Bryce Andrews is the author of Holding Fire: A Reckoning with the American West, a gorgeous, lyrical, and moving exploration of the violent legacy that hangs over the West like the inverted fug of a paper mill, woven through with memoir and the surprising journey of the pistol that once belonged to his grandfather. Bryce is also one of my closest friends, and a fellow cattle rancher (here on the East Coast we’re not allowed to call ourselves ranchers—we’re farmers), so of course I’m biased, but that doesn’t add so much as a speck of fine-grain French sea salt to my verdict about his new book: it’s spectacular.
In all of Bryce’s books—his previous two are Badluck Way and Down from the Mountain—he treads a knife edge of vulnerability and scouring grit. He is often engaged in work or lifestyle or some inextricable merging of the two that most would call difficult, and therefore callus-forming, but he lays himself open like a man extracting his own bullet.
We shot a few epistles back and forth for Orion. Shot is a violent metaphor.
Nathaniel Ian Miller: Throughout the book, we see you addressing your soon-to-exist child. (I love these sections; they are bittersweet, vulnerable, and elegiac, even though I resent reading them in italics.)
Bryce Andrews: This reaction speaks to your intellectual baggage more than any inherent quality of italicized text, but that is another discussion entirely.
NM: As a father-to-be, your position in the West feels delicate, potentially untenable. SPOILER ALERT: Now you are a proud father of the aforementioned hellspawn. Have your feelings changed at all? How are you looking at it now? Can you hear your own thoughts through the shrieking?
BA: Neither [my wife] Gillian nor I have achieved a coherent train of thought in months, except while our daughter is sleeping or breaking things. This morning the gremlin discovered how to turn an issue of The New Yorker into a thousand bits of shredded paper, so I can attend to your questions. Until she extracts the three binding staples, that is.
To your question: While writing, I often thought about the violence and injustice braided into American history, my colonial ancestry, and agriculture. That shadow stretches across the continent and, for me, was uniquely concentrated in the revolver I inherited from my grandfather. Transforming the gun into a different kind of tool was a way of wrestling with a compromised inheritance. Such disarmament, of course, is only a small part of learning to thrive and be at peace in colonized places like the West. A greater and more sweeping change is necessary, and an unprecedented reckoning with the past.
I still feel the urgency and necessity of that change, but since I became a father, I can also feel myself turning toward the future with new hope and energy. When I see my daughter, I think less about my position in a bad history and more about what’s possible in the world she’ll inhabit. I think about what I’ll pass along.
Revisit this conversation with Bryce about electric fences and grizzly bears’ appetite for corn.
NM: A note about the writing style: Something you and I both like, and which I will never admit, except to Orion readers, that you probably do better, is the dissonance (or harmony if you prefer) that occurs when hard-bitten plain-spoken truths are interspersed with bursts of lyricism, sometimes within the same sentence. I think of this as the Larry McMurtry effect. Do you look to anyone in particular for stylistic inspiration? Is it a conscious process?
BA: When I first began working as a cowboy on the Sun Ranch in the Madison Valley, I was captivated by the fact that my chosen life contained equal measures of beauty and brutality. The presence of one heightened my experience of the other. Example: looking up from the work of cutting a rotting elk carcass free of a barbwire fence to see the sun falling horizonward in red glory. Example: floating in a hot spring in a state of perfect relaxation, to the sounds of wolves running a luckless deer.
This has to do with your question, I swear. My favorite writers grasp the power of contrast, applying it to syntax and subject. They understand what happens when light and dark share space. You want names? Influences? Fine, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll only list writers over eighty with Scottish names: McMurtry, McCarthy, McPhee. Yes, McPhee. See Irons in the Fire.
You and I like art that fits this pattern because it reflects how the world is, with the mundane and profound jumbled up. Writing this way is not a conscious tactic, or an approach; it’s just the direction a story goes as it gets better.
NM: In your view, is the American West still very much the same place of violence it’s been since European colonization? In what ways? Is there any hope for it?
BA: Wow. Fun and easy questions! I look forward to answering them completely in five paragraphs or less.
