work I want to do moving forward. As for the people at G. P. Putnam’s Sons, they’ve been great and endlessly supportive. They actually bought both books at the same time, so they were in on the plan from the beginning and I think they agreed that moving toward contemporary literary suspense was the best move for me.

What was it like writing such a different kind of book — in terms of length, time period, and genre?

Each book certainly had its own challenges. With Champion of the World, there were four point-of-view characters all juggling a story, setting, and way of life I never personally experienced. So, a big part of the task was making the historical setting feel accurate and organic to the world of the book. I ended up writing a lot of that novel in the basement of the university library here in Missoula, so that every time some period detail appeared that I had to check — which was a lot — I could stand up and go find the answer. Things like, would a traveling carnival in the early 1920s have portable electric lights? Which venues were booking wrestling shows in Kansas City during the summer of 1915? What kind of meal would a person plausibly order on a train between Montana and Chicago?

Yet there was a certain freedom in writing Champion of the World, too. That book was completed from the relatively secure place of complete anonymity and the comfort of knowing, if it failed, no one would ever know about it besides me and a few of my close friends and early readers. Meanwhile, The Blaze is set more or less today, in my hometown, in a lightly fictionalized version of the neighborhood where I live with my wife and kids. The characters are a lot more like me and the people I’ve known all my life in Montana. So, even though there were things I had to research, it was nothing like Champion of the World. Much of the characterization and world-building was more intuitive.

Weirdly, The Blaze was probably the more difficult novel to write, though. It’s a mystery at heart so I felt like the plotting had to be a lot tighter. This was also my first time grappling with a lot of the very basic questions that I’m sure all mystery writers face: how to handle tension and how to ratchet everything up slowly over time, which pieces of the puzzle to reveal, when and how to reveal them. Just in terms of mechanics of story and craft, it was a very different writing experience.

Plus, a big part of it was, this was the second novel. With The Blaze, I had a book contract and a deadline and — in my mind, at least — people at the publishing company were waiting to see it. So, that created a lot more internal pressure. All that stuff was hanging around in the back of my mind, so the very act of sitting down at the computer to write felt more loaded, more difficult.

I’m no fan of “Write what you know,” but your protagonist is an Iraq War vet whose convoy was hit by an IED — a scene that opens the book — and who struggles as a result with a traumatic brain injury. How’d you get into Matthew Rose’s head? And have you gotten any reaction from veterans?

Even though Matthew and his counterpart in the novel, Georgie Porter, are more like characters out of my own life than any characters I’ve ever written before, there were still things about them that were foreign to me. I never served in the military, so I had to reach out to a few close friends who did and who served overseas and had experiences like Matthew’s. I was very lucky to have people in my life who were generous with their time and patient with my own ignorance. I still probably screwed some things up, but any mistakes I made are on me and very much in spite of their best efforts. It’s funny, though, getting manuscript notes from former soldiers and former intelligence operatives is different than getting them from a bunch of creative writing MFAs. The military guys wrote comments on my drafts like: “Pretty sure you’d get your ass kicked in the army if you talked like this.” Now that the book is done, I’ve gotten just a little feedback from veterans who also happen to be booksellers, and it’s been positive. I’m sure I’ll hear a lot more after the book comes out and people have read it.

The most challenging aspect of writing Matthew Rose was the TBI he experienced as a soldier and the memory loss he’s suffering as a result. From a character development perspective, there’s a limit to what you can do with a protagonist who doesn’t remember much about himself or his life. So, I had to figure out how to write Matthew as I went along. One of the unfortunate offshoots of my job covering professional fighters and combat sports is that I’ve gleaned some very rudimental, beginner’s knowledge about brain injuries, but I am by no means an expert. I did as much reading on the topic as I could, but one of the challenging aspects of TBI is that it can cause such diverse symptoms. In the end, I tried to be as accurate as I could, but some details of Matthew’s injury are fictionalized. The most important thing to me was making his experience fit into the world of the story. I think most readers will be able to enjoy the book without noticing anything that is too jarringly out of place.

