The Rumpus Book Club chats with Poe Ballantine about Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere, his nonfiction book about the unsolved murder of his neighbor that is as much a memoir about his family and their small town as it is a true-crime story.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Lauren O’Neal.
Brian S: Rebecca, would you like to take the first question?
Rebecca: Yes! Let me type it!
Ann H: I am also excited about the book as I grew up in Sturgis and have been to Chadron.
Brian S: Hi Ann!
Poe Ballantine: Hello Ann. Did you ever get sick of the bike rallies?
Ann H: We used to call it Lock Up Your Daughters Week, and it was never tiring.
Poe Ballantine: It’s one of the best times of the year in Chadron because the merchants do well and the bikers are generally more congenial than the average tourist. All right, now to the book.
Rebecca: So while I was reading this, I started to notice a lot of these threads or “braids,” as we’d call them in creative nonfiction class, of the memoir, which reminded me of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Did you always plan these braids (e.g. class struggles, the American dream, the immigrant life, true crime, itinerancy, etc.), or did they emerge as you were writing them?
Ann: Hi from Missoula. Traveling, and I have service here.
Poe Ballantine: One of the great party towns in America, Missoula.
Brian S: Hi Ann! My daughter lived there for about a year and a half. Wish I’d gotten there to visit.
Rebecca: Didn’t Chuck Palahniuk write an essay about seeing a live sex show in Missoula?
Poe Ballantine: I have not read that essay by Chuck.
Rebecca: I want to say Chuck’s essay about a sex show is the first one in Stranger Than Fiction.
Ann: I missed the live sex shows apparently.
Poe Ballantine: But on to the question about braids, or arcs with complex transitions or whatever you want to call them. These all definitely “emerged.” The form of the book took forever to develop.
Brian S: I remember that at one point you say you worked on this for five years. About when did you know you’d gotten a hold on it?
Rebecca: You said you spent five or six years writing this, right? Could you talk about where you started writing it and how it evolved?
Poe Ballantine: Six years, Brian, and not sure if I ever got it right, but at some point when everyone else is telling you it’s there, you have to give it up.
I started writing this book when my neighbor disappeared. It was just notes, then when his body was found, I couldn’t resist the larger mystery, and then it just got bigger and bigger and began to pull me in by the arms and legs.
Ann: My brother’s third wife spoke mostly only Spanish. They struggled, but she’s now a citizen. The narrative between the couple gave me pause as to their difficulties.
Poe Ballantine: A bilingual marriage, by the way, is a great way to stay together for longer than you normally would because you can’t understand each other very well.
Ann: Ha. I’ll mention that to my brother.
Frances: You got it right. Very appealing and readable.
Rebecca: I’m glad you published it where you did. It’s one of my favorites from the Rumpus Book Club in the past year.
Brian S: Where did you get the idea to use the police reports as markers? I frigging loved those things.
Rebecca: Oh yes! The police reports gave so much local color!
Frances: Someone wrote a book using our local police reports. They are usually amusing.
Ann: The police reports were genius.
Poe Ballantine: The story of Steven Haataja was not enough, even with a resolution, which I don’t have yet, so it required many other elements, including those Police Beats and my son’s struggles, etc.
Brian S: By the way, if you miss a question, don’t worry about it. We get rowdy. And if we really want to know something, we’ll ask again.
Poe Ballantine: I’m just fortunate I’m a fast typer.
Ann H: How has the town responded to your book?
Poe Ballantine: The town mostly likes my book. It’s selling briskly, but there are obviously those who intend to sue me, punch me in the nose, make up stories about me, and give me one-star reviews on Amazon.
Brian S: I may have to break my rule about going to Amazon and respond with a quality review.
Ann H: That sounds about right for a small town. Some might even be offended they were not interesting enough to be included.
Rebecca: What I liked so much about reading about your son’s struggles was your doubt that it was autism and the way you won me over towards the end.
Frances: I loved your interactions with your son. I always enjoy his kind of thinking. The air smells difficult and such.
Ann: Yes, Rebecca. On the son.
