Books In Conversation
CARRIE LA SEUR in coversation with Olivia Kate Cerrone
The Weight of an Infinite Sky
In a time of deep political and social divisions across America, literature remains an essential bridge to our greater humanity as a nation. Driven by a fierce social consciousness and deep compassion, the novels of Carrie La Seur offer a complex and nuanced view into the social fabric of the West, specifically the more rural communities of southern Montana. With a piercing clarity and rich lyrical style reminiscent of Willa Cather, La Seur’s fiction probes issues of family, identity and belonging in a time of uncertainty and fear. Educated at Oxford University, Yale and Bryn Mawr College, La Seur also works as an energy and environmental lawyer in Billings, MT, where she founded the legal nonprofit Plains Justice in 2006. Her novels The Home Place and The Weight of an Infinite Sky, were both published by William Morrow, to critical acclaim, with the latter just released in paperback this year. I recently had the privilege to speak with La Seur about her work.
Olivia Kate Cerrone: In The Weight of an Infinite Sky, Anthony Fry struggles to remake his own shattered identity and persistent sense of fatalism after his father’s death and the failure of his New York City acting career. Returning home offers little comfort as he’s faced with complicated family tensions and the tight-knit but often stifling social dynamics of rural Montana, one explored in your first book The Home Place. Why did you return to this world, especially with Hamlet as a backdrop?
Carrie La Seur: I had the idea starting out that I was going to do some kind of a sequel. The same characters were going to be involved but I was going to take them around a different corner and not pursue the same storylines that existed in the first book. You have this idea after you finish the first book and it’s published and out in the world that I’ve figured out something and I know how to write a novel now and it’s going to be easier next time. I should’ve paid more attention to the advice that’s everywhere by novelists who’ve been working their entire careers who say it ‘never gets any easier.’ It’s not just a truth, it’s a warning.
I rewrote this manuscript over and over. It changed an enormous amount. Characters fell back or came to the forefront. I started out with a female protagonist. I was very interested in doing something that tied into a Shakespearean plot and interested in Hamlet, so I was going to gender-swap that, but it didn’t work in a traditional ranch setting. Anthony came into existence when I didn’t intend for him to be there at all. I learned that more important than plot was to start out with characters that interested me and find out as much as I could about them, then allow them to develop organically.
I started to feel as if I was understanding new things about Hamlet as I tried to write The Weight of an Infinite Sky. It’s difficult to map Hamlet onto a modern scene because of course Hamlet ends in a total bloodbath. That’s just not a very good way to end a novel. There were things that needed to change to give these characters a truer arc. Hamlet himself struggles to become the man who is ready to take over from his father and challenge his uncle and deal with the threat from Norway. The death at the end almost feels like an escape. Anthony isn’t going to get off so easy. He needs to figure out whether what he sees is real, because Hamlet doesn’t know if what he sees is real. He’s seeing ghosts, and he has suspicions and he doesn’t know what’s real and what’s not.
Rail: That issue of trust and betrayal plays a significant role for Anthony as he realizes that his family’s land and that of his community’s faces certain destruction in the ominous shadow of the Harmony Mining company. Many of the book’s characters contain an impenetrable quality, such Anthony’s uncle Neal, whom he suspects killed his father, or secondary characters like the mute rancher Dwight McLean, who is understood only with glances, or Jenna Tall Grass, who lives on Crow Indian Reservation land with her aunts, both medicine women who believe the livestock is being poisoned. How did you approach these characters while depicting the complexities of this little-known and often misunderstood American enclave?
La Seur: Many of these rural, small town communities exist as closed systems and you can only get a little way inside. There’s so much that’s unsaid and so much cultural reserve, both on white and Native sides, that to get the truth out is incredibly difficult. People refer to things that happened decades ago and operate on shared knowledge that’s not openly spoken about to anyone from the outside. In some ways with a novel like this, you have to make up that backstory and assign it to everyone. You then let the reader know what they wouldn’t be allowed to know if you just showed up one day and met these people. You’d get very little out of them. I really wanted to draw a character who was just completely closed off and wouldn’t talk at all. One of the comments I got from early readers was that the dialogue didn’t tell much. Characters say a few words and that’s it. With Dwight McLean, for instance, I wanted a character who literally does not speak. The only way he could exist in the way that he does in this story is to have the kind of history he has with the people around him. Their long-standing relationship lets them feel as if they’re communicating with him even when they only get these minimal gestures. In a way he’s a cipher for the whole community; the only way you get inside is to create some common history.
