The River Whitefish

An early champion of Montana's premier literary journal, David James Duncan, the acclaimed author of "The River Why" and "The Brothers K," will give a reading from his new novel ‘Sun House’ on Dec. 7 at an event hosted by the Whitefish Review

By Tristan Scott
The "Whitefish Review" will host David James Duncan on Dec. 7 in Whitefish for a reading and conversation about his new novel "Sun House." Photo by Chris La Tray

Even after 15 years, it still surprises Brian Schott when his passion project, the Whitefish Review, showcases work by some of the biggest names in the cultural canon — John Irving, David Letterman, Michael Keaton, Jimmy Kimmel, Tom Brokaw, Joyce Carol Oates, Susan Bridges.

Since its bold debut in 2007 — when Schott published a long-form interview with former 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 a steady stream of distinctive literature, art and photography with an enlightened, if geographically unlikely, verve.

It has featured more than 1,200 contributors and hosted over 50 public readings, providing a platform for budding artists and established figures alike. 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 picture of a car blowing up by local photographer Craig Moore.

From early on, one of Whitefish Review’s most dedicated champions and contributors has been Montana-based author David James Duncan, whose award-winning writing on conservation issues has regularly appeared in the journal, and whose international literary acclaim is rivaled only by the exalted status foisted upon him by his fans at home in western Montana.

Schott first met Duncan in 1995, shortly after the author had published “River Teeth,” a collection of stories and essays, during an appearance at a reading at the Best Western in Whitefish. It had been a dozen years since Duncan’s sacred fly-fishing tome “The River Why” catapulted him from obscurity to literary-icon status, and Schott, having moved to northwest Montana from Vail a year earlier, felt as though he’d officially been christened as a Treasure State resident.

“He inscribed my book, ‘To Brian, an eventual died-in-the-wool Montanan,” Schott recalled. “Died, not dyed. Interesting word choice from playful David.”

Nearly 30 years later, Schott remains a tireless community advocate in Whitefish, and with no plans to ever leave this postage stamp of the West, Duncan’s word play may amount to more than a mere literary sleight of hand for Schott.

Whitefish Review’s new Rising Voices issue, pictured on Dec. 13, 2017. Beacon file photo

Back in the 90s, Montana’s vibrant literary scene matched the powder skiing and fly fishing as a powerful reason compelling Schott to relocate here, even as he sensed a growing appetite for more readings and events in Whitefish, which is far enough removed from the cultural hub of Missoula that attracting outside literary talent was, and is, an exacting task.

“I started Whitefish Review in some part because there was a bit of a vacuum in this area of literary events,” Schott said. “As a creative writing major in college I really thought there was something deeply meaningful about the spoken word.”

Indeed, even all these years later, having hosted at least 50 readings and events featuring luminaries from the literary world while publishing 28 issues of the Whitefish Review, Schott is still spellbound when he hears Duncan read, which he’ll have the opportunity to do on Thursday, Dec. 7, at 101 Central (formerly Casey’s) in downtown Whitefish.

The fact that Schott can still summon literary icons like Duncan to his adoptive hometown is a considerable feat, but the greater achievement is that he’s still publishing Whitefish Review, with Issue #29, the “Music Issue,” due out in March 2024.

None of it would have been possible without Duncan’s dedicated support.

“David came to Whitefish and read for us on our 10-year anniversary,” Schott said. “Over the years, he’s just been a kind and gentle influence, even to me personally, when I was going through the deaths of both of my parents.”

Schott traces his personal relationship with Duncan to April 2009, when he dropped a letter in the mail and asked the author for help. The result of that query, Schott explains, was an extensive interview spread across 22 emails exchanged over the course of a month, culminating in a cup of tea while Schott was passing through Missoula.

“In our early correspondence, he told me why he preferred writing his responses rather than being interviewed on the telephone: ‘I’ve played piano since I was six. My hands know things my mind doesn’t. For some of us, the literary imagination is improvisational and flows out through the fingers,’” Schott wrote in “The Art of Flow: One Question, a Letter, Twenty-Two Emails, and a Cup of Tea,” which was published in Issue #5 of the Whitefish Review and included the conversation with Duncan as its centerpiece.

The cover of the “Whitefish Review” literary journal’s latest edition. Courtesy image

Duncan, along with another literary heavyweight, the Yaak-based author Rick Bass, continued to provide Schott with counsel as the Whitefish Review grew up over the years.

“During the Montana Festival of the Book many years back, I was trying to decide a couple things,” Schott said. “First, should the name ‘Whitefish Review’ stay? I was wondering if it should be the ‘Montana Review’ or something bigger than Whitefish. But they [Duncan and Bass] convinced me that Whitefish was its home, and the community support was how the thing was going to survive. So, it stood, and I’m glad it did.”

Bass referred to the nascent literary journal as a “doomed, beautiful venture,” another portentous sentiment bestowed on a publication that is unique for its independence — it is not backed financially by a university system, but rather is supported by generous donations, grants, and subscriptions.

“The ‘doomed’ part of Rick’s description is real for lit journals,” Schott said, noting that even exalted literary magazines like “The Gettysburg Review” and “Tin House Magazine” have recently published their final issues and shut down in recent years. “We are just squeaking by.”

Whitefish Review will host author David James Duncan for a reading and conversation about his newly released book, “Sun House,” on Thursday, Dec. 7, at 101 Central (formerly Casey’s) in downtown Whitefish. Live music begins at 7 p.m. by HOTDäYUM! A conversation with the author and a reading will begin at 8 p.m. A live stream of the event will be broadcast at www.youtube.com/@whitefishreview.

To support the Whitefish Review, readers can make a contribution at http://www.whitefishreview.org/.

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