William Kittredge

William Kittredge is a Westerner through and through. He grew up in Oregon but has spent most of his life in Montana, where he taught fiction writing for almost 30 years at the University of Montana.

And though he has written a lot of short stories, Kittredge has never completed a novel.

From his Missoula home, Kittredge talked by phone about his various unsuccessful attempts — beginning 50 years ago — to write a novel "under the influence of Faulkner."

He said that though he tried, he just couldn't pull it off.

"I was too didactic," Kittredge said. "I had a grand scheme in mind, and I turned my characters into puppets. My sentences were bare. So I started this one, 'The Willow Field,' when I was 70. I'm 74 now. It took me four years to complete it.

"But this time I let the characters determine the story, and I had a wonderful time doing it. The characters had some parts of me in them, and after a while they became real enough that I could dream about them."

Yet Kittredge doesn't have a clear idea of how his book got started, meaning that no "grand scheme" existed. Which was a good sign, he said. He finally relaxed and let the novelist's gift rush over him. "What did I start with? Not much.

"I had the story of the horse drive to Calgary — but after that I had to sit down and ask, 'What will Rossie (the book's protagonist) do now?' Pretty soon it started to come. I wanted to show how enormously the West has changed. Montana was still in the 19th century until 1946 — after the war. Then the life of a Montanan became less controlled by his relationship to horses."

What Kittredge produced is an epic, one that follows Rossie and Eliza, the girl he falls in love with, from youth to old age. Rossie and Eliza progress from a light, airy Cary Grant/Rosalind Russell relationship, governed chiefly by their smart dialogue, and become people of stature and wisdom.

To some degree, Kittredge's characters are patterned after his own relationship with his wife, including their repartee. "My wife is a smart woman. She has written books and produced films. I know that kind of relationship. I also liked the films of the '30s and '40s. I didn't cook up Eliza becoming a learned woman. It just happened. I was following her through those changes into a more substantial, matriarchal woman."

But Kittredge was not exactly a Rossie, either.

Rossie is a man almost totally without education. However, he craves knowledge, so he is gradually educated over the years by his wife and by his life's experiences. Eliza slyly leaves books around, such as "The Great Plains," by Walter Prescott Webb (a difficult read), hoping Rossie will take to it. And it works.

Kittredge is a man with a doctoral degree, a prolific reader and a thinker. His other side is a man of the land, a man who understands place in a way similar to his characters.

Rossie, a man who knows horses, becomes friends with a professor, Otto, who is modeled after several English professors Kittredge has known, and even sits in on many of Otto's classes. Rossie is also greatly influenced by his father-in-law, Bernard, a wealthy man of the land, a man who dislikes him at first, then accepts reality and tries to improve him. When Bernard passes away, Otto takes over Rossie's education.

As Kittredge suggested, "Bernard explains the Scottish renaissance to Rossie, and he feels good that he understands. That happens to all of us — at least it did to me."

To tell his story about rough characters, Kittredge peppered the dialogue with rough words, including the F-word — but it fits his context. Kittredge is honestly portraying the kind of society with which he grew up, so it feels natural, and the language becomes less offensive as the characters mature.

"I wanted the book to turn from a cowboy story to a family story," said Kittredge. "People get sons-in-law all the time they're not crazy about, but they learn they better get crazy about them. I knew a guy once whose daughter married a horsebreaker, and he was upset. Finally, the daughter gave him an ultimatum — he either kept his daughter and got a son —or he lost both. He relented."

That's the kind of story told so eloquently by Kittredge, reflecting the writings of Wallace Stegner, Bernard DeVoto, Arlie Guthrie and others. In Kittredge's words, "Gabriel Garcia-Marquez tells of driving around with Faulkner in the back seat. I did that, too."

E-MAIL: dennis@desnews.com