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Montana Musings Jasen Emmons’ Unfinished Short Story In College Was Turned Into A Successful Novel

Jasen Emmons was desperate.

As a student in a creative writing class taught by David Waggoner, the University of Washington graduate student was supposed to turn in a short story. But he couldn’t think of an idea.

“So I somehow came up with this piece about this kid who drops out of law school and has just returned home and he’s got this antagonistic older brother who’s a deputy sheriff,” he said during a phone interview Tuesday from his Seattle office. “And then it sort of stopped. It was about 23 pages, and I turned it in because I had nothing else to turn in.”

He’s now thankful that he did. For that 23-page story ended up being the basis for “Cowboy Angst” (Soho Press, 264 pages, $21), Emmons’ first novel about a native Montanan who is caught between his parents’ desire for him to be a lawyer, his brother’s simmering resentment and his own desire to follow his muse: being a drummer in a country-western band and loving the band’s lead singer, Montana Wildhack.

“David said, ‘You know, this sort of has the pacing of a longer story,”’ Emmons said. “‘And if you added a couple of plot twists, it might become a novel.”’

Listen up, kids: Sometimes teachers do know what they’re talking about.

Emmons, a 32-year-old Microsoft writer/ editor who will read from “Cowboy Angst” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Auntie’s Bookstore, has the background that lends his novel a sense of authenticity.

It’s set in Montana, and he’s from Great Falls. Like Emmons, the novel’s protagonist, Dennis McCance, isn’t much interested in the more traditional of Montana’s manly pursuits.

“I’m a great admirer of Tom McGuane’s work,” Emmons said. “Yet at the same time I’m not a cowboy and I’m not a fisherman and I’m not a hunter. But it doesn’t mean you’re any less of a true Montanan. Dennis is not a typical Montanan, but he’s still a Montanan at heart.”

Then, too, just as Dennis’ father is an attorney, Emmons’ father is, too. But the mix of fact and fiction ends there.

“There’s this sort of natural assumption that it is a roman a clef,” Emmons said. “My dad has had attorneys come up to him in restaurants and say to him, ‘Boy, your son really nailed you for the sonofabitch that you are. And my dad’s like, ‘Well, that’s very nice of you to say that.”’

While admitting that his father can be a hard man in court, Emmons said, “At the same time, people don’t see the other side of him, which is this very generous person who has always supported my writing and been very excited about it, put me through graduate school and helped me for the two years after so I could have time to write.”

In fact, Emmons says his real family is nothing like the parents of McCance, who give their children everything but the one thing most of us crave - unwavering acceptance to be who we want and/or need to be.

Just as Emmons is not the same person that Dennis is, even though the two share a passion for athleticism. Dennis, however, uses his talent to play the drums while Emmons used to run long distances.

In fact, he attended the University of Oregon from 1981 to 1986 (eventually earning a journalism degree). And in the 1984 dual meet with Washington State University in Pullman, he finished eighth in the 10,000 meters, running a respectable time of 29:41.

The difference is that Dennis pursues his passion as a profession, and Emmons did not.

“I’ve been sort of lucky in the sense that I’ve been able to put my passion for running in my writing,” he said. “It was an easy transfer. I have several friends who continue to run even though they’re not getting anywhere. They’re at a loss without it. They have nothing to shape their days.”

For the past three years, Emmons has shaped his days working at Microsoft on such projects as “Microsoft Complete Baseball,” which he describes as “a sort of baseball encyclopedia on CD-ROM. You know, pictures, video and more stats than you could possibly ever want.”

In his spare time, he’s managed to pound out 100 pages of a new novel. And the one thing he’ll say about it is that it definitely is not a “Cowboy Angst” sequel.

“It seems like the only way I could do it was if somehow it didn’t work out for Montana and Dennis,” he said. “And I sort of like the idea that things are going well for them at this point.”

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