Matthew’s TBI lets you play around with notions of truth. With his memory in tatters, Matthew has to rely on what people tell him about events of his past. How did you keep control of all those threads? I envision scary charts with lots of arrows and a spaghetti tangle of lines.

Were there a few months there where my office looked like Matthew McConaughey’s storage locker from True Detective? A huge bulletin board covered with old newspaper clippings and photographs and pieces of string going everywhere? Maybe, yeah. But one of the things that attracted me to Matthew as a character was his vulnerability. The last thing I wanted was some lone tough guy out there solving mysteries. If anything, I wanted the opposite of that — and because Matthew has such big gaps in his memory and the reader is experiencing much of the book through his eyes, you’re naturally able to transfer that vulnerability, that unease and tension, to the reader. As you go through the book you’re never quite sure who you can trust, and I hope that’s one of the joys of reading it.

When I started writing the book, unreliable narrators were all the rage in popular fiction and I think I was playing off that a little bit. But without going too deep into spoilers, even though there’s a lot he has to remember about himself over the course of the book, Matthew actually turns out to be more reliable than unreliable. You just can’t say the same thing about some other characters in the book. Again, though, without pulling back the curtain too much, I tried to keep those plot lines straight in my mind by knowing there were threads and aspects of the story that Matthew was responsible for as the narrator and there were threads and aspects that Georgie was responsible for as the narrator. The trick, I guess, is hiding all the seams and puppet strings from the reader.

You’ve set The Blaze in our mutual hometown of Missoula, Montana, and Champion of the World largely in and around Butte, a couple of hours away. In each, the physical surroundings — and weather — are front and center. What is it about our part of the world that’s so compelling? 

I’m admittedly biased, but I’ve always felt Montana was a great place to set the kind of books you and I both write, because it’s beautiful and pristine and majestic but it can kill you in a heartbeat. It’s a massive state where the people can be very welcoming, but where you can also feel completely isolated. There are big parts of the state where, in 2020, you still can’t get cell service and, even if you could, you’re probably 20, 30 minutes from getting any help from emergency responders. If you get yourself in a jam, sometimes you have to get yourself out. So, it’s perfect for mystery and thriller writers.

I actually think a lot about the opening scene from your first book, Montana, where a woman is huddled on this mountainside with her dog — in Montana there always has to be a dog — watching an intruder ransack her remote cabin, knowing nobody is coming to help her. That section is such a great example of how to use this state’s sheer physicality to build tension and foreboding. Plus, I grew up reading Montana mystery writers like James Lee Burke and James Crumley. Sometimes with those guys, it felt like the plot was just what happened in between the sprawling, poetic descriptions of the hills and the plain. I can’t write like those guys, but I always try to bring a little bit of the same atmospheric vibe.

Continuing in that vein, for all Missoula takes much of its identity from its surrounding wild places, The Blaze is essentially an urban novel. I have a sense that people still associate so much of the literature of the West with either mountains and trout streams or those iconic wide-open spaces, yet most of us here now live in its cities. How do you walk the line between maintaining a sense of place and going all sepia-toned?

Living here, you can’t help but be impacted by the natural world in some way but, to be honest, I’ve always felt a disconnect with all that A. B. Guthrie, Norman Maclean–type stuff. I have friends and family who hunt and fly-fish and snowboard and everything, but that was never really my experience. Especially with The Blaze, I wanted to write a book set solidly in the new West, the West I grew up in and see around me every day. It’s a beautiful, amazing place full of wonderful people, but right now it’s reckoning with the fallout of spending the last century letting out-of-state interests exploit its natural resources. Today, all the titans of industry have moved on and the rich and famous just want to own vacation homes here. Meanwhile, the actual residents can’t earn a living wage, so you have people like the character of Georgie Porter, who is ostensibly a young, professional person but lives in a tumbledown rental house and spends too much time hanging around in bars.

