Remembering a night in Missoula, Montana, with novelist A.B. Guthrie

A. B. "Bud" Guthrie won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1950 for his novel "The Way West." He died in Montana in 1991. Photo from Great Falls Tribune.

A. B. “Bud” Guthrie won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1950 for his novel “The Way West.” He died in Montana in 1991. Photo from Great Falls Tribune.

By Kevin S. Giles

Somewhere into that alcohol-fueled book signing that evening, Pulitzer Prize winner A.B. Guthrie warned us to “get the hell out of newspapering” if we had any hope of becoming serious fiction writers.

The famous novelist, a slender man who I remember favored unfiltered cigarettes and straight whiskey that night, sat between two authors of far less repute at a table stacked with books. I was to his left admiring my new book, “Flight of the Dove: The Story of Jeannette Rankin.” To his right was Steve Smith with his fine new book about Smokejumper pilots, “Fly the Biggest Piece Back.”

I knew Bud Guthrie by reputation, of course. His string of novels included the trilogy of “The Big Sky” (1947), “The Way West” (1949) and “These Thousand Hills” (1956). I also knew he had written the screenplay for “Shane,” the famous movie Western.

“Newspaper writing will ruin you,” Bud told us. “You’ll never write a lick of decent fiction if all you’ve got on your minds is constructing every story with a pyramid lead.”

Take me to Kevin's books: One Woman Against War, Summer of the Black Chevy, Jerry's Riot


That’s newspaper talk for “put the news first” and follow with details of lesser importance. Bud knew the pyramid lead as well as anybody. He was managing editor of the Lexington Leader in Kentucky before a Nieman Fellowship put him at Harvard University for a year’s research that led to “The Big Sky” and his subsequent enviable writer’s life.

It was 1980 on a cold winter evening in downtown Missoula, Montana, when we took our chairs to sign books on the second floor of the Mercantile department store. People began to line up. I can’t recall why people who worked in the store gave us hard liquor, and I’ve read since that Bud gave up the hard stuff sometime in that era, but he sat there with ice cubes clinking in a glass of whiskey.

I felt no small measure of anticipation as the line grew longer, stocked with Christmas shoppers with money in their pockets and gifts on their minds. I straightened my stack of books, their shiny red and blue covers gleaming under the store’s bright lights, and waited for a sale.

Soon it became apparent that most of the people aimed straight for Bud Guthrie. Many of them hugged brown paper grocery bags full, well, of books. Old books, dog-eared books, books permanently borrowed from public libraries and books whisked off shelves at home. Books that Guthrie wrote.

And so the great writer signed and signed, showing the novices next to him how it’s done. I swear he wore a smirk half the night.

Yes, I sold some books. So did Steve. It occurred to me that our sales rode on Bud’s coattails, and if he hadn’t been the celebrity in attendance that night, I might have received my first hard lesson in why in-store book signings aren’t all that lucrative for mere mortals.

I never had another conversation with Bud, which I’ve long regretted, and I made a career out of reporting, editing and photography at newspapers. Now I’ve written a novel, Summer of the Black Chevy, that I hope Bud would like. Yes, as Bud said, mingling newspaper writing with book fiction is about as useless as mating a horny polar bear with a mare in heat. Or something like that.

And Bud’s last words that night in Missoula?

“C’mon up to the ranch and see me sometime. Maybe I can get you two on the right track.”

(Kevin S. Giles has worked for six newspapers. He’s also read most of Bud Guthrie’s books.)


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