April 7, 2012


Michael Wells, I Shot Bigfoot and Other Stories

Interview by Pat Black

Booksquawk: I Shot Bigfoot is as much about a place as it is about people and legends. Can you talk a little bit about how Idaho influences your work?

Michael Wells: You are right about that in that it is as much about a place as it is about characters, though I'm not the most descriptive writer around. I'm very economical due to being a journalist for so long. The other transplant Idaho author Hemingway may have been right about staying too long in journalism affecting your ability to write novels. I live in a lovely spot of the world, and that typically means not many people came to stay, which is definitely the truth about this lovely spot.

I've always viewed Idaho as kind of Minor Leagues for Alaska; if you can't make it here, you have no chance in the last frontier. Where I live, McCall, is on the western edge of the largest area of designated wilderness in the lower 48. We have some of the greatest rivers few have heard of and some that most have heard of and dreamed about.

We also have the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, the Payette, Boise, Nez Perce, Salmon-Challis and Sawtooth national forests all within reach. And all of these places invite the willing to wanted adventure and the unwilling to unwanted catastrophe. I had noticed that this county, Valley County, was leading the way with Bigfoot sightings.

(There have been) something like seven "bona fide" Bigfoot encounters over the past 40 some odd years. McCall also sits on the shore of Payette Lake, which has had "sightings" of a lake monster all the way back into at least the 1930s, but the Native Americans also viewed the lake with caution long before that. But the lake monster legend already had plenty of press. The bigfoot encounters had largely gone unnoticed by the public.

We are also on the western edge of the federal government's 1990 reintroduction of wolves into Central Idaho and of course the most prevalent Idaho attitude about this reintroduction certainly played into one character's makeup and possibly the premise of “The Dog Man of Poverty Flats”, which mixes what once would have been science fiction (using DNA from extinct creatures to create born-again species) and mythology (Native American shapeshifting) to come up with a werewolf or dire wolf campy horror story.

Of course, the use of game cameras is pretty common this day and age, especially in Idaho. I always wonder how many of those things take photos of me while I'm out hiking. So, I used that reality to come up with some things that locals do when they come across them.

I think I've talked too much about how Idaho influences my work. In short, topping any ridge in Idaho or traversing down any canyon out here and your eyes are filled with beauty and wonder and naturally the imagination is a bit jealous that it allowed you to be surprised by something real. So, your imagination has to go on overdrive, but I always try to make it as real and plausible as possible and apply the brakes to the imagination so that something that sounds outlandish on its face, "I Shot Bigfoot", can seem plausible if you look into it.

Booksquawk: The courtroom scenes in the title story had the ring of authenticity to them (Bigfoot aside). What skills were you able to bring to bear here?

M.W.: I grew up in Mayfield, Ky., 2,000 miles away from here. My mother worked as a secretary for the county judge executive (chief executive officer of the county who presides over the commission). So, she worked in the courthouse and I spent a lot of time in the courthouse and occasionally I would walk into the courtroom and it was something out of To Kill a Mockingbird, in that it was an old courthouse and seemed more extravagant than these new courthouses that are built for utilitarian purposes.

So I spent a lot of time in a courtroom catching hearings and trials, I had more law classes than the usual journalism grad in college and then later as a reporter I spent a whole lot of time in court learning many of the things that might seem authentic in "I Shot Bigfoot".

Probably the biggest fiction in this story is that it went to a jury trial, which are so rare these days. Most people plea bargain whether guilty or not guilty to save money or face these days that trials with a jury is a rare thing. It is a shame, though, especially for those who are not guilty.

Booksquawk: Bigfoot's a great topic to explore. Were there any other myths and legends you're interested in, and can we look forward to reading about them in the

M.W.: In I Shot Bigfoot & Other Stories, I explore the bigfoot legend, though mostly I explore the typical ridicule anyone receives if they are deemed to be at all serious about a bigfoot sighting or investigating the North American Ape, and I also use one story to explore the creation of dire wolves or the presence of shapeshifting Native Americans in the form of werewolves.

I do plan to tackle the local lake monster, though I plan to use its name in the 1940s instead of the name given to the lake monster in a contest in the 1950s. The town decided to call the lake monster Sharlie in the 1950s, but before that its name was Serpy Sam or Slimy Slim. So, I do plan a campy horror comedy about Serpy Sam and have written a little bit about that, but it is on the back burner so to speak. Though, I probably should move it up, you can get away with so much with that type of story.

Booksquawk: The stories in part 2 were much closer to the heart, it seemed. Can you talk about your inspiration for these stories? The western story in particular was striking - is this a genre you have experience in?

M.W.: It is a sad reality that just when the American Western was starting to become interesting the general public began losing interest. Elmore Leonard was penning some of the best, most gritty western stories there in the 50s and 60s and some of those were making it into film. He was doing a lot of unconventional things and getting away with it because people were tiring of the riding off into the sunset endings that seemed to end almost every story and accompanying film. He was exploring racism, violence, greed and so many other things and doing a great job, and so were others, but soon western stories and western movies were disappearing from the consciousness (I blame Mel Brooks - Blazing Saddles was probably the greatest lampoon ever and arrived at about the time the Western was DOA at the box office).

That is not to say there haven't been great westerns since then, but as a major genre in America and the world, it doesn't rank very high these days. And I would like to change that. Because it does seem that when we have western stories in the past 30 years they have been very good, Lonesome Dove, Deadwood, Cormac McCarthy's work and a few others.

So, I do like to write a good western story and focus on it. I have one close to completion, The Guerrilla Corkscrew, which is about salmon fishing, miners, greed, racism and revenge. It will take in "The Promises We Make," story, though poor Caleb isn't the focus of the story.

And that story in particular, I wanted to be somewhat cruel in that the last line could be considered cliche, except for the circumstances of the characters. It was a sad tale of how even those who were friends of the Native Americans could be swept up by the circumstances around them and not deliver on a most sacred promise to a friend. The other stories, I just wanted to incorporate fishing into stories that tell us something about our lives and our pursuits.

Booksquawk: Finally - for $64,000 - Bigfoot... real or not?

M.W.: I'm a lot like that poster in Fox Mulder's FBI office, "I want to believe." Bigfoot was real, we know that because there is fossil evidence unearthed in China of a large ape. I want to believe because I want to live in a world that still puts my imagination on notice once in a while. You thought you knew everything that was out here? SMACK! Well, you don't - meet the big hairy beast who outmatches you physically and mentally.

Wouldn't that be great? We need wild places and wild things and they disappear every second of every day, so deep down I want to believe, but the evidence of bigfoot's existence in our world today is rather suspect.

Read the Booksquawk review of I Shot Bigfoot and Other Stories.

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