Poe Ballantine: Much serendipity in this, and also a backlog of wanting to write about this town with all its goofy citizens, the police beat, the fantastic sunsets, and so forth.
Jack W.: Poe, the family seemed difficult to work with from everything I have read from your camp as well as them posting their thoughts. Although they should be able to grieve however they’d like, it seemed disingenuous the way they discounted your hard work and your fair assessment of their tragedy. Was this something you anticipated, and can you talk a little bit about that difficulty?
Rebecca: Oh yes. I quoted a small part of the book on Tumblr and noticed under the tags that one of Steven Haataja’s relatives had written about the book on Tumblr, and she was upset by it. But she hadn’t read it, that I know of. I felt like you were very sensitive and sympathetic to the case and not at all exploitative.
Poe Ballantine: I’ve since been enlightened about the family by a person close to them who cannot be revealed at this time, but this person told me they war with everyone. The mother is rather domineering and vicious, and I suspect she feels some responsibility in the death of her son.The most vehemently opposed sister has since read my book, and though she still grumbles, she gave me a four-star review on Amazon, and I think she understands that I did not do this primarily for money.
Rebecca: That’s really great.
Poe Ballantine: Amazon is evil, like anything big, but we can’t help if it flows the very center of literature.
Brian S: I think that non-writers’ second-biggest misconception about writing is that writers who publish books make shit-tons of money off of them.
Rebecca: Haha! Yes, exactly, Brian!
Frances: It comes through in the book that you live life for the joy of living and not for money or fame. The accepting way you interact with your son is wonderful.
Poe Ballantine: I’m glad this comes through, Frances, and yes, I’ve had a day job until the last six months.
Rebecca: I think the true-crime aspect gave this book a really unique lens to view your town through, but I was surprised that other than the prologue, the post-crime stuff didn’t come until about halfway through the book. I was given a lot of time to understand the culture before I had to decide what happened to Steven in my reading.
Poe Ballantine: In Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, we don’t learn there is a murder until around page thirty-eight. That worked for me, and I thought if I could hold the reader’s interest even longer, the book might be better, fuller, more human.
Rhonda [Hughes, of Hawthorne Books] and I went back and forth over starting with action or slow-cooking it and having it read the way someone in town would’ve seen it. We compromised in a way with the prologue.
Brian S: I think the reason you can, if I may, get away with delaying the true-crime stuff is because the voice is so engaging. It was a page-turner of a book, and even though I knew true-crime stuff was going to be in there eventually, I was so wrapped up in Cristina and Tom and “elvegators” and the rest of the town, I wasn’t worried about the rest. It would come when it was time. I trusted.
Rebecca: Same here, Brian.
Frances: Were you the one who chose the format, or does the publisher do that? I love the format with every chapter staring on the recto, even if preceded by a blank page.
Rebecca: So I’m in Kentucky, and I’m the daughter of a former police detective, and I found myself trying to solve the case with you (which is what I saw you mention on the Hawthorne Books page, I think—that you hoped someone knew something). I kept trying to make a list of the motives for murder that my father had told me, and I want to say there are five primary ones. Did you ever hear that?
Poe Ballantine: Short chaps evolved naturally, but I didn’t title and number them till much later. I like short chaps, like short books too, as a rule.
I like Hawthorne particularly because they are readers first, publishers second.
Rebecca: Short chapters, especially in memoir, grab me.
Frances: It is so readable. Comfortable. Interesting.
Poe Ballantine: First time someone has used the word “comfortable.”
Rebecca: I do wonder about Hawthorne’s decision not to justify the pages. Do you know why that is?
Poe Ballantine: I don’t know what you mean by justify, Rebecca.
Frances: I wondered about the justifying, too. Very noticeable.
Poe Ballantine: Is that a printing term? I’m not aware of it.
Kirsten: Hello everyone! Jumping in late I’m afraid. Justifying as in right- or left-justified on the page?
Brian S: A straight right margin instead of a ragged edge. Hi Kirsten!