Yet I’m definitely writing about an unpopular demographic. I just wrote a guest blog post and said something like “there’s a reasonable chance that Uncle Neal voted for Trump and if we dug into the politics of a lot of these people they would not be at all relatable to the audiences that are most likely to pick up a book like this.” That’s awkward, but also necessary, in this political moment to keep trying to bridge the distance to a culture that seems so closed off and incomprehensible that it’s tempting not even to try.
Rail: The presence of the Harmony Mining company is also woven so artfully throughout the plot, creating brutal tensions as they pressure Anthony’s family and neighbors to sign mineral leases that will essentially destroy the community’s land. How does this relate to your experiences as an energy and environmental lawyer working in Montana?
La Seur: A lot of this was ripped from the headlines or taken from personal experience and things I’ve learned about the coal strip mining industry because of my law practice. They move in with massive drag lines and dump trucks ten times the height of your car. They need to mine from one tract to the adjacent tract to the next without dismantling and moving that equipment. It’s fundamental to their economics. That’s something I used with to create tension in the relationships between these landowners who are close together and will go like dominoes if the company gets one then moves across and gets someone else’s land. They’re tied together and interrelated in their vulnerability to the mine. There’s also larger whisperings that there might be criminal activity associated with the mine. These are multinational corporations. The only reason why they behave themselves to the extent that they do in the United States is because there are laws here that don’t exist in a lot of the jurisdictions where they operate. It’s possible to follow them around the globe and see how they behave where they can get away with it. The looser our regulations become, and the more the Department of the Interior and EPA turn a blind eye to mismanagement, the more we get the kind of brutal outcomes that occur in places like Indonesia. People are pressured into doing what the massive corporation thinks they ought to do, and these companies are not used to being defied or resisted.
I represented tribal members as clients who were in negotiations with the coal company and didn’t want the land mined. They experienced a lot of pressure to sign. They were told that they’d be forced to sign one way or another, and that they should go ahead and sign now and get the money. Done with a smile, free coffee and pens and cookies on the table. But the iron hand inside the silk glove is always there, the implicit threat. I’m taking a little literary license with the animals getting sick and nobody sure whether this is actual sabotage or just a bad year for weeds. We do have bad years for weeds in Montana, and animals do die, but the idea that the company would cynically use something like that to sow fear and get their contracts signed doesn’t seem at all hard to believe either.
Rail: Is this behavior with the strip mining industry on the rise in Montana and perhaps throughout the US on the West Coast? The name “Rolling Thunder” is so chilling yet perfect for the project that Harmony Mining gives in stripping the minerals from Anthony’s community.
La Seur: This is a century-old story or more because the extractive industries have done in the West what they did to Appalachia. We had the copper barons in Montana, which controlled local government and newspapers. They ruled with a completely bared iron fist and gave rise to some of the first strong campaign finance laws in the country, which lasted until Citizens United. This is the way extraction companies operate. They come into areas that have relatively weak agricultural economies. They bring a lot of money and are politically connected. They’re powerful and just run over people. The tragic story of the Indonesian goat-herding village that Chance discovers in The Weight of an Infinite Sky is the story of any of these little towns in a place like Montana or North Dakota where there was a gas boom. I don’t think it’s being a bleeding heart to describe it the way I have because the stories happen so many times. We keep thinking that something different is going to happen, but no, this is the way that extractive industries operate. Right now, the coal industry has fallen back because of the economics of the gas boom. It’s cheaper to run a gas-fired generator than a coal-fired generator. They’ve done badly in recent years, but now we have an administration that wants to push coal, and there are lots of ways you can subsidize coal without giving them money directly because they lease most of their land from the federal government. That could all take a turnaround if Interior smoothes the way for the coal industry to crawl back.
Rail: What new literary projects are you at work on?
La Seur: Right now, I’m working on a novel inspired by 20th century leftist writer and activist Meridel Le Sueur, and the modern tragedy of Venezuela. People kept asking if Le Sueur and I are related and I don’t think so, but it made me look her up. She was born in the early 1900s and her life was an epic 20th century story. She was present at the Teamsters strike in 1934 when people were actually shot and killed on the picket line. She wrote a powerful piece about it called “I Was Marching.” Because she was writing literature that was strongly associated with Communist politics, she was blacklisted by McCarthy. The FBI went after anyone who tried to publish or employ her. Toward the end of her life, people were interested in doing a biography and she was adamantly opposed because, she insisted, the story should be about the people. So, I’m writing a novel with a protagonist who definitely isn’t Meridel, but is inspired by a lot of what I’ve learned about her through archives in the Minnesota Historical Society. I wanted to explore the parallel political breakdown of the US and Venezuela so the narrator is from Venezuela, a country that’s touched my life and heart in many ways and is now breaking my heart, over and over.