Before I knew Judy Blunt the person, I knew her as a character on the page, a hardscrabble young ranch wife who broke away because she wanted more than traditional roles allowed. I knew her as a writer who dipped each sentence in a vat of realism so potent that it cleansed her writing of all clichés. Her memoir, Breaking Clean, castrated western myths and seared off sentimentality like an iron cauterizes a vein.
Now I know Judy as a teacher and friend, as a barometer of western culture and a writer who can smell a fake western story from about the same distance a grizzly can smell a gut pile. She recognizes authentic western writing when it resonates in her Montana bones.
My favorite times with Judy occurred with my classmates around her dining room table, the plane on which we learned how to write. On a budget of $10, each week she cooked and served us homemade breads and soups. My favorite Judy Blunt soup came one winter night after a neighbor requested Judy dispatch a plump, malformed hen. Finest chicken soup I’ve ever eaten.
Judy grew up in the Missouri Breaks country of eastern Montana, a land so open that sometimes it seems it has run away. In a manner of speaking, this is what Judy did. Although the ranch life shaped her, it did not offer all she needed.
Freshly divorced, at age thirty-three Judy plucked herself and her three children from their prairie roots, moved to the mountains of Missoula, and enrolled at the University of Montana where she studied journalism and creative writing and earned income by refinishing wood floors. I doubt she could have imagined the changes ahead of her.
On the last day of my studies with Judy, I sat with her on her shaded Missoula back porch, surrounded by an impeccable lawn, flowering shrubbery, and beds of blooming herbs, flowers, and vegetables. Tomato plants hung upside-down from the porch beams, birds chirped, and an occasional dog barked in the distance.
She discussed her West, not the mythic region but the real place, hard and unforgiving. And she talked candidly about books, the worst winter of her life, and how she nearly died finding her way.
JF: Judy, I think most people know the thumbnail sketch about you, that you left the life of a ranch wife to find your own path. I want to jump straight to that terrible winter when you hit a low point.
JB: That was the coldest, darkest winter—1977-‘78. We had two babies. It snowed from December until April. The cattle were dying and the hired men had quit, so my father-in-law moved into the bunkhouse to help. Oh, what an awful winter. I almost lost it. The roads were snowed over. No mail delivery, no telephones. I had a big pile of books, most of them romance novels with the covers torn off—hand-me-downs, yard-sale books, and whatnot that hunters and their wives had left behind.
JF: Those were the types of books you read?
JB: As a child I didn’t read western writers unless their books happened to be lying around. Louis L’Amour was my idea of a western writer. I was basically unaware of the literature of my region until I moved to college in Missoula.
JF: So there you were enduring this terrible winter and reading whatever books you could to keep your sanity. Did any stand out?
JB: I discovered Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. The cover looked like another romance novel. Instead, it contained this absolutely delicious language. It was rich and fascinating, one of those books I rationed. I wouldn’t let myself read more than fifty pages at a time. When the kids went down for naps, I rocked the cradle with one hand and held the book with the other—about an hour or an hour and a half each afternoon. I didn’t give a damn if the dishes got done. When the kids went to sleep, it was like, Ha ha, back to the book.
JF: What was it about that book that engaged you?
JB: It was so much better than I had expected—a light, surprising moment in an incredibly predictable, months-long progression of darkness. The windows were all frosted over, and we ran the lights day and night because there was never really sunlight. The kids were too young to go outside. Never got above zero for weeks.
I was not doing well. I knew I was depressed, but everyone seemed to think I had everything a person should want. My granny would say, “Wanting what you don’t have is the worst form of foolishness,” and I figured I had caused the mollygrubs by wanting something more. If I had picked up the book any other time, who knows what I would’ve thought. But then the language was so rich and the characters so real. I fell into the world Conroy created, and I didn’t want to leave.
JF: What caused you to want something more than the life you had on the ranch?
JB: I always felt a conflict between reality and possibility, the life I knew on the outside and the life some inner voice whispered was possible. As a child, I internalized the reality of my life without really thinking about it. Back then, being female came with a set of limitations. By the time you were in double digits agewise, you’d learned to apply them. No one had to tell you what you couldn’t do. Where I was raised, strong women were selfless and silent. It took a while for the child I was to grow up, to become mature enough to make sensible decisions that weren’t based on what everyone expected of me.
JF: Why didn’t you just leave?
JB: I was eighteen when I got married. Twelve years later I still had nothing to show for it but three little kids. We were living on $150 dollars a month wages.
JF: So what brought things to a head?
