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Author Podcast: Swain Wolfe

abstract:Award winning Montana author and documentary filmmaker, Swain Wolfe joins BookBuffet host Paula Shackleton in speaking about his fourth book, The Boy Who Invented Skiing: A Memoir (St. Martins Press, June 2006) Listen to this podcast by clicking on the link, and follow along with the transcript. Swain's lilting, intentioned speech describes a world of experience growing up in the West during hard times, and points to the basis of his lyric prose and the complex characterizations in his novels. This book is an excellent gift for the men on your holiday shopping list.


November 21, 2006
— &creativeA

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BB: This is Paula Shackleton podcasting for a literary website dedicated to book groups with news reviews and interviews – and a set of tools for book groups to organize, communicate and meet authors and purchase books. Log on and register your book group today, and authors—contact us for an interview.

Today we are speaking with Montana author, Swain Wolfe.  Swain is a former documentary filmmaker and the author of three novels:

His fourth book is a memoir titled, The Boy Who Invented Skiing, (St. Martins Press. June 2006) and it is the topic of our interview today.  Swain joins us from his home in Missoula Montana.  Please visit him at




BB: Swain I have read that you wrote The Boy Who Invented Skiing after caring for your mother towards the end of her life. The book opens with a description of your parents’ roots. Your mother was the daughter of Icelandic immigrants who farmed in the desolate beauty of the Badlands of western Montana. Your father was the son of a Russian immigrant factory worker who labored beside blistering hot kilns to make bricks in mile-high Colorado, and this work paid for your father’s medical education. Can I ask you to read the two excerpts from the two first chapters that set the stage your relationship to your parents and have you comment?


SW:“When she was a child they called her Tootsie Honyoker – Tootsie as an endearment and Honyoker for bullheadedness. …Tootsie had learned early to distrust authority. …Tootsie Honyoker was the woman who raised me, and the mother I loved.” Pg 1, 3.       


“My father owed his grand position, his beautiful wife, and his fine life to his parents, but he was embarrassed by their ignorance and their backward, Old Country habits.  No amount of education or status could wash that off. My father regretted anything associated with his parents, including hard labor, poverty, and obviously, himself.  Much of his life was devoted to the inventions and rationalizations necessary to conceal his shame.” Pg 9.


SW: Now this is something a lot of people don’t understand, and I noticed with younger readers, people at readings that they felt that my father was some kind of horrible man because of this and what they didn’t understand that that was a very common thing among second generation immigrants: they really wanted to get away from that sort of poverty and they wanted to joint the middle class and distance themselves. So I never harbored bad feelings about my father because of that.  I remember being surprised by it, and not understanding it. I think I do understand it now.


BB: It was interesting to me that you introduced your mother through her mother, and your father through his father, and when you introduce yourself you do it through your mother. I know from reading other reviews of this book that people have picked up on your strong affinity and the representation you have for your mother, so I wanted to ask you when you began writing this memoir—your mother was probably very heavily on your mind, having been going through, I think you mentioned it was towards the end of her life. Do you want to speak to that at all?


SW: When I told my mother I was going to do this, she was very apprehensive about it. And she said, “Oh is this going to be another Mommy Dearest?” And I realized, that’s the last thing in the world I wanted to do, but she also knew that she had been a pretty wicked woman from time to time, and she was afraid that I would get into that and dwell on it and make that who she was. She was a very complex person. It allowed me to start looking at her life in a way that I hadn’t before. It allowed me to ask a lot of questions I hadn’t; her relationship with my sister in particular. I realized that my mother was full of guilt about what happended about my sister. She had always been rejected all her life and it made her very paranoid and insecure. At the same time she was very bright and talented, and a very good organizer.  And so in spite of all the things she had to deal with in her life, she was able to come out of it where she had a comfortable life, but she could never really enjoy that life. So at the end, I was writing this while she was dying and I would sit in a chair, she had a big leather recliner, and I got her a hospital bed, and I would just sit next to her with my laptop and write. When she was coherent, I’d aske questions and we’d talk.

At one time I decided to go down to Woodman, which is the sanitarium that she actually ran. My father was the doctor. (Since she was a woman they couldn’t give her credit for it. My father could, but he didn’t care. The Board of Directors couldn’t. She had a lot to do with the dairy barns and all of that.) When I came back she asked me about the dairy barns and all of that. After I came back she asked me what it looked like, and I said one of the barns had burned down, and the one that was left was the white barn. She said to me, “Is that beautiful little apartment still upstairs there?” and I didn’t know about this apartment, and I just looked at her and I said, “What was his name?” [both laugh] and she looked at me and said, “Al.”

BB: Like Mae West, a woman with a past.




