An evening with Rick Bass

by Brook Gardner-Durbin

In Montana, surrounded by an inspiring landscape of the natural world, one can witness wildlife casually at any moment, gazing into vast pastures, serene blue rivers, mighty frosted peaks, beautifully connecting us all to the truth and history of this land. The easy accessibility of the land drew Rick Bass to the area, and on the night of Oct. 20 MSU had the special pleasure of hosting an evening with the famous author and dedicated environmentalist.

Bass is a pioneer of activism and the arts, having explored all over the world promoting civil disobedience all along the way as a respectful means of communication and dedication to civil rights. He has published over two dozen books, both fiction and nonfiction, writing through a style of strange beauty and warmth that slowly unravels into the numerous stories he feels obligated to tell. He has received significant recognition and awards throughout his career, including the Pushcart Prize, the O. Henry Award and the LA Times Book of the Year for his fiction collection “The Hermit’s Story.”

In a talk at the Museum of the Rockies on Monday evening, Bass shared his most recent story, the yet-unpublished “How She Shares It,” focusing on fiction and Yellowstone. The reading portrayed a sense of nostalgic innocence through a perfect dream world in the mind of a young girl, paralleled with the darker reality of her sick father on their travels through Yellowstone. Detailed passages of sensory imagery painted Yellowstone clear as daylight, outlining the extreme beauty of an isolated land Montanans can’t afford to lose. Bass’s soft speech, generous pauses, genuine eye contact and above all his comedy and hilarity filled the auditorium with laughter and wonder, connecting with everyone.

Bass also spoke on campus earlier in the day, discussing his writing process with creative writing students in a less formal setting. He shared some of his personal life and discussed the connection to land visible in many of his stories. Bass began a career as a wildlife biologist, then became a geologist for years before eventually taking up writing full time in 1987. His time working with the land left him with a more physical perception of writing than most authors. “I like to think of writing as painting,” he said, later adding that he saw writing a good story as “searching for something, sometimes far below [the earth].”

Bass stressed the power of the unknown in writing, advising students to “look to what’s mysterious, what’s unknown, then focus on that.” He also warned that “there’s a real danger in knowing too much in your writing,” as it can lead to information being “given out like breadcrumbs,” leading on the reader. This approach is similar to that of Ernest Hemingway, to whom Bass has been repeatedly compared. Hemingway is famous for writing concluding chapters to many of his works, then deleting them, as he valued the sense of mystery and the unknown which would be left.

Rick Bass’ most recent published work is “All the Land to Hold Us,” a published in 2013. The novel, which earned Bass comparisons to William Faulkner, is about the land in the west Texas and Mexico desert and how it both shapes and is shaped by the people inhabiting it. For more information about Bass or to contact him, visit rickbass.net.