JB: I nearly starved myself to death. I was anorexic for four years. When I left the ranch at age thirty-one, I weighed what I had in the seventh grade.
JF: Was the anorexia a form of grieving?
JB: No. It was control. If you are out of control in every part of your life, food intake is one thing you can control.
JF: Was the anorexia the turning point?
JB: I started to have heart palpitations. I lost so much weight that the electrolyte imbalance was affecting my heart. They started talking about sending me away to get better. For what? An eating disorder.
JF: They were going to put you in a mental institution?
JB: Something like that. I didn’t know. I didn’t want to find out. I knew I was not going to clean the same toilet for the rest of my life. I was going to leave the ranch. If I had been institutionalized for some mental disability, I never would have gotten custody of my kids.
It was a wake-up call. Through counseling I had been given all of these tools, taught how to put one foot ahead and climb out of depression. But I was waiting for someone to rescue me. That’s what most people are waiting for. When it appeared that no one was going to save me, I had to put my head down and make it happen. I lived in Malta for a year and a half, worked three jobs, and stood in the commodity lines with people I’d been taught were beneath me—you know, the people who couldn’t make it on their own.
I wanted to go to college, I wanted to be something more than seemed possible in this little town, but I was afraid of the world outside. That winter, when my hours for all three jobs were cut to nearly nothing, I had a lightbulb moment. Town life was tough, but against all odds I seemed to be surviving. I thought, Huh. There’s no place in America that can be any harder than this. I can do this anywhere. Six months later, I was living in Missoula, enrolled at the University of Montana.
JF: So what was your plan?
JB: I wanted to go to journalism school.
JF: So you left Malta and began college in Missoula. Did anything in your studies help you find your way?
JB: As a thirty-three year-old freshman, I was introduced to local writers like James Welch, who was tremendously important to me. He was from the Hi-Line, too. Winter in the Blood and Fool’s Crow were life-changing. Rick DeMarinis was here in Missoula, and he also wrote about the Hi-Line.
JF: Why were writers like Welch and DeMarinis so influential?
JB: I needed to find some form of myself on the page. I was hungry for something that made my old life seem real. I hadn’t told a soul where I was from.
JF: That’s interesting because as an author you’re known for where you’re from. What changed that allowed you to own your place and person?
JB: In an introductory fiction class, we were given a story by Tom McGuane, and suddenly it just popped. I loved him. Why? Because he wrote about place, hunting, the prairie. For so long, my life was my place. I like to say, “When my father looks in the mirror, he sees his land, and when he looks out on his land, he sees his face.” It’s that close of a connection. But I had divorced my community and abandoned the place that raised me. It took a while to understand that place doesn’t abandon us. Ranching is part of who I am, even if it’s no longer what I do.
JF: I’m struck by the fact that you chose to leave a place that is still so central to your identity.
JB: I can brag about owning the land in a spiritual sense, but it was made clear to me that I would never own any part of it in the literal sense. I was the daughter-in-law in a family ranching corporation. I would never have more than a supporting role in the life I’d chosen. Some women are fine with that. Turns out, I have all sorts of opinions and I suck at following orders. The collision was inevitable. When I finally left, I had to put everything I missed about that life out of my mind. It was like someone close to me died and I knew that person wasn’t coming back. That phase of my life was done. I had to turn the page going forward.
Freed from constraints, at college Judy gradually found her path through hard work, books, and writing. Her trail led to a day when her undergraduate professor read an essay of hers aloud in class. While reciting the last line, his voice cracked and he asked, “Who said there are no new Montana writers?” At that moment, having experienced the power of her words, Judy pecked through her shell and wobbled out a writer.
That essay became the anchor in Breaking Clean, which after eleven years published to wide critical acclaim. The book caused a huge reaction—positive and negative—and Judy’s success triggered an invitation from her alma matter to join the creative writing faculty and start a nonfiction program, which today ranks among the best in the country. Through this program Judy teaches writers like me how to use words to find their way.
Story Behind the Story...
When I sat down to interview Judy Blunt for a Q&A magazine article, I thought I knew her story, but much of what she shared floored me, and I had to concentrate hard to stay on track. I hate the Q&A format--have you ever read an interesting one?--and had never agreed to write one, but I knew Judy was a fascinating woman and interesting subject. My interview with her felt like a conversation between friends, and when I got home and listened to the recording, I immediately saw that she had given me something few Q&As offer: a narrative through-line. All I had to do was delete any content that had nothing to do with the narrative. My hope is that this piece speaks to universal situations that many people--especially women--experience. And I hope it inspires you to press on toward the kind of life you seek.