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Literary Missoula; up in Montana's northwest corner, dozens of writers and a literary scene that invites you in.

It's a town of many faces: car lots and bookshops, espresso cafes and Western-wear stores. It is surrounded by the Bitterroot Mountains, at the confluence of the Clark Fork, Bitterroot, and Blackfoot rivers. It has a university, long winters, and four months of softball. It's a "forgiving liberal town in a conservative state" (Rick DeMarinis). Missoula is also home to a surprising number of award-winning fiction writers, poets, and playwrights--part of a growing statewide literary community that is capturing national attention. No one really knows why they've come. Some say space. Others say community. Many credit the University of Montana's 70-year-old creative writing program. Others point to the writers that have preceded them: poet Richard Hugo, novelists William Kittredge, James Welch, and James Crumley. One veteran of the local literary scene speculates, "Living is easy and cheap, and the weather's bad when you need to write, good when you need to go fishing." Whatever the reason, in this town of 36,000 live literally dozens of writers of national, regional, or local importance--and readers hungry for more. Your waitress, motel clerk, or police officer is likely as not involved in literary pursuits. One of the area's 174 softball teams, the Montana Review of Books (their motto: "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas le softball"), once even boasted an outfield responsible for 12 published novels. Much of the writers' socializing takes place in local watering holes. But several conferences, a wealth of readings, and some popular bookstores offer a good introduction to the literary scene in the northwestern corner of the Big Sky state (named after A.B. Guthrie's Pulitzer prize-winning novel of the same title).

"Pray hard to weather, that lone surviving god"

Survey the titles--Winter in the Blood. This House of Sky, A River Runs Through It--and you'll quickly see that the natural world inhabits all Montana writing in some way. It's the source of life in Fool's Crow, by James Welch; of awe in Lewis and Clark's journals; of desolation in Richard Ford's Rock Springs. And it's the theme of two back-to-back gatherings with public readings and seminars. Missoula area code is 406. May 18 through 23, at the Environmental Writing Institute, fledgling nature writers hone their craft in view of the 9,000-foot Bitterroot Mountains. May 22 at 7:30 p.m., you can hear Peter Matthiessen (The Snow Leopard) read in a hundred-year-old barn at the Teller Wildlife Refuge; call 961-3507 for directions, 243-6486 for seminar details. May 24, 25, and 26, a conference to be held at the Holiday Inn is devoted to nature and the written word from Thoreau to the present. It's sponsored by the nonprofit Northern Lights Institute and Hellgate Writers Inc. You must register to participate in the daily workshops, but evening events are open to the public. May 24, Pulitzer prize-winning poet W.S. Merwin gives a free reading at the University of Montana Underground Lecture Hall. May 25, Peter Matthiessen lectures on writers and the environment at the Holiday Inn. May 26, poet Linda Hogan (Seeing Through the Sun) reads at the Front Street Theatre (221 E. Front). All events are at 8 p.m.; for the last two, admission is $5 for adults, $3 for students and seniors. Call 721-7415 for a full conference schedule and directions.

Readings, visitors from other galaxies

Local authors, established and fledgling, regularly test their mettle in front of the toughest of audiences: the home town crowd. The reading circuit is very active during the school year, only sporadic in summer. The series listed here are free; they last through May and resume in October. Call 243-5231 for information. Writers ranging from first-year fiction students to widely published poet Patricia Goedicke (The Tongues We Speak) are featured in the sixth annual Second Wind series, held Sundays at 8 (at 7 in winter) in the Northern Pacific--a railroad depotturned-microbrewery, at the northern end of Higgins Avenue. Danger! Live Writers! is an open-mike readings series held biweekly. Thursday at 8; call 549-2022 for May dates. You can sip coffee or cider at the Chimney Corner, 540 Daly Avenue, and hear anything from chants to stories to ecology rap songs. Across the street at the University of Montana, nearly 25 creative writing master's-degree students read this month; for more information, call 243-5231. Authors and aliens alike gather May 11, 12, and 13 at the fifth annual Missoula Science Fiction Conference. For $12 daily or $20 for three days, you can see the latest in fantasy videos and science-fiction games, and take part in an other worldly masquerade ball to be held at the Executive Motor Inn, 201 E. Main Street; 543-7221. Call 549-1435 for conference details. On May 13 at 2 p.m., Hellgate Writers sponsors a Mother's Day benefit reading with a San Francisco performance poet and two local women fiction writers. The event is at the Crystal Theatre, 515 Higgins Avenue; admission is $4 for the general public, $3 for students and seniors.

Plotting your literary trails

In this setting, a book list can be as important as a street map. Your best guide is Thee Last Best Place, a 5-pound, 1,161-page anthology containing selections by authors ranging from Montana Indians to contemporary poets. The book sold vigorously even at a local bar--and even at $5 over the original $30 price. You can get it at Missoula bookstores or order it by mail ($39.95 plus $3 for shipping) from the University of Washington Press; call (800) 441-4115. A paperback edition ($22.50) is due in June.

Where the scribes shop

Montana authors, in person as well as in print, can be found in most Missoula bookstores. These independent booksellers also offer large regional sections and host occasional book-signing parties. Freddy's Feed and Read, 1221 Helen avenue; 549-2127. A grocery and a takeout deli share space with a 5,000-title fiction section and a raft of periodicals. Hours are 9 to 9 Mondays through Saturdays, 10 to 7 Sundays (closed May 1 for International Workers' Day). University of Montana Bookstore. University Center; 243-4921. Grizzly sweatshirts are for sale along with Rick DeMarinis's Under the Wheat in one of Missoula's largest trade sections. Open 8 to

5:30 weekdays, 11 to 4 Saturdays.

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Fact and Fiction, 216 W. Main Street; 721-2881. Posters of book jackets, including the one from James Crumley's One to Count Cadence, look over oak-faced shelves teeming with area writerons are commercial grain- or pellet-type baits laced with strychnine or chlorophacinone. Deposit them in the main tunnel. If your gopher problem warrants the effort, consider buying a poison bait applicator such as the one picture on page 242. It's available from Young Industries, 1033 Wright, Mountain View, Calif. 94043. It costs about $30. Also available is the Gopher Getter Midget, about $50, and the Gopher Getter Junior, about $100. They hold more bait, 8 ounces and 24 ounces respectively (both available from Wilco Manufacturing, Box 291, Lompoc, Calif. 93438). Don't use regular gopher bait in the applicator. Large, irregular particles will clog the tube. Strychnine is extremely poisonous to people, birds, mammals, and fish. Handle it with great care. Place the poison bait where only the gopher is likely to get it, and watch that the gopher doesn't push it out of the tunnel and leave it exposed. Remember, too, that strychnine-laced gophers can be lethal to dogs or cats. Gassing is most effective in dense, nonporous, moist soils that retain the toxic fumes at high enough concentrations (otherwise, you might be surprised by an Bay Winters' Conference on Flathead Lake; call 243-6486 to register. For Missoula lodging information call the chamber of commerce at 543-6623.
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Publication:Sunset
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Date:May 1, 1990
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