It’s easy to forget that activism owns substantial historical real estate in the literary tradition. Nashville native Laura Bell works with the Nature Conservancy in Wyoming. Bell’s just-published memoir, Claiming Ground, is her first book. She articulates her great fondness for her adopted Big Sky Country home by detailing the days she spent in isolation there some three decades ago tending sheep and an even more bothersome lot, her fellow sheepherders. Bell’s gifts for observation, generous analysis, and her ability to turn a place and people into words are uncommon—traits she shares with the likes of Norman McLean and Wallace Stegner, but few others.
What has writing this book taught you about memory, both its power and shortcomings?
Memory is a fragile vehicle in which to carry the past, each of us having our own interpretations of people, events. But the memories living inside us are a powerful record of how we see and feel about our lives. Putting these down on paper has allowed me to reconcile with my family our differing images of the past. How else can we know this if we can’t communicate this vision?
People tell stories about their lives all the time. They choose a story to tell that reflects something about them. In the writing of these stories, what came out for me was the longing for love and acceptance, for belonging. And the odd thing is, I grew up with layer upon layer of community and family and belonging and still I had to search for it, had to travel a very long road to see what had always been around me.
Did gathering this book cause you to imagine the lapsing of the lifestyle? Any sense that culture is in fact ephemeral?
There is no question that the particular culture of sheep in which I lived is a thing of the past and has been for a long time. In the early ’80s all the sheep on the Lewis Ranch were sold and the sheep permits changed over to accommodate cattle instead. The cowboys and cattle were much less demanding in terms of time and patience. Grizzlies and wolves have also had their impact on the sheep in northwest Wyoming, making it harder to run profitably. But even in places where sheep are still herded on open rangelands, the technology of cellphones makes the experience much different. There is at least the opportunity for communication which never existed in the late ’70s.
How many memoirs does a person get to write? Rather, tell me about the next book.
I’m done with memoir; this is it. But I’m very drawn to fiction, which I’ve never written. I’m taking notes, listening and dreaming for the next book. I don’t know if I’ll have the talent for it, but I’ll damn sure give it a go.
Tell me about the tour. How are people responding to having emotional and philosophical reactions to something they may not have been aware of before the book?
At this time, the book has been on the shelf for less than a week, so I’m just starting to hear back from people in my hometown, Cody, where the tour began. People who’ve known me a bit, worked with me, or passed me on the street are surprised that I have all this life under my belt, all this sorrow that comes out of a mostly cheerful person. In a more immediate response, some people who listen to me read are reacting to the uncovered longing, and finding that this strikes a chord in them.
Anything else you’d like folks to know about yourself or this fine book?
I never set out to write a memoir. I began writing late in life, in my 40s, and worked toward crafting a collection of personal essays, which I thought this book was until just a few years ago. I was challenged to think of this story as narrative memoir instead, and realizing the power of that, I spent several years taking the manuscript apart and rewriting. The narrative form pushed me into scenes I hadn’t felt comfortable writing, but the book is stronger for it.
Laura Bell, author of Claiming Ground • Monday, March 29 • 6 p.m. • Carpe Librum Booksellers (5113 Kingston Pike) • 588-8080