Frances: It’s when the right edge of the print is lined up the way the left edge is.
Rebecca: You guys explained it way better than me.
Poe Ballantine: Oh, I see. That’s all Adam McIsaac, who designs the book, selects the font, and all of that stuff. It always seems very readable to me the way he lays it out, but I hadn’t thought of the justification.
Brian S: I know you’ve done a little traveling with the book because I saw a pic of you with Isaac Fitzgerald, our former managing editor. Are you planning some more? (Are you coming to Iowa, I mean.)
Poe Ballantine: I’m planning on Iowa City that second week of October.
Kirsten: I’ll follow that with: Are you coming to Austin, TX?
Poe Ballantine: University of North Texas in Denton, or Little Austin, as they call it. That’s November.
Brian S: Or better yet, is there a website or something with your tour dates, so we can link to it? Assuming you have tour dates.
Rebecca: I’d say come to Kentucky! But I don’t think there’s much allure.
Poe Ballantine: I’m not organized about tour dates, websites. I put all my energy into the writing of the book, and then take the fallout as it comes. I was reluctant to set up an official schedule, because I thought I might be lynched.
Brian S: I think I’m going to name my own belt Poopy.
Poe Ballantine: Poopy is an excellent name for a belt.
Rebecca: Brian, I’m confused.
Poe Ballantine: My son named his belt Poopy. And he named his rubber skeletons Thing and Baby Love.
Rebecca: Ahhh! I’ve read 15 books this month, so I’m having trouble remembering the small details. Oops. I remember Thing and Baby Love. I just forgot Poopy.
Brian S: I have a thing for funny names. My wife is pregnant with twins, and we’ve named the fetuses Cobrahead and Gutkuttr.
Rebecca: Brian, your children are going to be so cool.
Brian S: I can’t do worse than my first shot, when I named my daughter Brittany Spears. Twenty-three years ago, in my defense.
Poe Ballantine: The next child might be named Dill Pickle or Broccoli, I suppose you’ve heard that seven thousand times.
Brian S: My dad used to tell me about my cousin Asparagus when I was a kid.
Frances: I used the word “comfortable” above because you were such a caring, involved father, husband, neighbor, etc. It never seemed scary. No worry that a serial killer was out there. The laid-back way you interacted with Tom made the whole thing comfortable.
Poe Ballantine: A friend of mine, James Fernandez, said also that he felt as he read the book that he was in good hands. That’s high praise.
Frances: Yes—in good hands. Exactly.
Rebecca: Of course, you can’t beat Cheryl Strayed’s praise in the introduction.
Poe Ballantine: Cheryl picked an essay of mine for this year’s Best American Essays (she’s the guest editor), and so with the intro, I now owe her my soul.
Frances: I always read The Best American Essays and look forward to reading your essay this year.
Rebecca: Well, she made me want to get your other books—and also your writing made me want to get your other books! So, yes, she’s a good influence.
Frances: Tom’s way with words is charming. Delightful to read.
Poe Ballantine: Tom has “atypical language,” which makes him funnier than most children and often the life of the party.
Brian S: He sounds like a great kid. Are you worried at all how he’ll react if/when he reads this one day?
Rebecca: How’s Tom doing? How old is he now? I feel invested in him (and hopefully that doesn’t sound creepy).
Poe Ballantine: I won’t let him read it till he’s eighteen, though he’ll get a copy, I know, earlier than that sometime, when I’m not around, and of course all his friends will tell him.
Ann B.: I’d say that most poets employ atypical language, too.
Poe Ballantine: Atypical language, as long as it’s comprehensible, is preferable to the ordinary.
Frances: And atypical language must mean some atypical thinking. I love the juxtapositions and ideas Tom has.
Jack W.: Poe, did you enjoy being a part of the documentary being made from this book? How involved were you?
David: I just got here, and so I’m trying hard to read the scrollback to see if this has already been discussed, but if not, I’d love to hear about the effects of working with the film and the filmmaker.