Is the West still a place where ecological and cultural violence are commonplace, scourged by an electorally significant percentage of over armed, traumatized, neocolonial, coal-rolling shitbirds? Are we still dismantling the natural world at unprecedented speed and scale—grazing it to dust, clear-cutting and paving it over? Is the dominant culture still finding creative ways to undermine the prosperity and sovereignty of Native nations? Yessiree, friend. Here in the West, like everywhere in America, we do that.
But there are other things happening, too. Stirrings that filigree the West’s vast mess with shining veins of hope. There are promising, soul-restoring examples that give us ample reason to hope. I just can’t think of any right now.
No, wait, I’ve got one. Consider the Flathead Reservation, where I live. In this corner of Montana, on a fraction of their ancestral territory and with resources diminished by centuries of vicious treatment by the U.S. government and its citizens, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have reserved and protected a huge ecosystem in the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness. They’ve replanted and restored the once channelized main stem of the Jocko River and signed a water compact with the state and federal government, codifying the tribe’s senior right to in-stream flow. They’ve worked like mad to preserve their language and traditional ecological knowledge. They have cultural committees composed of elders and, so far as I can tell from the outside, they listen to what those elders have to say.
To put it simply, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes act like who they are, a people who have maintained a reciprocal relationship with this place for many thousands of years and intend to remain for several millennia more. Now, I’m going to say something really, really obvious, something that has been studiously ignored since Lewis and Clark stumbled over the mountains: Respecting, listening to, and learning from the West’s Native cultures offers us the clearest path toward thriving here. Dealing justly with those cultures—returning stolen land, honoring Indigenous culture and values, repatriating artifacts, and supporting tribal sovereignty and prosperity—offers the rest of us a form of redemption and a profound source of hope.
NM: Why do you hate guns? Do you also hate America?
BA: Clearly, you’re trying to get me shot by the neighbors. No, I don’t hate guns. Firearms are tools and I sometimes use them. I hunt deer and elk each fall, and my family eats the meat.
I am, however, disgusted with the fetishization of guns in contemporary American culture. I’m repulsed by the ill-hidden existential panic of trigger-fondlers and infuriated that so many of us can find nothing better than a weapon to use as a totem.
The thing that bothers me is nicely exemplified in those American flag bumper stickers where the stripes are made out of tiny silhouetted assault weapons. Perhaps our urban readers are unfamiliar with the design, but I see one pretty much every time I drive from our farm to Missoula. I hate those things. What bothers me about those stickers and, indeed, about our nation, is the fact that we present violence and freedom as inseparable. That’s not the lesson of history. It’s dangerous bullshit.
When faced with said bullshit, it sometimes becomes necessary for me to merge in ahead of the stickered vehicle and decrease our road speed to the pace of American cultural progress. Whether this behavior is constructive, I do not care.
NM: What do you suppose your grandfather, who you note was a reserved man, would make of this book? Would he respect the decisions you’ve made regarding the problematic family heirloom?
BA: I think he’d respect the path that led me to unmake, or remake, his gift. I base this assertion on a letter he wrote in support of my father’s application for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War. The letter’s gist was that, though he didn’t share with his son’s stance on war, he honored it as a deeply held conviction. He believed in my father’s character. That was enough. I hope he’d look at my choice the same way.
If nothing else, my grandfather would admire the craftsmanship of the finished product, though it bears saying here I can take only partial credit for the beauty, grace, or strength of what the revolver became. That transformation would have been impossible without Jeffrey Funk’s help and the facilities at his New Agrarian School. Jeffrey’s one of the most skilled and intelligent craftspeople I’ve ever encountered. Hephaestus, basically. Everyone should attend his school. Orphic hymns should be composed in his honor.
NM: Through some vicissitudes of time and space entirely out of your hands, Holding Fire is being published by Mariner, an imprint of HarperCollins. How has the process been affected by the strike, and how might it be going forward? If you weren’t stressed about it, you would be dead, but how is the strike sitting with you otherwise? Do you feel at all like a scab?
BA: Around this past Thanksgiving, after showing a heroic degree of patience with management, the union representing many of the junior staff at HarperCollins went on strike. My editor is part of that union, so she vanished when the strike began.
