Talking to Shann Ray is an exercise in paying attention.
The author and college professor in a span of five minutes can sprinkle a conversation with references to Martin Luther King Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Vaclav Havel, Michael Ondaatje and the Doobie Brothers.
Not making that up.
Spend any time with Ray and it becomes clear that he is a thinker. Under his real last name, Ferch, he teaches leadership and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga University. (Ray is a pen name selected to honor his mother, Saundra Rae.) He’s also a former professional basketball player. He has a master’s in clinical psychology from Pepperdine University, where he played college ball, and a doctorate from the University of Alberta in psychology.
And because he clearly likes school, he has a Master of Fine Arts in poetry and literature from Eastern Washington University.
When the Montana native is not teaching and raising his family – he and his wife, Jennifer, have three daughters – he’s writing, and finding some success. His first short-story collection, 2011’s “American Masculine,” won the 2010 Bakeless Prize for fiction. “Balefire,” his debut poetry collection, just this fall won the High Plains Book Award.
Now he’s unleashed his first novel, “American Copper,” a work of historical fiction set against the backdrop of Montana’s copper boom. It’s a novel as rough and beautiful as the state it’s set in.
“Montana definitely has its darkness, and it’s symbolic of American darkness, with the basic racism and the basic colonial history, and yet it has something that takes it out of the morass of everyday life, and I guess I’d call it expansion,” he said. “When you look up, your mind and your spirit are expanded if you have any openness, and it’s impossible to resist it. That piece just hits you, whether your life is lived poetically or not.”
The story is set up like an old-fashioned love triangle, although it’s not. Poet Evelynne Lowry, a daughter of possessive copper baron Josef Lowry, chafes against her father’s overbearing confinement. She meets two men: Zion, a beast of a man who uses his fists and his body in the hard labor of building the American West; and William Black Kettle, a Cheyenne Indian and rodeo rider, and descendent of the Cheyenne chief who saw his people massacred at Sand Creek.
Ray said the idea of writing a novel wasn’t a “bucket list” dream or a natural progression from short stories and poetry to long-form fiction. Because in reality, poetry is his first love.
“I’ve always been more afraid of poetry than the other forms,” he said. “I mean I love poetry and I do see it as my first love and I spend more time there than probably anywhere else.”
But he also enjoys long-term projects, and the challenges presented by crafting a novel.
“It’s about trying to become a writer who can express in a way that’s honoring the mentors I loved,” he said. “As far as building to a novel, we have to remember that I had four failed novels before this one,” he added with laugh.
Three of those novels he finished and put away. The fourth he worked and worked with his agent to get it where it needed it to be, but couldn’t get it there, he said.
Fifth time is a charm, it seems, as “American Copper” was selected for publication by Unbridled Books. It took about two and half years to complete.
The novel opens in 1907 near Butte. It is about the industrialization in the West and the impact that has on people and places, told through these three interconnected stories. Evelynne is a child whose mother died giving birth. She lives with her tyrant of a father, who is as ruthless in business as he is controlling in his home life, and her older brother. Her father has shaped her into a fine poet from childhood, and her first chapbook, published in her late teens, earned attention from editors back East. But tragedy derails her poetic career as she finds herself further isolated from the world.
When Evelynne rebels against her father’s demands, she first turns to Zion, a horse-breaker who is not made for genteel society, then William.
It’s a novel of lyrical richness and at times brutal violence. It deals with the all-too-easy racism of Montana in the early 1900s and questions of class and gender. It flashes back to the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 in Colorado, where U.S. Army troops brutally slaughtered a Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment, despite the fact they flew an American flag and a white flag of peace.
That such beauty and brutality can co-exist in a writer generally regarded as a nice guy, might seem puzzling to the general reader.
“I do find that there is a devastating and desolating beauty to the human condition, both for darkness and for light, both for shadow and for illumination,” he said. He points to the paintings of Francisco Goya, or the works of John Updike or Flannery O’Connor, as art that can be difficult for the reader or viewer to absorb.
“I think what happens as readers we kind of go, ‘Maybe that artist is just actually really dark in their interior.’ But what I’ve noticed over the years is that I don’t think that. … One of the ways that art redeems violence or transcends violence is by crafting it beautifully.”
He’ll celebrate the book’s release with an event Tuesday at the Bing Crosby Theater that will not be a typical book launch. Yes, Ray will read from “American Copper.” But there will also be music, appropriate to the time of the novel, performed by his wife and daughter, and accompanied by guitarist Michael Millham. Ginger Ewing, local arts promoter, will moderate a conversation with Ray and his friend Sherman Alexie, the National Book Award winning-novelist and poet.
“Then we’ll probably have Sherman close it out as the headliner on his own after than,” Ray said, laughing. “Whatever he wants to do.”