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Return of the native

Kent Nelson talks about home and his latest novel

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Colorado Springs native Kent Nelson's latest novel, Land That Moves, Land That Stands Still, is the muscular, moving story of the hard-wrought lives of three women running a 4,000-acre ranch on the high plains of South Dakota.

Revered in early reviews for its intricate plotting, evocative descriptions and feisty characters, Land That Moves could be a breakthrough book for Nelson, making his name familiar to a wide commercial audience. The book and author have been chosen for the Texas Book Festival to be held in November.

Nelson's previous books include three novels, among them 1992's Language in the Blood, winner of the Edward Abbey Prize for Ecofiction, and a collection of short stories, Toward the Sun. Nelson has twice won writing grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.

A sandy-haired 40-something, Nelson has sun-bleached eyebrows and a tennis pro's tan. He grew up in Colorado Springs and graduated from Cheyenne Mountain High School, has a law degree and served as city judge of Ouray. He has worked as a ranch hand, a university professor and, yes, a tennis pro. Most recently, he taught a block at the Colorado College summer session.

Nelson makes his home in Salida, also home to novelist Kent Haruf (Plainsong) and soon-to-be home of Springs-born novelist Laura Hendrie (Stygo, Remember Me).

"In the beginning, I didn't write anything about Colorado Springs," said Nelson in a recent interview over iced tea at Poor Richard's. "But this summer's Prairie Schooner [literary journal] published a story of mine called 'Ringo Bingo' that's set here."

"Ringo Bingo" turns out to be a dead-on fable about a patient man, an insurance agent, who becomes disillusioned with life after his shopping-addicted wife insists on an outing to Costco. It's a funny and spare characterization of the moral undertone and faceless growth of the contemporary city -- a departure from the epic outdoor grandeur that marks Land That Moves.

Down on the farm

In the novel, the land is the setting for the coming together of Mattie, a recently widowed middle-aged farm owner; Dawn, a free-spirited runaway with a secret past and a knack for mechanics; and Shelley, Mattie's college-age daughter who's trying to figure out what to do with her life.

Nelson's detailed knowledge of southwestern South Dakota and the intricacies of farming come honestly, from direct experience.

"I've been married three times," said Nelson, "and in 1992 I was living in Exeter, New Hampshire, with my wife who taught there.

"I just hated it," he said. "I always said that it was like living in a country club while being on welfare."

Nelson left and went to work on the ranch of a law school classmate who'd been diagnosed with a heart murmur and told not to practice law. For five-and-a-half months, he built fences, ran a windrower, laid irrigation, cut and bailed hay, and did whatever chores were necessary on the property.

In the book, physical labor on the farm is a character builder, especially for the youngest of the three women, Shelley. Nelson says that it was for him as well.

"Shelley was kept from doing that kind of work by her father," he said, "but after he's gone she becomes competent, takes over, and eventually runs things when her mother and Dawn are away."

"In my own life, physical labor was a way of healing. I went to bed palms up, my fingers curled into the shape of a posthole digger, aching, and I'd wake up feeling the same way, my arms covered with nicks and scratches. But I loved being outside every day and the work was very satisfying."

Nelson's an avid birdwatcher, and one vivid scene in the book, when Mattie sees a kettle of hawks rise over an alfalfa field, also comes from direct experience.

"Birds are one of my big passions," said Nelson. "We were building a big pivot sprinkler one day and I saw them. There must have been 200 Swainson's hawks there. It was unforgettable."

Women's ways

But writing about the experience of women couldn't have come naturally to the author. Land That Moves includes raucous sex scenes, female-bonding scenes, dressing scenes and a particularly lovely bathing scene, all seen through the eyes of Mattie, Dawn and Shelley.

"Women are much more interesting than men," said Nelson when asked why he chose a female perspective. "Their behavior is nuanced. Men are too predictable.

"Besides, I shouldn't say this, but men are jerks. They're violent; they start wars."

In Land That Moves, some of the peripheral male characters are intentional bad guys. Lee, a field scientist exploring a sinkhole on Mattie's property for dinosaur bones, behaves honorably. And Haney, the deceased, is a man who carries fundamental secrets to his grave.

The principal male is Elton, a young Indian boy found hiding out on the property who, Mattie soon discovers, is running away from his abusers.

"I worried that [Elton] might be a clich," said Nelson. "I like that he's old enough and young enough to be in this woman's world where he can see the ways to be a man besides hitting someone with a board."

None of his characters, says Nelson, is specifically modeled after a real person; they arose from his imagination during the writing process.

"Kent Haruf has told me that he has the whole book, preconceived, in his head when he begins to write," said Nelson. "But I never know what will happen. With Land That Moves, I didn't know that [one of the main characters] was gay until the fourth draft."

Writing that moves

Rewriting is central to his craft, and practice, he says, is key to learning to be a novelist or short-story writer. When Nelson left law school, he spent three years in Europe doing nothing but writing fiction.

"I wrote 40 stories and a novel the first year," he said. "I still believe and tell my students, it's like learning to play the piano or to play tennis -- it takes practice."

Regarding the rise in popularity of master's degrees in creative writing programs, Nelson is circumspect.

"I don't want to badmouth writing programs," he said, "but I don't think academia is a very fruitful place to explore life."

Whatever his method, with Land That Moves, Land That Stands Still, Kent Nelson has found his muse. When he first asked feminist author and ranch woman Linda Hasselstrom (Leaning into the Wind: Women Write from the Heart of the West) if she would consider reviewing the book, she said, "I'll never write a blurb for a man."

But Hasselstrom read the book and liked it. Her blurb on the back cover means a lot to Nelson:

"I know Mattie Remmel and her neighbors, which is not surprising since I am a South Dakota rural woman. I'm not sure how Kent Nelson, a Colorado writer certifiably male, grew to know them so well. His portrayal of the land and the people of southwestern South Dakota is flawless, sympathetic, and so real readers may be driving around my neighborhood looking for them."

Nelson's next project is a novel about a family moving from Lexington, Mass., to Montrose, Colo.

"It's about development," he said, "about what's happening to small towns across the West."

-- kathryn@csindy.com

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