Miles traveled: A writer’s journey began in the mountains of western Montana

Kevin Giles 1978 001

This was during the time I wrote “Flight of the Dove.” I was at work (or appearing so) in the Independent Record newsroom in Helena, Montana.

By Kevin S. Giles

Ideas for writing fiction tumbled around in my head for most of the bouncing long road through adulthood. I also deal in fact. I still can’t say with certainty which is harder to write.

I wrote Flight of the Dove: the Story of Jeannette Rankin on a typewriter when my second daughter, Harmony, was a baby. Looking back, writing nonfiction in the pre-Internet days seems somewhat of a miracle. I spent hours in the library at card files, and writing letters to distant places, and trying to revise my story by retyping pages time and again. The new edition of the Rankin book, which I hope to launch in 2016, benefits from technology that puts information at our fingertips.

My grandson was an my early consultant on Jerry's Riot. Occasionally he found my writing perplexing.

My grandson was an my early consultant on Jerry’s Riot. Occasionally he found my writing perplexing.

My adventure with Jerry’s Riot lasted 10 years from when I decided to write it to when I published it. Along the way I spent time off from my newspaper job to make phone calls, track down sources, pore over documents and write draft after draft of what will forever stand as the only comprehensive story of the iconic 1959 Montana prison riot. I interviewed at least 100 people who remembered the riot firsthand, or knew somebody who did. Many of those folks have since died, but the book keeps them alive. I wrote a good portion of that true account cradling my then-infant grandson in one hand, clicking the keyboard with the other. In the end I mustered a book of 465 pages about one of Montana’s most tragic events. That little boy, Kazin, now stands 6’3”. Kazin grew up with the book.

Summer of the Black Chevy took a decade or so as well. Writing, I find, is much like ambling through a crowd. If the objective is reaching the other side, the writing comes faster. If it’s watching people, there’s a lot of wandering going on, and in writing that’s not always a bad thing.

I’ve written most of my life. Some of it’s good. I’m a journalist, both a blessing and a curse for a fiction writer, but life is short. I like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Steinbeck, and my favorite Montana novelist, Ivan Doig. I also have read most everything Stephen King has written and find him less the reputed “horror writer” than a reliable (and entertaining) explainer of the human condition.

Newspaper journalism pays the bills at home. I’ve written thousands of stories and editorials and probably tens of thousands of headlines. Journalism is an astounding profession. The light it shines on government may well be democracy’s salvation. Social media enables Facebook’s “message billboards” and Twitter’s chitter-chatter to reduce intelligent political discourse to noisy confrontations where nobody listens. Much of what’s traded on social media is intentionally false or misleading. My advice: Read credible sources.

My newest creation, Summer of the Black Chevy, represents an intersection of childhood influences with what I’ve come to know about people through my long journalism career. Growing up is hard. It’s what we remember most. Some writing “experts” advise us not to write “coming of age” novels. It’s been done to death, they say.

My answer to that? I don’t care. Writers write. I’m perfectly at peace with writing “coming of age” because it’s so much a part of all of us. I live in Minnesota now but I’m a Montana writer and a Montana author, a native who can’t let go. I chose my hometown of Deer Lodge, Montana, as a setting for Summer of the Black Chevy because I’m proud of that town and the people who have lived there. It’s our town, and in a way my story is their story, and we celebrate and grieve together and that’s that.

Deer Lodge, this is for you.