BB: The book is made up of short stories, successive remembrances of people, experiences and jobs from your youth forward to adulthood that are separated into four chapters, and within each of those by a figurative line-break. The stories are told in a spare lyrical style, that evoke these rich life experiences, but still leave room for the reader pass judgment on the people or event and determine what effect they may have on your life.  Before we get into specific details of those remembrances – I am curious to know about the reaction of people to the vastness of your life? And second of all, I’d like to know what effect writing this memoir had on you and continues to have on you as you talk about it and interact with readers?


SW: The first question has to do with the effect on readers about the span of this life.  This [book] takes me up to when I’m 24. My life got very strange after that when I left the mines. It takes me up from being a child in Colorado and then being a teenager in Montana in the ‘50s, and then work. Different jobs, and of course there are many different kinds of jobs and the experience with those jobs.

What differs in today’s audience is that not very many people are writing who had that kind of life, and the reason they didn’t is because that life doesn’t exist that much. Those kind of jobs aren’t that common. They’ve been shipped off overseas, or they’ve simply been stopped or they’ve been mechanized. I have friends who had the same kind of jobs and we’ve talked about this, and we’ve all  come to the conclusion that the opportunities for that life, simply aren’t there.

But the fact is when I was growing up many people had experiences that we could consider fairly exotic today. They just aren’t there today. So a lot of it has to do with the times. You live through a war and then you come home and you just don’t have those experiences anymore. The people around you don’t have them unless they were in the war – that kind of thing. So what is happening is that whatever your experiences are, I suppose the point of writing a memoir is to reflect on them. So it is a meditation in a way. And what this thing has done for me is to make me think very hard about my life. You usually we don’t have the opportunity to do that.

In a way it’s a little like writing a legal document for two parties. You have to be both party. You have to understand your father and your mother and why they did the things that they did.  Not that what they did were bad things.

BB: I can see how it would be a very therapeutic thing to do.

SW: Well one thing it does is it tends to make you a little less judgmental about them, and maybe everything. But it certainly was a process that did make me come to terms with a lot of events of my life.


BB: Growing up in the early '40s before the advent of penicillin you lived in Woodman, Colorado where your father was director and chief of staff of a tuberculosis sanitarium and your mother quietly administered the sanatorium. You had free reign of the complex and a lot of independence, while your father and mother seemed to have a good relationship. In the book you say,

“Mother and Father talked a lot. She said he had a great mind. He’d had rheumatic fever when he was a boy, and his heart was weak. My father was running out of time.” Pg 12.

I can think of a number of consequences that would ensue with the knowledge of that prognosis like that.

SW:  I remember my life falling apart about that time. Oddly enough it wasn’t because of my parents so much as other children. I had lived this rather solitary life until I started school. School was an incredibly traumatic event for me. So this kind of perfect world that I had constructed for myself in the tunnels and on the mesas --- this world… of secret buildings, secret rooms, tunnels... looking for snakes on the mesa, and the packrats, the witches house—all of these things were a kind of a bases for me; they were the framework about my life. I always had that environment.

Then when I started school the kids became, in a way, my kind of mirror. Their idea of reality was very different from mine, and my self-confidence just evaporated. I went from being very confident to insecure.  

And then the family moved. My father, knowing he was going to die, was trying to distance between himself and my mother. He really wanted her to start another life because he knew he wasn’t going to be around for very long, and he wanted her to find somebody that he thought would be able to support his children.

We ended up in the mountains. Mother and I --- and I say “I” because she did put me to work. I had a pack-string of horses and we took dudes and hunters out. This is near Gunneson up on the Taylor River and on Spring Creek, and I suppose by now it’s an enormous resort area. But then it was just a few cabins.  And mother and I and my older sister, Vickie actually lived in a tent; one of those big army tents that were waxed for waterproofing, and we shared it with the horses there.

There was one winter just at the first snow, it caught on fire because of the stove and it just went woomp. We were out of business in an instance. That was quite a memorable spring and summer because of the flooding and the dudes, and some of the hunters who would come in and drink all night and then want to go out hunting in the early morning.

[As far as being a child and experiencing that] you realize they just adapt. If they have to be grown-up and take on responsibility they do, and if they don’t, they don’t.  I was just put in that position and got to see an incredible side of life. 

