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I grew up in Wyoming. And no, Wyoming is not, as a friend of mine who was visiting his parents back in his hometown of Washington, D.C. was told by a cop when assessing his driver’s license during a traffic stop, “a city in Texas…” as in, “Kid, this is clearly a fake ID because everyone knows that Wyoming is…” Wyoming may not be a city in Texas, although it is a town name in several other states, but I’m talking about the state. My native state. Wyoming is a lot of things. It’s big, for one thing. And it’s sparse, for another. A place with barely more than 500,000 people among the 400,000 antelope (no, really, that’s a true Wyoming Department of Game and Fish estimate, one far greater than the human population when I was a kid). There are a lot of places in the state where the nearest neighbor might be thirty miles away. Often places wide enough to be considered a “wide-spot-in-the-road” can be farther apart than that. But here’s another thing about Wyoming, one that I suspect is as true today as it was when I was a kid, Wyoming people—or certainly the vast majority I know—tend to be kind. They make for good friends. They stand by you because you’re one of them and because doing so is the right thing to do, even if they don’t always understand you or like the look of you. I hope they are still that way despite some radical politics in recent years, where, like so much of the country, what was a reliably centrist, practical-minded state that often had mixed political representation has leaned far, far right. But I suspect, or maybe it’s primarily hope at this point, that the people often don’t reflect the politics, even if some believe it to be their own politics (which is a subject unto itself and one I’m not going to enter). In my experience, Wyomingites are quick to lend a hand. They think nothing of driving several hours to help out if you need help, in much the same way they think nothing about a twelve-hour (or more) round trip for a high school basketball game or to cheer on their beloved Pokes in Laramie. They still bring casseroles when someone is sick or has died. They donate time and money and expertise. They stop for you if your car breaks down on the highway. Some of this is because Wyoming is a difficult place where you help your neighbors because one day you are going to need their help, even if your default mode is “I can do it myself.” Some of it is simply engrained in western culture.
I live in Montana now, an even bigger state, if one with nearly double the population. It, like most desirable Rocky Mountain places is changing so rapidly you can feel like you’ve lost your bearings and magnetic north has shifted. It is a region with huge influxes of new faces, different experiences, and diverse expectations. I remain hopeful the essential kind character of Montana’s people, like those of Wyoming, does not change as well. I was reminded of this kind of unbelievable kindness this week with regularity. As I write this, I am on a kind of mini-tour of independent bookstores and libraries across Montana (with one notable Wyoming stop) trying to woo readers with my new novel, one that is decidedly about kindness, a dark comedy titled Man, Underground. In the spirit of those epic journey actions of kindness familiar from growing up in Wyoming, my closest friend drove two and a half hours each way to show up at a book event in Helena just to lend his support. And then he took me out to dinner. I’m mesmerized by this act of friendship. It’s his nature. The man doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. He can’t go anywhere he doesn’t know someone, and if you are a stranger, you won’t be for long because Al will ask comment on your dog, or your adorable child, or remind you that you’re doing a good job whether that job is shoveling the sidewalk, serving his meal, defending freedom, or writing. And he’ll mean it. He brings in strays—mostly humans—with regularity, giving them a place to sleep on their travels or providing them a meal after a hard day of work. He’s an extraordinary human. That he is so kind to all he meets does nothing to diminish the kindness he routinely shows me, and our almost-weekly coffee talks are something so important to me that often they are the respite that helps me get through the work week, like a marker of time, for Al’s intelligence and interest in nearly any subject might be the only thing that overshadows his kindness. I hope some of you have a friend who would drive five hours just to show that they value you. It’s an unnaturally rare thing.
This tour has been filled with reminders of the kind of kindness my friend embodies. People who define “friend” whether or not I have known them prior to meeting them. David Abrams, the gifted novelist, springs to mind, who when asked by a stranger if he might be willing to review a novel from a writer he had never met, one that applies a somewhat parallel approach to his novel Fobbit, using absurdity to buffer dark themes, in his case war, in mine an angry and violent culture—didn’t hesitate to say yes. Nor did he hesitate when I asked if he might be willing to share the stage at an event in his home city. Nor did he flinch at a poor turnout, instead engaging in a public conversation that was insightful, engaging, and so professional you would have thought we spoke before a full auditorium.
Often, the audience at events has been populated largely because friends at home took up their belief in the book to voluntarily reach out to contacts in towns and cities where I have been appearing. That friendship has not only provided some interested readers, without it how else would I have met the inspirational, engaged, vibrant mother of Kim, my Tai-chi instructor and friend? Tai-chi is a living metaphor about how community grows from friendship and friendship springs from dedicated endeavors. If you have ever watched the graceful fluidity of a group linked in the movement of a Tai-chi form, you know what I mean. Was it any surprise that my Tai-chi friends attended a home book event? Or that, three hours from home I had the chance to meet Kim’s mother’s dear friend, a retired librarian whose passion for books is as alive as ever and whose curiosity has never dimmed?
The writing world is a small one in the end, among writers who nearly always stand up for one another, and among readers and booksellers. New friendships have been kindled by the warmth of first encounters I have had with booksellers, from those who own or work in quirky, wonderful tiny shops supplementing new book sales with used book inventories, to gleaming, active independent shops with dedicated event spaces and to a co-op bookstore, the embodiment of the community nature of readers where members “own” the store. Given the pantheon of entertainment options, the steady, scary decline in adult readership, the escarpments constructed by behemoth online retailers who dominate the market, the near impossible finances of sustaining an independent bookstore, to witness the vibrant joy, dedication to community, and fervent belief in a larger mission of expanding access to ideas and learning by store owners has been remarkable. In nearly all cases, walking into a local independent bookseller’s space is like stepping into the hug offered by a friend. I have been pleasantly surprised by managers of corporate bookstores who have welcomed me with enthusiasm and immediate support, bonding immediately by their genuine love of books and those who write them and those who read them.
There is something unique that emerges in conversations about books, even with total strangers, fostering an eagerness to share ideas, ask questions, offer recommendations, discuss passions in which the intimacy of the reading experience expands outwards in widening bands. A connection where the quiet of the individual act of reading unites with the recognition that the lives, ideas, and stories encountered there intersects the communal. Talking to readers, strangers quickly become friends, recognizing that their love of books is really a love of the people and ideas that drive books forward, that books are entrance portals to a universe of knowledge and windows opening onto vantage points from which to ponder all we do not and cannot know. Readers often behave like friends, like the two Irishmen touring Montana during the first surprise return of winter, who upon seeing a poster advertising a comedic novel felt compelled to stop at bookshop and purchase a copy. Or the mother, who in whispers to sustain the surprise gifts she was purchasing for her two daughters browsing elsewhere in the store, matched her book selections from among my novels to their personalities. Or the man, who after learning about the theme of the new novel, wanted to tell me the story of his rekindled love story with his high school sweetheart after a thirty-year hiatus. The sort of story you would tell a friend.
The encounters over the past days and the remarkable displays of friendship are enough to offer me hope, something that is in short supply these days of war and violence and division. I hope I can prove a worthy friend to all. And I hope that some will find messages about true friendship in the pages of my novel that might prompt them to take on the risk that comes with reaching out to a stranger who just might become a friend.
I hope that each of you has friends like some I have described here. Please consider replying with a comment and share a story of friendship that has touched your life