BILLINGS — Billings author and attorney Carrie La Seur earned so much praise for her 2014 debut novel, “The Home Place,” that finishing the next book was bound to be intimidating.
Adding to that pressure is the fact that La Seur has an option for a third book with publisher HarperCollins.
The idea for her latest book, “The Weight of an Infinite Sky,” was to create a story inspired by Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and set it in Montana. La Seur will debut the book in Billings with a reading at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 16, at This House of Books, a co-op store she helped found. She also makes stops at Bozeman’s Country Bookshelf on Wednesday, Jan. 17, at 6 p.m. and Missoula’s Fact and Fiction Books on Thursday, Jan. 18, at 7 p.m.
The book's release is part celebration, part relief. The creative life isn't always an easy transition.
"I've taken up meditation and I am allowing a limb to grow," La Seur said.
She originally pitched the synopsis for the book and her agent liked the idea. But unlike her first novel, the story went through a number of drafts to get it to the finished product. La Seur started by creating a female protagonist returning to Montana to run the family ranch. Another early version had violent Asian gangs in it "just for fun."
“I thought this was so interesting, but the whole thing just fell apart,” La Seur said.
She kept the character, but changed the gender, and eliminated the gang. The protagonist became Anthony Fry, the only son of a Montana cattle rancher who returns to his home state to take over the business that his family had run for generations. The name Fry is a nod to her mother’s family name, Fly, who ranched in Bighorn County for generations.
This feels very much like a Montana story of the younger generation torn between keeping the family legacy and trying to break free from it. A father’s death and an unlikable uncle moving in brings out the “Hamlet” in the story.
La Seur said she spent a decade writing her first book, but had half that time to write “Infinite Sky.”
Like "The Home Place," “Infinite Sky” is set in the Billings area. Anthony returns home after his acting stint in New York City doesn’t pan out and finds work at a children’s theater camp very similar to summer camps led by NOVA Center for the Performing Arts.
One of his young students is Brittany, a character readers will remember from “The Home Place.”
Adding to the tension in her latest book is a battle between Anthony and his ranching neighbors and a predatory mining company trying to get mineral rights. As LaSeur works as an environmental attorney and founded the legal nonprofit Plains Justice, she is following the mantra of writing what you know. Plains Justice provides public interest energy and environmental legal services.
Her legal background and attention to detail bring authenticity to the book and its characters. Yet she also captures the struggle of making a living off the land and the temptation of selling the farm and moving to town.
After earning a degree in English and French from Bryn Mawr College, La Seur met her husband Andy Wildenberg when they were interviewing for a Rhodes Scholarship. They were both selected and she went on to earn a doctorate in modern languages from Oxford University and a law degree from Yale University.
Still, the writing bug kept pestering her. La Seur said that like others who had strong verbal and writing skills, she was directed to the legal profession, not writing school. And like others before her, including Scott Turow and John Grisham and even Franz Kafka, she is finding she can shift from law to writing.
La Seur is already at work on her third book, which is inspired by a Minnesota activist who shares a similar surname with La Seur.
“People kept asking if I was related to Meridel La Sueuer. She wrote short stories and was a poet and a seamstress and an activist.”
The book won’t be a biography because Meridel apparently hated biographies. Still, she was a fascinating person who took the name of her mother’s second husband, who served as a socialist mayor of Minot, North Dakota, where La Seur graduated from high school.
La Seur is on a creative roll that it is hoped never ends.