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the Whitefish Review interview

January 22, 2013

As pre-pub press goes, this is pretty darned pre-, but estimable Montana literary journal  Whitefish Review (guest-edited this issue by the estimable Rick Bass) just posted contributor Todd Ream’s interview with yours truly on the subject of Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape (Beacon Press 3.26.13).

An excerpt:

Of all the stories you could have told, what propelled you to tell Opportunity’s story?  In what ways, if any, does Opportunity’s story intersect with your own story?

Honestly, at first, the name: Opportunity, Montana. I was just floored by that name and the layers of aspiration and deception behind it. I knew from earliest glimmerings that the book would be titled Opportunity, Montana. It resonated with me on a lot of levels, including my own move to Montana in search of new, you know, opportunities. And it resonated with me on levels that I didn’t fully understand at the time. Writing the book was largely an exploration of where that strong, nonspecific personal resonance came from, and it ultimately focused on the question of sacrifice. I think of Opportunity as a sacrificial landscape, a place we’ve crapped on so we don’t have to crap closer to home, and that story suggested some parallels with my relationship with my dad, Bob, in that our estrangement was a sacrifice I’d chosen to make, necessarily and for my own benefit, at the expense of an objectively important relationship, a whole emotional landscape, and in a way at his expense as well. As with Opportunity, that familial sacrifice zone may be out of immediate sight, but it’s never not there. To use the reclamation metaphor, it may have been capped and fenced, but it hasn’t gone away.

What further motivated me to write about Opportunity, from a story perspective, is that it isn’t a purely black-and-white, good guy vs. bad guy, typical environmental justice story. It has elements of that, but it’s more complicated. It’s an injustice to dump all this waste on the Opportunity Ponds, for instance, but the dumped-on Opportunity residents and the dumping smelter company are in large part the same people. It’s an environmental injustice to put all the rats in one trap in Opportunity, and that’s logically preferable to dumping the wastes somewhere else. I was interested in a story that didn’t have an easy moral, that forced me to look at the idea of imposed sacrifice, and my participation as a consumer and a resident of the beneficiary town (Missoula), and as a son, to see where that might take me.

My sense that the story might be worth a book, as opposed to a magazine article or just a lengthy head scratch, was definitely tied to ambiguity, and those personal resonances that both implicate me in the story and give me another lens—the estrangement story—to view it through.


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