Motivation and Humanity: A Conversation with Carrie La Seur
Carrie La Seur’s remarkable second novel, The Weight of an Infinite Sky, opens with Anthony Fry’s return to his family’s Montana ranch after several hand-to-mouth years in New York City, where he was trying to make a life as an actor. Precipitating Anthony’s return: his father Dean’s death, which occurred under shadowy circumstances—Dean was an expert horseman who died in a riding accident on his own property, with his younger brother Neal the only witness. Anthony’s return to the fold unleashes a painful series of personal reckonings: among other difficulties, his passions reside firmly with the arts, not animal husbandry.
Further complicating his arrival at the Fry ranch is Anthony’s distrust of his uncle Neal; the animosity between the two men fuels part of the intricate plot that La Seur has expertly crafted, one inspired by Hamlet.
The Weight of an Infinite Sky is also a story about the aggressive incursion and depredations of big business—in this case, the coal industry—on self-sufficient, insular communities that rely on the land for their livelihood.
Recently, I corresponded with Le Seur, a Montana-born novelist, environmental lawyer, and Rhodes Scholar, via email about her beautifully written and suspenseful novel, and discussed finding your way and standing up for what you know is right, no matter the odds—both personal and professional—against you.
The Rumpus: After the untimely death of his father, Anthony Fry returns to the ranch where he grew up. But he doesn’t feel as if he fits in, nor has he ever. I was struck by his sense of alienation, which is coupled with his contrary desire to belong. Did you begin with this internal conflict or did it gradually reveal itself to you?
Carrie La Seur: This is the ur-story that I can’t seem to stop writing. I left the rural West at seventeen to attend Bryn Mawr, where people (not many, but it made a deep impression) mocked my clothes, my accent and idiom, and my politics. It’s the classic story you hear from people who complain that college campuses are too liberal, but Bryn Mawr wasn’t too liberal—it was exactly the counterbalance I needed to the uncompromisingly conservative environment I’d grown up in. It cracked my head open and let me see the whole world. So now I carry around the crevasse between what I come from and what I grew into. Naturally, that became Anthony’s story, too, from his environmental awareness to his new understanding of the nature of sexual assault. My debut novel, The Home Place, is a story of homecoming. I didn’t set out to write another one but here it is. Even my third novel in progress, completely different in time, place, and characters, has elements of that deep wagon rut.
Rumpus: How did the idea for Anthony arrive? He definitely doesn’t seem the issue of the rugged Marlboro man mythos.
La Seur: Anthony forced himself on the book, if you’ll forgive the metaphor. He was meant to be a woman. I started writing Anthony as Abigail, a misfit woman pressured to take over the family’s agricultural operation. Gradually, as I wrote her through a couple of drafts and she stubbornly didn’t quite work in the role, I realized that in ranch culture, the pressures on girls and women are different. Leaving is less of a betrayal. For the storyline to lie true, even in 2018, the central character had to be male, which in itself says a lot about the rare corner of American life we’re looking in on. Anthony was the little boy who “thought cows were smelly and wanted to stage musicals in the barn”—not exactly every rancher’s dream for his son. I might write more about Abigail later, because she was this profane, overweight, tattooed theater lovey in the exact wrong place and I loved her, but this story belongs to Anthony, who’s a lot more of a bastard than Abigail could’ve been.
Rumpus: The Weight of an Infinite Sky is written in five acts and was inspired by Hamlet—here, too, I’m wondering if you set out with the intention to write a novel that’s a homage to Shakespeare’s most famous play, or if the idea evolved gradually as you wrote the novel.
La Seur: In a way, I backed into Hamlet and later had to back out again. I did everything backward on this novel, starting with a synopsis that I eventually had to shred. At the beginning was the drama of the misfit, who doesn’t want the thing everyone agrees he should want, which isn’t really Hamlet—although Hamlet is a lot more interested in finding out the truth about his father’s death than in taking the throne, which is also true of my character, Anthony. I’ve read enough Shakespeare that the parallels began to strike me, so in a rush of enthusiasm I embarked on a draft that was too much like Hamlet. I was dragging my characters backward through hedges to fit them into that plot and they rebelled. They didn’t want to kill anyone and there was a lot more nuance in their relationships than in Hamlet’s. I had to back off from the more tragic aspects and meander a little more through the back roads of Anthony’s world.