Poe Ballantine: The film was a blast, though I don’t like being on that side of the camera. It was a great help for the book too, because when you get people in front of a camera, they reveal more, they take you more seriously. I was able to re-interview many of my subjects and straighten out lots of accounts and correct many more mistakes. This is going to be a fabulous documentary, and I’m not just saying that.
Brian S: Any idea when it’ll be out?
Poe Ballantine: The documentary, except for some finishing touches, is done. [Director Dave Janetta] wants to enter it into a festival or two, and most of these arrangements require some exclusive or first showing rights. March of next year is when he’s shooting for public release.
Brian S: We’ll have to help announce it when it comes out. Keep us posted.
Rebecca: I will be first in line to see it if I can.
Brian S: What other stuff were you working on while you were involved with this?
Poe Ballantine: I always have about twelve projects going, but Hawthorne had already paid me for a novel called Rodney Kills at Night, about a Lakota Indian kid who accidentally kills his stepfather and flees to Las Vegas and becomes a standup comedian.
Ann B.: That’s the one you talk about in Howling Plains. How’s that novel coming?
Poe Ballantine: Rodney‘s finished.
Rebecca: Has your book caused the town to start reinvestigating Steven Haataja’s case? I know it still doesn’t officially come out till next month, but I just wondered if it had made anyone reconsider.
Poe Ballantine: No reinvestigation of the case yet. I think it will happen. Any thinking person who reads this book will say that it’s not possible he committed suicide.
Frances: It’s possible that there exists an unknown deus ex machina type of person. Someone known only to Steven and not to others. Possible no one will ever find the person.
Rebecca: I think you did try to explain the case for suicide well, though, because I found myself nodding my head at that chapter, until you poked holes in it in the next chapter.
Poe Ballantine: Philosophically, I have to admit all positions, until the harder evidence comes in, if it ever does.
Brian S: They should bring in Dr. Temperance Brennan. She’d get it solved in forty-four minutes, more or less.
David: (omg I love Bones)
Rebecca: Oh god, Brian, I thought the same thing.
Poe Ballantine: We’d love any qualified help to solve this case.
Brian S: Sorry, Poe—that’s a reference to a network TV show about a superstar forensic pathologist. It’s incredibly unrealistic, but I still love the show.
David: Poe, actually, I just stated the second season of Twin Peaks, and the more I think about it, the more commonality there seems to be.
Rebecca: I wish I could send my father there, if he were still a detective. He solved some cases and got the men imprisoned by a string of circumstantial evidence that all together proved the guy was guilty. And I see some of Twin Peaks in this case.
Poe Ballantine: Dave, who’s doing the doc, compares his movie to Twin Peaks and the work of his heroes: Herzog, and another guy I can’t think of who did that weird documentary about amputees in Florida. Earl Morris, is that it?
Brian S: Errol Morris?
Poe Ballantine: Yeah.
Brian S: That’s good company to be in.
Rebecca: That sounds like an extra compelling documentary.
Ann H: Vernon, Florida, Errol Morris.
Poe Ballantine: That’s the one. I couldn’t finish that documentary, to be honest. Pretty slow, but I realize it’s the style more than the substance that attracts Dave.
Charlotte: Hi Poe and everyone! Just scrolled through. Sorry for joining late. Kids threw a b-day party for the dog. There were guests…
Poe Ballantine: Happy birthday to your dog.
Ann B.: And an excellent b-day party.
Poe Ballantine: I think the doc is better than the book, but of course it can’t go as deeply. But strangely enough, it is funny. Can’t explain exactly how that happened.
Rebecca: Dark humor is often better than standup comedy.
Frances: I hope this book takes off as Wild did. I have recommended it to several friends whose kids use atypical language and also to friends who read a lot and like what I like. (How could the doc be better than the book?)
Brian S: I liked the way you defended both Chadron and its people so fiercely against the bloggers, etc., who were making assumptions about the people there. I’m not a fan of small towns myself, having lived in them multiple times when I was younger, but I think they get charged with a lot of stuff they’re not guilty of, and it was nice to see a defense.
