A Conversation with Chris La Tray
by Jenny Montgomery
Chris La Tray and I met a few years ago when I visited the downtown studio he was sharing with his wife, designer Julia La Tray, for a fitting prior to her epic motorcycle-themed fashion show. He sat writing and editing photos on one side of the room while she shoehorned me into a pair of French blue leather pants behind a curtain on the other side. A creative conversation began that Chris and I have continued in many coffee shops in the years since, as our lives and writing have evolved. We have kvetched and kvelled about books, art, writing, publishing, Montana history, the soul-sucking evils of capitalism, and the possibility that we might be related (by marriage) through the Lewistown La Trays. Chris is the funniest, kindest misanthrope I know and an all-around quality dude. His long-awaited book One Sentence Journal: Short Poems and Essays From the World at Large was released this August from Riverfeet Press. The following distills a wide-ranging chat we enjoyed recently at the Buttercup Cafe.
Jenny Montgomery: What are your earliest memories of writing?
Chris La Tray: I started reading voraciously as a youngster, but I don't know that the notion of writing as something one did really arrived until I was in junior high. I was a Dungeons and Dragons kid, and I would prepare a lot of the adventures my friends and I put our characters through, which involved a significant amount of writing. That effort and style of storytelling overflowed into my school work. When I graduated 8th grade, I received the award for being my class's "best" reader, the physical manifestation of which was a hardback notebook of blank pages with an inscription from my teacher saying it was to help me start writing my first fantasy novel. That—writing a fantasy novel—is a dream I still entertain on occasion, especially if I read one I really like. But I don't have time to read fantasy these days, let alone write it.
JM: What writing communities in Missoula have most encouraged you and how are local writing ecosystems important for you?
CLT: I used to write a fair amount of crime and noir fiction. My first public readings of my work were part of that community, but never in Missoula. I read at a Noir at the Bar event in St. Louis, and another one in Portland. None of that work has any connection to Missoula, and I certainly wasn't considered for the Montana Noir book that came out a year or so ago. That work feels like a different life, frankly, though I still have many friends I admire in that community all over the country whose work I enjoy and who remain supportive of the work I do today.
Thinking about the second part of your question, I think relationships are critical, and I have some good ones. I've been very moved by the support I've gotten in the wake of my book's publication from the younger crowd who are the current crop of MFA students. That was unexpected. I've gotten very involved with the Beargrass [Writing Retreat and Workshop] writers crowd and have made great friends through that organization and what they do. I've become good friends with a number of mentor figures who have already blazed the trail I'm traversing. I've also become friends with local people who are beloved internationally, and I love that. Being around people who are on fire with creativity is invigorating.
It can never be stated enough how important being a good literacy citizen is. It boils down to being supportive of other people's work and celebrating their good fortune. And, most importantly, don't be a jackass.
“I love silence, but the relentless hum in my ears regardless of the quiet around me is a constant reminder of how much I have been affected by my love for volume as a physical sensation too.”
JM: The world of literary publishing is small, so ideas of "success" are relative. What has constituted the most important success for you with the recent publication of your book One-Sentence Journal? How have ideas of "success" and "failure" been present for you in the past as opposed to now?
CLT: The biggest success with One-Sentence Journal was just seeing it through to completion and having it out in the world. That is a huge deal to me, and the response I've gotten has filled me with gratitude. I feel like the Grinch whose heart overflows with love and explodes out of his chest, despite a personal history of cynicism and surliness. I think working at a bookstore has tempered my expectations, because it's clear to me that no matter what anyone says about marketing, about what you should or shouldn't do as a writer, most of it is bullshit and nobody knows what it takes to be "successful" when it comes to the economics of writing. How many great books go unnoticed? How many shitty books win glory? I do my best not to get caught up in that and just do the work. Finishing something is all the reward I hope for in anything. At least that's the perspective I'm aiming for. I'd love to put a book out with any number of publishers I admire, sure, but I'm not measuring my worth against it. Or even the quality of my efforts. Some days are better than others, though.
JM: Your work strikes me as zen-like in its ability to observe the mind. Your book is arranged by season and in it we get to observe transient states of rancor and delight, desire and aversion—humor plays a part in that. In what sense has writing shaped your consciousness, mental health and/or daily experience?
CLT: As my daily practices of observation and introspection—this whole pursuit of a slower, more spiritual, contemplative life—have evolved, my writing has evolved in its wake. But there are contradictions too. More and more I seek solitude and silence whenever I possibly can, yet one of my favorite, most cathartic practices remains plugging into a wall of amplifiers with my two band mates and just blowing the roof off places. I love silence, but the relentless hum in my ears regardless of the quiet around me is a constant reminder of how much I have been affected by my love for volume as a physical sensation too. Tinnitus sucks, but I've sure had a great time earning it.
I'm never going to be the guy shy around a microphone. I try and keep my mouth shut, but when it comes time to talk, I'm never going to be the guy who has to be urged to speak up. That's the sole mission of my writing. I want to be quiet, and then BOOM. I want to knock people on their asses with the force of my love for them and for the world.
Chris La Tray is a writer, a walker, and a photographer. His freelance writing and/or photography has appeared in various regional and national publications. His first book, One-Sentence Journal: Short Poems and Essays From the World at Large was published in August by Riverfeet Press (Livingston, MT). Chris is Chippewa-Cree Métis, and is an enrolled member of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians. He lives in Missoula, MT.
Jenny Montgomery has published poetry and essays in publications such as Barrow Street, Tar River, CALYX, Unsplendid, the New York Times, and the Cairo Times. Her poetry installations have been shown at galleries in Montana and Washington. She is at work on a graphic novel about a Robin Hood-themed cerebral palsy summer camp. She is a disability advocate with ADAPT and runs Montgomery Distillery with her husband Ryan.