Lawyer Carrie La Seur makes her debut as a novelist this month with The Home Place, a searing novel about the power of family bonds that is also a compelling whodunit. Set against the stark backdrop of rural Montana, a place that big-city lawyer Alma Terrebonne thought she’d escaped forever, the novel follows Alma’s search for the reasons behind her estranged sister’s untimely death. We asked La Seur a few questions about writing, Montana and the draw of family.
Like Alma, you also are from Montana and left home to attend college and law school. Are there other ways that you relate to Alma?
Alma finds human connection difficult. She puts relationships into labeled boxes to be opened when she needs something specific. That’s an element of my personality that I try to overcome but can never eliminate. I wanted to communicate not just that traumatic events take place, but that they cause a shift within Alma toward responsibility to others and the abdication of self that makes a person a parent. For her, those changes are tectonic. Also, my bike is named Shadowfax too.
As a lawyer, how and when did you find the time to write?
I worked on The Home Place for nearly a decade. Around the time I was trying to push through to a final version I could send to agents, my grad school friend Siddhartha Mukherjee won the Pulitzer for The Emperor of Maladies. I was thrilled for him, and reading one of his interviews, I picked up an incredibly important tip. He said that his wife, the artist Sarah Sze, told him to work just five minutes a day on the book, and even if that was all he managed, it would keep him moving forward. It was the best thing I could have heard at that time. Five minutes becomes a half hour, or three, and things happen. So thanks, Sid and Sarah.
What effect does your work have on your writing?
I practice agricultural, energy and environmental law for a small firm that does what we call “white hat” law. We represent a lot of underdogs. My clients’ stories influence my writing constantly, and some of them are great storytellers. It’s more material than any writer could ever use. It’s also a relief sometimes to set aside a piece of writing that isn’t working and tackle a legal research project that I can do exactly right. A lawyer’s focus on deadlines is also helpful. Give me a deadline and I will hit it.
This is a book that’s very interested in the idea of what “home” means to different people. What does it mean to you?
My upbringing was big on the theory of home and sparse on practice. We were “from” Montana for many generations and both my parents were born and raised here, but I was born while they were out in southern California for a few years. We moved back to Montana, but later my dad took jobs in Nebraska and North Dakota, where I graduated from high school. We’d road trip back to Montana every summer to stay in my grandparents’ back rooms, then drive further to visit relatives strung all over southern Montana. Family was very important, but always a little out of reach. There’s my pathology, right there.
Billings, the novel’s setting, is more of a character than a place. Why does it play such a big role in the novel?
It would be the convenient and rational thing for Alma to take her niece, Brittany, back to Seattle to live. The vividness of Billings takes us into the history and present that bind Alma to the place she fled and forces her to consider less rational options. Without a powerful sense of the place, Alma’s dilemma would make no sense. Billings has resonance with her that Seattle, for all its virtues, can never have. I wanted to create a sense of how being back in Billings knocked the wind out of Alma, but not in an entirely negative way. It gave her a space to breathe and reflect that she hadn’t had in years. The place acts on Alma as much as any character.
The book is largely about the relationship between Alma and Vicky, but other sibling relationships also play an important role, including the relationship between the two sisters and their brother, Pete, and the relationship between Alma's father and her uncle, Walt. What is the importance of bonds between siblings and how do they change, for better or worse, over time?
My interest in sibling relationships comes in part from having an older brother I met when I was 23. My mother had given him up for adoption when she was 20, and he came looking for her. Now my younger brother and I are incredibly lucky to have a brother, sister-in-law, nephew and niece who might never have been part of our lives. That bond transcends so much. It’s part of what drew Alma back.
Though they’re very different people, the Terrebonnes are connected by their “home place.” What inspired the home place?
In my family, both sides homesteaded in territorial Montana or the early days of statehood. There were home places, but one was lost in the Depression and others came down through distant branches of the family. Part of what I’m doing in The Home Place is telling myself a bedtime story about what my home place would be like if I still had it. I think that’s a common longing for Americans, that nostalgia for a rootedness we no longer have.
Mining is mentioned several times—and in different contexts—throughout the novel, from stories of company representatives threatening locals to characters feeling nostalgic about landscapes they remember from their childhoods. What are your feelings about this industry?
I live just north of the Powder River Basin, the epicenter of U.S. coal surface mining. From the air, the mines look like a hungry giant has been face down gnawing on the earth, hundreds of feet down, through the aquifers. My firm represents people—mostly ranchers and tribal members—fighting long odds to defend a quiet, rural, not-very-profitable way of life against the advance of the draglines. Do I have contempt for a global corporation that wants to use eminent domain to run a railroad across 40 miles of undeveloped land owned by unwilling ranchers, to ship coal to Asia? You bet I do.
What kinds of books do you enjoy reading?
I’m a terrible reader of novels. I’m hypercritical. I keep looking for that childhood experience of being so swept away in a book that I can’t bear for it to end and I want to read it over and over, like I did with C.S. Lewis or L.M. Montgomery or L’Engle or Tolkien. Something about Doris Lessing satisfies me lately, although I couldn’t say exactly what. It has to do with puzzling out big questions in a very engaging way. I love biography, history and histories of ideas. Agrarians have been blowing my mind lately. I could read Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Michael Pollen or farm memoirists like Kristin Kimball all day and night. It’s probably consistent that Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer made me very happy. I like to read about people having complex, long-term interactions with places, delving into seasons and soil. And then Neil Stephenson and William Gibson and Arthur C. Clarke because my husband said they were geniuses and made me read them, and he was right. Tomorrow I will change my mind about all of this.
What do you do in your spare time?
I have spare time? Okay, hypothetically then. Cook. Read. Hike. Fish. Garden. Bike. Run. Renovate. Run a nonprofit. Play with the kids. Brush the Newfoundland. Ski. Write.
What are you working on next?
For fun, I write terrible short stories. I have a fairly advanced draft of a second novel that includes some of The Home Place characters, and some new ones. It’s loosely based on Hamlet, with not quite as much death, because Hamlet is an outrageous melodrama. But look around you: life is a melodrama. I get a kick out of reviewers who say things like, “Oh, your landman is a cartoon villain.” I have newspaper clippings about these guys. Life is full of people nobody would believe if you wrote them down just the way they are. I want to write books that people like my legal clients will read and enjoy, because the stories are compelling and true to them, and I’ve captured a place they know better than anyone. If some old stockman thumps a heavy, work-rough fist on my book and says, “This is a good story,” to me that’s the highest praise.
RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of The Home Place.