Kirsten: I agree. I grew up in a small town, and can’t stand to live in them now, but am often a bit ashamed of my own assumptions when I return home and reacquaint myself with the people there.
Poe Ballantine: This is not your average small town. It’s tempered nicely by many elements, especially the college. But we also have a cool and fair sheriff, a Hindu newspaper editor, a retired NASA rocket scientist who runs the local radio station, etc.
Rebecca: As someone who’s spent so much time on the road and working for minimum wage, do you think about how very American your story is? It feels perfectly timed for this non-recession.
Brian S: I have held my share of those sorts of jobs as well, including the floor cleaning, only I did a Walmart in Picayune, Mississippi.
Poe Ballantine: Lot of floor space in a Walmart. That’s a TEAM of cleaners, I reckon.
Brian S: This was back in 1987 or so, before the advent of the Super-Walmart. So about the size of a middling grocery store.
Rebecca: I miss the old Walmarts. The ones without grocery stores.
Brian S: When I lived in Fayetteville for grad school, we had three Super-sized ones and one smaller one. Of course, we were twenty miles away from the world headquarters, so that was to be expected. That was for a town of 65,000, though.
Poe Ballantine: I remember seeing my first Walmart in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Opened across from the Kmart. Kmart closed in about a month.
I’m always writing from the perspective of the poor. Partly because that’s where most good art (and cooking) starts, but also because it’s really all I know, at least as an adult.
Frances: Willingness to work at anything and minimal material goals make you a great example of the “old” American way.
Rebecca: I liked that a lot. (I’ve been unemployed for fifteen months post-MFA, and your ideas of the American dream for the poor spoke to me.)
Frances: Also your insistence on making time to write and considering it work.
Rebecca: I spent a lot of time comparing parts of your book to Nickel and Dimed. It’s so good to see representations of the poor/working class on the page.
Ann H: Writing is work, whether you are paid for it or not.
Rebecca: Writing is a second job for most of us. A second largely-unpaid/underpaid job.
Poe Ballantine: When you talk to people struggling, marriages falling apart, address drug problems, sexual frustration, poverty, unemployment, your audience is running around 90 percent of the population. That’s not intentional on my part, it’s just reality.
Frances: Yes, true. Writing is life work, and polishing floors is survival work.
Charlotte: How did you choose what to include in the book? Was it difficult to write about your wife and others?
Ann H: And then how did your wife respond?
Rebecca: What does your wife think of your portrayal of her/your marriage?
Poe Ballantine: I cringed at the thought of what many would say when they read this book, because most people assumed this would be a simply journalistic treatment of a crime. Few realized I would be getting so personal. My wife was furious for a week after she found out what I’d written. Now she’s kind of basking in her celebrity. She also knows I was being fair, declaring my devotion, and shining the same light on her that I shined on everyone else.
Brian S: Well, that’s good.
Charlotte: What is Cristinaland?
Poe Ballantine: Cristinaland is the place where my wife goes. It’s a spacey place, but not a KEVIN Spacey place. She was run over by a drunk driver in her early twenties and knocked out pretty hard.
Rebecca: I love her response! It rings very true to how you portrayed her.
Frances: And did you get permission to use the name of the guy who told you not to put him in the book?
Poe Ballantine: I didn’t ask anyone for permission. I only asked if people wanted their name changed.
Rebecca: How much name-changing did you have to do?
Brian S: I won’t ask you whose names were changed, but could you say how many?
Poe Ballantine: About half the names were changed. I’d changed almost all of them mostly for my amusement but also to get some distance on these people I shared a town with. It was obvious who most of them were, so I changed some back, especially since readers would be going online to review the case or watching the documentary where no names are changed.
Brian S: Is Loren Zimmerman still in town, or has he moved on to some other place?
Rebecca: I imagine Zimmerman wouldn’t love his portrayal.
Poe Ballantine: Loren lives right around the corner from me. He’s threatened a lawsuit and a smear campaign. After reading Cleckley’s profile on sociopathy, I believe he is a full-fledged sociopath, and I lean slightly more in his direction as the one who may have done the deed.