I don’t want to put too bleak a point on it — I love this place and I try to show the joy of it, as well — but if there’s ever a cowboy in one of my books, he’s probably puffing on a vape pen and hunting around his motel room for Oxycontin.

That said, to me both of your novels to me have a quintessentially Western feel that goes beyond geography. I’m trying to put my finger on it — maybe you can help me out.

It’s all I know, I suppose. I think there’s a kind of unifying Western spirit that probably seeps into my work — a stubbornness, and certainly an independent streak, both for better and worse. Again, though, I feel like if I’m going to write about the West in 2020, there’s a duty to try to correct the record and avoid the stereotypes and myopia that helped manufacture that false, sepia-toned mythology you mentioned earlier. Historically, the experiences of people of color, women, indigenous people, immigrants, and workers were minimized or excluded, so we were left with this dishonest and ultimately toxic image of the affluent, white, rugged individualist that dominated a lot of the early portraits of the region. So, if that Western spirit does get in there, I want it to be an updated version, more inclusive, more accurate, and ultimately, I think — I hope — even a little optimistic.

For a short while, both of us worked together at the Missoulian newspaper, and both of us still have day jobs as journalists. So of course I was delighted with the character of Georgie Porter, the reporter who digs into the book’s titular fire. Other than supplying you with a memorable character, does your grounding in journalism affect your fiction and, if so, how?

I certainly learned as much about writing from doing journalism as I did in any creative writing workshop. I was lucky enough to have great teachers in both disciplines, and so many of the concepts I picked up as a journalist inform my fiction now — from the emphasis on clarity to the narrative speed I try to keep up. If you work as a journalist you also get used to being edited, to taking advice and listening to input on how to make your work better. It conditions you to working with deadlines and, ultimately, to just getting the work done and out there in the world.

As a sportswriter, you end up doing a lot of work late at night, under pretty tight deadlines. Oftentimes, you’re just not going to have the luxury of laboring over a single turn of phrase or a clever sentence. You have a certain amount of time to finish and then you just have to ship the story off to your editor, whether you’re happy with it or not. There’s pressure involved, for sure, but it can also be liberating. It beats spending a year working and reworking the first 50 pages of a novel before giving up and tossing it in a drawer.

I want to circle back to my first question about genre. The Blaze is the more tightly plotted book, but in looking back through Champion of the World, both your terse prose and the events in that novel also could lend themselves to the term “literary suspense.” I’m curious about your thoughts on such classifications.

Aside from the sheer mechanics of plotting a mystery that I talked about earlier, I try not to think about it too much. Honestly, when they told me The Blaze would be classified as “literary suspense,” I had to google that to make sure I knew what it meant. To me, the notion of “genre” is mostly useful as a marketing tool. It helps consumers know where to find your book in the bookstore. As a writer, I guess you have to be a little bit cognizant of genre, just because if your publisher thinks you’re submitting a thriller and instead you hand over a leisurely meditation on the modern malaise, they’re probably not going to like it. But for the most part, I’m not sure it’s all that helpful for an artist to fret about how their work is going to be classified.

What’s next? And what have you learned from writing these first two that will apply to future projects? 

I’m working on another contemporary, Montana-based novel with a mystery at the heart of it. After writing the first two books, I’ve settled into a process that works, though most of the time I still feel like I’m finding my way through the dark. I’m not sure that feeling ever goes away. At least now I know that I can do it. I know that just getting a first draft down on paper is more or less half the battle. I know that finishing a manuscript is as much about momentum and just showing up every day to do the work as anything else. We’ll see how that knowledge carries me through.

I’m also working on serialized history and true crime podcast called Death in the West with my brother, who is a nonfiction writer and former magazine editor, and a team of talented journalists and historians in Montana. Our first season focuses on the murder of a union organizer in Butte during the summer of 1917. There’s a trailer out for it right now on our website, and we hope to start releasing full episodes some time in 2020.

¤


Gwen Florio is the author of Silent Hearts and the Lola Wicks series.