Multicultural Guest Interview

An Interview with Caroline Patterson: Montana Women Writers of the Past, Present, and Future
Cristina Estrada-Underwood
Summer 2016



“I think that the hardest thing is that the publication of women writers is still behind male writers, but thankfully that is changing”




A native of Missoula, Montana, Caroline Patterson is the executive director of the Missoula Writing Collaborative. She has taught creative writing for many years at the University of Montana at through the Missoula Writing Collaborative. She also edited Montana Women Writers: A Geography of the Heart, which won a Willa Gold award in 2006, and has written two children’s books.  Her stories have been included in publications such as Alaska Quarterly Review, Epoch, Southwest Review, and Seventeen. Patterson has received numerous fellowships, including a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in fiction from Stanford University, the Henfield Foundation, and the San Francisco Foundation. Her book of stories, Ballet at the Moose Lodge, will be published in spring 2017 (Drumlummon Press). In regard to women writers in Montana, Patterson is definitely considered an authority on the topic.

During the 2015-2016 year when Havre hosted the Hometown Humanities grant, Patterson visited Havre three times—that speaks to the level of interest audiences had in listening to the information she has about the historical perspective of Montana women writers. The first time she came to town, I wasn’t able to see her to have this conversation. It was until her last visit, that she made time for me in the middle of her busy agenda one midweek evening after her presentation. In a noisy local restaurant in Havre, she kindly answered my questions. My first questions was…

…how your love for women’s writing research started? [Referring to Montana Women’s Writers: A Geography of the Heart]

I was originally a writer and a reader, and I think it grew alongside my love of history. I was originally an American Studies major, and as I developed into more of a writer, I knew I would write about Montana. I think you’re naturally curious about who wrote about this place before you. This project really grew out of that curiosity, and you find what you have written about--the loneliness, the beauty, the isolation--has been written about by generations of women before you.

What is the most interesting or impressive aspect you have encountered by reading and doing research about these Montana women? Is there anything in particular that sparks your attention?

What was impressive to me was how much women wrote and how little time they had to write. Many of these women were ranching and one woman was editing a scientific journal with her father. Some had families, but they were published writers—some much later—but some were published in their own time. Also, I was impressed and humbled by how much women sacrificed to write. Some women did not have families and chose not to have families because they knew if they did, they probably couldn’t continue to write. Altogether, the sacrifices and the amazing amount of work these women accomplished, despite difficulties they had to overcome, were some of the aspects that captured my attention.

What do you think would be the legacy these pioneer women left behind?

One of the legacies is the way they talk about the land and their relationship to the land. Women’s strength is also an enormous legacy and is a great lesson for all of us women. When I complain about how hard it is for me to get my own work done in a world that is mechanized, where I don't have to pump water, or do laundry by hand, or milk cows for milk or churn for butter, my life is so much easier. I feel as if I have nothing to complain about. Today we have so many more freedoms than our mothers and great grandmothers. Having said that, I think these women were strong, expressive, and nurturing, and I hate to say uncomplaining, but they were tough about what they took on. For instance, when they observed something in a very fierce and angry way such as the writer, Mary MacLane, whose writing was poignant, tough, and unstinting, she knew she was sacrificing her place in society. I admired that--she said what she thought in an unblinking way. It is a great legacy, bu it cost her.


                            picture caroline patterson

                                                          Caroline Patterson

                                            (Photo Courtesy of Phoebe Haefele)


When talking about more modern times, what is your opinion about the female fiction writing scene in Montana? Specifically talking about more modern writers.

I think there are more and more fantastic women writers coming out of Montana, and I could name poets, women memoir writers, women fiction writers, and I think that the hardest thing is that the publication of female writers is still behind male writers. Thankfully, I hope that is changing. And also, I think the story of Montana is changing and the publishing hasn’t caught up with that yet. The next ten, twenty, and thirty years are going to change what we see coming out of Montana. People are tired of the same old stories that we have heard about Montana although some of those stories will always be told. There are many good women writers here now, telling new and different stories about the state, and they will be heard.

