“Montanan writer” is a phrase so steeped in stereotypes that it’s sometimes difficult to accept there are people who don’t conform. Our state is full of cowboy poets, Louis L’Amour wannabes, and hopefuls writing desperate love letters to the mountains. Out of all that product, it can be difficult to find truly unique writers. However, when one does find that rare diamond, the result is spectacular — and Glen Chamberlain is just such an artist.
It is easy to call anyone who both writes and lives in the West a “regional writer.” The settings clue a reader in immediately — vast prairies, pine forests and small towns. And then there is the gritty realism that seems to go with the Western, most easily visualized in Clint Eastwood’s squinted-yet-steely gaze. But, Chamberlain claims, there is so much more than just that. “Are Western writers regional writers?” she asked. “No more than a Midwestern writer or a New York writer.” But even as a non-regional writer, the author admits the landscape is inescapable. Chamberlain has called it “iconic,” and described it “seeping” into her writing. Her stories take place within the beautiful setting she has come to call home, and are informed both by that place and the culture that goes with it.
However, though the landscape makes appearances in her stories, the work never comes off as intrinsically Western. It is poetic, quiet and eloquent in an almost old-fashioned way. Reading one of her short stories is like jumping into another frame of mind, one that seems to have been lost with our hectic pace of life. They are profound without pretension. They never deal with huge events, but instead focus on the inward emotions and psychologies of the characters, or what Chamberlain calls “subtle shifts in life experience.” Partly, she attributes this to the length — “Small things happen in short stories,” she said. But even more than that, Chamberlain takes pains to not make assumptions. Quoting Jane Austen, she said, “I only write about the little things because it’s what I know.” But in her writing, those little things — a passing flock of geese, a conversation with a sister, schoolroom physics — are revealed as a source of change and vitality in our lives.
Chamberlain came late to fiction. She was in her late 30s, teaching, and realized she had no desire to spend the rest of her life doing academic writing. “I was bored,” she said simply. And yet, for having spent so little time in this field, she has a remarkable track record — she’s won a Pushcart Prize, the Gilcrease Prize and the Rona Jaffe Award for both fiction and creative nonfiction. Despite her success, though, she cautions against any interpretation of writing as a glamourous field. “It’s hard work,” she said. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and these days everyone’s a writer.” For her students, she has one timeless piece of advice — “I always tell them, ‘find a wealthy spouse!’”
In her free time, Chamberlain also teaches writing at MSU, mostly in 100- and 200-level composition classes. She admits that she often feels like a priest in the confessional. “There’s a vulnerability to it,” she said, adding that writing makes a student expose personal aspects they wouldn’t verbally. “You get to know them.”
Chamberlain has published two books. “Conjugations of the Verb to Be,” published by Delphinium Press, was released in 2011. “All I Want is What You’ve Got” was released April 8, and is motivated by the music of another MSU professor and Juilliard graduate, Angella Ahn. It is available at Country Bookshelf.