A lot of it bordered on the outlaw. We poached to get by. There was a fellow by the name of Grant Willis who was probably involved with my mother who worked for her. He broke into the Spring Creek store one night and robbed it. Later on when she married the rancher, my step-father, we had bank robbers that came and lived in one of the cabins on the ranch for part of the winter before they were caught.  There was a man who had something wrong with him, he was incredibly violent and strange. He dragged his wife’s horse to death.  A number of these things I remember from that period…

BB: Bizarre stories…


BB: Your dad and mom eventually separated and you ended up in two incredibly destructive situations. The first was facing the physical and mental decline of your father who became a morphine addict, decimated the family fortune in a year and physically abused you --- and the second is the toxic-passionate relationship between your mother and your new step-father, Sam Wolfe, the rancher in Missoula Montana where you made your next home.  After reading this I understood some of the characters in your previous novels better – and wonder how you see these experiences incorporated into your writing?


SW: (transcription and next segment to follow... stay tuned)


BB: There are several instances in this memoir where you take the reader into a conscious sort of dream state --- I’m referring to the passage were you describe the disappearing door in your childhood bedroom that appeared through, what I gather to have been, a refraction of light, and the other instances of altered sensory experiences deep in the mine shaft later on in this book? Readers who know your previous novels will be familiar with this --it’s one of my favorite characteristics of your writing.    How does the term magic realism sit with you? Do you see yourself as a magical realist writer and can you defend it for us?


[Magic realism is term coined in 1925 by post-expressionist critic Franz Roh. It is broadly defined as a work that includes a juxtaposition of dream states and fantastical to real contexts. Some of the characteristics of magic realism are an ironic distance from the magical aspects; supernatural that is not displayed as questionable, and also having a cyclical time instead of linear.  I interviewed Edith Grossman who translates Spanish language novelists the likes of Marquez, Llosa and Mayra Montero who all use magic realism, and she said she didn’t believe in MR, and thinks it is an empty concept. ]



BB: Can I ask you to talk about Vicki? [pg 39-40, 202-205]



BB: Now I’m speaking to you from a ski town called Whistler 1.5 hrs north of Vancouver, BC and 4 hrs north of Seattle WA, and you may know that Whistler is the location of the 2010 winter Olympics. Members of our village wide book group would undoubtedly be interested in the story that gives title to the book, “The boy who invented skiing.” Describe for us the early days of skiing and I am curious to know if you kept up the sport?



BB: Let’s talk about some of those dangerous jobs you’ve had: the ranch work, the sawmill and forestry work, the forest fire fighting and the mines --not too many jobs on that list that an insurance broker wouldn’t raise an eyebrow to. 



BB: Your writing has been compared to another Montana writer, Norman McLean who wrote, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories is one of my favorite novellas and the film adaptation directed by Robert Redford and starring Brad Pitt is one of my favorite movies. Did you read his non-fiction Young Men and Fire about the 1949 Mann Gulch forest fire? I read that book helped to adapt fire-fighting techniques. There is so much beauty in Montana and of course here we are focusing on some of the tragedies but even the quiet lives of a fly-fishing preacher’s family focuses on the tragic death of Norman McLean’s brother, Paul and so much of your own life stories as told here in THE BOY WHO INVENTED SKIING draw us in to the things in life which challenge us, and we are interested to know how other people come to terms with these things.  What sorts of stories do you think Montana writers will be telling 50 or 100 years from now?




BB: I didn’t know that the Queen of Norway was a major shareholder in the Anaconda Mine (ACM) in Butte.  You describe corporations as,


“…a legal phantom with the rights of an individual and none of the responsibilities-----an ingenious bit of legalese, without which our economy would not function.”

Then go on to describe the environmental decimation and the scandal of miners getting silicosis and widows being evicted from company housing one month after the death of their spouse.  I’ve just returned from the Congo where the only thing that is going to save the country economically is its mining industry. Do you think that mining is any safer or more responsible today? Have you read the book, Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mining Disaster of 1917 by Michael Punke (Hyperion, Aug 8th 2006)



BB:  What happened to the 5,000-acre ranch in the bitterroots your mom and Sam bought? What is next on your agenda?



Previous Work

Swain’s novels deal variously with overcoming fear, hatred and alienation, and the virtues of following a restless heart wherever life takes you.  There is a lyric, spiritual quality threaded into each novel.

In The Woman Who Lives in the Earth Swain tells a timeless story about a girl who uses the hidden forms and patterns of the natural world to transform herself as well as her enemies.

In The Lake Dreams The Sky he uses the Red Crow Indians primal attachment to the natural world to explore the destabilizing effects of a modern erotic love in his characters Cody and Rose whose jealousy, envy and crippling inhibitions make them small town outcasts.

The Parrot Trainer his third novel, 2003, is a meditation on culture, and the nature of obsession. It pits an archeologist against an antiquities looter and evokes the spirit of a woman “cloud dancer” painted on a 900 year-old Mimbres ceremonial burial bowl.


Swain Wolfe has lived life richly and alchemized the experience. 

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