Going ‘Beneath the Surface’

By Beacon Staff

A longtime resident of the Yaak Valley, Rick Bass is an award-winning writer and environmental activist. He’s the author of more than 20 essay collections, short stories and novels that mostly deal with the Western outdoors. He was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for his autobiography “Why I Came West.”

Bass served as a guest editor for the latest issue of the Whitefish Review literary journal, which will be unveiled Dec. 13 at a gathering at Casey’s Bar in Whitefish. Issue #12 of the journal, titled “Beneath the Surface,” features an impressive lineup of local and regional writers, photographers and artists, including Pam Houston, Jon Turk and David Maisel.

“(The Whitefish Review is) quickly becoming The Paris Review of Montana, and maybe one day, with your help, the West,” Bass says in the journal’s introduction.

Bass spoke with the Beacon recently about his experience working on the Whitefish Review with founder and editor-in-chief Brian Schott and the team of volunteers who tirelessly stitch together every issue. Bass also contributed an essay to this issue, “With Every Great Breath: Living and Dying in Lincoln County,” which shares testimonials from residents stricken with asbestos-related illnesses.

Flathead Beacon: What attracted you to the Whitefish Review, and why did you want to get involved?

Rick Bass: Over the years I’ve seen a lot of start-up literary magazines, and a lot of idealistic young people who think there’s value in the world having another periodical out there. Something about Brian’s energy and vision and ambitions just stood above the usual high-water mark. I loved the idea of it. Whitefish is kind of a small community and he wanted to tag it as being the Whitefish Review, not the Montana Review or the Rocky Mountain Review. It was going to be about Whitefish. And I just got it immediately.

Beacon: What is the value of periodicals and literary journals? Do you agree with the idea that art, like a literary essay or short story, can act as first responder to important issues?

RB: (pause) Yes. I’ve not ever even heard of that idea. I was pausing to consider it. It’s a lovely idea. Without getting too windy, I would be in agreement with that statement completely.

To some degree (the Whitefish Review) is unique in that from the very beginning it has had the audacity to purport to represent the Whitefish life, the Whitefish way of life, the Whitefish ethos and the Northwest Montana ethos.

As for the first responder idea, I think this upcoming issue will certainly test that theory. The essay that I’ve worked on with Brian and my brothers helped me with the photography (“With Every Great Breath: Living and Dying in Lincoln County”), it gathers the testimonies from some of the asbestos-related disease sufferers. There’s big issues here (in this issue of the Whitefish Review) that have not been reported by anybody and need to be reported. Brian and I talked about this at length. It’s the kind of story you might read in the New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly or New England Journal of Medicine. But it belongs to the Whitefish Review. It belongs at home. It belongs in Northwest Montana first and then hopefully some other reporters will pick up these stories about the unreported autoimmune disorders and also the harsh treatment that physicians in Lincoln County are getting from the insurance industry.

Beacon: This issue features an underwater sculpture made by Jason deCaires Taylor in connection to the theme “Beneath the Surface,” and it’s been said that Taylor’s work is designed to symbolize the symbioses between man and nature and balancing messages of hope and loss.

Would you say that we have a healthy relationship between the two here in Northwest Montana?

The new Whitefish Review featuring Rick Bass | Courtesy Whitefish Review

RB: In many ways Northwest Montana has singular stories to tell but in that respect, the man and nature relationship, I think every community all around the world is experiencing some wobble in that relationship … I think this theme that Brian has come up with for this issue, “Beneath the Surface,” I think everybody in communities around the world is witnessing the disparity between perception and reality, and I don’t just mean economic wealth but world security, species security, including the human species.

Beacon: What was it like working on the Whitefish Review? Did anything surprise you? Had you ever worked on a literary journal before?

RB: I have not worked with a literary journal, not like this. I’ve judged them privately but I’ve never really waded in with the volunteers to that degree. It was fascinating … It was a high-speed process and high-intensity labor of love … It was very impressive. They were super human. It was ceaseless and exhausting, in the best way.

Beacon: Do you feel this issue accomplishes the goal that you and others set out with?

RB: I do. I’m so pleased with it. If I can be so arrogant to say I’m proud of what we’ve done. I’m really proud to have my name on this issue with Brian and the others. It’s a really fine issue and something to be proud of.

Beacon: Do you still live in the Yaak?

RB: Yep, the Yaak is still home. I still have my home up there and I’m living in Missoula for a few more months while my youngest daughter finishes high school.

Beacon: What keeps drawing you back to the Yaak? What keeps you from merging permanently into the big city?

RB: (laughs) Let me count ways. That would be a long answer.

Beacon: Brian has always emphasized featuring young writers, photographers and artists in the Whitefish Review. What advice would you give young writers?

RB: It’s the oldest advice you’re going to hear in any generation – do what you love. If you love writing, then write. But only do it if you love it. Don’t do it only because you’re good at it or you think it’s a good-paying job. But if you love doing it then you should.

There’s a great writing tradition to help support you here, not financially but more importantly, emotionally. It’s much like Mississippi in that way, where I came from. The community of Montana writers is very broad and deep. It’s a good place to be a young writer.

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