For the last several months, 250 of the people who edit, publicize, market, and generally support bookmaking at HarperCollins have been on a picket line seeking an increase in base pay and diversity protections in hiring. The union’s financial demand is modest, raising the salary floor from $45,000 to $50,000. In New York, where most of the striking employees live, this still means living with roommates and/or working a second job. As of three days ago, when I last talked with one of the striking employees, HarperCollins management had not come to the negotiating table in any serious way. There were no signs that the strike would soon be resolved.
To my way of thinking, management’s approach to this whole business is unconscionable and inexplicable outside the context of corporate greed. The strike is hurting HarperCollins employees, authors, and readers. It has lifted the curtain on something gross to behold.
The union deserves to have their demands met. That outcome, unfortunately, is quite unlikely. HarperCollins is owned by News Corp, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who evidently gives not one withered shit about good books or the lives of normal people.
NM: Side note: Which has killed more people: guns or corporate greed?
BA: I have a hard time separating the two when one so often rests in the hand of the other.
What bothers me . . . about our nation, is the fact that we present violence and freedom as inseparable.
NM: Your dad exists in the book as a kind of guiding spirit (a still very much alive spirit, I should make clear). His iconoclasm, his conscientious objection, his fondness for the West, surely sparked certain choices in your own short life. Did he loom in your mind while you were writing?
BA: There was a time in my life when I was unfair to my father. I was enamored with a threadbare version of western masculinity and scoured the boondocks for harder, more callused role models. Often, that search put me in the position of trying to learn from traumatized or stunted men. Then I missed my father. I missed his openness and generosity of spirit. I missed his commitment to nonviolence, which I came to understand took more strength of will than hunting bears or breaking horses. My father would not want to break a horse. Train one, maybe, but never break it. You ask me if he loomed as my I wrote this book, but as a rule, my father doesn’t loom. He has mastered the art of being a father without looming. I’ve seen enough of the world to be impressed by that.
NM: Can you address the recent tragedy in your life, namely that he sold his Triumph Bonneville for no defensible reason?
BA: My lovely pacifist father did not, in fact, sell that motorcycle—which, by the way, he insisted upon calling “Bonnie” for the sole purpose of provoking me—but instead traded it to a guy named Mike for several years of boxing lessons. Truly, the Conscientious Boxer is an enigma trailed remora-like by lesser mysteries. I guess he got rid of the motorcycle because I could not be trusted with it.
NM: In PR materials, Holding Fire is billed as an “impassioned call to forge a new way forward.” Do you feel that it’s an impassioned call? And if so, a call to do what? For people to divest themselves of or otherwise render inoperative their firearms, or for people to look inward and think harder about their role in the perpetual unraveling? It’s impassioned for sure, but I didn’t read it as a call. To my mind, it’s the farthest thing from didactic or polemic. Just a personal exploration that you hoped would resonate. What did you intend, and how do you see it now?
BA: The book’s not prescriptive. I wrote it because I needed to untangle my relationship with my home, work, and history. When people read Holding Fire as a call to action, which a lot of them do, it’s because voluntary disarmament appeals to them. It’s because they see value in the kind of changes the book describes. I’m not suggesting that everyone with an inherited revolver needs to do precisely what I did with mine. What I would like, though, is for readers to take a hard look at their personal myths and how those stories relate to violence. I’d like to make people reconsider the tools, physical and otherwise, they carry and use in life.
NM: Regarding a part I find particularly powerful: There’s a section when despair almost gets the better of you in Deer Lodge, and you begin to tiptoe into suicidal ideation. Can you tell us anything about the process of writing that? Cathartic, painful, both?
BA: Portions of those scenes come verbatim from notebooks I kept at the time. I can remember how it felt to write the words and also the process of refining them for the book. The moments I’m describing—when I was alone at night with my grandfather’s gun, thinking the darkest thoughts—terrified me. Just flat-out scared the shit out of me, because I always thought of myself as a person whose great gift from the world was unflagging hope. At first, I was afraid to return to those days and thoughts, but in the course of composing my notes into scenes, something changed. I think it had to do with understanding that the dark times marked a shift in my dealings with firearms. They were a point of inflection and I understood that I could draw a line from them to where I am today. When I saw it that way, I began to feel something like gratitude for even the worst nights.