Brian S: Time for a nice long book tour, I’d say.
Rebecca: Is he still with Telenovela?
Poe Ballantine: He is still with Telenovela, or Maria as she is more widely known. She has a portable burrito wagon now, and after losing ANOTHER job, Loren helps her with the burrito wagon.
Rebecca: I just laughed out loud. “Portable burrito wagon.” That’s the best thing ever.
Frances: If he is a sociopath, perhaps you need to watch out for him.
Brian S: Don’t knock the burrito wagon. I’d had some quality food from those over the years.
Rebecca: Food trucks are wonderful. But for some reason the phrase “portable burrito wagon” makes me picture a big plaster burrito on the top of a station wagon.
Poe Ballantine: Maria’s burritos are good. Not great. She’s a better cook than the bland Midwestern palate allows.
Brian S: About five minutes to go—any lurkers want to get in a question, now’s the time.
Ann H: Was this mystery the same transformational experience for the town or for others as it seemed to be for you?
Frances: Was it the mystery that felt transformational or the gathering of your thoughts and threads of life that felt transformational?
Poe Ballantine: Transformational, I don’t know. This book has exhausted me, but by putting out everything I’ve painstakingly learned and accumulated, and putting myself in harm’s way in the name of the truth, I guess I’m a new man. And now at least the town has the real story, and they are buzzing, some of them mad as bees.
Brian S: Mad because of the way you’ve told the story or mad because they didn’t know the story?
Poe Ballantine: Mad about portrayal, mad about incompetence, mad about mistruth, mad about murder. Overall, though, there is more pleasure for most local readers, especially those who aren’t in it.
Rebecca: I loved your book, and I loved the characters, but I still get chills when I think that someone who killed Steven Haataja in such a violent manner is possibly walking around Chadron.
Charlotte: Are you worried this book has taken too much out of you?
Poe Ballantine: Capote was finished after In Cold Blood, but that’s because he was in love with Perry, whom he watched hang. I’ve got plenty left in the tank, but I don’t want to write this sort of thing anymore.
Brian S: As a current resident of Des Moines, I’m glad Loren Zimmerman found this place boring and doesn’t seem to have any desire to come back.
Poe Ballantine: Like any sociopath worth his salt, Loren burns his bridges thoroughly. America is a great place for sociopaths: so many victims, so much room.
Ann H: Unsolved murders take up residence in a town and never leave. In my town, we’ve had a few over the years, and the lack of closure is unsettling for many in different ways. So your story and the uncertainty reminded me of that.
Rebecca: If you find out who killed Steven Haataja, do you imagine writing even an essay about it, or an afterword for future editions, or are you done?
Poe Ballantine: I’d do a follow-up if the case were solved. I’d also like to find out what happened to Phoebe Krakatoa, who has vanished herself. Her brother says she’s locked up and safe somewhere, but you can’t do that anymore unless a crime has been committed, and I don’t think that’s the case.
Brian S: Are you planning to stay in Chadron? Is the wandering over for the time being?
Poe Ballantine: I plan to stay in Chadron, but that’s because I can’t afford to move. I’ve always been an agreeable, easygoing person, so it’s an interesting experiment to be so thoroughly disliked by so many.
Brian S: We have certainly blown through the hour here. Thanks for joining us, Poe, and thanks for such a terrific book.
Frances: Wonderful book. Thanks for your time.
Charlotte: Thoroughly enjoyed reading your book, experiencing all the characters’ struggles.
Ann H: Thanks for a great book and a great chat.
David: Thanks, Poe.
Kirsten: Thank you.
Rebecca: I hope you get answers. I hope the whole town of Chadron gets answers. (And I want to read them.) Thank you so much for the book and the chat!
Poe Ballantine: Okay, thanks for coming. Sorry I couldn’t answer all the questions.
Rebecca: You answered a ton of them!
Brian S: No problem at all. You were terrific. Thanks for joining us, and good luck with the book.
Rebecca: So anyway, thank you and goodnight and good luck!