Kim Zupan‘s debut, The Ploughmen, has been getting much deserved critical praise and is our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month for October. The story concerns Valentine Millimaki, a sheriff’s deputy in a small Montana town, and John Gload, an old hired killer, who has finally been caught after a half century of murder and mayhem. Valentine must watch over John through the night shift. The book looks at both men as they develop a unique bond. Kim was kind enough to talk about writing, Montana and his first novel with us.
MP: How did the idea for The Ploughmen come about?
KZ: A friend of mine, who just retired from the ATF, had been a Montana sheriff’s deputy in the early 80s. He had many stories to tell, some truly hair-raising—and they clattered around in my head for many years until they demanded to come out as this story, The Ploughmen. There was a character like John Gload roaming around the west in the 60s, 70s and 80s quietly sowing mayhem and my buddy got to know him while the man sat waiting in jail. I tried to put myself in that chair and carry on a conversation through the bars in the late desolate hours.
MP: The book at times has the feel of a classic western in its use of landscape. What did you want to convey about Montana?
KZ: I certainly don’t think of The Ploughmen as a western in the classic sense—Louie L’Amour, Zane Grey, even Ivan Doig—though I know it will be talked about in those terms because of its setting. The landscape, for some, acts as merely a backcloth upon which characters move, but for me it becomes—in that it can move the story forward, affect other characters, affect the outcome of events—another character.
I wanted to convey the sense of this place, or some places in it, as a sort of lethal character, however breathtakingly beautiful. It can still kill you. A month ago, for example, I was fishing on Belt Creek, near where I grew up in central Montana, at a place where the stream dumps out of the Little Belt Mountains. The country there is all steep hills and thick brush and cottonwoods.
I stopped to eat a bit of lunch—some cheese and an apple—and I wound up taking a one of those perfect naps lying on the bank. After awhile I woke up and decided I’d better get back to work, so I crossed the creek and started fishing again and I looked up to see a black bear ramble across the creek and head for the apple I’d just left behind on the gravel. If I’d slept five minutes longer he would have stepped right in the middle of me. Whereas he might have scented me and turned away, he also could have worked me over. So it’s wonderful evocative country that I dearly love, but without much trouble you can wind up dead if you don’t keep your head on straight and pay attention.
MP: John Gload is interesting not only in who he is, but how he’s presented. We want to like him, yet we’re always reminded to know better. How did you approach him?
KZ: John Gload is just another thing out there that can kill you—as if bears and blizzard and snakes aren’t enough. I knew I had to find a flicker of humanity in him or he would have been just a kind of grisly cartoon, a cut-out. That was the challenge. And whereas I hate when writers quote themselves, this sort of sums up how I approached him:
“Perhaps he was somehow exempt from responsibility at all, could no more be blamed than a child born without feet could be blamed for his inability to run. …Gload seemed capable of kindness, but it may have been just a kind of vestigial feature, like the webbed and blunted limbs of thalidomide children—a half developed grotesquery that made him more pitiable for the reminder of what I might have been like to be whole.”
Gload isn’t likeable, exactly (though I’ve developed an affection for him—what that says about me I might not want to know) but I think Millimaki is. And the fact that Gload is fond of Millimaki makes him, sort of by extension, likeable. But then liking him may be a mistake, too.
MP: This being your first novel, did you draw from any authors who inspired you or did you simply expand the voice on your short story work?
KZ: Certainly a little of both. My short stuff, as I look back at it, dealt with much of what The Ploughmen is attempting to get at: love, loss, the healing power of the human touch or a kind word. Loneliness exacerbated by big open country.
There are certainly authors who inspire me and like all writers—I mean every swinging dick— I borrow from those who’ve gone before, to one degree or another. That’s just how it works. Poe, Hemingway, Faulkner, Walker Percy, Graham Greene, Robert Stone, Cormac McCarthy—I love and admire their work and it’s shaped me as a writer of fiction.
MP: Besides length, what was the biggest change going from short stories to a novel?
KZ: Largely, the difference has to do with a matter of commitment. The novel is more like a marriage than a fling or a dalliance. You have to decide that you’re in it for the long haul and drive on. By necessity, I wrote this book in three-month increments as I was otherwise concerned, for the remaining months, with the problem of making a living. I knew, then, for years that when I shut down my time at the desk that it would be months before I could return in any meaningful, productive way to the project. With a short story, there was a fair chance (no guarantee—I work glacially) I could button something up during my writing period. But with the novel, I knew—and this was a painful thing—that it would take a number of winters to complete.
MP: I already can’t wait for your next book. Can you tell us anything about it?
KZ: Oh, man. I’m kind of superstitious about saying much about it. As Hemingway said, I don’t want to “put my filthy mouth on it”. The setting is a small town in central Montana—I think I can say that without jinxing it. In any event, I’m looking forward to sitting down with it while a blizzard is burying everything outside my window. The way things are looking out there right now, it shouldn’t be long.