The characters took their own paths. They turned out to be people I hadn’t anticipated, like young Brittany Terrebonne who communicates her grief [after the untimely death of her mother] primarily through poetry, and returned Vietnam POW Dwight Maclean who hardly talks at all. They withheld themselves and challenged me to find the word or gesture that revealed them, as rural people often do. Penetrating the lives of these difficult characters was a sophomore novel revelation, when you realize that the book you’re writing isn’t at all what you thought it was, and that’s a good thing.
Rumpus: The coal industry and its questionable business practices are significant elements in the novel’s plot, and it’s difficult not to see international mining companies as anything other than terrible for the environment and the communities where they are based. Was it a challenge to write about a business that, aside from the fact it employs people who need jobs, is doing irreparable harm to the earth?
La Seur: The coal industry plot is not only ripped from the headlines but from my own experience representing rural landowners against the Panzer Division advance of fossil fuel companies. I’ve driven across grazing land all over eastern Montana where ranchers find themselves powerless to control the oil and gas companies. The law favors industry almost absolutely. I’ve listened at council meetings as the tribes struggle with the need for basic services in tension with the ecological damage done by extraction. Landowners and tribal governments are badly outgunned—figuratively and literally, as we saw at Standing Rock—in any form of resistance.
As the lawyer, you have to find new ways to fight all the time, and your best hope is a community ready to stand together. So no, it wasn’t difficult. It was a relief to tell some of those stories rather than carrying around all the outrage inside. If it sounds like I’m not condemning the industry forcefully enough, it’s because in any long struggle you get to know the opposition well. You see their motivation and humanity, how much of them is in you and vice versa. More conflict could be resolved if we could all look for that in each other.
Rumpus: What was something surprising you learned while writing the novel that you still find yourself reflecting on?
La Seur: I learned that I’m not as much of a multitasker as I believed myself to be. When I created the time to give this writing project my full attention, it was like growing a new limb—a little painful at first, then empowering. Creative pursuits—writing, violin, even learning languages, another of my passions—separate me from the people I come from. I hadn’t understood how big a mental barrier that was until it was just me and the blank page every day and I had to justify this use of time and give myself permission. It’s never been possible for me to abandon the past. Too many generations worked for me to have the opportunities I’ve had. I’m the sum of that history. I’m its voice.
Rumpus: You mention in the acknowledgments at the end of the novel that you read a lot of Shakespeare while working on The Weight of an Infinite Sky. What are some of your other influences?
La Seur: I did my dissertation on Simone de Beauvoir. Although I wouldn’t call myself an existentialist—it’s too individualist a philosophy for me—I greatly admire her project of revealing her life through her writing. Willa Cather still affects me deeply because of her intuition for the ‘crevasse’—she left Nebraska, lived in New York, traveled widely, but still saw the plainswomen and men she came from with great compassion. Lately, I’ve been digging into the life and writings of Meridel Le Sueur, another grande dame of the plains, who came to my attention because people kept asking if we’re related (not that I know of).
Women who’ve made complex, provocative works of art out of their lives fascinate me and Meridel is exactly that. She marched in the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strike, worked as a stuntwoman in Hollywood, and was blacklisted by McCarthy. I also love Gabriel García Márquez and the magical realists, Louise Erdrich for her quicksilver characters, Adrienne Rich’s light-struck prose and poetry, Wendell Berry’s splendid agrarian vision, Pablo Neruda for the revolution poems—and I’m currently obsessed with Neal Stephenson’s crazy-ass world-building.
Rumpus: Along with being a novelist, you practice energy and environmental law in Billings—how has one vocation affected how you approach the other?
La Seur: Law teaches you to be deadline-oriented and stingy with your time, which has been helpful in dragging novels across the finish line. Otherwise, one career has been an escape from the other. Although my law practice has provided rich material for my writing, I’m not really interested in writing legal procedurals, so it fits into the background. Comparatively, writing makes me happier. But environmental law satisfies some deep urges for justice and having tools for the fight.
Rumpus: What are you working on now?
La Seur: I’m writing a novel inspired by—not about—Meridel Le Sueur. It involves a transforming friendship between a female American writer and activist and a much younger male South American journalist of contrasting political ideas. It has nothing to do with my first two books and it’s the most fun I’ve ever had writing. It came to me more or less whole in under six months—I have a fugue state that precludes eating or remembering to pick up children—and now I’m doing archival research and interviews to flesh out the characters.
Author photograph © Connie Dillon.