Even after a decade, it still surprises Brian Schott when his passion project, the Whitefish Review, consistently and courageously hits its mark.
He’s not alone.
Since its bold debut in 2007 — when Schott printed a long-form interview with NFL quarterback and sometimes Whitefish resident Drew Bledsoe about the “art of football” and bookended it with original pieces by literary powerhouses Tim Cahill and William Kittredge — the nationally acclaimed nonprofit journal has been publishing distinctive literature, art and photography with an enlightened, if unexpected, verve.
The inaugural journal also featured an essay by Jay Cowan about his time spent living on Hunter S. Thompson’s Owl Farm during the 1970s and 80s, a poem by Kerry Crittenden, a former ski patroller on Big Mountain and the inventor of the Butt Flap, and a photograph of a car blowing up by Craig Moore.
It was, by all accounts, a success.
Still, there were periods of crippling doubt. Even as Schott prepares to round out a decade with the upcoming release of the journal’s 20th issue at a launch party featuring live readings by literary lion David James Duncan and author Chris Dombrowski, he shakes his head in disbelief when he runs through the highlight reel — the emotionally raw interviews with top artists and entertainers, the all-night editing sessions with best friends and family, the reams of submissions by some of the most celebrated writers in the country, which kept trickling in despite Schott’s nagging fear that his “slippery baby,” born to the world in Volume 1, Issue 1, wouldn’t grow up to be anything more than a vision, snuffed out by the workaday pace of adult obligations or financial ruin. Or, worse yet, by failing to captivate its audience.
But somehow, just as the Whitefish Review’s founders have grown up, from a merry band of ski bums to a cohort of professional … well, ski bums, so too has The Little Literary Journal That Could evolved into a biannual extravaganza, with each issue introducing a narrative theme and inviting a who’s-who of the creative world to publish their work and appear for live readings at a local literary salon (read “saloon”).
Through the Whitefish Review, Schott and its co-founders (Ryan Friel, Mike Powers, Tom Mull, and Ian Griffiths) created a cultural outpost for the mountain west when there was none, and provided a congregation of writers and artists with a place to worship.
“It has required a staggering amount of work and we take it incredibly seriously, but it has been endlessly rewarding,” Schott said. “It’s humbling and invigorating to be where we are today.”
At first blush, the hardscrabble railroad and timber town turned ski haven stands out as an unlikely sanctuary for a literary journal to grow up in, but as it turns out, artistic vitality and writing talent don’t play geographic favorites.
Stories, photos, poetry, and paintings by young and aspiring artists regularly play beside the work of established literati, which is a testament to the journal’s mission to showcase mountain culture, promote conservation values and feature established and emerging authors and artists alike.
From early on, two of Whitefish Review’s most loyal contributors and supporters have been Montana-based authors Rick Bass and David James Duncan, whose award-winning writing on conservation issues has regularly appeared in the journal.
“It’s an incredibly difficult project to pull off, and I really feel like we probably wouldn’t be where we were if it wasn’t for the Rick Basses and the David Duncans,” Schott said. “They have just given us so much energy. It is an incredibly difficult project to pull off, and they have been mentors.”
Meanwhile, Duncan and Bass give Schott the credit, eternally grateful that he’s delivered a forum for their craft.
“We’ve got nothing else,” Duncan said. “Nothing with the same substance as the Whitefish Review.”
Recalling a dinner he had with Schott in the incipient stages of the journal, Duncan remembers eating and drinking at a Missoula restaurant with Schott and Bass.
“Rick was teasing Brian, laughing and calling him crazy for thinking that he was going to make a literary journal fly in Whitefish, Montana,” Duncan said. “But then typically nobody has been more supportive of the Whitefish Review than Rick.”
The author of 30 books, Bass said he remembers Schott calling him up and describing the project to him. He was incredulous, and never more hopeful that Schott would succeed.
“He said he wanted to start a literary journal and asked what I thought of the idea,” Bass said. “I told him I thought he was doomed, that it would tear his heart out and wreck him financially and energetically and emotionally, but that if he was going to do it, that it had better be damn good. For 10 years they’ve been publishing the best work being done in the country.”
Duncan, best known for his bestselling novels “The River Why” and “The Brothers K,” said he is regularly blown away by the caliber of writing that appears in the Whitefish Review, and some of the long-form interviews have been astonishing in what they reveal about the human condition and raw, unadulterated grief.
In 2010, Schott published a wide-ranging interview with Russell Chatham, the landscape artist who lives in Livingston. At one point in the interview, Chatham reveals that during a period of depression he had attempted suicide, but the gun failed to fire because he hadn’t cleaned it and the cylinder froze up.
“That was such an honest, emotionally raw interview, and Brian has provided a venue for that,” Duncan said. “He’s given writers and poets a home.”
Whitefish Review has continued to strike a diverse balance through the years by pairing interviews and conversations, poems and short stories, and an eye-popping spread of color art.
In issue No. 18, Schott published an interview with David Letterman about his recent departure from the Late Show on CBS. In issue No. 7, he published an interview with acclaimed novelist John Irving. For issue No. 10, Schott interviewed Tom Brokaw, the television journalist best known as the anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News.
“Interviewing Tom Brokaw for me was one of those big moments where I am listening to his big baritone voice and I’m thinking, ‘Holy smokes, is this happening?” Schott said.
In its first decade, Whitefish Review has featured more than 800 contributors and hosted nearly 40 public readings. Many of the writers have never before been published.
“From the start, that has been a feature of Whitefish Review. There is always the cultivation of young writers and the cultivation of new writers,” Duncan said. “And one thing that happens to a lot of literary journals is that they become so self-referential, and so nerdishly literary, that they just seem kind of precious, especially if they’re too closely wed to MFA programs, which exist at a time for writers when they are the most self-conscious that they will ever be. And you have to forget yourself in order to write honestly and meaningfully.”
The Whitefish Review is also unique in that it is not backed financially by a university system, but rather is supported by generous donations, grants, and subscriptions.
Issue No. 20, the “Out of Time” issue, which features an interview with Jimmy Kimmel, host of Jimmy Kimmel Live! and a Whitefish Review subscriber, debuts Feb. 18 at a launch party at Casey’s Bar in Whitefish.
In addition to readings by Duncan and Dombrowski, whose new memoir “Body of Water” is receiving stellar reviews, Katie McGunagle will read from “Wolves.”