NM: That section, and the book in general, represent a far cry (and a welcome draft of clean air) from the ridiculous ideal certain people have about rancher-writers in the American West. Any reservations about opening yourself up that way? About how readers might perceive you, or rush to judgment, or how much you’d worry your mom? Is this the rawest you’ve allowed yourself to be on the page? That is to say, does this book feel more personal than your previous two or do you feel that you’ve always written in such close proximity to yourself?
BA: Here’s a damning admission about the dark chapters: I was so wrapped up in getting the writing right that I didn’t think about my mother reading those scenes until I’d finished the book. It was only after I handed her a draft to read that I remembered what she’d find in there. Nobody who cares for me, except perhaps you, enjoys that section of the book (and you only like it because it’s the dark beating heart of the narrative), but there’s no getting around the truth of it. No getting around, either, the importance of speaking such truths. I wrote about this in the book, but since it was in one of the italicized sections, you probably skipped it.
About this book being personal: I’ve always written from my life, but with Holding Fire, I tried to write more directly and clearly about parts of my life that trouble me. I knew from the start that the book wouldn’t be worth much unless I did it. I still found it very hard to do.
My first two books are, at their core, simple stories about things that happened to me. Each has its place, time, and natural end. In Badluck Way, I took a job ranching and struggled with killing a wolf. In Down from the Mountain, I followed the life and death of a grizzly. Holding Fire has no such armature and fewer limitations. I felt uniquely vulnerable as I was writing this book, like the whole thing might come down on my head with crushing force. This was, and is, a story capable of hurting me.
I’d like to make people reconsider the tools, physical and otherwise, they carry and use in life.
NM: You write animals particularly well, in all of their grace and (in)dignity. The parts about the sick cow and Salish the horse destroyed me. Is the kind of empathy that’s required to accomplish this antithetical to what it takes to be a rancher long-term?
BA: No, I don’t think that kind of empathy is antithetical to raising animals. It’s just that the kind of ranching we’ve known in the American West is anomalous, inhumane, corporate, and at odds with much of our shared history with animals. For most of the time we’ve been mucking about with domestication, herders knew their animals as individuals, cared for them, and ate directly of their flesh. Communities were built and sustained by the reciprocal relationship between particular animals and individuals. This is a fraught but workable way of living. It’s a very different ballgame from sending hundreds of animals to feedlots in the Midwest, or raising broiler chickens that never see the sun.
I struggle with killing for strangers, because I can’t know if the people who eat the meat appreciate my pain and the animal’s ultimate sacrifice. More than once, I’ve come to the conclusion that I like, or at least know, some of the animals in my care better than the people I feed them to. It’s a strange position to find oneself in.
NM: There’s a scene I particularly love where you describe a bull having a kind eye, the “unmistakable aspect of tractability.” Can you elaborate a bit on what this is, and how you know?
BA: Sometimes, you look into the eyes of a horse, cow, or cattle dog, and you just know you can work with that animal. You look in their eyes and see across the canyon, and there is an understanding. Paul Shepard characterizes this as a nefarious form of codependence and exploitation in Nature and Madness, but I think I disagree.
NM: In a subsequent scene, your ranching guru Pat Zentz says, “Older I get . . . the less I can stand the smell of death.” You’ve been at it a while now yourself. Do you feel it getting harder? Does ranching feel like a life’s pursuit, or something you’ll do for a while?
BA: I really dislike taking cattle to slaughter. It always feels like betrayal, though actually it’s the consummation of a rancher’s relationship with cattle and, in the context of that relationship, no betrayal at all. Still, it wears on me. I think of it less as something that gets harder as I go and more as a balance tilting one way or another.
Yesterday, I was up in the mountains behind our farm, where a creek comes down. I pass the place often and almost always see an ouzel there. I watched the bird dip in and out of pools and run across the creek bed underwater, thinking that it was a much more interesting animal than a cow. No, I don’t think I’ll be a rancher forever.
Bryce Andrews is the author of Down from the Mountain, which won the Banff Mountain Book Competition and was a Montana Book Award Honor Title and an Amazon Best Science Title of 2019. His first book was Badluck Way, which won the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, the Reading the West Book Award for nonfiction, and the High Plains Book Award for both nonfiction and debut book. Andrews grew up in Seattle, Washington, and spent a decade working on ranches in the high valleys of Montana. He lives near Missoula with his family.