BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
If you are lucky, characters can sometimes walk off a book’s pages and into your heart. At a recent Humanities Festival event, the writer Amor Towles learned that almost every woman in the sold-out auditorium had a crush on Count Alexander Rostov, hero of his Gentleman from Moscow, and yearned for Towles to tell them more.
Such may be the case with Hank Chandler, the young Brown student and protagonist of Forty Rod Road who heads west from Lake Forest one summer to discover how to be a cowboy, much like his creator Grove Mower, a St. Louis native, did several years ago.
About to fail out of college and determined to straighten out his life and figure out the mysterious death of a friend, Hank accepts a job on a Wyoming ranch, working with the real life cow boss Harve Stone, known by old timers in Sublette County, Wyoming, as the “toughest cowboy they ever knew.”
We caught up with Mower at the Chicago History Museum café where the author was framed by the terra cotta doorway rescued from the Chicago Stockyards, featuring faces right out of High Noon. The setting seemed just right to talk cowboys.
Now managing partner at HummerMower working with his father-in-law, Phil Hummer, Mower tells us how an author can suspend disbelief and make you think a character you love is real, just as he did with Hank.
“There’s a vulnerability about Hank: he is willing to step outside his boundaries and experience life. His is a hero’s journey,” Mower shares. “The book begins with the phone call offering him the job for which he has no experience. That summer he discovers his mantra in Wyoming: ‘Life don’t lie.’ A cowboy named Sonny said that—or did I imagine he would? Or did I just write it down? The mystery of writing, eh?”
He continued, “Forty Rod Road was a rocky and deserted patch with just two ranches on it when I first saw it—lots of scrubland and the ranch itself, spreading 880 acres, had bleakness of Mars. It becomes a metaphor for Hank’s despair at the time but in the novel, love, redemption and revenge accompany him on his journey down the road.”
Mower says he has learned much from his editors, particularly from “the inevitable fights.” Mower initially wrote the book as a 175-page novella based on his journals for his sons, Chapin and Ned, who were his age when he headed out to Wyoming. His talented photographer wife, Brooke Hummer, photographed the evocative cover.
We asked the author to share some writing tips: “I get up early every morning and get to work after my first cup of coffee. You have to learn to shoot your darlings, to be willing to slice and dice. I read parts aloud and play them back. I am always looking for better words. I passed around drafts to friends, along with red pens.
“When I am standing next to someone at a cocktail party, I might pick up a phrase. I have the app to talk into the phone to add notes as well as work on my journals. Little things define a lot—a character kicks off a boot, another has a recurring gesture,” he adds.
For the record, the author is affable, attractive and animated and entered wearing a hat with the ease of a cowboy and his Stetson. “I wanted to make Forty Rod Road a fun and fast read, with short chapters and a couple of teasers at the end of each to make you want to read more,” he says. “Mark Twain often added snippets to let readers know what was coming up. And I liked P.G. Wodehouse’s advice to ‘start with the scene.’ It almost becomes like writing a movie.”
When we met, Mower had just returned from Pinedale, Wyoming, where he had spoken about his book at the library and a public school. “ ‘Imagine going somewhere else and being someone else?’ I asked the students. Students who asked the hardest questions got bookmarks.”
Realizing that many Midwesterners spend their summers in Wyoming and Montana, we asked Mower what he thinks the main draw might be. He replied, “The raw beauty of the place and then the opportunity to lead a simpler, not pretentious, life. Cowboys are such wonderfully hardworking people whose lives are essential honest. They have their attachments to their horse, land, and dog and love the time spent alone. Harve Stone didn’t talk much, but he smiled a lot. He was the real deal.”
A Deerfield Academy and Brown University graduate, Mower not only punched cattle in Wyoming but also worked on an oil rig in Midland, Texas, before his career on Wall Street. He moved to Chicago from New York in 1988, met Brooke Hummer that October, and proposed 8 months after they met.
Forty Rod Road emerged from journals Mower had kept for many years: “I had decided for an wedding anniversary present that I would write a romantic comedy for Brooke. We both agreed that it was just terrible, and she asked me why didn’t I write a real book? The novella emerged first, and then I added the second part.”
Mower is working on a sequel called Hope, named for the matriarch of the family he worked for on the ranch. Hope finds Hank ten years later, struggling with a job on Wall Street and needing something new in his life. His Forty Rod Road love interest, Bit, reappears, but Mower wouldn’t tell us more.
“Every artist, be they writer or painter, is always looking for creative ideas. Other novels were my textbooks through the years. I got my writing muscles through journaling. I am always thinking of metaphors, the really good ones make all the difference,” he says. “You definitely become a better listener.”
Photo credit: Brooke Hummer Mower