Would you have the same opinion if we talk about women writers nationally and internationally?

Absolutely. I think publication is the issue and there are organizations that record in magazines how many women get published versus how many men get published, and it really makes a difference seeing the data visually (these publications often present pie charts). It was pathetic in the 90s, and you would think things would have changed, but they haven’t much yet. Since these magazines have been publishing these pie charts and the Atlantic and the New Yorker have made some changes, some other magazines have made quite a bit of difference. Internationally there are some fabulous writers, Elena Ferrante, is an Italian writer and she will blow the socks off anyone; she is amazing, and she is ferocious. She is stirring up the publishing world. There are many really good things happening right now, which is also very exciting.

In your case you are not only a writer but also a teacher, how in your opinion do these two activities complement one other? or do they complement?

I think they do compliment one another. Students are on the frontline of the society, and as you age, you are farther away from what is new--and students refresh you. You get excited about teaching and writing, and you get excited about things that you are teaching and the hardest part is the time that teaching takes. Students excite you to try new things, to bring new ideas into the classroom, to read new books, and to try things you haven’t heard about; that is one of the gifts of being around students—it keeps you young. That is a great gift of teaching.

Of all the works you have produced, which would you say is your favorite? And why?

Of all the works I have produced, I think there are two stories I like, and oddly one is my third story, and it was a story that started out as Resurrection Bays, and it is set in Alaska. It started out as a disaster. I wrote it in first person and went on, and on, and on…. it was really terrible! My husband is also a writer, and I read it to him, and he told me it was too long and to shorten it. I knew he was right, so I read a story Under the Wheat by Rick Demarinas, and it was about working in a missile silo like way underground, and it’s a beautiful story. I realized I needed to put my story in short little paragraphs and change the point of view, and it just worked. It’s like the first time that I had written a story I felt took off, as if it was beyond out of my hands, and it clicked in a way that was really exciting. Another story that was fun for me was called Scrabble and it was based on a great aunt who had taught in one-room schools. I fictionalized the story after that about two women who had a lifelong rivalry, but I loved starting in nonfiction and moving into fiction, which became part of my process long after that initial story.

As a writer, what are some of the topics you would like to explore, but you haven’t just yet?

Well, I’ve always wanted to do a piece about homesteading because it’s so fascinating, precisely we were talking about it tonight [during her lecture Montana Women Writers]. It’s just something that interests me enormously. Also I wanted to do something about fashion, in a way to get out of Montana. Those are a couple of projects that interest me. 

If you were going to work on your fashion project how would you frame that?

I would like to do it as a story, or a novel. One of the really fun things about writing fiction that I tend to do more and more is starting with things that were typically non-fiction but that later I move into fiction. I can do anything I want because that’s the fun thing with fiction: the writer can do whatever he/she wants! If you want to be a pilot, you can be a pilot. As long as you can make it believable and do your research, you can go where you get interested, and that’s really the fun part about writing fiction—you can go where your mind or your heart takes you.

On the same note of exploring topics, in the literary world, do you have any opinion of general topics that might be immerging in women’s fiction or topics that aren’t immerging but should be developed?

I think women writers should dedicate more space to women’s history. I don't think these topics have been explored with enough complexity.  I’m also interested in fiction when it comes to issues of class and race, whether it rears its ugly head in a ballet class, in a small-town classroom, or in small-town tennis match. I'm interested in how these issues play out on a personal, psychological level.

For sure, race is a topic that never seems to go away despite times…. Last but not least, do you have any message you would like to leave for the MSUN students? Anything in particular?

MSUN is a beautiful campus, and they are in such a special part of the world, and I hope they treasure being here and treasure this part of the state because I think it’s so unusually beautiful. I think that people don’t always treasure their environments like they should. I hope they really appreciate the place and also the people, and writers, and the historians, and everything that comes from here including the Native Americans and the stories they cherish.

Perfect timing! When I got the answer to my last question, the server had arrived with our soup, sandwiches, and salads…the perfect nick of time to start our feast after a long work day and a pleasant conversation….